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Published: Thursday, 5/25/2006

Backyard Vegetable Garden Basics

Anyone can buy vegetables. But when you grow them yourself, you can literally eat the fruits -- well, vegetables -- of your labor. It's like having your own personal produce section -- a deep-purple eggplant in the summer or a golden butternut squash in the fall, right from the vine.

All you need to get started is an outdoor space that gets at least six hours of direct sunlight per day and boasts rich, fertile, well-drained soil. And, importantly, you must be willing to pour love and care into your garden.

Here are the tools to make your garden grow:

Pick your plants wisely. Beginners are smart to start with easy-to-grow plants like tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, squash, and eggplants, says Fran Sorin, author of "Digging Deep: Unearthing Your Creative Roots Through Gardening," (Warner Books). You can also factor in what you like to eat.

However, Debbie Lonnee, a horticulturist at Bailey Nurseries, warns that you have to consider the climate of your hometown.

"A veggie garden in Minnesota is entirely different from one in North Carolina," she says. "You have to consider the last frost of the spring, the first frost of the fall, and the number of frost-free days in between. The length of the season will help you determine which varieties of vegetables may grow best." Your best bet is to ask an expert at your nursery or the place where you purchase your seeds and plants.

Plant in the proper location. Your garden won't flourish if you don't have enough room to properly space out your vegetables. Beans, for example, tend to grow on stalks that need to be properly attached to a trellis that allows them to climb upward. And zucchini have large leaves and flowers that need plenty of space to grow.

You can also strategize about the placement of plants.

"Certain plants thrive alongside one another and make excellent companion plants: Hot pepper plants do well alongside eggplant, tomato, okra, Swiss chard, escarole, squash and cucumbers," according to garden writer Pepper Joe's article, "Planning and Designing Your Vegetable Garden," for www.gardenguides.com. He also suggests placing your smallest plants in the front of your garden and continuing in ascending height order so the tallest are in the back. This strategy maximizes each plant's sunlight by preventing shorter plants from getting shade.

An affordable landscape-design program for your computer or a simple sketch allows you to map out the design of your garden and plant placement.

Plant vegetables far enough apart so there is plenty of air circulation between them when they mature, says Sorin. One of the biggest mistakes that novice gardeners make is to plant their new plants too close together with no understanding of how huge they will become, she says.

Once you've decided what to plant and where to plant it, follow the instructions for sowing your veggies that are on either the back of the seed's packet or on the postcard that came with your plant.

Shower them with love. Vegetables need about one inch of water per week. If the rainwater isn't enough, add water to plants with a hose. Plants should be watered either early in the morning or late in the evening. There is little or no sun during those times, so you prevent scorching and water evaporation.

Control weeds and bugs. Pulling out weeds and controlling critters are other important aspects of caring for a vegetable garden, says Lonnee. A fence will keep out animals like deer or squirrels. But don't forget to be wary of insect infestations, she says. Sorin suggests buying ladybugs, which are predators for unwanted insects, and placing them in your garden. She adds that neem oil, an all-organic insecticide, will also help eliminate pesky bugs. She suggests using mulch and organic fertilizer to help the soil retain moisture and nutrients and prevent weeds.

Follow this game plan, and you'll turn to your garden -- not the supermarket's produce section or the local restaurant's salad bar -- to enjoy your favorite veggies.



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