More and more people are asking me for advice on how to start their first vegetable garden. The first thing that always pops into my mind is to keep it small and grow a lot of herbs. Below is a list of ways you can get your first vegetable garden underway and actually enjoy the experience.
1. Go organic – Right from the get-go make the decision to use natural organic fertilizers, no chemical pesticides, and learn the techniques of organic gardening rather than chemical. Everything I tell you in this article is an organic method.
2. Keep it small – Admire a large garden, but tend a small one. Few people have the time to grow an acre vegetable garden anymore. With the proliferation of farmer’s markets, you don’t really need a vegetable garden. You are doing this because you want to.
I have had massive vegetable gardens in the past, but now my vegetable/herb/flower garden is no more than 20 feet by 30 feet. In this small area I grow: tomatoes, jalapeno peppers, peas, lettuce, arugula, French green beans, basil, thyme, parsley, winter savory, rosemary, eggplants, mesclun, zucchini, lavender, chives and Chinese chives. I also have raspberries, roses, snapdragons, nasturtiums, marigolds and some other random flowers.
3. Choose the site – A vegetable garden needs a site that will receive at least six hours of direct sunlight every day. Less than that and it will produce at half pace. More than that is beneficial.
The site also needs to be well-drained. In other words, after a rain storm there are no puddles.
4. Prepare the soil – Get a soil test done by taking or mailing a half-cup of soil to Cornell Cooperative Extension. Dig the soil from four inches below ground level in the area where you plan to start your vegetable garden. An alternative is to bring a soil sample to any flower show in the area where Cooperative Extension has a booth.
There is a good chance you will need to add an application of lime to bring the soil to a pH of approximately 6.5 to 7.0. Follow Extension’s advice on this. Potash is valuable, too.
Remove any grass from your area and dig the soil to a depth of four-to-six inches. A rotary tiller makes this very easy. You can rent one or hire someone to do it for you. It is very advisable to add a two-inch thick layer of compost, composted manure or other organic material to the soil at this time, digging it in as you till. Add the lime if necessary and smooth the soil with a steel rake.
Don’t start digging in your garden area until the weather has settled and the soil is no longer frozen or soaked from winter. This could be as late as Mother’s Day, but don’t despair, there is plenty of time. Nothing is going to grow until the soil warms up anyway.
5. Plant disease-resistant varieties – Many plants have been bred or have their own natural defense system against diseases. Remember the tomato blight of a couple summers ago? You want to avoid that. Herbs are totally resistant to diseases so plan to plant a lot of those.
Look for disease-resistant varieties of tomatoes, zucchini and cucumbers. Peppers, lettuce, French beans and most everything else on my list are disease-resistant.
6. Mix it up – As you can see from my list, I like to plant vegetables, rose bushes, flowers, herbs and small fruits all in the same garden. I also avoid long straight rows, preferring to plant in blocks. This makes it more interesting for me and I think it looks nicer, too.
7. Use natural organic fertilizer – Use natural organic fertilizer rather than chemical. Natural organic fertilizer is widely available in garden centers. Espoma is a common brand, but there are others. Ask your garden center person to point it out for you.
8. Install a soaker hose – Lay the soaker hose in and around your garden looping it around to cover the entire area. This hose will slowly weep water that the plants can absorb and conserve water at the same time.
9. Mulch to keep the weeds at bay – Spread a layer of organic mulch over the soaker hose and the ground in your garden. Mulch can be straw, compost, shredded leaves or a combination of all of the above. Mulch stifles weeds, it keeps the soil cooler during super hot summer days, it holds in moisture, and as it decomposes it adds more organic matter to the garden soil.
10. Enjoy your garden – Now that you know the basic steps to planting and caring for a beautiful vegetable garden that is easy to maintain without the use of chemicals, remember to enjoy your garden. Snip the herbs, harvest the lettuce, make salads, spend time in the garden listening to the birds and discovering the wonders of nature.
Larry Sombke is a garden designer and consultant, the author of Beautiful Easy Gardens, and garden blogger for the Times Union. Contact him with questions at [email protected]