By Linda Ly
Vegetable gardens are no longer just a thing for farmers and big backyards; these days, even an urbanite can grow food on a balcony, and in many locales, a front yard is fair game for an edible landscape. If the thought of healthy, homegrown food free of pesticides has you yearning for your own vegetable bed, here’s a quick-start guide for gardening success.
1. Pick the perfect spot
Vegetable gardens thrive in a space where there’s ample sun for at least eight hours a day and a water source nearby. But if all you can spare is a spot with less light, you can still grow leafy greens (like lettuce and spinach), which are happy with partial shade or at least six hours of sun a day.
Try to pick an area close to the house (and ideally the kitchen), as you’re more likely to utilize a vegetable garden that you walk past every day. A garden that’s relegated to a corner of the yard you can’t see from the window is more prone to neglect; the phrase “out of sight, out of mind” rings true here.
2. Assess the soil and amend it as necessary
Few people are fortunate enough to have the loamy soil (40% sand, 40% silt, 20% clay) most vegetables grow best in. Oftentimes native soil is either hard, compacted clay (which lacks aeration) or loose, fast-draining sand (which doesn’t retain moisture) that requires a little love before you can plant in it.
At the beginning of the gardening season, dig in several inches of compost to improve soil texture and fertility. Water it in well, then feed the soil periodically with an organic fertilizer designed for vegetables. Certain crops, such as tomatoes, are heavy feeders and require more nutrients than the standard NPK (nitrogen/phosphorus/potassium) fertilizers you can find in liquid or granular form. Simply look for a fertilizer labeled for your specific plants and needs.
3. Determine what you like to eat and whether it’s worth growing
It’s easy to become overwhelmed with a visit to a plant nursery and come home with an array of seeds and starts you might not need. Before you go, figure out how much food you and your family can eat in any given week. If you love tomatoes, you’ll likely want to try a few varieties that mature at different times; on the other hand, a single zucchini plant is prolific enough to feed a small family.
People who cook at home several times a week may want to start with kitchen staples: garlic, onions, herbs, salad fixings and root vegetables. Those who eat out a lot may be more interested in unconventional crops for special meals they make at home. Once you decide what to grow, determine whether it’s worth the effort, based on your space and resources.
A good rule of thumb? Grow vegetables that are most expensive to buy organic: tomatoes, peppers and interesting heirloom varieties you’re not likely to find in a supermarket. Don’t be afraid to try an unusual plant you might not eat often, but opt for more of the vegetables you know you’ll be harvesting often.
4. Choose plant varieties, climate and growth habits
Vegetable crops are typically divided into warm-weather plants (tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, squash, melons) and cool-weather plants (cabbage, kale, peas, beets, radishes). Certain climates that generally stay mild all year can get away with planting off-season, but for the greatest chance of success, stick with plants that thrive in their preferred season—not only will they require less maintenance, they’ll taste better as well.
Certain plant varieties are also bred for special traits like heat or cold tolerance, disease resistance, and early maturation, all of which can be a benefit in a finicky climate or short growing season.
When choosing which varieties to plant, take into account the amount of space you have. Larger plants (like tomatoes and squash) require at least two to three feet of space for optimum growth, smaller ones (like carrots and greens) can be planted densely in a compact footprint, and others (like peas and cucumbers) need a trellis to climb. Plan your plantings accordingly so you have enough room for all your favorites.
5. Water your seeds or starts thoroughly until their roots are established
Underwatering and overwatering are often the causes of stunted or distressed plants. If you’re starting plants from seed or transplanting starter plants, keep the soil evenly moist until their roots are established.
Gilmour’s Adjustable Length Wind-resistant Rectangular Sprinkler is ideal for covering a wide area of seeds and starts in this initial period. Because of the unique spray pattern, it’s less prone to evaporation so you can be sure that your plants are receiving the amount of irrigation they need while conserving water at the same time.
As your plants continue to grow, scale back the watering to encourage roots to reach deeper in the soil. Gilmour’s Soaker Hose makes easy work of this task by delivering water right where it’s needed—at the base of your established plants. No need to drag a traditional hose around your garden beds! Simply lay the soaker hose beside your plantings, bury it with mulch, and leave it in place for trouble-free, consistent watering.
An ideal schedule for mature plants is to water less frequently, but more thoroughly. “An inch a week” through rainfall or irrigation is the usual advice, but how do you know when enough is enough? Simple—just stick your finger in the soil. When the first two to four inches of soil feel dry, it’s time to water.
6. Harvest frequently to encourage regular growth
While you might think a plant’s purpose in life is to feed you, it’s naturally programmed to exist for propagation. If you leave a pepper on the stem for too long, allowing the seeds inside to mature, the plant will think its job is done and gradually reduce (or altogether stop) production. If you leave a head of kale untouched for half the season, prompting the plant to send up a flower stalk, its leaves will eventually turn too tough and bitter to be palatable.
Make it a habit to check on your garden at least twice a week and harvest any vegetables that are ripe or ready. Doing so will encourage the plant to continue producing until the end of the season. If you can’t keep up with the bounty, consider sharing with a friend or neighbor!
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