Why grow vegetables? Starting a vegetable garden at home is an easy way to save money — that $2 tomato plant can easily provide you with 10 pounds of fruits over the course of a season.
It also gives you the pleasure of savoring a delicious, sun-warmed tomato fresh from the garden. In almost every case, the flavor and texture of varieties you can grow far exceed the best grocery store produce.
Plus, growing vegetables can be fun. It's a great way to spend time with children or have a place to get away and spend time outdoors in the sun.
Growing vegetables is probably easier than you think. If you plan it right, you can enjoy a beautiful garden full of the fruits of your labor — without having to spend hours and hours tending it. Getting started: Deciding what to growIt's best to start small with your first garden. Many gardeners get a little too excited at the beginning of the season and plant more than they need — and end up with wasting food and feeling overwhelmed by their garden.
So first, take a look at how much your family will eat. Keep in mind that vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, and squash keep providing throughout the season — so you may not need many to serve your needs. Other vegetables, such as carrots, radishes, and corn produce only once. You may need to plant more of these.
Determining how much space you needOnce you know what you want to plant, you can figure out how much space your garden will need.
Keep in mind that you don't need a large space to begin a vegetable garden. If you choose to grow in containers, you don't even need a yard — a deck or balcony may provide plenty of space.
In fact, a well-tended 10-x-10-foot garden will usually produce more than a weed-filled or disease-ridden 25-x-50-foot bed.
Picking the perfect spot
No matter how big your vegetable garden is, there are three basic requirements for success:
Full sun. Most vegetables need at least six to eight hours of direct sun. If they don't get enough light, they won't bear as much and they'll be more susceptible to attack from insects or diseases.
Here's a hint: If you don't have a spot in full sun, you can still grow many leafy vegetables such as lettuce and spinach. And if you're in a hot-summer climate, cool-season varieties such as peas may do better in part shade.
Plenty of water. Because most vegetables aren't very drought tolerant, you'll need to give them a drink during dry spells. The closer your garden is to a source of water, the easier it will be for you.
Good soil. As with any kind of garden, success usually starts with the soil. Most vegetables do best in moist, well-drained soil that's rich in organic matter (such as compost or peat moss).
Many gardeners like to have their vegetable gardens close to the house. This makes it easier to harvest fresh produce while you're cooking. It can also be handy to keep a few favorite potted vegetables next to your grill.
Designing your vegetable gardenThere are two basic approaches to planning the layout of a vegetable garden:
Row croppingThis is probably what comes to mind when you think of a vegetable garden as you place plants single file in rows, with a walking path between each row.
Row cropping works best for large gardens, and it makes it easier to use mechanical equipment such as tillers to battle weeds.
The downside of row cropping is that it is that you don't get as many vegetables in a small space as much of the soil is used for foot paths rather than vegetable plants.
Row cropping isn't as visually interesting, either.
Here's a hint: Allow at least 18 inches between your rows so you have plenty of room to work between them. And as you sketch out your plan, place taller vegetables at the north side of the garden. This includes naturally tall plants — like tomatoes — and plants that can be grown on vertical supports — including snap peas, cucumbers, and pole beans.
This means planting in wide bands, generally one to four feet across and as long as you like. Intensive cropping reduces the amount of area needed for paths, but the closer spacing of the plants usually means you have to weed by hand.
Because of the handwork required, it is important not to make the bands wider than you can comfortably reach.
Intensive cropping also allows you do design your garden, making it a good choice, for example, if you want to grow vegetables in your front yard. It's a great solution for mixing vegetables with ornamentals, as well.
A specialized version of intensive cropping is the "square-foot method." This system divides the garden into small beds (typically 4 x 4 feet), that are further subdivided into one-foot squares. Each one-foot square is planted with one, four, nine, or 16 plants, depending on the size of size of the plant when it matures.
It also makes sense to leave some areas of the garden unplanted at first. This allows you to plant a second crop to harvest later in the season. Lettuce, radishes, green onions, carrots, and bush beans are commonly planted several times during the season.
Creating good soil: Testing and fixing your soil
It's best to test the soil before you begin digging. Check drainage, soaking the soil with a hose, waiting a day, then digging up a handful of soil. Squeeze the soil hard. If water streams out, you'll probably want to add compost or organic matter to improve the drainage is poor.
Next, open your hand.
If the soil hasn't formed a ball, or if the ball falls apart at the slightest touch, your soil is probably sandy. (Add organic matter to improve sandy soil.)
If the ball holds together even if you poke it fairly hard, you have too much clay in your soil. (Organic matter improves clay soil, too.)
But if the ball breaks into crumbs when you poke it — like a chocolate cake — rejoice! Your soil is ideal.
If your soil doesn't drain well, your best bet will probably be to install raised beds.
Here's a hint: Build raised beds on existing lawn by lining the bottom of frames with several layers of newspaper, then filling with soil. That way you don't have to dig!