Monday, April 19, 2010

Starting a Vegetable Garden for the First Time

If you're new to backyard gardening and want to start a garden, here are some tips:

* Location, location, location: Give the garden a sunny spot. Pick a garden location that gets at least six hours a day of full sun. Good drainage is key. That's why raised beds are so popular (that, and the soil in raised beds warms up sooner in the spring). Make sure a source of water is nearby. And, a location that is easily seen on a regular basis from a house window (esp. the kitchen), is a good reminder of what's out there and what needs to be done.

* Know your soil. Do a pH test, or a full soil test. Amending the soil with a good quality compost is a great idea. Rototill in a cubic yard of compost for every 300 square feet of garden. That is a rule of thumb that I follow.

*Fertilize the soil. I prefer to use low-dosage organic fertilizers, such as a mix of fish emulsion and sea kelp. There are plenty of great all-in-one organic fertilizers on the market labeled for use in vegetable gardens. Be sure to follow the label directions. If using a non-organic granular fertilizer (such as a 12-12-12 formulation), put a tablespoon in the bottom of the planting hole, cover with a couple inches of soil, and water in thoroughly. Don't let the sensitive roots of the tomatoes and peppers come in direct contact with the fertilizer. If you'll be using a water soluble, non-organic fertilizer on an every-other-week or monthly basis, use half the recommended amount for this first feeding.

For tomatoes and peppers:

• Plant tomatoes deeply. Pinch off the lower leaves of the plant and bury the tomato deeply, leaving only the top four sets of leaves above ground. New roots will form along this underground, stripped section. If it's a very tall plant, dig a trench, lay the plant on its side in the trench, and bend the top section up (carefully) to stand above the soil level; fill in the trench.

  • Give tomatoes room. Full-size tomatoes grow on vines that can reach five feet high or more. Plant them three to four feet apart. Prepare a staking system now while they're still manageable.

  • Plant peppers no deeper than the soil level of the pot it came in. Peppers can be spaced two feet apart.

  • Water. Don't let the soil dry out while the roots are getting established. During the warmth of summer, water tomatoes and peppers regularly, keeping the soil evenly moist. One common problem with tomatoes, blossom end rot (the bottom of the tomato turns brown and mushy), can be traced in part to irregular watering habits. Deep, infrequent waterings (once or twice a week) with drip irrigation or soaker hoses work great. An added benefit: drip systems and soaker hoses can be hooked up to a battery operated timer, watering these summertime treats while you're vacationing.

Good books for learning how to start a garden include:

The Sunset Western Garden Book

Western Garden Edibles 

The UC Davis Vegetable Research and Information Center is a good website with more garden starting info, including:

When deciding where to plant your vegetable garden, choose the best available location by keeping the following factors in mind:

Good soil. You may have little choice concerning the soil type available to you, but you can use a simple test to find out whether your soil is in good condition for planting. Squeeze a handful of soil to test for moisture content. If the squeezed soil forms a clump, the soil is too wet to work. If you work soil that contains this much moisture, it might form into hard, cement-like clumps, which can cause problems for the remainder of the year. If the soil crumbles easily when it is squeezed, it is in an ideal condition to work. Correct tillage and the use of fertilizer and soil amendments can improve poor soil and can increase yield, even in good soil. Raised beds that contain potting soil or amended garden soil can improve production in poor soils.

Level ground is best for growing vegetables. It is easier to prepare, plant, and irrigate than sloping ground. If you must plant on sloping ground, run rows across the slope, not up and down, to keep the soil from washing away during irrigation.

Water supply.
Locate your garden near an abundant supply of water easily reached with a garden hose.

Adequate light. Vegetables need at least 8 hours of sunlight each day for best growth. Plant vegetables where they are not shaded by trees, shrubs, walls, or fences. Trees and shrubs also compete with vegetables for the water available in the soil and they attract birds which may damage young plants. Plant your garden near your home, if possible. You are more likely to spend time working in your garden if you can reach it easily. Also, a garden nearby means that you do not have to carry tools back and forth over a long distance. If your garden is large enough for you to use power tools, be sure you have easy access to a road or driveway wide enough for equipment movement.

Efficient Use of Space
The key to any successful garden is planning. Time and space cannot be wasted if the gardener is to produce large amounts of vegetables from a limited area. Gardeners should pay close attention to timing of planting and harvesting, selection of varieties, trellising, and other space-saving practices.Timing refers to the maximum use of the available growing season. In California, there are 3 to 4 seasons, depending on your location, in which vegetables can be grown. Yet, many gardeners grow only summer crops. By planting a spring crop, a summer crop, and a fall crop, a gardener can get 3 crops from the same space. This requires close rotation of crops, such as spring lettuce followed by summer green beans followed by fall spinach. The idea involves planting a cool-season crop, following it with a warm-season crop, and then finishing with another cool-season crop. Careful attention to days to maturity for each crop grown will establish the ideal rotation period.

Trellising and staking. Do not grow horizontally what you can grow vertically. Twining crops, such as tomato, squash, cucumber, and pole beans, use a great deal of space when allowed to grow along the ground. Trellises, stakes, or other supports minimize the ground space used and increase garden productivity. Support materials can consist of wood, extra stakes, twine, or a nearby fence.

Improved varieties may be the best way for the space-conscious gardener to achieve higher yields. Today, a gardener can select bush varieties of beans, cucumbers, melons and squash that require much less space than standard varieties. Determinant tomatoes (those that grow only to a certain height) can be trained more easily to a stake. Several small-fruited tomato varieties are suited to container culture on patios or other small spaces.

Succession planting consists of sowing seeds of a given crop at 1- to 2-week intervals to produce a continuous supply of vegetables. Corn, beans, lettuce, turnips, and beets are well suited to this practice.

Consider planting two crops in the same row at the same time. Normally one crop matures and is harvested before the other one. Radishes and carrots work well this way, since the radishes can be harvested well before the carrots are very large. The quick-growing radish seedlings also help to mark planted rows.

Intercropping involves planting early-maturing crops between the rows of late-maturing crops to increase production in a small area. For example, beans, radishes, green onions, spinach, or leaf lettuce may be planted between rows of tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, or corn. The quicker-maturing crops will be harvested before the others become very large.

Proper spacing between rows and within rows is extremely important. The use of power equipment will require that the distance between rows exceed the width of the equipment. Maximum production will require that you disregard standard row and plant spacings and utilize wide rows or beds for planting. For instance, seeds of many crops, such as leaf lettuce or beets, can be broadcast in a bed 1 to 3 feet across and thinned to obtain proper spacing. Other crops, such as cabbage or broccoli, can be planted closely in wide rows so that their outer leaves will touch one another when the plants are about three-fourths mature. These methods reduce space wasted as aisles, and often provide such dense shade that weed growth is inhibited and evaporation of soil moisture is reduced.
Raised beds are often helpful in maximizing plant growing space in a garden. They provide the advantages noted above for wide beds, Plus they can be used to optimize soil otherwise poorly suited for vegetables. Raised beds can be achieved by adding large amounts of topsoil or organic soil amendments so that a bed is established above the previous soil level. Raised beds also lend themselves well to the use of plastic mulch, furrow irrigation, and improved drainage, if needed.

What to Plant
Plant enough of each vegetable crop to meet your family's needs for fresh, stored, and preserved supplies. When choosing vegetable varieties or hybrids, consider such factors as disease resistance, maturity date, compactness of plant, and the size, shape, and color of the vegetable desired. You can contact your county Cooperative Extension farm advisor for help in selecting varieties suited to your area.

Preparing a Garden Plan
It is best to plan on paper before planting your garden. A well-planned garden can provide fresh or preserved vegetables for use all year. The plan should contain crops and amounts to be planted, dates of planting and estimated harvest, planting location for each crop specific spacing between rows, and trellising or support required. The plan will aid in buying supplies and serve as a handy guide in timing planting during the season. First, make a sketch of the garden area showing the dimensions of the garden. Prepare a list of vegetables you want to grow. Then arrange the crops in the garden according to the amounts you wish to grow, dates to be planted, and space available. Plant perennial crops, such as rhubarb and asparagus, to one side of the garden so that the plants are not disturbed by preparations for future crops. Plant tall crops, such as corn and pole beans, on the north side of the garden so that they will not shade low-growing crops.

You only need a few, good quality tools for a small home garden.
Spade or spading fork. Use to turn the ground, to turn under organic matter, and to break up large clumps of soil.
Rake. Use to smooth out the soil after spading and after preparing the seedbed. You can also use it for clearing up rubbish and removing small weeds.
Hoe. Use to remove tough weeds and to cover seeds after planting. When turned sideways, you can also use a hoe to dig a V-shaped row for planting.
Yardstick, twine, and stakes. Use to get rows evenly spaced and laid out in straight lines.
Putty knife or spatula. Either one of these items is handy for blocking out seedlings when transplanting and can also be used for cleaning tools.
Trowel. One of the handiest garden gadgets, it is useful for transplanting and for loosening soil around plants.
Dibble. This short, round, pointed stick is used to make holes for transplanting seedlings and to firm the soil around the plant roots.

Following these simple guidelines will keep your tools in good condition:
Clean tools after each use. A putty knife is good for scraping off dirt. If tools get rusty, soak them in kerosene for a few hours, then use a wire brush or fine sand to scrub off the rust.
Keep cutting tools sharp.
where you can hang them up out of the way to prevent damage to both you and to them. 

Keep tools in a dry place to prevent rust.

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