1. Start with an idea of what you’d like to eat. Will you plant just annual vegetables like tomatoes, beans, peppers? Or perennial ones like asparagus and rhubarb? How about herbs? Edible flowers? Try at least one new edible every year; you may just discover your newest favorite food!
2. Pick a place. Almost all vegetables and herbs and most flowers need about six hours of full sun each day. Spend a day in your chosen spot and watch how the sun moves across the space. It might receive more sun than you think. Most leafy vegetables will tolerate more shade than fruiting ones.
Put the garden where you can’t ignore its pleas for attention and where it’s convenient to pick some fresh herbs and veggies for dinner!
3. Clear the ground. If you’re making a bed from scratch, you will need to dig out the sod. An easier method would be to pin a sheet of black plastic over the proposed bed area. Wait 2-3 weeks. The heat of the sun will kill the grass and weeds. Build a raised bed no less than 12” high using timbers, bricks, blocks, etc. Fill with a mixture of good quality screened topsoil, compost and peat moss (see #4).
4. Improve the soil. Even in an established bed, soil needs a boost. The solution is simple: organic matter. Add a 2- to 3-inch layer of compost, peat moss, decayed chopped leaves or composted manure. Till the organic matter into the soil. This is the time to apply granular fertilizers such as 5-10-5 or 8-10-8. Apply per directions on back of bag and till into the soil. If you are working with an established bed you can’t till (asparagus, for example), apply the organic matter or fertilizer to the soil surface and very lightly cultivate it into the soil so as not to injure established roots.
If you have had problems growing vegetables in the past, have a soil test done through your county cooperative extension office. They’ll lead you through the procedure: how much soil to send from which parts of the garden, and the best time to obtain samples. Expect a two-week wait for their findings, which will tell you what your soil lacks and how to amend it. Northampton County: 610-746-1970. Lehigh County: 610-391-9840.
5. Careful when you dig! Digging loosens the soil so roots can penetrate more easily. But digging when the soil is too wet or too dry can ruin its structure. Dig only when the soil is moist enough to form a loose ball in your fist, but dry enough to fall apart when you drop it. Use a spade or spading fork to gently turn the top 8 to 12 inches of soil, mixing in the organic matter from Step 4. In vegetable gardens, turn the soil only once a year in the spring before you plant.
6. Choose your plants. Some plants are better planted from seed and others are easier to grow from transplants. Peas, beans, radishes, corn, beets and carrots are easy to grow from seed. Tomatoes, peppers, cole crops, celery and most herbs are better grown from transplants.
You may want to choose ‘pole’ or ‘vine’ beans, peas and cucumbers that need to be trellised or staked because this method takes up less space in the garden. If space is not really a concern, plant the ‘bush’ types of plants. Tomatoes, eggplants and peppers should be caged or staked. This allows more light to reach all parts of the plant resulting in better fruit production.
7. Put them in the ground. Follow spacing directions for seed grown vegetables. If seeds are sown too thickly, you will need to thin out or cut off some of the plants to allow enough room for good growth. Be sure to cover seeds with the appropriate amount of soil. Transplants should also be spaced per instructions on the tags. In general, transplants are planted so that the soil level is the same as it was in the container. The exception to the rule is tomatoes. They may be planted deeply (as much as 1/3 of the plant can be below ground). Roots will grow out along the stem resulting in a stockier, healthier plant.
8. Water. Seedlings should never dry out, so water daily while they are small. Taper off as the plants get larger. New transplants also need frequent watering — every other day or so — until their roots become established. After that, how often you need to water depends on your soil, how humid your climate is, and how often it rains. Plants are begging for water when they wilt slightly in the heat of the day. Water slowly and deeply, so the water soaks in right around the root area. To minimize evaporation and potential fungal problems, water in the early morning.
9. Mulch. To help keep weeds out and water in, cover the soil with a couple of inches of mulch. All sorts of mulch are available, but use something that will decompose and add nutrients back into the soil. Even shredded newspaper and grass clippings may be used as long as the grass did not have a ‘weed & feed’ applied to it. Never mound mulch up the stems of plants.
10. General maintenance. Keep watering when needed and pull weeds before they get big. The granular fertilizer you applied at the beginning of the season is not enough to sustain plants that will continue bearing fruit into the fall. Use a water soluble fertilizer such as Jack’s Classic Blossom Booster, 10-30-20, every 2 to 4 weeks.
Note: The National Gardening Association has an excellent website: www.garden.org.