By Jane Milliman
Everyone loves fresh veggies from the garden, and when you grow your own, they taste that much better. If you’ve never planted a vegetable garden before, don’t be intimidated! You don’t have to produce an immaculate jardin potager straight out of the gate. Start small, do your best, and learn from your mistakes. Here are some hints to help you begin:
Siting is key. Do you have a sunny, level spot with access to water? If not, think about starting a container garden, or renting space in a nearby community plot. They are usually quite affordable but sell out quickly, so don’t delay.
If the soil is poor, an easy remedy is to install raised beds. Lowe’s sells easy-to-assemble modular kits. Use one tier for herbs, vines, and smaller plants. Stack ’em when you want to grow root crops, such as carrots, or large plants such as tomatoes. Fill the beds with a mix of garden soil for vegetables, peat moss, and compost.
To get the most out of your space, try succession planting — staggering the sowings so you always have something to harvest. For instance easy-to-grow arugula, planted every two weeks or so, can produce from very early spring until late fall — even longer if you protect it. You can plant different crops in succession too, such as peas followed by pole beans followed by salad greens.
It’s important to wait to work the ground until it is dry enough (friable), so you don’t damage the soil texture. Ball up a fistful of soil and squeeze. If water runs down your arm, hold off. If it crumbles apart, go ahead. You can sow cool-weather plants, such as peas (shown) and radishes, directly into the soil when it reaches about 40°F, usually around the beginning of April.
At 50°F, late April into May, you can plant onions and Swiss chard, among other things. Wait until the soil is above 70°F, however, for heat-loving tomatoes, eggplant, squash, and peppers. The general rule in our region is to plant after Memorial Day, though in recent years that marker has been moving toward mid-May. These plants do better if given a head start indoors, so sow them under lights, or buy seedlings that are ready to go.
In-ground gardens are susceptible to marauding wildlife, so plan ahead to keep critters out. Ask your neighbors what the worst pests are in your area—they’re probably more than happy to vent. Do you need fencing for deer? Rabbits? Woodchucks? Lowe’s sells a variety of fences to do the trick. You also can use the fencing’s vertical space to grow vines such as peas, pole beans, a hardy kiwi vine, hops for making your own beer, or espaliered fruit trees.
You don’t have to confine food crops to a garden of their own. Mix in herbs with your perennials. Find a spot where a sturdy rhubarb plant or a swath of dill adds welcome structure. Let an asparagus patch take over the back of a border. But make sure you can access the asparagus in early spring to harvest those delicious young spears.
Even the compost heap can double as a garden bed. Folks often find pumpkins and squash unexpectedly growing out of them, so go ahead and plant there. An out-of-the-way pile in a sunny spot is perfect for those large-leaf vining crops that take up too much space anyplace else.
If you have some good, aged compost in that heap, use it to top-dress your garden, spreading it in a thick layer over the soil and digging it in with a spade fork. If you don’t have your own, buy some because compost improves soil texture and nutrients, and introduces beneficial microbes.
To suppress weeds and conserve moisture after planting, cover the bare soil. You can use straw, leaves, plastic, weed mat, or even wooden boards. Or you can use a product, such as Preen, to inhibit weeds from germinating in the first place. But don’t use Preen or similar if you sow seeds because it stops them too.
Looking for some easy successes? Salad greens of all types, potatoes (try growing them in a barrel), summer squash, and herbs can be very rewarding. It may be best to leave peppers, melons, and even tomatoes — which have been very difficult in the Northeast over the past few years due to late blight — for another season.
If you have questions, ask an expert in the garden department at Lowe’s. They’re happy to help. What questions — or advice — might you have?