Enjoy fresh, nutritious produce from your own backyard vegetable garden. These tips will to help you taste success right from the start.
Most vegetables require a sunny, well-drained spot to do their best. Look for a location that gets at least six hours of sunlight each day. If you’re planning during winter, visualize your garden during the growing season when any nearby trees have leafed out. Locate your vegetable garden near a water source so you can irrigate easily when rainfall is limited. A gentle slope is good for drainage and sun exposure; steeper slopes will need terracing to prevent erosion.
Next, decide whether you want to grow your vegetables in rows or raised beds.
If space is limited, you can grow vegetables in containers. Tomatoes, peppers, radishes, leaf lettuce, and other greens can flourish anywhere. The trick is to select a planter big enough to accommodate a mature plant. Then fill it with a quality soilless potting mix that contains fertilizer and water-absorbing crystals to keep it from drying out too quickly. Be sure to stake or cage large plants, such as tomatoes.
If you’re planting directly in the ground, test the soil to see which soil amendments and nutrients are needed—you can buy a soil test kit or send a soil sample to your local extension service for testing. Gather soil samples from several spots and mix together before testing.
Once you know what the soil needs, you can prepare the bed. Refrain from working soil when it is wet. It’s messy and you can damage the soil’s structure, making it harder for roots to grow. Here’s an easy test: Pick up a hand full of soil and squeeze into a ball. Then poke the soil. If it falls apart, the soil is dry enough to work. If it stays together, wait for it to dry out further before proceeding.
Tilling and turning the soil helps loosen compacted ground and work amendments such as compost and aged manure into the soil. Many gardeners purchase a tiller or a cultivator to work garden beds; however, you can also do it by hand with a spade fork or shovel. (Raised beds do not require tilling unless they have been trampled.)
The next step is choosing your vegetable garden fertilizer. Fertilizer replenishes soil nutrients, promoting healthier vegetables that are more resistant to disease. Fertilizers are generally available in water-soluble form (for quick results) and slow-release granules (for a steady supply of nutrients over several months). You can choose organic or inorganic fertilizer.
Organic fertilizers are made from plants, animals, and fish. The nutrients are a bit heartier and require more time to break down before they become available. Manures are also considered organic fertilizers. They are bulkier but contain fewer nutrients than other natural fertilizers. Often, gardeners choose manure because it improves the texture of the soil by raising the level of organic matter.
Inorganic fertilizers, also known as chemical fertilizers, contain a mix of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. The levels of these ingredients vary by brand, but it’s important to choose one with all three major nutrients in somewhat even proportions, such as 10-10-10. Read the label to ensure the fertilizer is suitable for your vegetable garden. Inorganic fertilizers usually show results within 1-2 weeks.
The next step is figuring out which vegetables and herbs to grow. Think about what you’re going to eat—don’t bother planting and tending a crop that won’t come anywhere near your dinner plate. Cucumbers, green beans, tomatoes, and summer squash are among the easiest to grow. Tomatoes, peppers, and squash bear all season long so you might not need many plants. Others, such as carrots, radishes, and beets, produce only once, so you may have to plant more than one crop.
Before planting, identify your area’s last average spring frost date as well as the first average fall frost. As a rule, you’ll want to plant after the last spring frost and harvest before the first fall frost. If you’re anxious to start growing something early in the season, try frost-friendly vegetables, such as peas, kale, lettuce, and radishes. They flourish outdoors in the cooler temperatures of spring and fall. You can also sow tomato and pepper seeds indoors, then transplant them outdoors once the chance of frost has passed.
Lowe’s garden centers always stock in-season plants, so it’s easy to figure out which vegetables are appropriate for planting. Look to the plant tag or seed packet for details on spacing, watering, and maturity dates.
Quicker-growing plants are generally grown from seed sown directly in the garden. Lettuce, peas, radishes, and beets are some early season favorites. Beans, corn, squash, cucumbers, and watermelon are summer plants easily raised from seed sown outdoors in late spring. Refer to seed packets for specific growing advice.
Those new to vegetable gardening should try at least a few plants to ensure success. Unlike seeds, plants are already established, so they’re easier to nurture when young and quicker to deliver a crop, too. You’ll get faster results planting peppers, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, and most herbs rather than sowing seeds.
When planting, it’s also important to know which vegetables to place side by side. Some vegetables flourish well next to others, some don’t. Researching vegetable companions will ensure a fruitful crop.
Many vegetable gardens are swallowed up by weeds in a few weeks. There are three ways to prevent that:
If animals find your vegetables as irresistible as you do, fencing can keep out some mammals such as deer, rabbits, and groundhogs. Insects are a little trickier. While some insects are actually beneficial to your garden, others are harmful and can quickly spoil a crop. The best way to counter an infestation is to identify what insect is invading your garden, then research the best remedy. As with fertilizers, pesticides come in both organic and inorganic formulas.
Irrigation is critical to vegetables. A good soil mix that includes peat moss and compost will help soil hold moisture for plants. Water deeply once a week if rain is lacking. A soaker hose or drip irrigation system is more efficient than overhead watering. If using an overhead sprinkler, water in the morning so moisture can dry from foliage before nightfall and not encourage foliar diseases.
One of the reasons people grow vegetables is to enjoy the fresh-picked flavor. Seed packets and plant tags usually estimate days to harvest, but bear in mind that maturity dates can vary depending on the weather and conditions in your garden.
Believe it or not, there’s an art to picking vegetables. Twist, cut, or snap the vegetable to avoid injuring the plant. With root vegetables such as carrots, first loosen the soil with a spade fork, then carefully pull the vegetables out of the ground to avoid disturbing nearby plants. Harvest crops regularly. This is not only your reward—it also encourages many plants to continue bearing a crop. When possible, harvest in the morning for best freshness.
Got a surplus? Donate to friends, neighbors, and food banks. Canning, drying, and freezing are ways to save your harvest for later use.