Approximately 43 million home vegetable gardens grace the landscape of the United States, and they increased a whopping 20% in just one year. In the Southeast, we enjoy gardening even more than the rest of the country, perhaps partly because of our comparatively milder climate. According to a National Gardening Association survey, people are flocking to gardening for a variety of reasons, but here are the most commonly cited:
- Eat better tasting food: 58 %
- Save money on food bills: 54%
- Eat better quality food: 51%
- Produce food that is safe: 48%
Like many activities, gardening can be as complex as you want to make it, but it’s not that difficult to grow a successful home vegetable garden once you know the basics.
Plan What to Grow
Some of the vegetables that are easiest to grow are among the most popular. Depending on your tastes, consider planting tomatoes, carrots, lettuce, cucumbers, radishes, bell peppers and summer squash. Decide what you would like to grow before choosing the area for your garden, as optimal sun, water and soil conditions vary somewhat by type of plant. Be aware that some plants, such as tomatoes and sweet peppers, produce again and again throughout the growing season. Therefore, it makes sense to go easy on the vegetables that keep on giving and allocate more space to carrots, radishes and other plants that yield only once.
Outline Your Plot
Once you know what you would like to grow, mark out the space for your garden. You can do this with some rocks, sand, stakes or whatever you have handy. You don’t need a lot of room for a bountiful garden that will keep your kitchen well-stocked with fresh vegetables. If you’re just trying your hand in your first garden, you may want to set aside a 10×10 plot or even half that size. Rather than just planting a large space, it’s more important that you regularly weed, water and maintain your garden.
When choosing your location, be aware that vegetables generally require about six to eight hours of full sunlight each day. Leafy vegetables like lettuce need less sun, and in places such as Atlanta that can become quite hot in the summertime, peas and some other plants grow better with a bit of shade. Think about how you will get water to the garden; it’s a lot easier to put your garden within easy reach of a hose than to haul water.
Prepare Your Soil
As in most of life’s activities, good preparation is the key to success. For a garden, that means preparing your soil. Dig your plot about a month before you plant, breaking up any large pieces of soil with a rake right before seeding. Be sure the soil is not wet when you dig, or your garden will not drain properly. You can dig your garden with a shovel, or for larger gardens and easier work, you may want to rent a tiller. Either way, dig about as deep as the length of the business end of a shovel.
Once you have tilled your soil, it’s time to mix compost, peat moss or a commercial product from your gardening store into the soil to increase permeability and drainage. Your vegetables need room for their roots to grow and absorb water and needed minerals. You may want to take an extra step and prepare raised beds; these will dramatically increase the yield of your garden. They also take up less space than planting vegetables in rows. Another bonus of raised beds is that they discourage weeds, because vegetables are planted closer together. See How to Build a Raised Garden Bed for details.
Grow Some Vegetables Vertically
Many plants, such as cucumbers, tomatoes and melons, can and ideally should be planted vertically on a supporting structure. Vertical growing not only saves space, but also produces healthier plants with less chance of fungus. A tomato plant that is tied to grow up a trellis will yield up to 20 pounds of fruit on average, while a staked tomato plant typically yields only about eight pounds of fruit. This will vary depending on the varietal and the growing conditions. You can buy trellises at your local garden store, or just make your own supports from wooden poles, cages or whatever is handy. As the vines grow bigger, tie them to the support. Tie only the vines, not the fruit.
Plant Three or Four Times
As many plants only produce once, you will likely want to replant them as the season progresses. Consider leaving some space to plant later in the season when some of your vegetables are on the wane. But once plants in a particular area are completely done producing, you may also want to plant a different crop in that space. You may be able to do this up to four times during the season. To cultivate the greatest number of various crops, plant cuttings rather than seeds; cuttings already have a month’s start and will produce much more quickly. Don’t forget to add about a half inch of compost or other soil replenisher each time you plant, and mix it into the dirt with a rake.
Protect Your Plants from Pests, Rot and Diseases
Aphids, caterpillars, grasshoppers and other creepy crawlies want to steal the results of your gardening labors before they reach your table. In the Atlanta area, there are 30 different types of grasshoppers alone that can infest your garden! But there are natural ways to help keep them at bay. Here are a few.
- Water your garden in the morning so the sun can dry excess water. Soggy leaves promote fungus and undesirable insects.
- Gardens with many different kinds of vegetables are more resistant to insects, because insects are plant-specific. An insect that infests corn may not infest carrots, for example.
- When weeding your garden, be sure to pull out any dead plants and leaves. These are a home for pests.
- “Good” insects, such as lady bugs, spiders, bees and dragon flies, help to keep the “bad” insects away from your vegetables.
- Some plants are also helpful; for example, marigolds planted in and around your vegetable garden help prevent aphids and other harmful insects.
Gardening is a wonderful family activity and a way to feel connected to the earth. You don’t have to be the greatest gardener in the world to reap great benefits. Knowledge comes over time with reading, talking to like-minded enthusiasts, and trial and error. Just dig in, and enjoy the accomplishment of eating and cooking with nutritious vegetables you grew yourself.