Thursday, March 5, 2009

Vegetable 102

Vegetable plants need nutrient rich soil, sun, and water to grow. The location of your garden is the first decision you need to make based on those requirements.

First determine maintenance requirements. The proximity to your water supply and distance from your home are factors to consider. Veggie gardens are great fun, but they’re a lot of work. Will you be more likely to use an extra few minutes to water and weed if the garden is right out your back door? How far do you want to walk to harvest basil for dinner at 2 p.m. in July? Try to be realistic about how much time you have to devote to the garden when deciding on the size.

Next, watch the sun. March sun patterns will be different than patterns in the height of the growing season, but you can get a good idea of where in your yard to put your garden by closely observing how sunlight travels through different areas of your yard. Watch for long shadows that can be cast by landscape items like trees or shrubs or fences. Don’t plant closer than five feet outside the drip line of a tree of large shrub. You’ll get too much shade and the tree’s root structure will compete with your veggies for water and nutrients.
The southeast side of a garden will get sun first. Veggie plants require a lot of sun. Full sun is considered 6 hours. However, you can find sources suggesting as much as 12 hours of sun during the longest days of summer. I’ve found 8 hours of sun is fine for most plants.

Once you’ve found the best sunny location, “It’s all about the soil,” said Erica Beadle at Highland Gardens in Camp Hill. She suggests a soil test and adding organic additives to make the soil nutrient rich and loose so the plants can thrive. Soil tests can be purchased at garden centers – including Highland Gardens - or you can pick one up at a Penn State Cooperative Extension office. The test will tell you what your soil pH is and what nutrients it contains and allow you to properly amend the soil.

The pH is the acidity level of your soil. Some plants require very acidic soil; blueberries for one. Some plants like sweeter or more alkaline soil. Vegetables, in general, do well in slightly acidic (6.5) to neutral soil. I could blog for an entire year on soil science.

But for the basics, loose soil, slightly acidic, with lots of organic matter is going to be best for your garden. John Rapini, Organic Services Consultant for The Plant Place, Davis Florist and Garden Center is Harrisburg said, "Have your soil tested. Soil should be alive with billions of tiny organisms that make nutrients that are already in the soil available to your plants. A soil test will tell you what type of amendments you need to create a hospitable environment for these little guys. Healthy, living soil will produce healthy vigorous plants that resist insect and disease attack. This is especially important in a vegetable garden where spraying pesticides on something you would like to eat is not a safe option."

If you’re interested in raised beds, avoid pressure treated lumber. The chemicals, including arsenic, can leach into the ground. Harlan Holmes, a veteran backyard gardener and garden educator, suggests considering a composite wood decking made from recycled plastic and wood fiber as lumber for your raised beds. One product name is Trex. Cedar is also a good choice.

Soil for your beds can be purchased from garden centers. If you are doing beds of any size, you might want to consider having soil delivered to your home in bulk. A good mix is mushroom soil with equal amounts of topsoil. Highland Gardens offers leaf compost mixed with topsoil. As you haul wheelbarrows full of soil to your beds, you can mix in your own compost or sand to further loosen the soil and provide good drainage.

Finally decide what you want to plant. Judy Bono, The Gardner of the Owl Valley, suggests beginners start with lettuce, strawberries or tomatoes. Those crops are rewarding as far as the effort to result ratio. Not to mention the fun the work ratio. Erica Beadle suggests that you get some knowledge about what you’re growing. Even a careful reading of the back of the seed pack can be very helpful, she said.

Once you know what you’re growing, draw out a schematic of you garden. Again to make sure plants aren’t shaded, think about the final height of the plants when determining where each type will be located. Think about the space requirements of each plant. One squash or melon plant can easily be 4 feet in diameter. Something like lettuce or basil can be more easily contained.

It's fun and helpful to keep a garden journal. It doesn't have to be Walden. But jot down what varieties you loved, what worked, what didn't work and importantly, which veggies you loved to harvest and eat.

Keep in mind that plants want to live and want to fruit. So don’t be intimidated. Give them some sun, moisture and good soil at their feet and they’ll be happy.

I will periodically profile plants over the next weeks to help in deciding what to grow and how much space is needed for each crop. I’ll also talk about soil at more length. Looking into companion plants as well. See you back here.

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