11 things to know before starting a vegetable garden
How to plan for a successful vegetable garden.
Here's some advice from garden experts for new vegetable gardeners:
• Find full sun. A vegetable garden must have eight hours of sun every day. Remember that shadows may fall later in the season as the sun moves through the sky.
• Start small. Gain experience from growing a few plants, and you'll be able to build on the knowledge next year.
• Test your soil. All gardening depends on the quality of the soil and the organisms that live in it and provide nutrients to your plants. Soil that has been under a lawn or play area is likely to be pounded hard and biologically dead. Take samples to a good garden center for an informal assessment of its texture, buy a soil test kit or consider getting a laboratory soil test. If you live in the city or in an old house or near a heavily trafficked road, have the soil tested for lead, a deadly poison that may come from old paint or decades of auto exhaust.
• Plan carefully. Research plants you'd like to grow in books, catalogs, on Web sites or in classes. Talk to neighbors and friends about what they grow. Narrow your list to a few easy vegetables. Among the easiest: peas, green beans, herbs and lettuce. Make sure you know when your crops will be ready for harvest, and don't plan your vacation then. Look for varieties that are labeled "disease-resistant."
• Consider transplants. Starting from seeds ($2.50 to $4 a packet) is cheap. But beginners are often better off paying $2 or $3 each for commercially grown seedlings, especially for vegetables such as tomatoes that need to be started indoors under lights long before planting.
• Amend the soil. Enriching the soil with organic matter is essential. It feeds soil organisms, creates spaces for water and air to flow and roots to grow and holds moisture. The cheapest amendment is shredded leaves, if you remembered to stash them away last fall, or homemade compost from your own bin. Garden centers sell compost in bags; it will be more expensive, but don't skimp. Dig it in thoroughly.
• Plan for water. If possible, place your garden near the tap, because you will be watering a lot. It will be very hard to keep vegetable plants evenly moist by carrying cans of water or even hand-watering with a hose. Get a sprinkler or, better yet, a soaker hose to keep the water off leaves, and a timer so you can let water run for plenty of time until it turns off automatically.
• Try containers. If you choose "compact" or "patio" varieties of vegetables, you can grow them in containers.
• Add supports and protection. Place tomato cages, trellises for peas, beans, squash, cucumbers and other climbers, and chicken-wire fencing to foil critters at the very beginning.
• Don't plant too early. Some vegetables, such as lettuce and peas, can be sown directly in the soil as soon as the soil is prepared in spring. But many vegetables, including tomatoes and squash, should not be planted until the danger of frost is past and the ground is warm — usually late May. Too-early planting means weaker plants.
• Relax and have fun. Even if you are overwhelmed by weeds, pests or a hot spell, don't be discouraged. Every season is a learning experience and will make you a better gardener in the future.
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