Having a vegetable garden that is productive for the entire growing season can not only be a good way to cut your grocery bill, it can also be a way of getting your family to eat enough vegetables. The taste of produce fresh from the garden can often entice even the most devout vegetable hater to eat a little more than usual.
But planning a vegetable garden that yields for that length of time requires planning. To help you get started, Vinnie Drzewucki, CNLP, Horticultural Information Specialist from Hicks Nurseries Inc., agreed to discuss some tips that will point you in the right direction.
Any soil where water does not puddle or sit for more than a few hours is good for planting vegetables. However, the soil should be able to hold moisture for a few days after a good rain or watering. Soils that have a high percentage of sand will drain too quickly and dry out too fast. On the other hand, soil with a high percentage of clay can compact and stay soggy too long.
The most conducive soil composition is to have approximately equal parts of both sand and clay with a little organic matter. Before planting you can improve sandy or clay soils by mixing compost into the top 6-8 inches of soil.
You should also check the soil’s acidity/alkalinity by doing a pH test. This will determine whether or not your soil needs lime. For most vegetables a soil pH of between 6 and 7 will ensure that there are enough nutrients available and will maximize the productivity of your vegetable garden. You can test soil yourself with a simple do-it-yourself test kit or bring a soil sample to your local Cooperative Extension office or garden center.
Although some gardeners insist that only a raised bed is appropriate for raising vegetables, Vinnie says that isn’t always the case:
“Raised beds are great for a few reasons but it’s not always necessary. If the soil you decided to grow vegetables in won’t drain right away, puddles for days, or tends to always be hard and compacted, then raising beds 6-8 inches or more above the surrounding area would be ideal. Raised beds allow soil to drain, keeping roots of vegetable plants healthy and happy. Also, for those of us who may be physically challenged and find bending down to ground level for planting, weeding, harvesting and other activities required for growing vegetables more difficult, raised beds make it easier to reach and care for vegetables. For large vegetable gardens, or if using power equipment such as cultivators for weeding, planting in flat level ground is more practical.”
When it comes to vegetable gardens, it’s all about location, location, location. Your vegetable garden needs to be situated where it gets full sun most of the day. Very few vegetables will do well in shade. The only exceptions are leafy vegetables like lettuce and root crops like beets and radishes.
Vinnie also had some recommendations regarding the types of vegetables that will be the most successful. Most popular vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, beans, carrots, peas, corn, cabbage, and lettuce are easy to grow in most garden soils; generally speaking, most vegetables are annuals and complete their life cycle in one season. Exceptions are perennial vegetables like asparagus and rhubarb, which once planted return year after year.
He added that rotating or alternating the types of vegetables you grow in a particular spot is a good idea to prevent certain pest problems from getting out of control, and because each type of vegetable depletes the soil of different nutrients.
Next is the question of what to use for fertilizer. Vinnie says you should use a complete, well-balanced fertilizer, one that provides about equal amounts of nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (NPK) as well as trace elements such as iron, calcium, and magnesium. “Natural organic fertilizers like Plant-tone or compost are the best, but any fertilizer labeled as a vegetable fertilizer will do. Always read and follow the label directions. Compost is a great choice since it’s a mild organic fertilizer with small amounts of NPK and trace elements and it improves soil over time. Compost is made from yard waste, mostly, lawn clippings, leaves, twigs and it is sometimes mixed with rotted or aged manure. Some folks make compost themselves in their yard using their own yard waste, although compost is also available for purchase in bags ready-to-use at garden centers and hardware stores. Work compost into the top 6-8 inches of soil before planting, then scatter or sprinkle generous handfuls of compost around vegetable plants every few weeks to provide nutrients throughout the growing season.”
And what about watering? Is there a recommended amount of water for vegetables to thrive? When the seeds are first planted, you should water frequently enough to prevent the seedlings from drying out. Once the seedlings take hold, natural rainfall, supplemented by an occasional deep watering if there isn’t any rain for a few days, is all that is needed.
Finally, what about the rabbits and squirrels that enjoy eating those vegetables as much as you do? Are there any ways that can keep them away?
“There are several strategies. Rabbits can be kept out of a vegetable garden by fencing it in with wire rabbit netting, which looks like chicken wire but has smaller opening in the weave near the ground so baby rabbits won’t get through. Be sure to bury the netting several inches deep so they won’t dig their way under. An old fashion home remedy for repelling squirrels and rabbits from vegetables that works is to liberally spread dried blood meal around the vegetable plants that you wish to protect. The critters don’t like the smell and stay away. Meanwhile, dried blood meal is primarily used as an organic fertilizer, so it gently feeds plants as it protects. Finely ground hot pepper powder or a product called Hot Pepper Wax applied on and around plants works great too for squirrels, but be careful using it, especially around children. It can burn eyes, nostrils, and other sensitive body parts.”
A productive vegetable garden requires an investment of time. However, the return on that investment will be more than worth it when you start saving on your food ills without having to give up a well-balanced diet.