Summertime brings with it gardens teeming with life and the fresh taste of vegetables picked right off the vine. Growing vegetables, however, is a year-long process that begins with planning and caring for the soil and carries on beyond even the last harvest. Furthermore, some crops--like early spring radishes or garlic sown in late autumn--keep the garden productive year-round.
There is no catchall solution to planning a vegetable garden, and your plan will depend on your local conditions and types of crops that you want to plant. Begin by investigating and considering local conditions that affect plant growth: frost dates, soil conditions and extreme weather, such as high winds or periods of heavy rainfall, that may damage plants. Choose crops or cultivars that can withstand the conditions in your area. The Colorado State University extension further recommends beginning your first garden with only a few easy-to-care-for crops. As you gain confidence and experience, you can add more to your garden.
Just like animals, plants require nutrients to survive. Unlike animals, they produce some of those nutrients in their leaves through photosynthesis. Others, they draw from the soil with their roots, and just like you must restock your pantry, healthy soil requires a "restocking" of nutrients as well.
Soil care is a year-round process, and expert gardeners have devoted books to the subject. However, the most basic soil care requires replenishing mineral nutrients and adding organic matter. Restore nutrients by adding fertilizer--both chemical and organic varieties are available--or compost. Your local extension office can help with soil testing to determine if your soil has any particular deficiencies or needs. At the end of the season, mix an inch or so of mulched leaves to boost the organic material and aid in water and nutrient retention.
Once you have your first seed packets in hand, the instructions on the packets explain whether you need to start the plants indoors or can sow them directly into the ground. They also explain when you should plant the seeds, usually according to the last frost date. You can find out your area's last frost date by contacting your local agricultural extension office. If you're starting seeds indoors, you'll need a space that receives bright light and that you don't mind getting a little dirty. Plant the seeds in peat or seed-starter pots according to the instructions on the packet. When the last frost date passes, the seedlings are usually ready to transplant into the garden.
Pest and Disease Control
From hungry rabbits and deer to vine-boring bugs to microscopic soil nematodes, it can sometimes feel like there is a critter army fighting against your garden. Controlling pests and diseases takes many forms, depending on the affliction and the type of gardening you are doing. Organic practices like crop rotation and maintaining soil health can prevent some problems. Planting vegetables with species that naturally repel common pests is another natural alternative, and organic and chemical pesticides help bring infestations under control.
When the harvest is over, caring for your garden continues. Turn under the remaining plants, although if you know a plant was infected with pests or disease, discard it or bury it in a hot compost pile. Planting a cover crop, such as red clover, helps to restore nutrients to the soil. Instead of putting fall leaves out for trash, work them into your garden soil to increase the level of organic matter. Soon, the next set of seed catalogs will begin to arrive, and planting will begin again.