By Lisa Pecos
Increasingly, Americans are getting wise to the important health benefits of eating whole, unprocessed, chemical-free foods. A great way to ensure that the foods that you and your family eat are all-natural, is to grow them yourself! Growing your own foods can also be great fun.
In the case of vegetables, it might surprise some folks to know that you don’t need a whole lot of land to grow them. Whether you have a lot of space, or a relatively small plot, with a series of simple steps, you, too, can be on your way to harvesting your favorites from among the thousands of vegetable varieties. In the end, they will be much cheaper, and often better-tasting, than the store-bought kind!
STEP 1: Plan your vegetable garden
You want to start by blueprinting your vegetable garden.
Using a pencil and simple graph paper, draw the outline of the garden first (one square on the graph paper equals one square foot in your vegetable garden). If possible, a perfectly square plot is optimal, because it maximizes the square footage of your garden; plan the width and length of your plot as close to a square as possible. Decide if your edges will be made of wood, stone, a combination of both, or simply an imaginary barrier.
There are several long-established methods for planting a vegetable garden. The easiest is to make straight-row furrows — narrow, parallel grooves dug in the soil. This is also the most productive method.
Consult the vegetable garden planning table at the end of this article; it will help you determine the space between rows, the space between each plant, and the best vegetable companion in your vegetable garden.
Consider placing support structures like trellises, twine, teepees made from poles, chicken wire, or a chain-link fence on your graph paper plot. Many vegetables will naturally climb a support and grow up rather than out, leaving more ground space for other crops.
To plant a straight-row furrow, first stretch a talc-powdered cord between stakes at each end of the row. Snap the cord to release the talc and establish your rows.
When considering the location of your vegetable garden, keep in mind that most vegetables need a minimum of 6-7 hours of sunlight per day. Determine how to maximize the amount of sunshine that will flood your garden. Consider trees and buildings in the vicinity.
The more serious gardener should consider investing in a solar panel with solar battery charger. They cost $10-$20 dollars. By placing the miniature solar panel in different locations over the course of several days, and measuring the increase in battery power, one can determine which location will maximize sunlight. Think about how support structures will alter exposure to sunlight. If your garden is in a planter’s box, it will be possible to relocate it as the angle of the Sun changes over the life of your crops.
Drainage and watering are other aspects to consider when deciding the location of your vegetable garden.
If you notice large pools of water in a certain location after a rain, avoid that location or consider a cost-effective way of changing the landscape. Sometimes, removing a simple obstacle can solve drainage issues. Think about whether sprinklers will inundate and drown your plants.
Easy access to a watering source is paramount. When it rains, does a fair amount of water fall on the garden? Can your garden hose reach the whole garden?
STEP 2: Fertilize your garden
Four weeks before sowing, the vegetable gardener should begin the fertilization process. In this stage, he or she should build the compost box and plant a cover crop.
To create a compost box, any type of box should do. A no-cost method would be to use a large empty cardboard box. The vegetable gardener can also nail five equal-sized square pieces of wood together, to serve as a box. A compost box can also be purchased at any local garden store or online.
Fill the compost box with any biodegradable material. The best materials to use are: grass clippings, pulled weeds, non-carnivorous-animal feces, leftover meals, coffee grounds, fallen tree leaves, untreated wood, ash from burnt wood, newspapers, and cardboard. The worst materials to use are: meat, bones, dairy products, ash from coal, and any products made with synthetic materials, as these may promote the growth of non-friendly microorganisms that will wreak havoc on your garden ecosystem.
The compost heap should be moist, but not soaked; it should be placed in a shaded area.
Next, remove rocks, weeds, and any impurities in the soil where the vegetable garden is to be. Break up the soil with garden tools (e.g., a pitchfork, spade, and/or hoe). Remove plant debris that may harbor insects and diseases. When finished, the soil should easily slip through your fingers and be consistent in texture and color throughout. This will maximize nutrient distribution and water drainage in your garden. Dig deep to loosen soil; one foot should suffice. Most vegetable seeds need 8 inches of loose ground beneath, to properly root.
The soil you’ve prepared for your garden should be neither too hard (too high in clay) nor too soft (too sandy). Distributing compost matter in the soil will help balance the soil’s consistency, making hard soil softer and soft soil firmer.
STEP 3: Sow your vegetable garden
Consult the vegetable planning chart to determine the length of time to harvest, so that you can plan for a single pre-set harvest date, if you choose to. It is easiest to harves
t all your vegetables at the same time, so that you can focus on that step of the process; however, if you want to harvest different vegetables at different times, that is certainly a good way to insure a steady supply of garden-fresh, healthy veggies on your dining table.
STEP 4: Cultivate your garden
During the planning stage, if you decide to harvest all your vegetables simultaneously, stagger the planting dates. On the harvest date, all the vegetables are pruned, cleaned and prepared for storage. Any unused materials are to be placed back in the compost box for decomposition and re-nutrification of the soil.
As a parting thought, have fun with the process! If you’re just getting started, you probably want to start small, so as to not feel overwhelmed by your garden. Any mistakes that you make along the way are a part of the learning process, and you’ll feel a great sense of gratification as you gradually learn the ins and outs of growing and harvesting your own vegetables … right in your backyard!