If you’ve always wanted to have a vegetable garden, but are uncertain how to begin, don’t worry, it’s easier than you may think and this is the perfect time of year to begin planning! In addition to supplying your family with a bountiful supply of delicious, inexpensive vegetables, vegetable gardening provides exercise, fresh air, and the opportunity to learn more about the natural world. It is a great activity to share as a family and a wonderful learning experience for kids. Here’s how to get started:
First, select a location for your garden. Most vegetables need full sun, at least 6-8 hours per day. Remember that those bare trees will soon have leaves, so what looks like a sunny spot today may be shaded come summer. Conversely, as the days lengthen and the sun rises higher in the sky, some locations that are shaded in winter may be fine for a summer garden.
If you can’t find a location in full sun in your yard, consider a plot in a community garden or plant in containers on a sunny deck or paved area. Also, consider integrating vegetables into an existing flower garden.
If none of these options is possible, there are some vegetables that can tolerate lower light levels. Unfortunately, tomatoes and peppers are not among them. Try leafy greens, such as spinach, lettuce and arugula, in locations with four to five hours of sun, and carrots, radishes, beets, and kale in areas with six hours of sunlight per day.
Make certain your selected site has easy access to water for irrigation. Vegetable plants demand ample water and hauling water long distances to thirsty plants in the heat of summer is sure to dampen any gardener’s enthusiasm.
If possible, locate your garden near the house. You are more likely to use your vegetables if you can step outside to pick some as you prepare dinner than if you have to walk a distance to get to them. Also, you are more likely to notice any problems in time to respond to them if the garden is in an area you pass by regularly.
Once you’ve decided on the ideal location, you are ready to prepare the site. Begin by having a soil test done to determine what amendments may be needed to alter pH or nutrient levels and to make certain the soil does not contain unsafe levels of lead. Information on soil tests and soil test laboratories is available at http://www.hgic.umd.edu/content/SoilTesting.cfm.
Most likely, you will be killing or removing sod to create your new garden. There are two basic methods of doing this: digging and smothering. If vegetable gardening is an integral part of your fitness plan, then have at it with a garden spade, stripping the top two inches of sod from your plot. Don’t discard it. You want to keep the valuable topsoil and nutrients that are present in the sod. Just turn it over and wait for it to die, then mix it into your garden beds, along with additional composted organic matter.
If digging sounds like too much work, smother your sod instead. This method is quick and easy. Lay cardboard or several layers of newspaper over your garden plot, being sure to overlap the edges so there are no gaps for weeds to grow through. Spray the newspaper with water to keep it in place as you work, then top the paper with a four inch layer of compost. Voila, instant vegetable garden! You can plant directly into the compost while you wait for the grass to die and decompose, further enriching your soil.
Now comes the fun part: deciding what to grow. The most important thing is to grow what you want to eat, but you may also want to consider other factors, such as which vegetables are most expensive to buy (typically those that are most perishable or unusual), ease of growing (tomatoes, beans, greens, and squash are good choices for our area), and the difference in quality between store-bought and home-grown produce. While all fresh garden vegetables are superior to their grocery store counterparts, the taste difference is greater with some, such as snow peas and tomatoes, than others, like onions and potatoes.
For more information on growing your own nutritious and delicious vegetables, visit the UMD Extension Grow-it-Eat-it website at http://growit.umd.edu/, contact the Home and Garden Information Center at 800-342-2507 or http://www.hgic.umd.edu/ , or look right here for future articles with timely tips throughout the year. Happy growing and eating!