Growing vegetables in the home garden is a rewarding, cost-effective way to bring fresh colors and flavors to the table without breaking your budget. Green beans, corn, bell peppers, tomatoes, zucchini, scallions and other nutrient-rich vegetables can be eaten fresh or preserved through freezing and canning. Good soil, a bit of hard work and some simple strategies will provide a vegetable garden that benefits heart, mind and stomach for years to come.
Choose a location within the yard that offers access to full sunlight and good drainage. Vegetables need at least six hours of sunlight each day for healthy growth. If the entire yard has poor drainage, consider building raised beds, where moisture levels can be controlled.
Regardless of soil type in the planting site, the most important factors for successful vegetable production are good drainage and nutrient levels. Use organic matter, peat, well-rotted manure and commercial fertilizer to create a healthy garden. Sand should be added to improve drainage in heavy clay soil types. Don't try to work soil when it is wet, as this encourages clumping and deters healthy growth. A 2- to 3-inch layer of compost, worked in at a depth of 4 to 6 inches, creates a healthy base from which to begin.
For a head start with slower-growing vegetables, start seeds indoors six to eight weeks before the last frost in your location. For direct outdoor planting, wait one to two weeks after the last frost, before placing seeds or starter plants in the garden plot.
Vegetables need space in order to build healthy root systems and grow foliage that will later support fruit. Smaller plants--such as bean, tomato, onions and peas--should have 6 to 18 inches of space between each plant, while larger plants--such as melon, squash and eggplant--need 24 to 48 inches of space between plants. Allow 24 to 36 inches of space between rows for ease of access when weeding and watering plants.
Fertilizer adds nutrients to the soil, fortifying vegetables and increasing growth and production. Each plant has specific requirements when it comes to feeding; however, a good-quality all-purpose garden fertilizer, with a 10-10-10 balance, can supply ample nutrients for the entire garden, especially when organic compost has been incorporated into the soil and around the plants during the growing season.
While some vegetable plants are drought-tolerant and others are tolerant of high moisture levels, keeping the garden evenly moist during the growing period allows for the highest yields and healthiest plants. Installing soaker hoses, which allow water to seep through the hose in small amounts, keeps the entire garden evenly watered without oversaturation.
The best way to eradicate weeds in the garden is through constant monitoring and weeding by hand or with a hoe. In order to keep weeds at bay, directly after planting, place a 1- to 2-inch layer of organic, undyed mulch around the base of each plant. Weeds grow quickly, so daily supervision of vegetable plants prevents weeds from choking out healthy plants.
Plants that produce heavier fruits, such as tomatoes and cucumbers, need staking or trellis systems to keep plants off the ground. Constant contact with the ground invites attack from insects and diseases that can decimate the plant. Use wood, metal or bamboo stakes, and soft material such as twine or strips of fabric or pantyhose to tie plants gently to stakes. There are also a variety of support systems, such as tomato cages, available for sale online or at your local garden center.
Disease and Pest Prevention
The best way to prevent and control insect and disease invasion is through constant care and maintenance of your vegetable plants. Discoloration or death of plant foliage is usually an indication of attack, at which point organic insecticides or fungicides can curb damage. If too much damage has been done, it's best to pull the entire plant from the ground and destroy it to prevent disease from spreading. Watering plants at the base, rather than over the foliage, helps keep fungal and bacterial diseases down to a minimum. Companion plants, such as mint and nasturtiums, detract insects and rodents.