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How to Plant a Vegetable Garden

If you’ve ever tasted fresh-off-the-vine tomatoes or other home-grown vegetables, you’ll likely never forget the flavor.

Maybe you’ve thought about starting your own vegetable garden—in your backyard or as part of a community plot—but you worried you didn’t know enough to make it worth your while. Well, it’s not as hard as you think.

How to Plant a Vegetable Garden

With the information provided in the following primer, even if your thumb is some color other than green, you can soon be harvesting delicious, nutritious and safe food for your family, friends and yourself—and saving money in the process.

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Preparing the Soil

First, know what kind of soil you have by testing it yourself with a soil pH test kit that will cost you $5 to $25. Or you can send a sample of your soil to a private lab, which can also provide you with information about the levels of nutrients and minerals in your future garden.

You can then work on adjusting the soil’s pH level and addressing its deficiencies. Adding organic materials such as straw, grass clippings and leaves to your garden plot will increase the number of nutrients available to your plants. During the spring or fall, you can till these organic materials into the soil. Just make sure that the ground is dry; it will be easier to break down the soil and evenly distribute organic materials if the earth is free of clumps.

Soil-borne diseases, fungi and pest nematodes (or roundworms) can have a negative impact on your plants, but a technique called solarizing—best started in early spring—can eliminate many of these nuisances. You will need clear or black gardening plastic to put over the soil. The plastic can be held down with rocks and should be left in the garden for several weeks. The plastic acts as an insulator, trapping the sun’s heat and sterilizing the soil’s top layer.

This process works best in hot climates, but any garden can benefit from a little extra warmth. The increase in temperature will speed up the decomposition process of natural materials, activating nutrients from all those organic materials you’ve added.

Weeds can also be detrimental to plant growth, sucking up rainwater and nutrients that would otherwise be available to your crops. It’s important to apply a thick layer of mulch atop the soil, which will help it retain moisture and prevent weeds from growing and multiplying. Laying down additional mulch during the late season will also protect your plants from cold temperatures and frost.

Growing Seasons

After preparing your soil, take some time to learn which plants grow best in your climate. Most catalogs and garden books abide by the USDA’s Hardiness Zone system, where each region of the country is given a numeric ‘zone,’ and plants are categorized accordingly. In most areas of the United States, you can garden throughout the year, but you should take care to choose the right crops to optimize your growing season.

There are three crop types. Late-maturing crops include beets, carrots, cauliflower, and cabbage. Most mature within 90 days and should be planted early in your growing season. Mid-season crops include leeks, turnips, collards, perennial flowers, and herbs. These mature after 60 days, and should be planted about a month later.

Early-maturing crops include chives, radishes, broccoli, and spinach, which mature within 30 days and should be planted about a month before the growing season ends unless you’d like several harvests. Exact planting times depend on the region, and gardeners can always ask their local nurseries for the best times to sow each crop.

For successful winter crops, you must know when the first hard freeze typically hits your area. Once you know the time frame, you will need to plant your winter crops far enough ahead so they reach maturity before the first killing frost. Makeshift hothouses using polyethylene plastic can be built in your garden to keep plants warm during the winter. These are common in the northern regions of the United States.

Hothouses are also used during the germination process to allow seedlings to be planted early, giving them a head start on the season. It is always best, however, to choose crops native or suitable to your climate. This increases your probability of success and allows you to conserve the extra resources that non-native plants often require.

boy planting tomato - How to Plant a Vegetable Garden
Boy Planting Tomato (How to Plant a Vegetable Garden)

Symbiotic Plants

Once you have figured out which type of crops to start growing, develop a planting strategy. Plants have unique personalities, and other plants around them can negatively or positively influence them. Native Americans planted their crops with the idea that plants have a symbiotic relationship with each other. Corn, beans, and squash are companion plants, as the corn provides a surface area for beans to climb on, while beans enrich the soil and dead squash leaves act as mulch.

Keep your vegetable garden colorful all summer by planting marigolds, whose natural toxins can repel nematodes from the roots of tomatoes and other crops. Pay attention to where you place your crops in relation to the sun and each other. Don’t plant small crops where they will be shaded by giant stalks of corn or sunflowers.

Natural Pest Protection

Rabbits, moles, deer, gophers and other foraging creatures can damage plants and leave nothing behind for you to harvest. Wire fences up to 18 inches tall can keep rabbits out, but if there are deer in the area, you’ll likely need a fence of at least eight feet. Also, raising your beds to around 18 inches off of the ground can deter gophers and moles from destroying your plants’ roots.

The Liquid Fence Company offers a line of natural, biodegradable products to dissuade your native critters without harming them.

For insects, you can use repellents that are natural and garlic-based. You may also introduce beneficial insects to your gardens such as ladybugs and praying mantises, which prey on aphids, whiteflies, and other common pests.

Another option is to create an insect barrier with a fine mesh netting, protecting your garden from larger insects like cicadas and grasshoppers. You can even introduce predatory nematodes, which prey on and control nematodes of the pest variety.

Go Organic

Growing an organic garden is a healthy alternative for you and the environment. It allows you to control what pesticides and herbicides are used on or near your food. Chemical fertilizers are a bad idea in any case. They can actually kill the inherent nutrients in your soil or lead to over-fertilization, burning your crops or leading to groundwater contamination.

Instead of using petroleum-based fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and other chemicals to promote growth, deter insects and prevent disease using natural methods. Organic matter from homemade compost bins is an eco-friendly way to fertilize your soil.

Most nurseries sell single-ingredient fertilizers like bat guano, bone meal, and alfalfa to cater to specific crops. Manure from horses, cattle, goats, sheep, rabbits or poultry can also be used, but to reduce the risk of disease, it should be spread onto the soil at least 60 days before harvesting.

The Harvest

All devoted gardeners work toward the goal of harvesting fresh crops, and after a season of tilling, sowing, tending and amending, you will be properly rewarded. If your garden is carefully planned, you could reap the rewards all or most of the year. And if you’ve overplanted and autumn finds you with zucchinis growing out of your ears, there are certainly ways to spread the wealth.

Trade your goods with a fellow gardener; there are countless varieties of fruits and veggies, and participating in a produce exchange will give you more of a variety and give you ideas for your next planting. Extend your harvest into the holiday season and give them as gifts.

Many vegetables can be stewed and canned, while fruits can be made into jellies, jams or chutneys. Herbs can be dried., and all types of seeds can be eaten or saved for the following season.

Home-vegetable gardening is a win-win-win… situation. You connect with nature, get fresh air and exercise, decrease your carbon footprint, guarantee your food is chemical fertilizer- and pesticide-free, save money and have the best-tasting food around. You might just say that growing a vegetable garden allows you to have your cake and eat it, too.

Of course, homegrown vegetables are much better for you than cake.

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