9 questions to ask before planting a vegetable garden
If you’ve been thinking about planting a garden to grow your favorite produce, now’s the time to do it. Before you get started, check out this Q&A with Melinda Myers, horticulturist and instructor for the Great Courses video series, "How to Grow Anything: Food Gardening for Everyone," and soon you’ll be chomping on fresh veggies that you grew yourself.
Q: Is organic soil best?
A:It’s somewhat of a personal preference. If gardening in the ground, use OMRI-certified organic materials to amend and fertilize. But that does not necessarily mean it is organic soil – it depends on what, if any, chemicals were applied to the soil prior to turning it into a vegetable garden. [You want] a well-drained soil that retains moisture – adding compost, aged manure, or peat moss increases drainage in clay and the water-holding ability in sandy or rocky soils.
Q: My garden measures only 10 x 12 – is that big enough to grow vegetables in?
A:You bet it is! Prioritize your plant selection by what vegetables you like to eat and cook with. Use your space to grow plants like tomatoes – you get lots of fruit from one plant, and with the bush or compact varieties, you can grow more in less space. Also, go vertical – grow pole beans, cucumbers, and squash on supports, which uses less space.
Q: How do I figure out how much to plant?
A:Look at seed packets and the backs of the plant tags for help with spacing. Many University Extension websites have planting recommendations. They explain which are the best cultivars for the area and how much to plant for a family of four.
Q: Should I start with seeds or plants?
A:Use seeds for plants that will mature within the growing season such as beets, radishes, kale, melons, squash, and cucumbers. Plants that take a long time to harvest from seed are typically started indoors (from seed) or purchased as plants from a garden center, such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, okra, broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts.
Q: You’re supposed to plant after the last frost, but how do I know when that is?
A:The frost date varies from year to year, and most seasoned gardeners tend to add a week or two to the average last spring frost just to be safe. Your local University Extension service will have some guidelines for your area.
Q: Which vegetables are easiest for novice gardeners?
A:Lettuce is quick and easy – great in containers or in the ground. Tomatoes are another favorite. Look for varieties that are disease-resistant and suited to your climate. Once established, perennial vegetables like asparagus and rhubarb will produce for decades – just keep them weeded. Cabbage and broccoli are easy, too. Protect them with a floating row cover (spun fabric that lets air, light, and water through) and you will keep worms off the plants.
Q: What are the top reasons a vegetable garden may fail?
A:One is weather. Extreme heat is hard on the on the plants and the gardener, who often gives up and quits tending the garden. It’s best to garden early in the day or early evening when the heat is not so bad. Cool, wet weather can increase the risk of disease. Wet weather also means more mosquitoes, and this can also discourage the gardener. If you take a fan to the garden, it’ll keep mosquitoes away (they are weak fliers). Another reason is improper watering. Frequent shallow watering leads to shallow roots and less drought-tolerant, vigorous plants, while overwatering can lead to root rot.
Q: How deep should you dig when planting plants?
A:Work the top 8 to 12 inches of soil when preparing the garden bed. Plant seeds generally two times their diameter deep. Most transplants are planted at the same depth as they were growing in their container.
Q: How much sun and water do plants need?
A:Full sun for eight hours or more is the best, but giving vegetables whose flowers and fruit you eat such as squash and broccoli more than eight hours is better. Root crops like carrots can produce in four to six hours of direct sunlight. Greens like lettuce and spinach prefer full sun but are the most shade-tolerant and can also grow in four to six hours of sun.
Editor’s note: University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardeners, Rochester Garden and Flower Club or any area nursery are great local resources to tap into, whether you’re starting your first garden or your fifteenth.