Vegetable Garden 101
If you are starting a vegetable garden this year - congratulations! You are about to join the ranks of millions of Americans who have discovered how much fun it is to grow their own food. However, I think it's only fair to warn you that this is a wonderfully addictive hobby. In fact, gardening is one of America's favorite pastimes. You'll understand why once you've tasted your first home grown tomato or enjoyed the delicious flavor of fresh corn on the cob.
Now before you turn your entire backyard into a vegetable plot, there are a couple of things that will help you get your garden off to a good start.
I encourage you to be realistic about how much time you have to work in your garden and the amount of money you want to spend. It's far better to start small so you can really enjoy the process and be successful. You can always expand your garden later. And you will be surprised how much you can grow in one or two 4-foot x 4-foot wood framed beds. Learn how to build framed beds.
It is important for you to know the average first and last frost dates in your area. This will determine your growing season. There are several on-line sites where you can find this information using your zip code or by checking frost dates of near-by cities. These are just estimates, but they give you a basic window of time in which you can create a planting schedule. Plant tags and seed packets will provide information such as when to plant relative to the last spring frost. They will also tell you how long it takes a vegetable to produce. You can compare that number with the first autumn frost date to decide if your growing season is long enough for a particular plant.
A successful vegetable garden needs at least 7 to 8 hours of full sun each day. To find that spot on your property, check the area you have in mind for your garden several times from sunrise to sunset. One of the most common mistakes is to try to grow vegetables in areas where they don't get enough sunlight. Another consideration is choosing a spot that is close enough to an outdoor faucet or source of water so you can set up an efficient watering system. I'd also encourage you to choose a location where you can see your garden everyday, such as close to the back door or from a window in the kitchen. If you see it everyday, you are more likely to notice when it needs to be watered or if something is ready to for harvest.
The foundation of any great garden is the soil. If you don't get the soil right, gardening will be a constant struggle with less than rewarding results. Most vegetable plants are rapid growers so they need rich soil.
Now, don't be concerned if your property isn't blessed with the ideal blend. This is where framed beds come in handy. A framed bed is a bottomless box made of boards that you place on top of the ground and then add your own soil mix. Learn how to build framed beds.
If you opt for in ground beds it is important to get your soil tested. The results from the testing will tell you what amendments to add. You should also test the soil in framed beds on a regular basis because vegetables will deplete nutrients. You can purchase soil test kits for instant results or inexpensive soil tests are available through cooperative extension offices in most states. There are also private labs that, for a fee, can help you assess and understand your soil's needs. Learn more about soil tests.
On average, vegetable plants need about 1/2" to 1" of water per week. Distribute moisture evenly throughout the bed on a consistent basis.
At the time of planting work compost into the soil and apply an all-purpose, slow release fertilizer. There are many organic, commercial fertilizers available. Look for one with an analysis of 10-10-10 or 8-4-4. Follow the application directions on the label.
This will be plenty for vegetables such as bush beans, mustard greens and peas. Other vegetables such as tomatoes and broccoli benefit from a side dressing of fertilizer midway through the season.
Check plant packaging to determine how much feeding a specific plant needs.
When you are starting out and using the framed boxes, I recommend you plant vegetables that are relatively easy to grow and don't take up much room. But even more important, you should grow things you want to eat.
Cool Season Versus Warm Season Vegetables
You can divide vegetable crops into 2 basic categories - cool season and warm season. What this means is that some plants thrive in the cool temperatures of spring or fall and can survive light frosts, while others prefer the warm days of summer.
Planting Seeds or Seedlings
Most gardeners buy some of their garden plants such as green peppers and tomatoes as seedlings, rather than grow them from seeds in the garden. This ensures that they will be able to harvest the produce earlier in the season. For the fast growing vegetables such as lettuce, radishes and beets, you can sow the seeds directly in the soil outdoors.
A rule gardeners follow is not to grow the same crop year after year in the same place. Disease-causing organisms gradually accumulate in the soil over time. Different vegetables are susceptible to certain diseases, so rotating crops helps avoid this problem. This rule also applies to plants in the same botanical family. For instance, don't plant cabbage and broccoli, which belong to the mustard family, or tomatoes and eggplant, both members of the nightshade family, in the same areas in successive years.