A vegetable garden is a wonderful family project. It is a healthy outdoor group activity that produces tasty, nutritious fresh vegetables for the table and for swapping with friends and neighbors. And of course there is that feeling of satisfaction when all of those juicy bright red tomatoes, crisp cucumbers and white or golden sweet corn fill the harvest basket.
It might seem like we are rushing the season, with a blizzard raging at the time of this writing but no; the first seed orders for plants to be started in doors should go out in the next few days. Placing those orders and planning the garden are a pleasant diversion while the sleet and snow engulf Passaic County.
Turning the garden soil:
There are many factors like soil PH, composition, drainage and available nutrients that affect the productivity of any vegetable garden. The tests for all of these factors can simply overwhelm the beginning gardener. Let’s keep it simple the first time out.
Locate a spot that receives sunlight all day long, is as flat as possible, and is conveniently near a water source. Break up the soil with a tiller, or hire someone to do so, or if you are energetic, use a shovel. Try to dig down at least a foot. Add lots of compost if you have it; if you do not many communities offer it free of charge at the town recycling center. Alternatively you can add in the bottom layers of rotted grass and leaf clipping from where you or a neighbor has piled years of lawn clean up materials, well-rotted manure from a horse farm, or rich dark humus from under trees. All will benefit the soil and get your veggies off to the right start.
You may wish to mix in a modest amount of general purpose vegetable fertilizer but even this should not be essential for the very first garden. Next, select vegetables that are easy to grow. Here are a few that almost grow themselves.
Tasty and productive root crops:
These will be some of the easiest veggies to grow, and some of the first to start in the garden, as well as some of the first to the table. Depending on taste, try some or all of these, Radishes, purple top or pure white turnips, delicious yellow turnips, beets and carrots. You can plant all of these before the last frost date, but for the first garden, wait until all danger of frost has passed. You can determine the last frost date for your area from a planting zone chart, most seed catalogs display one; here in north Jersey April 20th is a safe bet. Keep weeds suppressed until planting time by going over the planting area with a rake or hoe.
Plants carrots and radishes one quarter inch deep and in rows at least one foot apart, thin to two inches between plants once the tops have developed. Plant turnips one half inch deep in rows spaced the same as carrots, thin to 4 inches apart once sprouted. Beets require the same spacing as turnips but the seeds are planted to a depth of one to one and one half inches.
Read the instructions on the seed packets and you will know when you can expect each plant to sprout, and the estimated time to harvest. You will find that if you weed and water these plants, they will grow very well indeed.
Undemanding and tasty leafy greens:
Swiss chard and spinach are both hard to hold back if planted in accordance with the instructions on the seed packets. Both may be planted at the same time as the root crops discussed above. Spinach once cut is done for the year, another vegetable may be planted in the space it grew in. Chard in most zones will last all year long if not cut to the root. Both are delicious and healthy fast growing additions to the first garden.
Pole beans, cucumbers and lima beans all grow energetically without much more than routine weeding and watering. Unlike the previous vegetables they should be planted after the soil has warmed up thoroughly in mid spring. Again, follow the directions on the seed packets and success is virtually guaranteed.
Trellising however is the key here, you can train the vines up poles, provide trellis netting purchased at a garden center, or improvise with poultry wire or other wire fencing. These plants can grow to 15 feet if you allow them to do so, so be sure they are located where they will not shade smaller plants.
Vegetable plants from the garden store or nursery:
Tomatoes and peppers can be tricky vegetables to start directly from seed in the garden, cutworms love them too much. So, to take these garden pests out of the equation the first time gardener may want to pick up a few robust plants from the local gardening center and transplant them into the home plot. These will be the last plants for the early or spring planting, and by now, the turnips and radishes have been harvested. This allows double use of the soil these root crops vacated.
Since the soil has already produced a crop this year adding general purpose fertilizer and of course, more compost is a great idea at this time.
Both peppers and tomatoes benefit from staking. Strips of rags make better ties for these plants than do cords; rags are gentler on the stems.
Second time around:
Were there seeds left over from the spring planting of spinach, radishes, turnips and beets? Plant them again in late summer for a fall crop and enjoy those vegetables twice. Again, the directions on the packet will point the way to success.
Watering and weeding have been mentioned and both are essential. Don’t let the ground dry out, and never let weeds steal food from the veggies. Keep a garden journal if you like, it will let you monitor rainfall and provide a guideline for subsequent gardens.
Everyone will love those fresh vegetables, and that includes the neighborhood bunnies and deer. A fence is the only way to keep them out. Poultry wire is adequate but must attach firmly to the ground to deter bunnies. A fence must be at least 7 feet tall to exclude deer and taller is always better. On the upside of this extra construction, the fence will make an excellent trellis for the climbing plants.
So, start with these basic plants, follow directions, weed, water and fence out the wildlife and the first time gardener is almost certain to record a stunning success!
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