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Kitchen Garden - Getting Started

I know many gardeners dream about having a kitchen garden, however taking it from fantasy to reality can often be a daunting task. Now, I'm not going to mislead you into thinking that growing vegetables is simple. But if you get a few elements right from the beginning and you don't bite off more than you can chew, so to speak, the rewards are well worth the effort.

The quickest path to success is to grow your vegetables in framed beds. You will also see these beds referred to as raised beds. But for the purist, there is a difference. A raised bed is created by digging into the ground and amending the soil to create a 3' to 5' wide, mounded ridge that is high in the center and sloped on the sides. Framed beds are simply bottomless boxes that you build on top of the ground and then add your own soil mix. So, technically speaking a raised bed could be framed, but a framed bed is not necessarily raised.

In my kitchen garden, I have a series of framed beds built from 2" x 12" lumber. There are several reasons that I prefer to grow my vegetables in framed beds. The first is that I have heavy clay soil and a framed bed allows me to fill the box with an ideal blend of soil for growing vegetables. A small, framed bed is also easier to weed, water and harvest than long rows of vegetables. Finally, when the soil is above ground level it tends to warm quicker, so I can extend my growing season. To learn how I built my beds click here.

Now, whether you choose to garden in framed beds or prefer to garden in the traditional way, there are some general tips you should consider before you get started.

TIME AND MONEY
The first two things you should consider are the amount of time you have to work in your kitchen garden and your available funds. I suggest that you start small. You can always expand later. And you would be surprised how much you can produce in a small space.

KNOW YOUR GARDEN'S CLIMATE
Frost Dates
When it comes to vegetables it is important to know the average first and last frost dates in your area. This will determine your growing season. Planting schedules for most vegetables can be developed based on these dates. Hold off planting frost tender plants until after the last frost date. But be sure you have enough time before the estimated date of the first autumn frost to be able to produce a crop. Take a look at the seed packages and plant tags to find out how many days are required for the vegetables to produce. For local, reliable advice, contact your area's Cooperative Extension Service.

USDA Hardiness Zones and AHS Heat Zones
If you are planning to grow vegetables that carry over from one year to the next such as asparagus, you should know your USDA cold hardiness zone. This will help you determine if a plant will survive the winters in your area. You can see the USDA hardiness map at www.ahs.org.

The American Horticultural Society has developed a heat tolerance map that indicates "the average number of days each year that a given region experiences heat days - temperatures over 86 degrees (30 degrees Celsius)." This information is especially helpful if you live in a hot region of the country.

Most tags and seed packages will indicate the best growing zones for the plants. But if you don't see it listed, be sure and ask.

Weather
Gardeners tend to be avid weather watchers and for good reason, weather has a direct effect on your plants. Unless you are a meteorologist, it is not likely that you will be able to predict the weather for the coming growing season, but you do know how it has fared in the past. For instance, I know that my area often experiences a few days of unseasonably cold weather after the last predicted frost date, which in my zone 7 garden is around Easter. Based on this information I always wait until the first of May, when the soil has warmed and I know temperatures will stay above freezing before I put out my tomato transplants.

I also know that a typical summer is hot and humid with minimal amounts of rain. Among other things, this tells me that I need to have a good irrigation system ready and to choose plants that are not prone to fungus such as powdery mildew, which thrives in humidity.

If you are not familiar with the weather in your region, check with a neighbor or fellow gardener. Not only should you learn about rainfall and temperature but also ask about violent storms, strong winds, humidity, and any other conditions that are common to the area.

FINDING THE RIGHT SITE
Sunlight
One of the most common mistakes people make is to try to grow vegetables in areas where they don't get enough sunlight. A successful kitchen garden needs at least 6 to 7 hours of sun per day.

Warm Spots and Cool Spots
Although people within the same general area experience similar weather conditions, there are areas around your home that have their own microclimates. Temperature and wind are influenced by elements such as valleys, ridges, bodies of water, slopes and available sunlight.

4 Basic Microclimates Around a Home

They are also affected by shifting sunlight and shadows. For instance, the north side of your house will be cooler than the south side of your house. These shifts occur throughout the day and over the course of the seasons as the sun's path moves in the sky.

Outbuildings and tall hedges can cast shadows to create cool spots in your garden, while brick walls or white fences can warm up an area with reflected light and absorbed heat.

Recognizing where these microclimates are around your house can be a benefit to you. You may decide to plant heat loving vegetables such as tomatoes, squash and peppers in the warmest area of your garden and cool season favorites such as chard, lettuce and spinach in an area that is shaded from afternoon sun.

Accessibility
A final element that you should consider when selecting a location for your kitchen garden is accessablity to water.

Creating a garden, whether it is for vegetables or flowers, takes elbow grease. So you want to ensure that your efforts don't wither away because it is a difficult chore to get water to the plants. Watering may seem like fun initially, but by August the last thing you will want to do is lug a hose around the garden. Make sure that your kitchen garden is close enough to an outdoor spigot or well that you can set up an efficient watering system. There are all kinds of innovative watering products available, complete with timers, that make watering less of drudgery.

So in review, once you have determined the amount of time and money you have available, the general climate of your region and the best location for your kitchen garden, you are ready to take a pen and paper and draw its shape and size. When designing your garden, keep it simple but don't restrict yourself to a single square or rectangle. I find inspiration in the kitchen gardens and parterres of old estates such as George Washington's Mt. Vernon. It is just a matter of seeing a design that you like and scaling it to your site. Just remember, start small in the beginning. As your success and interest grows, you can always add on.

In Part 2 of Starting A Kitchen Garden I discuss soil, irrigation, plant selection and critter proofing.