Whether you are a beginning gardener or new to growing vegetables, starting a vegetable garden enhances both your yard and your cuisine. Start small and expand as your skills develop. Even a small plot of ground or a cluster of containers will yield a variety of vegetables of spectacular freshness and taste. Whether you want the assurance of easy-to-grow vegetables or the excitement of adding gourmet ingredients to your menu, creating your own source of fresh produce is both rewarding and delicious.
Selecting a Garden Site
Vegetable gardeners love winter--it's planning time. Before seeds appear on nursery racks and chores pile up, winter is a great time to read about vegetable gardening, review seed catalogs and choose a garden site. Three elements are critical for good vegetable growth: sunlight, water and god soil. Choose a spot in your yard that receives at least six hours of sunlight per day. Ideally, that's six hours or more in a row, but areas where gardens receive morning and afternoon sun with a brief period of midday shade can also be used. In choosing a site during the winter, remember to factor in summer shade from trees and large shrubs.
Choose a spot where you can easily provide a consistent supply of water. Vegetables require steadier watering than some other plants; if you have two possible locations for your vegetable garden, choose the one that is easier for you to water--or add "longer hose" to your spring shopping list. Ideal vegetable garden sites are level; if your best sun-spot is on a slope, consider using lumber to terrace the hill in steps. This will help your garden retain water evenly.
Preparing Vegetable Garden Soil
Just as you depend on vegetables for nutrition, vegetable plants depend on you for the same. In early spring, test the garden soil to determine its hospitality to vegetable planting. Simple soil test kits can be obtained at nurseries and garden centers. Additional information about your soil and the enrichments needed for good vegetable culture can be obtained by consulting your USDA County Extension office for testing supplies and local growing information. USDA offices help farmers and city gardeners as well and are usually found in the telephone book under county government. Soil testing has a small charge; advice is extensive, informed and free.
Creating a Container Garden
Many vegetables grow well in containers, taking advantage of small sun-spots in your yard, on your deck or even up the front steps. Yields will be smaller than in a large in-ground plot, but container vegetables minimize weeding and make handsome alternatives to inedible annual flowers. Fill a window-box planter with chives, oregano and trailing thyme, or make a single squash plant in an 18-inch pot the centerpiece of your deck-decorating scheme. Patio-type tomato plants are specifically designed to grow in containers. Onions, beans and even potatoes can be cultivated in large pots. Containers placed close to your house make certain your vegetables get frequent attention and timely harvest. Some experienced in-ground gardeners reserve lettuce, spinach and bok choy seeds for pots, within easy reach of the chef.
Choosing and Planting Vegetables
Seed catalogs and seed packets provide excellent information about space, sun, water and nutritional requirements for vegetables. Catalog descriptions--no matter how glowing--also suggest which vegetables are easier or harder to grow. Online and print lists of easy-to-grow vegetables abound (along with the opinions of gardeners, who report success, failure and other easy choices). Beans, lettuce, tomatoes, onions and spinach top most such lists, and nurseries customarily stock varieties, both seeds and plants, that do particularly well in their local areas. Choose either seeds or plants, and follow directions.
Cautions and Considerations
Especially if you are new to gardening, remember that every year is different. Among the factors you cannot control are weather conditions. Even experienced gardeners frequently encounter mysteries--many intriguing factors affect plant growth. One of the great attractions of gardening is that there is always more to learn, and lifelong gardeners will tell you how much they still want to know. Even beginning gardeners, however, can practice the most important talent of all gardeners: paying consistent attention. Some days your vegetables will just grow. On other days, weeding, watering and even picking are matters to be addressed at once. Putting in your garden is the first step; the most critical one for success is continuing to watch and respond to your plants.