Many home gardeners begin a vegetable garden to save money on the high cost of produce and to provide their families with fresh nutritious foods. Unaware of the amount of time and work a garden requires, many prepare large beds and plant huge amounts of vegetables only to discover they do not have the time or commitment to keep up the garden during the summer. Knowing what to expect and what is required in garden maintenance helps new gardeners set realistic goals and to plant gardens on the scale they are ready to handle.
Till the soil in early spring as soon as the soil can be worked. Soil should form a soft ball when squeezed in the hand and crumble easily when poked with your finger. If soil does not crumble, allow the soil to dry for a few days and check again before tilling. Remove rocks and other garden debris and rake the area smooth with a garden rake. Allow soil to dry for one week.
Test the soil to determine the needs of your soil. Purchase an inexpensive soil test at the hardware store to test your own soil or contact your local cooperative extension office. Extension agents perform soil tests for a minimal fee and provide a written analysis of the soil along with recommendations for amending the soil. Follow the recommendations from the cooperative extension office (or those included in the soil test kit) to amend your soil. Add organic matter to the soil to improve texture and drainage. Well-rotted manure or compost work well and are easy to apply.
Mark the rows following the spacing for the individual crops you wish to grow. Generally, rows are spaced 2 1/2 feet apart to allow for cultivation with a garden tiller during the season. If you intend to cultivate the soil by hand with a hoe, garden claw or hand tiller, rows can be spaced closer together.
Plant seeds or seedlings following the recommended seed depth and spacing. Check for plant hardiness to determine the correct time to plant. Keep in mind that there might be a difference of several weeks in planting time. Cool-season crops can be planted before the last expected frost, while tender crops must be planted after the danger of frost has passed.
Side dress plants with fertilizer when vigorous growth appears. Potatoes, peas and cucumbers benefit from side dressing when they are 4 inches to 6 inches high. Water-soluble fertilizer can be applied at regular intervals of 10 to 14 days to the entire garden with a sprayer attachment to the hose.
Water whenever the soil appears dry to the touch. Gardens require 1 inch of rain a week. If nature does not provide adequate rainfall, soaking the garden once a week provides enough water under normal growing conditions. Dry periods might require more frequent watering.