Everything you need to know about starting a new vegetable garden
Who doesn’t enjoy just-picked, homegrown vegetables? Growing a variety of edibles is one of the many joys of gardening, and a good way to make sure your family is getting plenty of fresh produce on their plates.
If you’re new to gardening or new to veggie growing, this Garden Know How will help you plan and plant your own 150-square-foot (14-sq.-m) vegetable garden. – Beckie
If this is the year you’ve decided to become a true locavore and grow some food in your own backyard, good for you.
Whether you’re new to gardening or already have green thumbs, here’s a quick guide to take you from planning to planting, and get you started on an excellent veggie adventure.
Don’t bite off more than you can chew, but don’t be afraid to try anything either. Experience is the best teacher, and the rewards can be delicious.
Choosing a site
Most vegetables require full sun to produce enough to make growing them worthwhile. Full sun means unobstructed exposure for at least six hours when sunlight is most intense — mid-morning through late afternoon. Heat-loving peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, beans and squash will not be happy in shady spots.
Even those varieties that are more shade-tolerant, such as salad greens and broccoli rabe, still need three to four hours of sun.
Also, situate your vegetables close to a water source and the house. You’ll be more likely to use what you grow if it’s convenient to get at.
Your space and edible desires will determine the size of your plot, but about 150 square feet (14 sq. m) is a good start, especially if you’re new to vegetable growing. It can be a single 10-by-15-foot (3-by-4.5-m) plot or three four-by-12-foot (1.2-by-3.5-m) beds (or equivalents thereof). Four feet (1.2 m) is about the maximum width you can work comfortably without falling into the bed. A single large plot will require some sort of path for ease of access. If you use stepping stones or bricks, keep in mind pests such as slugs might hide under the stones.
Try to orient beds north-south to get the best sun exposure.
Preparing the soil
Most plants need loose, friable soil at least eight inches (18 cm) deep, so you may need to dig the soil deeply, but just once. If the soil is poor, dig in organic material such as compost, well-rotted manure, leaf mould or seaweed. After that, simply top-dress with four to five inches (10 to 12 cm) of organic material in the fall and following spring (and every year thereafter), and leave it be. Billions of organisms are busy in the soil, creating tunnels that oxygenate plants, then releasing nitrogen when their lives are done. Don’t disturb them.
Think of your soil as a bank account, which you want to keep full. Plants make withdrawals (nutrients), and when you harvest them, you must follow up with a deposit (top-dressing) of organic matter. Mulching exposed soil between plants during the growing season with organic materials holds in moisture and discourages weeds; mulch also adds nutrients as it breaks down.
Vegetables also like well-drained soil, because their roots need to breathe oxygen. If water puddles on the ground and it takes ages to soak in, find another site or consider installing raised beds — large, bottomless boxes made of wood, stone or brick. The material you choose to make your beds with depends on your budget, DIY skills and how long you want them to last. In addition to providing good drainage, growing in raised beds means you can control the quality of the soil; the soil warms faster so you can plant earlier; and — a big plus — tending and harvesting is less back-breaking. Raised beds may be worth considering even if you have excellent drainage.
Planting and staking
Many vegetables can be purchased as seedlings at a garden centre, ideal if you don’t want to start your own seeds. Some, however, such as beans, peas, carrots and beets, are best grown from seed, sown directly in the garden. Growing from seed is half art, half science. Give it a try — just follow the directions on the seed package.
The likes of pole beans, peas and indeterminate tomatoes, meanwhile, need support as they mature. Push sturdy stakes of bamboo, wood, rebar or plastic-clad metal into the soil at least 10 inches (25 cm) deep to anchor them; use soft ties such Velcro tape or strips of old pantyhose to attach the stems to the stakes as the plants grow.
Feeding and watering
Compared with shrubs and perennials, vegetables grow at supersonic speed, so their need for food and water must be met regularly.
Synthetic chemical fertilizers (much like steroids) bulk up veggies. Consider using sea-based products, such as those made from kelp or fish. Glacial rock dust adds trace minerals to alluvial/loamy soil and feeds the “good” microbes. Rock phosphate supplies phosphorus; cottonseed and flax meal add nitrogen. If you regularly add organic matter to your garden, you’ll need little, if any, additional fertilizer, however.
Soaker hoses are good, but watering by hand with a can or hose better allows you to get up-close-and-personal with your veggies, and ensures each gets what it needs. Water deeply; don’t just sprinkle the surface. The best time is in the morning before 10; the second best time is late afternoon. Watering at night is a no-no because cool temperatures combined with moisture creates the perfect conditions for disease. Avoid using overhead sprinkler systems because plants not only take a beating, but some get overwatered and others under-watered. Drip irrigation is okay, although it can be expensive and fiddly.
7 easy-to-grow vegetables
These seven vegetables are reliable, productive and easy to grow. We’ve indicated how many of each to plant in a 10-by-15-foot (3-by-4.5-m) bed. However, choose vegetables you and your family enjoy. There’s no point growing peas if no one will eat them. Be sure to harvest regularly to keep plants producing more.
Tender and flavourful, bush beans come in purple, yellow, shades of green, and speckled.
Grow from: Seeds, sown once the soil warms up, usually late May through
How many: Two rows set two feet (60 cm) apart; sow two to three inches (5 to 8 cm) apart. No sprouts in five days? Seed again!
Key to success: The soil must be warm (minimum 16°C)—beans rot in cold soil.
Varieties to try: ‘Golden Rocky’, ‘Gina’, ‘Jade’, ‘Festina’, ‘Dragon’s Tongue’.
Pole beans make excellent use of vertical space. They also freeze well, so grow lots of them.
Grow from: Seeds, sown once the soil is warm.
How many: Make five small hills of soil spaced about two feet (60 cm) apart. Create shallow craters on top and plant six to 10 seeds two inches (5 cm) apart
in each crater.
Keys to success: Give them something to climb, such as stakes, netting or bamboo teepees. Pick before seeds swell.
Varieties to try: ‘Emerite’, ‘Fortex’,
‘Blue Lake’, flat Romano types.
Homegrown carrots are so delicious they’re worth the extra effort required.
Grow from: Seeds, sown when the soil has warmed slightly.
How many: Three rows, about 11 feet (3.3 m) long. The seeds are tiny, so try to be patient enough to plant them one inch (2.5 cm) apart.
Keys to success: Carrots need deep, friable soil to grow unhampered. If the soil is dense and heavy, plant dwarf or “ball” varieties. When the plants are two inches (5 cm) tall, thin them by pulling out alternate seedlings. Do this regularly until carrots are three to four inches (8 to 10 cm) apart, so they have room to mature.
Varieties to try: ’Bolero‘, ‘Parmex’ (ball type).
A nutritional powerhouse, kale is super easy to grow and, because it’s frost tolerant, it can be planted in early spring or fall. When kissed by frost, kale gets sweeter and loses its cabbagy taste.
Grow from: Seed or purchased seedlings any time from early spring to fall. Kale also self-seeds.
How many: Six to eight plants spaced at least 18 inches (45 cm) apart.
Key to success: The more fertile your soil, the bigger and lusher kale grows.
Varieties to try: ‘Russian Red’, ‘RedBor F1’, Scottish types.
Also called mange tout (the pod is edible), snap peas are delicious stir-fried or eaten straight from the garden.
Grow from: Inoculated seeds (see “Inoculant info”), when soil thaws—early spring.
How many: One row, about 11 feet
(3.3 m) long.
Keys to success: Give them something to climb on, such as netting, and pick when they start to swell. If the peas in the pods mature and get too big, treat them as shelling peas or save them to use as seed next year. After all the peas are done (mid- to late summer), you can fill the space with chard, lettuce, spinach or any other leafy green.
Variety to try: ‘Super Sugar Snap’.
Most tomatoes are “indeterminate,” that is, they grow every which way and bear fruit over a long period. “Determinate” tomatoes are generally bushier and don’t need pruning.
Grow from: Seeds, started early indoors, or purchased seedlings. Set seedlings out around Victoria Day weekend in May or when soil is warm.
How many: Five plants, with at least two feet (60 cm) of space around each.
Keys to success: Keep plants consistently well watered. Indeterminate tomatoes need staking and regular pruning back to one or two main stems to get lots of fruit. (Youtube.com has lots of helpful how-to videos on training tomatoes.) Determinate varieties generally don’t need pruning or staking, but may need a cage for support. If your summers are cool, stick with types that mature in less than 70 days for a better chance of ripening.
Varieties to try: ‘Sungold’, ‘Green Grape’, ‘Black Cherry’, ‘Early Girl’.
Zucchini grow quickly, especially when you go away for the weekend. These big plants take up a good chunk of space but produce lots. Don’t fret over powdery mildew on the leaves in fall; it’s normal.
Grow from: Seeds, started indoors, or purchased seedlings; set them out when the soil has warmed.
How many: Two plants, set at least three feet (90 cm) apart.
Keys to success: Keep soil moist. Harvest fruit when small—six to seven inches (15 to 18 cm)—and use a knife; don’t twist them off.
Varieties to try: ‘Ronde de Nice’, ‘8 Ball’, ‘Butterstick’.
TIP ≥ Inoculant info
An inoculant is a powder containing bacteria that encourages microbial activity in the soil. It prompts legumes (peas and beans) to germinate, grow and produce increased yields. To use, put the prescribed amount of inoculant in a jar along with moisten seeds and shake to coat. Save leftover powder for later sowings.
Succession planting and crop rotation
You’ll often hear vegetable gardeners talk about “succession planting” (sometimes called “successive planting”) and “crop rotation.” The first term concerns extending the yield or harvest; the second deals with keeping the vegetable plants hale and hearty.
Succession planting is a way to maximize your growing space by harvesting one crop, then immediately planting another in its spot. For instance, early greens can be replaced by carrots, which in turn can be replaced by Swiss chard — three different crops in one season. Another method to get more from your plot is to stagger the seeding of the same vegetable over a period of several weeks — planting a row of bush beans every 10 days until midsummer, for example. It takes a bit of juggling (gauging maturity times, spacing, and so on), but it’s well worth the effort.
Crop rotation means growing a vegetable in a different section of the veggie plot the following year, which can be difficult to achieve in a small area. For example, next year plant the carrots where your tomatoes are growing this year, and plant the zucchini where the pole beans are. Plants deplete the soil of different nutrients, and rotation also avoids the buildup of soil-borne diseases in one area.
Dish up a lasagna garden
The best site for your new vegetable plot may be where you have lawn growing. It’s not necessary to remove the turf before starting: you can quickly convert it to productive space using the “lasagna garden” method.
Lasagna means “layer” in Italian, and this style of garden uses layering to make a near-instant planting bed over a lawn or ground that’s difficult to work. There’s one caveat: planting root crops such as carrots, potatoes and beets is not recommended for the first year.
1. Place wet newspapers, six layers deep, over the area where your vegetable garden will be sited.
2. Add alternate layers of carbon- and nitrogen-rich organic materials (listed below) to a depth of about eight inches (20 cm), watering each layer as you go. It will take at least six layers (it’s surprising how much material you need for an inch/2.5-cm-thick layer).
3. Top with six inches (15 cm) of good garden soil.
4. Plant right away, using either seeds or seedlings.
Carbon materials (often dry or brown):
Dried leaves, hay, shredded newspaper, peat moss
Nitrogen materials (wet and sometimes green):
Compost, seaweed (lightly hose it off to get rid of salt), fresh leaves, grass clippings, kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, tea bags, well-rotted horse, cow, sheep or chicken manure (use manures on the bottom layers).