Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Six Steps to a Successful Vegetable Bed

By Kristin Lemmerman

People start vegetable gardens for a variety of reasons: you spent too much on herbs last year; you want your own homegrown tomatoes; or you can't find the vegetables you want at the local grocery. Whatever the impetus, the strategy is the same no matter what you plan to raise. So follow these easy steps and in just a few weekends you should be ready to grow.

Step One: Make a plan. It's easy to tear up a bigger area than you need, which means you'll end up with either more vegetables than you can tend or bare patches primed for weeds. Instead, make a list of the veggies your family likes and how you'll use them. Do you want enough tomatoes for salsa? Are you hoping to have enough green beans for freezing? Also decide whether you want paths and how wide you'd like them to be.

Step Two: Choose the site for your new garden. The ideal site is level, near a water source and in full sun for six hours a day or more. Less desirable sites can be amended, though it's a hassle; you can always level ground or haul water if need be. And even ill advised locations have something to offer. For instance, you can plant at the bottom of a hill, though cold air collects there. The only drawback is a shorter growing season. But nothing in the world will help your vegetable plants grow if they're not getting the light they need.

Step Three: Get your soil tested. Some gardeners tend to skip this step relying on area wisdom instead. But you'll ensure success if you get your soil checked and add whatever necessary amendments the test recommends.
Based on what's in your soil, nutrient-wise, and what you're going to grow, the test will tell you how much lime to add to bring your pH up. It will also tell you what type of fertilizer you need, what amounts and when to put it out. You don't have to test every year—although if you garden intensively you may want to.

Step Four: Clear the site of existing growth. The easy way to do this is to spray the area with a broad-spectrum herbicide, such as Roundup (follow package directions). Once the growth is crispy and dead, till everything under. If you don't like to use pesticides(which I personally don't use in my garden area), dig the old turf up with a spade and compost it, or transplant it elsewhere.

Step Five: Till the plot twice the first year. Before you till, grab a fistful of soil and squeeze it to see whether it's dry enough to be worked. If water oozes out between your fingers, it's too wet and you'll have to wait for drier weather. If it's powdery, it's too dry. In this case, water the plot thoroughly or wait for a good solid rain and try again. Ideally you'll be able to form a ball of soil that crumbles when you poke it.

With the first till, you're just trying to loosen up the soil up to a foot deep (the roots of most plants don't grow much below that anyway). With the second tilling, you should fold in as much compost as possible (a 3- to 4-inch layer is ideal), plus whatever nutrients your soil test recommended. Compost is great—it gives your plants a loose garden bed that holds just the right amount of moisture and contributes to their nutrient needs. You'll want to replenish the compost in your soil periodically (plants and warm weather will speed its decomposition), so if you don't have a compost heap yet, build one.

Step 6: Plant your plants. First spread a light application of a balanced (10-10-10) fertilizer in the rows. Pay attention to the information on the seed packet; you won't get good results from planting cool-season crops in June, or planting warm-season crops in February or March. You'll also get better crops if your plants are the right distance apart, and trellised or caged if they grow more than a couple of feet tall.

If all this sounds like a lot of work—it is. Starting a new garden bed is one of the most labor-intensive tasks in gardening. But once you've done it, you won't ever have to repeat the production. And you'll be reaping the rewards for years to come.

Welcome Wagon® A Trademark of Welcome Wagon International, and trusted for generations
To be used with care and consent