Starting From Scratch: Creating a Veggie Patch

So, you want to start growing your own vegetables-good for you!  Vegetable gardens are a commitment of time and energy, but to stay motivated, always keep their tasty and satisfying rewards in mind.

Most vegetable plants need at least 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight to thrive.  Trees need to be far enough away that their roots don’t interfere with the vegetables and the leaves don’t shade the garden plot. Choose a space large enough to accommodate the size garden you want. Starting off small allows you to grow into it; you don’t want to become overwhelmed and unable to care for what you have already planted. A good size starter garden is 10′ x 10′, but you should decide what is best for you. Some vegetables require a lot of space, including some types of squash, pumpkins, and corn, so these should probably be avoided at first. Also, make sure a water source is close by, such as a length or two of garden hose. Your ideal garden plot should have full sun, no trees, and a nearby water source.

Preparing the area and soil
Fertile and well-drained soil makes a winning garden. Wet soil should not be turned or tilled, as this is bad for the total make-up of the soil and ultimately for the plants. A good way to tell if the soil is too wet is to grab a handful of it and make a ball. If the soil stays compact in the ball shape it is too wet, but if it falls apart it is ready to work. Mark out the garden area with a rope or hose to visualize the space. Turn the soil, sod and all, as this will add some organic material. Remove any rocks, sticks, or roots from the soil. Next, add a 4 to 6 inch layer of compost over the entire bed and mix it into the soil. It is easiest and best to create and dig your garden during the fall prior to planting, since the soil won’t be wet and compost is more readily available. You should dig at least 12 inches deep, loosening the soil so the plants’ roots have an easy time.

Beds versus rows
Large vegetable gardens are usually planted in rows to allow motorized equipment easy access. An aisle is required between every row with this garden setup, but vegetable beds only need an aisle every 3 to 4 feet, depending on the length of your reach. Using beds enables you to plant closer together and tend the bed by reaching half way across from either side. Beds and paths keep organic compost where the plants need it-in the bed not in the path where it would only be enjoyed by the weeds. You should still plant seeds in a row, but place the rows closer together, after reading the seed package to see how far apart to plant. The actual path should be mulched to prevent displacement of the soil and the tracking of mud into the house. Beds should also be raised 3 to 6 inches higher than the path to promote drainage and prevent stepping into the soil bed.

Critter control
The list of possible critters to intrude upon your garden is long, including everything from deer, bunnies, cats, and dogs, to groundhogs and even neighborhood kids. A fence can deter these intruders in addition to serving a number of other purposes, such as a place to grow vines and even as an anchor to tie up some tomatoes. Be smart and think of ways to multipurpose this item.

Weed control
Weed control is one of the top three needs of the vegetable garden, the others being sunshine and water. Controlling weeds is necessary as they deprive your plants of nutrients, water, and sometimes sunlight. Weeds can be removed by hand-pulling or hoeing, or they can be smothered by newspaper and mulch.  Weeds can even be “cooked” with a propane torch. For health’s sake, I advise against chemicals in the vegetable garden.

Growing your own herbs, fruits and vegetables is a great way to get tasty food, a bit of exercise, and as my grandmother always said, “a good airing out.”  Plus, you only grow what you want to eat. Remember: a well-maintained healthy garden, free of weeds, is better for the plants and for the gardener.

Barbara Arnold is green corps coordinator at Franklin Park Conservatory.