Feb 9, 2010

Total Beginner's Guide to Growing Vegetables

The U.S. is experiencing an upswing in interest in vegetable gardens (sometimes called Victory Gardens). There are a lot of reasons for this: It's cheaper, you know if it's truly organic (if you're concerned about that), it's good exercise, it helps us slow down and enjoy God's creation, it's a great learning experience for kids, and so on. But what if, as a Proverbs 31 Woman, you're interested in growing your own vegetables but have no idea where to begin? That's what I'm here for, folks!

1. Don't confuse yourself with gardening books. Books that give specific information about growing vegetables can be pretty useless. That is, unless they are specific to your region. So hop on Amazon and see if you can find books about growing veggies in your state or region. This way you can avoid advice that's perfect, say, for gardeners in Washington but completely unsuitable for gardeners in your state of New York.

2. Choosing the right location is one of the most important things you can do. Most vegetables need at least six hours of sun to produce well. Even if all other conditions are ideal, if your plants don't get enough sun, they will disappoint you. Some plants - including beets, lettuce, arugula, endive, cress, broccoli, cauliflower, beets, peas, Brussels sprouts, radishes, Swiss chard, collards, spinach, mustard greens, kale, beans, onions, garlic, chives, radishes, mint, blackberries, currants, gooseberries, raspberries, and strawberries tolerate five hours of sun. Almost no edible will grow well in full shade.

The traditional way to determine how much sun an area of your yard gets is to mark off areas of shade with stakes at various times of the day, usually 8 AM, noon, and 4 PM. Then, plant only in the land inside the stakes.

If this seems too time consuming, you can purchase a product like SunCalc, which measures light automatically. Just stick the gadget in the soil in the evening, and by the following evening it will tell you exactly how much sun that area receives. The only down side to this sort of gadget is you must use it every few feet in your prospective garden bed because some areas may receive less light than others.

Also bear in mind that you don't necessarily have to grow vegetables in a traditional row. If your only full sun locations already have flowers, for example, consider pulling just a few and planting your edibles along side them. I've seen some amazingly beautiful gardens that had edibles and ornamentals planted side by side. Almost any vegetable also grows well in containers.

But remember: You must measure the light during the growing season. In other words, if you're planting spring vegetables, measure the sun light in early spring. For summer veggies, check the sunlight in the early summer.

3. Soil is as important as light. If you have bad soil, nothing but weeds are likely to grow. If you have so-so soil, veggies will grow but won't thrive as they will with better soil. There are several schools of thought on making your soil better. One - the traditional route - is to amend your soil in the fall, after testing it to see what nutrients it lacks. Since fall is a long way away, I'm going to assume this won't work for you this year. But in the future, consider purchasing a soil testing kit at a gardening center and following its instructions carefully. The test should tell you what nutrients your soil needs and an employee at a gardening center can help you find amendments to make the soil better by the following spring. The biggest downside to this method is that you're fighting nature; each fall you'll have to test the soil and amend accordingly - and amending is sometimes costly.

Another school of thought is that you should just pile up new soil on the surface of your existing soil. This makes tilling (by hand or machine) unnecessary, and can quickly kill weeds if you first lay down several layers of black and white newspaper. Sometimes this is called "the lasagna method" because you'll lay down newspaper, soil, compost, and so forth on top of the soil, much like you layer ingredients in the traditional Italian dish. This is a relatively cheap and easy method, but unless you're willing to wait on home made compost, you'll need to purchase it.

A similar method is the use of raised beds. You can either just pile up good dirt to create beds that are at least six inches above the existing soil or - better yet - create bed "frames" from wood, stone, or brick. Some advantages of this method include fewer weeds, no need for tilling (because - if you make the frames no wider or longer than your arm's reach - you never walk on the soil, compacting it), warmer beds (which equal a longer growing season), and easier gardening (because you bend over less). The disadvantages are expense (buying soil and materials for making "frames") and the fact that raised beds tend to require a bit more water.

There's also the Square Foot method. This is super easy for beginners. 4 x 4 foot frames are built and placed atop existing soil, a special soil mixture is added to the bed (less than in ordinary raised beds, reducing costs) and one plant is planted in each square foot of the frame.

For any of these methods, you'll probably be buying some good soil or compost, which can be pricey. In future years, you can cut this expense by making your own compost.

3. Know your gardening zone. The USDA has created a map of the United States that tracks the frostiness of the soil. Before you choose any plants or seeds for your garden, be sure you know exactly what your gardening zone is, or you may end up with plants that can't possibly survive in your area. If you're still unsure after looking at the USDA map, contact your local extension office; they'll have plenty of free gardening advice specific to your locale and can easily tell you your gardening zone.

4. Choose your plants wisely. Seed packets and plant labels should explain which gardening zones plants thrive in. As a beginner, never choose seeds or plants not specified for your zone. Be sure not to go overboard with plants, too, especially your first year, or you'll quickly become overwhelmed. Take it slow. Choose a few of your favorite vegetables, and be sure to think about whether or not they are worth growing. For example, although I'd like to grow all our veggies, my space is quite limited. Therefore, I always save potatoes for last. If I run out of room, I know I can buy them quite inexpensively at the store, but if I put them in my garden, they will eat up a lot of space. On the other hand, no store bought tomato even remotely compares to a home grown tomato, so I always make sure I have room for several tomato plants.

To help you determine how many of each plant you'll want, here's a handy guide.

5. Plant at the right time. Unless you've successfully winter sown a plant, be sure to follow the seed packet or plant tag information about when they should go in the garden. Don't put them in before your last threat of frost (according to the USDA map or your local extension office) or they may die; don't put them in too late or you may end up spending a lot of time and money on plants that don't offer much produce.

6. Water well. It's best to water two or three times a week, but thoroughly. Sprinklers make this job easier. Set out a tuna fish can where the water will fall. When the can has an inch of water in it, you can turn off the water. This sort of watering, as opposed to watering less and more frequently, results in stronger root systems and happier plants.

7. Harvest at the right time. Be sure you understand when your vegetables are ready to pick. This is where a good gardening book can come in handy - or a little research on the Internet. If you pick too soon, the food may not taste good and may be less nutritious. But pick too late and the same may be true.

There are lots of other things you can do in your garden, like learning how to plant successively so you have a continuous crop, or using cold frames and cloches to extend the season, or any number of other great topics, but worry about these less important things after your first season gardening. Keep it simple your first time out so you can build confidence for the following year.

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3 comments:

  1. if you are looking for more information on USDA plant hardiness zones, there is a detailed and interactive USDA plant hardiness zone map at http://www.plantmaps.com/usda_hardiness_zone_map.php which allow you to locate your USDA zone based on zipcode or city.

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  2. So glad you found the beginner's guide to growing veggies helpful, Melody!

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