Whether you have a multiple-acre plot or a small patio, you can grow your own vegetables. With a little bit of know-how and a sunny place, enjoying the bounty of your labors can be fun, rewarding and tasty.
“There are so many reasons to grow your own vegetables, and the flavors are ever so much better than store-bought,” says Joe Lamp’l, founder of joegardener.com and host of the syndicated show, “Growing a Greener World,” which airs nationally on public television. “Money can’t buy the kind of taste you get fresh from the garden or the satisfaction of knowing you’re eating what you’ve grown.”
Joe says three components are vital to successful vegetable gardening: sunlight, soil and water.
“Choose your spot carefully to have plenty of sunlight, at least six hours a day,” he says. “Look for a place that’s not obstructed by trees or other buildings.”
Many gardeners build raised beds. By elevating the growing area off the ground, less bending and squatting are required to plant, tend and harvest, Joe says.
“Most people choose wood to construct raised beds, but be sure to consider the size,” he says. “Use 2-by-12-inch boards to build a bed that your space can accommodate. Be sure to make it about 3 feet wide to give good access from all sides. This will make weeding and harvesting easier, and you can more closely inspect your plants for signs of disease or insects as they grow.”
Leave enough space between beds for a wheelbarrow to pass to bring soil and mulch into the garden area.
The soil in your garden is crucial for good production. With raised beds, you have more control over the composition of the soil, in terms of nutrients and quality.
“Packaged garden soil is a good choice because it’s disease and weed free, but be mindful of the quality,” Joe says. “Cheaper is not better. The soil provides the main support for your plants, so it needs to have the right nutrients and the right texture. If the soil compacts too easily, it will be difficult for plant roots to thrive. Amend it with organic matter—also available at your box retailer or local nursery—to promote good growth.”
Make sure a good water source is nearby to avoid continually moving hoses back and forth throughout the growing season.
“In an ideal world, drip irrigation is best, but it can be costly to install into each bed,” Joe says. “Consider hand watering if you have a smaller garden plot. Apply the water directly to the base of the plant to prevent wetting the foliage. Prolonged periods of wet foliage can increase the potential for plant disease. Don’t water just because it’s a certain day of the week, because you run the risk of overwatering.
Check the moisture level of the soil and water accordingly, allowing enough flow to soak the ground. Then wait until the top inch or so of the soil feels dry before watering again. Your plants will be healthier and produce better results.”
Seeds or Seedlings?
Summer vegetables—such as tomatoes, eggplant and peppers—are generally easier to grow from seedlings, which can be bought at a local nursery or box retailer.
Look for healthy plants with several sets of leaves. They can be planted in the garden after the date of the last frost in your area.
“If you want to start from seeds, back up your indoor starting time to have nice-sized seedlings by the ideal planting time for your region,” Joe says. “I’m a big proponent of starting vegetable seeds indoors about six to eight weeks before planting, but you will need the proper light setup and the commitment to manage the process from seeds to moving the seedlings into the garden.”
Once the soil warms up, beans, squash and cucumbers are easy to plant directly in the garden. Their germination time is quick.
Be sure to buy seeds packaged for the current year by checking the date stamp on the package. Follow planting instructions.
“Vegetable plants are heavy feeders,” Joe says. “It’s important to fertilize them as they start to produce. A slow-release organic fertilizer is a nice way to deliver the nutrients continuously. Be sure to follow the application instructions for best results.”
Top-dressing vegetables with compost during the growing season provides additional nutrients and improves the soil.
Patio and Deck
Some vegetables are well-suited for planting in containers, as long as they have ample sunlight—at least six hours a day.
Tomatoes are available in patio and bush forms that are more compact and better suited for containers. Growers have also introduced a variety of peppers—from sweet to hot, plus colorful bell peppers—that grow nicely on a patio.
“The key is to provide a container that’s large enough for the roots to grow and support production,” Joe says. “Containers also tend to dry out more often, so it’s important to keep them properly watered. Feeding regularly is important as well.”
Joe suggests avoiding clay or terra cotta pots, which lose moisture more quickly.
“Lighter-colored plastic pots work better, but make sure they have drainage holes in the bottom,” Joe says. “Adding a layer of mulch will help retain moisture and keep the roots a little cooler.”
Patience Pays Off
Joe stresses that gardening is a lifelong learning experience. He says no one gets it 100% right all the time.
“Don’t get frustrated if you’re not successful in your first year of growing vegetables,” he says. “Much of gardening is trial and error. The number of resources—YouTube, online, websites, blogs and more—is infinite and can be overwhelming, so learn to filter the sound advice from the not-so-good.
“You also have an excellent local resource just a phone call or web click away with your local extension office. They can help solve pest and disease issues, answer your gardening questions and connect you with other gardeners. Best of all, it’s free.”
First Things First: Do a Soil Test
Are your plants getting the right diet to be the best they can be? Maybe it’s time for a soil test from your local extension office.
You will end up with a wealth of knowledge about what fertilizers to use, how to amend your soil, and whether your plants are getting the nutrients they need to be healthy and prolific.
Here’s how it works:
- Pick areas you would like to test: vegetable plantings, fruit trees, annuals or shrubs.
- Take a sample from the area by scraping off any mulch, grass or weeds, then digging your shovel straight down about 4 inches into the ground. Put the soil in a bucket.
- Repeat this vertical sample process four to six times in the same general area.
- Mix the samples in the bucket well, then remove approximately 1 cup of soil, placing it in a clean plastic bag. Label each bag with the type of plants you plan to grow. This is an important step.
- Repeat in other planting areas—such as lawns, flower beds or vegetable gardens—keeping the samples separate. Different plants require different nutrients and soil acidity to flourish, so it is important to know how to prepare your soil before you plant.
- Take your bagged samples to your county extension office. It may have an official brown-paper sample bag you can transfer your soil into to be sent to a university for testing. There’s a place for your name, address and type of planting for the area.
By testing your soil before you plant and amending it according to the recommendations, you set the stage for years of successful gardening. If the soil is right, you have a much better chance of getting your garden to grow.
Tests typically cost less than $10. You get back a detailed report that tells you the condition of your soil and exactly what you need to do to amend it for your plants.
For more information, contact your local extension office.