The success of a vegetable garden depends on the preliminaries. Much like priming a wall before you paint, the care with which you prepare the soil and plants is the foundation on which any garden is built. Follow these steps for a healthy garden from the ground up.
A healthy vegetable garden requires loamy, well-drained, nutrient-rich soil. Most vegetables prefer a slightly acidic soil (pH 6-6.8). The first step to preparing the soil is to get a complete soil test, which will tell you the pH and nutrient content of your soil. Your local Cooperative Extension System Office is a good resource for inexpensive, comprehensive soil testing.
If possible, clear and prepare beds in fall for spring planting, or prepare the beds in spring when the soil is workable (moist but not muddy -- a handful of soil formed into a ball should break apart when it is dropped from chest level). Clear the area of any debris and weeds, and strip away the sod. Use a spade or fork to dig the soil to a depth of 12 to 14 inches, incorporating a 3- to 4-inch layer of compost or rotted manure, along with any amendments recommended in your soil test. Rake the soil until is level. Loose, well-aerated soil allows water and oxygen to reach the plants' roots quickly. If your soil is poor, consider building raised beds described on the next slide.
Raised beds are ideal for growing vegetables on sites with difficult soils. They warm quickly in spring, encourage good drainage and air circulation, and are easy to maintain. Creating a raised bed can be as simple as tilling the existing soil, incorporating organic matter, and mounding it neatly to form a bed.
No backyard? Try growing in containers. With the exception of asparagus and certain root crops, most vegetables grow well in them. Tomatoes, scallions, peppers, beans, lettuce, and squash are especially good choices. Look for varieties specifically developed for small spaces, such as patio tomatoes, 'Topcrop' green beans, and bibb lettuce. Choose large containers which will need less watering and allow for companion planting (two different plants growing together that support one another and may repel pests). Small pots dry out quickly and minimize root growth. Whatever size you use, be sure that the container has open drainage holes at the bottom.
Things we often throw away -- grass clippings, coffee grinds, and vegetable peels -- can provide a constant source of fertilizer and soil conditioner for your vegetables. Compost also helps make soil more absorbent, reducing the need for watering. Plus, the composting process is easy, inexpensive, and a great way to add nutrients back into the garden.
Most seed packets and plant labels provide basic information on growing: Follow these instructions carefully. It can be tempting to set plants too close together, which can limit the amounts of sun, nutrients, and water that each plant receives. Before you go outside to plant, measure the distance between your thumb and little finger. This may be a useful distance for spacing vegetable seedlings. Alternatively, you can mark the handle of a rake every 6 inches with a permanent marker.
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