Things To Do To Complete Your GardenConsider these points in selecting your plot:
Size And ShapeFirst, think small. Don't bite off more than you can chew, or hoe. It's like starting out an exercise program by running five miles the first day. You get tired, sore and you quit. Likewise, if you plant a huge garden the first year, you'll curse, cuss and turn your sore back on gardening for good. So, if you're new to gardening, start off with a small garden. You can always expand later if you can't get enough of those fresh, crispy vegetables. Choose a location that receives as much sun as possible throughout the day. Northern gardeners should insist on full sun.
DrainageNext, examine the soil. Is it predominantly clay, sand or a sandy loam? The latter is the best. You can distinguish a sandy loam from the other two by giving it the squeeze test. If you can take a handful of dirt and squeeze it in a ball then watch it crumble when you let go, you've got a sandy loam soil type. If you're stuck with a predominantly sandy or clay soil you can amend the soil with compost.
Vegetables will not grow well on poorly drained soil, even though supplied with adequate fertilizer. If your soil has a lot of clay or is poorly drained, make the beds high so they will drain quickly and the soil will warm up in the spring. You can reduce the size of the beds just before planting.
Note: Check the plot after a rain to note the low areas, which should be drained or filled in. The soil in a low area may show poor production. In some instances you may use an area too wet for the spring garden or a fall garden.
The Garden PlanMake a garden plan and make the plan work. A good plan is a "must" for the beginner gardener. Your plan will include what vegetables to plant, which varieties to select, and their locations in the garden.
Unfortunately, critters (and children) may take a shine to your new garden. Rabbits, geese and deer can be a problem. For the small garden, a wire mesh surround works well. This will discourage most critters and some people. I've seen people take chicken wire and staple it to the top of their landscaping timbers on a raised bed to keep out geese and the like. Vandals can also attack gardens, especially in conspicuous areas of a city, such as in a community garden.
Garden PracticesEvery gardener wants to grow as many quality vegetables as possible with the least expense. To do this you must use good garden practices.
SoilThe better the condition of your soil, the better garden you will have! The best way is to add decomposed organic material that is worked into the soil to improve its balance, texture and water-holding capacity. Use aged manure, rotted leaves, peat moss, compost (the best!) or whatever kind of organic material is available. Building good soil is the most important task a gardener can do, and luckily there are all kinds of materials that will work. Ask your gardening neighbors or a good local garden center what is the best and most plentiful organic material to be found in your area, then really stock up. Soil is broadly defined as three types: clay, sand and loam. Most soils have some of each of these although one type often predominates. Clay soils have small particles that hold moisture and nutrients. They warm up and cool down slowly. Lighten heavy, compacted and poorly drained clay soils by the addition of compost or other organic material. Sandy soils have larger particles. They change temperature, are light in texture, and drain water and nutrients quickly. Adding compost to sandy soil helps it hold moisture and conserve nutrients. Loam is a soil type containing a combination of both types of particles, as well as plentiful decayed organic matter. It holds nutrients and moisture, yet drains well. Although this soil occurs naturally in some areas, you will want to mimic nature in your soil preparation by adding extra organic material to the soil you have to make it as close to loam as possible.
Adding organic material benefits all soil types - sandy soil will hold more water and clay soil will get more "friable" or loose and less compacted. Organic material will break down over time, so add it continually to your garden. Add it before you plant each new crop as well as at the end of the season. For new beds, add 3 to 4 inches of well-rotted material and turn it into the top 4 to 6 inches of soil, chopping it up and working it in until the soil texture is as crumbly and even as possible. (To make your own compost, "a gardener's gold, " order our compost making brochure or inquire about compost making workshops or information at a good local garden center or your local Master Gardener program.)
Don't concern yourself too much with the degree of acidity and alkalinity, or pH of your soil. Most common garden plants grow best when the soil is just slightly acid. If your soil is too alkaline or acidic, you can use various materials to neutralize or acidify it. Consult a local nursery to see if there are any problems in your area's soil and follow their advice. Packet backs will note if there are particular plants that have specific needs. Adding compost to any soil will also improve its chemical and mineral balance.
If your soil seems rock hard with clay or very compacted, an excellent alternative is to build raised beds or big bottomless boxes bordered with wood, cinder blocks, railroad ties, or other materials. This way you can bring in some good soil to give you excellent results in a small space. Concentrate on adding a lot of decomposed organic material to your raised beds, even purchasing some bags of planting mix to fill them, so you can plant right away and have good crops the first season. Then you can work on improving a larger area for your garden over time. If gophers or moles are a problem in your area, the raised beds can be underwired with galvanized 1/2 inch chicken wire or hardware cloth. Just tack the sheets of wire to the bottom of the bed boards after excavating soil, then fill the frame back in.
Another alternative if your soil is poor, or if you have limited sunny space, is to plant in containers. There are all kinds to choose from; plastic or clay pots or wooden planters in many shapes and sizes. In general get the biggest ones that are practical for you so your plants will have plenty of root room, and because larger pots dry out more slowly. For good sized plants like tomatoes or peppers or large flowers, depth should be 12 to 18 inches. Smaller plants like herbs, lettuce, and more compact flower varieties can grow in smaller pots. The most important things to remember when gardening in containers is that the soil mix must have a good loose texture that will hold moisture and won't pack down over time. You can buy many good brands of premixed planting mix from your local garden center to fill your containers. Don't use your garden or yard soil as it will get too compacted for good root growth and the moisture won't wet it evenly. Remember that you will be supplying all the food and water to plants in containers since their roots aren't in the ground where they can reach for nutrients and water in a larger area. Good moisture retention is critical, as is good drainage, so plan to fertilize and water all container plants very regularly.
Making The Garden BedOnce you've decided on the size and location of your new garden, early spring weather has arrived, and the soil is ready to work, the first outdoor task is to prepare the garden soil. Mark out the garden area and using a digging fork, garden spade, shovel, or a rototiller, (convenient and fast, but not critically necessary), loosen the soil to a depth of 12 to 18 inches. If you live in an area where your soil is very dry, water first to make it easier to work, but make sure you don't ever dig when the soil is too muddy. Turn over the soil 7 to 10 inches deep and break up the clumps, removing rocks, branches and weeds. Mark out paths so you can make "beds" where plants are to grow. As noted above, two to three foot wide beds make ample planting areas and they are not too wide to reach across from both sides to weed, water or harvest. Once you have worked up your soil, walk only on your paths so you don't compact the soil and lose the nice fluffy quality you are working to create in the planting areas.
FertilizingMost vegetables are heavy feeders and require a soil well supplied with plant food and organic matter. Do not attempt gardening without using fertilizer. Do not use fresh manure during the growing season because it may burn young plants. Do not use fresh leaves except as mulch. Compost also works well as a side dressing material.
Now add a layer of 3 or 4 inches of well-rotted organic material to the beds and turn it in until it is as crumbly and even as possible. At the same time you can incorporate other fertilizers. Especially in new gardens, the organic material you've added won't supply enough nitrogen soon enough to feed your first plantings. Follow fertilizer package instructions and work in well to the top 4 to 6 inches of soil of the bed so it will be available to the shallow feeder roots of young seedlings. Finally, smooth the surface of the soil with a rake to make a fine-textured seed bed. The goal is to have finer soil on the top and coarser down below, providing for good water percolation and drainage.
Although it may still be too chilly to plant your warm weather crops in early spring, go ahead and prepare the soil for them at the same time you are digging and fertilizing the other beds and getting ready to plant your cool season varieties. This will give you a head start and will also let some early weeds germinate which can be scraped off with the rake when you are ready to plant. This will result in less weeds to come up later with your summer sowings.
The three nutrients used most by your plants are the so-called macronutrients, Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P), and Potassium (K). Nitrogen stimulates green leaf growth and form's proteins and chlorophyll. Phosphorus contributes to root, flower and fruit development, as well as disease resistance. Potassium promotes stem and root growth and the synthesis of proteins. Well-made compost will supply most of these needs. You can also add slow acting soil feeders such as bone meal and cottonseed or blood meal, or use commercial granulated fertilizers in preparing the soil for planting. Be sure to follow directions for amounts to add; more is not necessarily better.
It will pay to use a balanced commercial fertilizer in the rows 10 days to 14 days before planting. This type of fertilizer (13-13-13 or 8-8-8) contains the three basic materials necessary for plant growth - nitrogen, phosphorous, and potash.
Use a balanced fertilizer such as 13-13-13 at the rate of 3 to 5 pounds per 100 feet of row. Spread it over the row and mix it 4 to 5 inches deep. The exact amount to use for each vegetable is determined by the kind of vegetable grown. Leafy vegetables usually require more fertilizer than pod vegetables.
Preparing The RowsPreparation of the spring garden should start in the fall or winter before. The first step is to clean out the plot. Remove all grass, weeds, vines, and plant stubble. Spread the usual fall application of barnyard manure or compost over the plot and hoe under.
How will you arrange the plants in your garden? For many vegetables, we recommend planting in wide rows or beds. Planting beds 3 feet wide are easy to reach into from either side. Make wide enough walking paths so you can move around the plants easily to water, weed and harvest. Some crops, like corn and potatoes are often planted in blocks. Plant corn in a block with at least 4 rows side by side rather than one long row because it is pollinated by the wind rather than by flying insects. When the tassel at the top of each plant is full of pollen, the wind must shake down showers of it to fall on the silks emerging from each tiny ear or you won't get well-filled out, plump ears. Sprawling plants like melons and squash are sown in well-enriched, slightly mounded planting circles called "hills" with about 4-6 feet of space between each hill for the vines to grow into.
If you make the rows by midwinter, the winter weather will help in having a loose soil for early spring planting. When planting time comes in the early spring, all that will be necessary before planting is to "freshen up" the top of the rows for planting small seeds. If rows are too low after the winter rains, remake them and allow time to settle before planting.
CultivationThe chief purpose of cultivation is to keep down weeds and grass. Cultivate shallow and as often as needed. There is no set time to do this job, but the best time is while the grass and weeds are small.
SeedsSelect seed varieties that do well in your area and plant fresh seeds each year. Seeds more than one year old, bought or home-saved, should be tested before planting. If you're unsure of the quality of your seeds, do a germination test before using them. Place 10 to 20 seeds from a packet between moist pieces of paper towels inside a plastic bag. Place the bag in a warm location (70 to 90 degrees F). If more than half the seeds germinate within a week or two then you can be assured that the seeds are good. Buy seeds from a reliable seed dealer and get enough for at least two plantings. Getting your seeds early will insure your getting the varieties you want.
Now you have laid out the soil in your garden site with delineated walking paths and planting beds that have a fine, smooth surface. The soil is loosened down deep so the plant roots will be able to extend easily in all directions to find nutrients, and water will percolate down well. The top surface of the soil is very fine and flat so tiny seeds won't fall down in between clods where they will be buried too deeply to germinate.
Now it is time to put the seeds in the ground, or "sow" them. You can sow seeds in rows in the beds or broadcast them in a wide swath covering the whole bed. To sow seeds in rows, first read the packet backs of the individual varieties to get an idea of how far apart rows should be and how far apart seeds should be spaced in the rows. Make shallow furrows in the soil about 1/2 inch deep and a few inches apart using a stick or the handle of a rake or hoe. Then empty some seeds from the packet into the palm of your hand, and closing the palm gently, turn your hand over and let the seeds fall out slowly, using your thumb and forefinger to direct them into the furrow. This is a little quicker than picking up each seed and dropping it in one at a time. Never put all the seed in your hand at once in case of accidents or mistakes.
Move slowly along the path and try to sow the seed as thinly as possible. Don't worry if it seems like you're dropping too many, this is a learned skill and you'll get better with practice. Then pull in the soil from the sides of the furrow and crumble it in to cover the seeds. Generally you should cover relative to the thickness of the seed; tiny seeds should be covered very lightly, larger seeds more thickly. Packet backs tell you how deep to plant seed and also tell you which seeds should have the soil firmed over them because they need especially good soil contact. (Beets and chard are two examples of irregularly shaped seeds that need firm soil contact for good germination.)
With great big seeds like peas, beans and corn, you use a different sowing method. It is easier to place them on the soil first to space them, then poke them into the soil, filling in the poke holes as you go by smoothing the soil in the bed with your hand to level it out. Some packet backs recommend sowing seeds in the entire wide bed instead of in single rows. This works very well for root vegetables such as beets and carrots, and salad crops and greens because you can take advantage of planting space if you don't have to leave walking paths between each row. Also as you harvest each plant, the leaves of the ones next to it will grow and fill in the space, shading the soil from drying by the sun. Note: Be sure to mark each row or bed with the name of the plant sown there and the date.
Cover freshly sown seeds with fine soil or use prepared soil mix for a more water-retentive material. To cover seeds sown in a bed, sprinkle the soil lightly over them about 1/4 to 1 inch deep according to the thickness of the seed. Consult packet backs for specifics. Water gently and carefully with a fine spray at this stage to avoid washing the little seeds from their soil bed. Seeds need even and constant moisture to germinate and the topmost layer of the soil bed may dry out if there are no rains and the weather warms up in the day. Check the surface of the bed carefully every day to see if it is evenly moist until the seeds are all germinated and growing well; it really pays to give extra attention to this vulnerable germination period.
In dry hot climates you will probably need to water twice a day. It is best to sprinkle after the sun is up in the morning and not too late in the evening to keep water from over-chilling seedlings at night. Use a hose attachment with a fine spray or a gentle sprinkler to irrigate seed beds. Tiny seeds that are sown close to the surface, like carrots, are especially susceptible to germination problems if the top inches of soil are not kept evenly moist.
You'll always start by sowing many more seeds you actually plan to let mature. This is because not every seed germinates even in ideal conditions, and you want extra seedlings "for insurance" to cover inevitable and ordinary losses to inclement weather or pests like insects, deer, birds or rodents. Also, you'll be choosing only the best and healthiest plants to grow to harvest; this important process of selection is called "thinning out" and is a very important part of successful gardening. Many customers ask how to store leftover unused seeds. Most varieties will keep easily for the next growing season provided they are kept cool and dry. Never leave seed packets outside in the garden or in an unheated garden shed or garage, because high humidity and dampness will ruin them. A sealed mason jar or ziplock bag is an ideal storage container. Keep seeds in your coolest room, or better still, in a refrigerator and plan to use them the next season.
PlantsSeed boxes are used for growing early plants while you wait for good weather for planting outdoors. You can start plants such as tomato, pepper, and eggplant from seeds planted in small wooden boxes. Grow the plants for 7 to 8 weeks in the seed box and then set them in the open. You want to set only the healthy, strong plants.
MulchesAre the weeds growing just as fast, or even faster, than your vegetables in the garden? Weeds can make the vegetable garden an unsightly place to visit and will reduce the quality and quantity of your harvest.
Mulching is an option to routine cultivation and hand pulling of these volunteer plants. Mulching involves covering the soil around the vegetables so that light cannot reach the soil surface. When done correctly, this eliminates all but the most persistent weeds.