Starting Your First Vegetable Garden
by Neil Moran
You're aware of the health benefits of eating fresh vegetables, you have the space for a small garden, but just don't know where to start? Look no further. Here's all you need to know to put fresh, crisp vegetables on your dinner table.
First, think small. Don't bite off more than you can chew, or hoe. It's like starting out an exercise program by running five miles the first day. You get tired, sore and you quit. Likewise, if you plant a huge garden the first year, you'll curse, cuss and turn your sore back on gardening for good. So, if you're new to gardening, start off with a garden no larger than 8' X 10.' You can always expand later if you can't get enough of those fresh, crispy vegetables.
Choose a location that receives as much sun as possible throughout the day. Northern gardeners should insist on full sun. Now you're ready to work up the soil. You can rent a rear tine tiller or borrow one from a friend or neighbor for this task. Work the soil up sod and all--in other words don't remove the sod. Removing the sod creates a recess in the soil, resulting in poor drainage.
Next, examine the soil. Is it predominantly clay, sand or a sandy loam? The latter is the best. You can distinguish a sandy loam from the other two by giving it the squeeze test. If you can take a handful of dirt and squeeze it in a ball then watch it crumble when you let go, you've got a sandy loam soil type. If you're not sure, take a sample down to your local extension office. While you're there ask them about having your soil tested for proper pH levels and major nutrients like nitrogen, potassium and potash.
If you're stuck with a predominantly sandy or clay soil it will be worth bringing in some topsoil to get you off on the right foot. If you can't afford topsoil, you can amend the soil with compost. Compost includes any biodegradable material which can be broken down into a fine, dark humus. Well rotted livestock manure is the best choice for getting a clay or sandy soil into shape. Whatever you use for compost apply it often, like once in the spring and once in the fall. It will take a few seasons to improve a poor soil type.
Another thing you can do is use topsoil to make a raised bed. Landscape timbers or treated 2 X 12's work best for this. You can stack these about five high. Besides enclosing your garden and making a good growing medium, the raised bed will make it easy to plant and weed your garden, particularly if you've got back trouble or have difficulty bending over.
Hey, I think we're ready to plant! Here's the fun part. You can purchase seeds from the store or order them through the many catalogs on the market (see below). Whatever you do, buy quality seeds. I hate to see people spend hours preparing a garden and then go out and purchase 10/$1.00 seeds. It would be like buying a new car and replacing the engine oil with a cheap brand of oil. Look for brand name seeds just like you would anything else. What we're trying to do is maximize our chances of success at this endeavor, not pinch pennies.
In a small garden you may want to avoid some of the space hogs, like corn, squash and pumpkin. However, there are bush type varieties of pumpkin, such as Hybrid Spirit Bush and Autumn Gold that don't take up much room. Also, summer squashes take up less room then do the winter squash. If you do plant corn, remember to grow this one along the north side of your garden so it doesn't shade the rest of your crops.
Easy to grow crops include onions, peas, beets, rutabaga and zucchini squash. These can also be planted early.Tomatoes and peppers need to be started from seed indoors about 8 weeks prior to planting time or purchased as transplants. Be sure to space things in your small garden according to the instructions on the packets. And make sure you plant your tender crops (tomatoes, squash, beans and watermelon) after all danger of frost has passed. Ask the old timers in the area when this date is. One common mistake people make, especially in the northern climates, is to plant everything when the weather turns nice only to succumb to a frost a week or two later, thus wiping out all their hard work. Plant by the expected last frost dates, not the weather.
Unfortunately, critters (and children) may take a shine to your new garden. Rabbits, geese and deer can be a problem. For the small garden, a wire mesh surround works well. This will discourage most critters and some people. I've seen people take chicken wire and staple it to the top of their landscaping timbers on a raised bed to keep out geese and the like.
Vandals can also attack gardens, especially in conspicuous areas of a city, such as in a community garden. Since things like watermelon and squash are the vandal's favorite, some folks plant heirlooms that don't look like common vegetables. You can also cover ready to ripen fruit with straw to conceal the vegetable. Another method in a community garden is to display your name boldly near your garden plot. A conscientious person may think twice before robbing your garden!
Watch for insect infestation. If things are properly spaced in your small garden, insects shouldn't be a big problem. If you do see evidence of chewing on plants, especially things like cabbage, don't wait to fight back. Identify the insect causing the damage and choose an insecticide that will control that specific insect or Soap-Shield. Proper spacing, weeding and fertilizing is a good way to prevent disease and insect infestation without having to resort to harmful insecticides.
Speaking of fertilizer, you can use a granular or water soluble fertilizer to feed your hungry plants. A 15-15-15 or 20-20-20 fertilizer is a good all purpose fertilizer which will provide equal parts nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium and some of the minor nutrients that plants need. Apply granular fertilizers a few days before you plant, working it into the top six inches of topsoil. You can side dress after the plants come up and at two or three week intervals by using a water soluble fertilizer such as that sold by the Miracle Grow or Shultz companies.
Soon, it will be time to harvest your garden fare. To get the full health benefits of your vegies, harvest when ripe and don't over cook your vegetables. More importantly, enjoy the experience of eating fresh, crisp vegetables you grew yourself!
About the Author
Neil Moran is a horticulture trades instructor and author of North Country Gardening: Simple Secrets to Successful Gardening. Neil is also the owner and operator of Haylake Gardens, a garden center and gift shop in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Questions and comments can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.