The home vegetable gardener may dream of an expanse of garden that includes every vegetable known to mankind or simply a few tomato shrubs. Extravagant or unpretentious, a vegetable garden of any size has the same basic requirements. Every garden needs adequate sunlight, access to water, good soil quality, proper planting times and a long-enough growing season. Careful consideration of these factors and what kinds of vegetables you plan to grow will ensure the success of any planting.
Sunlight, and lots of it, is the primary ingredient of the successful vegetable garden. Make no mistake: tomatoes need sunlight. Not just a couple of hours a day, but a solid six to eight hours of bright, direct light. And tomatoes aren’t the only ones. Most popular garden vegetables require a generous amount of sunlight to grow and produce fruit. Squash and melons also need heat to successfully set fruit. Some early-season vegetables like radishes, lettuce and peas flourish in cool-weather conditions but still need several hours a day of sunlight to grow properly.
If you’re in the process of planning a garden, consider sources of shade from a summertime perspective. Will trees or other tall structures cast a shadow that doesn't present a problem in the winter? Or is the reverse true — are there structures that cast shadows in the winter that don’t in the summer? In general, Northern Hemisphere gardeners will get the best results with an open, southern exposure garden.
Access to Water
Vegetables are thirstier plants than most because the fruits they produce are usually heavy with water, as is the case with tomatoes, squash, peppers and cucumbers. If your garden is a long way from a water spigot, invest in a long hose and consider installing rain barrels to capture and store spring downpours for drier months. Chances are, if you have to lug gallons of water from the house to a distant garden, the plants there will suffer and struggle to survive.
In general, most vegetables require rich, loamy soils that drain well. Many experienced gardeners amend their soils with compost, or rotted organic material, to boost the nutrient content of their garden soil. Fertilizers can be added as needed, especially for nitrogen-loving plants like cabbage and corn. If you’re unsure if your soils are adequate for growing vegetables, most university extension offices provide soil test kits, and for a fee will return results that include advice on what should be added to soil.
To determine whether your soil is reasonably well-draining, take a handful when it is damp but not soaking wet. Good soil clumps slightly but crumbles easily when squeezed; sandy soils fall apart quickly, and clay soils form a tight, sticky clod when compressed.
Good gardeners know when to plant particular vegetables. Heat-lovers, like squashes, can only succeed if grown in the summer. Cool-season vegetables like lettuces generally do not tolerate summer heat. Some rare plants, like Swiss chard and many herbs, do well throughout most growing months. The gardener should carefully study the characteristics of each plant she wishes to grow, including how long the plant takes to mature and ripen fruit, frost and heat tolerance and any special nutrient requirements.
In general, northern gardeners have a much shorter growing season than southern gardeners, though those in the north may have much better success with cool-weather plants than their austral counterparts. Two dates every gardener needs to know are the last frost date and earliest freeze date, which generally bookend the growing season. Last frost marks the beginning of the season, while earliest freeze marks the end. Short-season gardeners can extend their vegetable growing range by starting seeds indoors, or using a greenhouse to continue growing plants into the early winter.