Q: My family and I have wanted to start a vegetable garden in our backyard for a couple of years now. This year we are finally ready to make it happen. Can you give us some tips on getting started without spending a fortune? — Michelle, Keene
There are lots of considerations when planning a vegetable garden. To keep things simple, let’s focus on a few important things that should set you up for success in your first season.
Good gardeners realize early on that healthy soil is the foundation for thriving gardens. Your soil is the single most important garden asset you have, and you should utilize every opportunity to nurture it. I talk about soil as if it’s a living thing, and that’s because it absolutely is! Did you know that one teaspoon of soil can contain more living organisms than there are people on Earth? Most of these organisms are beneficial and play a critical role in soil health.
To better understand the current state of your soil’s fertility, submit a Home, Grounds and Garden soil sample. Within three weeks, you will know how your soil measures up and which amendments should be added to optimize nutrient levels for vegetable growth.
Pick a suitable site
Hours of direct sunlight, water drainage, water access for irrigation, water retention on sandy or gravely soil and the ability to protect the garden from wildlife are all important considerations. There are often creative ways to work around the limitations of a certain site. Leafy greens, for example, may grow quite well in a site that only gets four hours of sunlight per day. On the other hand, this same site would not be suitable for growing tomatoes, which require eight hours or more of sunlight to thrive.
Plan your garden bed design
Garden design is another very important consideration during the planning process. Typical layouts include traditional in-ground planting using a space prepared for planting each season, framed-in raised beds, perennial raised beds without framing, container gardening and straw bale gardening.
Give yourself time to make improvements
Remember that developing new gardens often takes more than one season. I regularly encourage new gardeners to consider taking a full season to bring weeds under control and add organic materials like manure, compost and shredded leaves to the soil. Lime can take six months to complete the job of adjusting your soil pH, and growing a cover crop on the garden for a full season will help with weed control, fertility, organic matter and soil compaction.
Prepare the soil
Once you have soil test results, you are ready to prepare your garden. Generally, apply half to two-thirds of the recommended fertilizer to your beds and mix it into the soil to a depth of four to six inches. Save the rest of the fertilizer to apply in a band three inches to the side of your seed or transplants, and about one inch deeper than they are set in the soil. This technique is called banding, and provides a steady supply of nutrients to your vegetable crops. Additional fertilization may be required to ensure your plants have enough nitrogen to keep them healthy and growing throughout the entire season. Water soluble and granular fertilizer sources are available for this purpose.
Keep weeds in check
Weeds compete with vegetable plants for water, nutrients and sunlight. They can also create conditions of high humidity which sometimes result in disease issues. Plan ahead to keep weeds in check. Hand cultivation using traditional tools like a garden hoe still work well for many weeds. Take time to look into the wide array of diversified hand tools available to home gardeners. You may find something that fits your body much better and is easier to manipulate than the old hoe in the shed.
Mulching can be a saving grace, especially during those hot days of summer when everything else around the home demands your attention. Bark mulch or wood chips two to three inches deep, straw on top of newspaper or cardboard, and shredded leaves all make great mulch. Get it in place early in the season for the best results.
Provide plenty of water
Provide plants with the equivalent of one inch of water per week on loamy soils that retain moisture well. On sandy soils, you may need to apply the equivalent of two inches or more per week to supply adequate moisture for good plant growth. Use a rain gauge to track natural rain amounts and those from overhead sprinklers.
Always water late in the evening or very early in the morning to prevent plants leaves from staying wet longer than necessary, as this could lead to disease issues. Drip irrigation makes the most efficient use of water and generally puts it where your crops can get it while many weeds are left high and dry. These systems can be attached to automatic battery-operated timers to make things even easier.
Gardeners are also experimenting with wicking systems, which involve filling a large tub with water and dropping one end of a braided nylon rope into it. The other end of rope is then placed in the garden bed just under the soil at a depth where plant roots can reach it. Capillary action draws the water along the rope and into the soil where roots can access it. Reportedly, gardeners are actually able to go away on vacation when using this method.
These are just a few of the more important considerations when starting a new vegetable garden. Putting these suggestions to use will help ensure you get started on the right foot. For further explanation of the practices included here, contact us at the Education Center. We look forward to hearing from you.
Jeremy DeLisle is the program coordinator for the UNH Cooperative Extension Education Center. The center answers questions about gardening and more at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling (877) 398-4769 Monday through Friday between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m.