Starting a vegetable garden is not very different from growing shrubs and flowers, except you do of course want your plants to produce an abundant harvest.
However, even if you’ve never had a vegetable garden before, there’s no need to feel intimidated. If you start small with one or two plants, there are just a few general basic principles you need to know to get started.
Someone once said, “a man is only as good as his tools.” If you’re starting out, you will need to buy a few basic tools. Without them your gardening experience will be difficult, frustrating and certainly not enjoyable. With the right tools, you will find your vegetable garden an unending source of enjoyment.
What to Grow
First, grow what you like to eat. Do a little research on what you’re interested in growing and choose plants that are easy and fast to grow. Some vegetable suggestions are: radishes, zucchini, peppers, cherry tomatoes, leafy greens and herbs such as basil, mint, sage and rosemary, and micro greens.
As for fruits, you can’t go wrong with strawberries and raspberries which everyone loves and they come back year after year (perennials) with bigger and bigger harvests.
You can grow almost anything indoors as well as outdoors, so don’t be discouraged if you live in an apartment or have no outdoor garden.
What you need to take into account, first and foremost, is light and sunlight. Some plants do well with just a little sunlight, whereas some plants need at least 6 hours in the sun most summer days. This factor will also help you choose which vegetables or fruits to grow.
If you’re growing your plants outside, choose as sunny a location as possible. If you don’t have a sunny in ground spot with soil, no problem . . . you have two other good choices: you can grow your plants in containers or in a raised garden bed.
A raised garden bed is essentially a wooden structure to house soil for your plants. You can make one if you’re handy and have the time or you can buy a raised garden bed kit. Some kits are very easy and fast to assemble. There are pros and cons of both, but containers or pots are the simplest and less expensive of the two to get started.
If you’re growing your plants indoors, there are two options: if you have a sunny, south-facing window, this would be a perfect spot for your plants. However, if you don’t have a window that receives sun, grow lights are the answer. You can place your plants anywhere in your home since grow lights replace daylight and simulate the sun’s rays.
The grow lights today are inexpensive to buy and run. You can buy lights that cover several plants, or just one bulb to cover a single plant. For small plants like herbs and micro greens, a fun alternative would be an indoor garden kit, most of which have grow lights attached.
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All About Soil
The quality of the soil in your vegetable garden is essential to help give your fruits and vegetables the best start. And the soil’s properties should meet the individual needs of each plant.
Some plants like a slightly acid soil whereas some like it more alkaline. The acid/alkaline measure is called a pH level. A pH level of 7 is neutral, lower is more acidic, higher is more alkaline. So, it’s important to know your plants’ needs and to know your soil.
When planting in your garden soil, it’s best to test the pH of the soil to make sure it isn’t too low or too high. The easiest way to do this is with a soil test kit, which is inexpensive to buy and will save you much time and hassle trying to test without one. Most kits also test for soil moisture, an added benefit.
The general pH range for vegetables is 5.5 to 7.5 so the need can vary considerably. If the pH level of your soil needs amending, this article is very informative.
When growing your plants in containers or a raised garden bed, however, you can choose the soil/compost you buy to suit your plants’ needs. Some soils are designed specifically for certain plants. It’s obviously not a good idea to have plants with different soil needs sharing the same growing space.
Nutrients and Fertilizer
Edible plants need several nutrients to keep them healthy. The most important of these are potassium for the plants to flower and produce fruit, nitrogen for healthy leaf growth and phosphorus to help develop strong roots.
If you buy potting soil, the essential nutrients will have already been added, but depending on the plant you may need to fertilize later on as the plant grows. Your garden soil, however, may or may not have enough nutrients starting out, depending on its makeup and how it has been used previously. In which case, you may need to add fertilizer before planting.
A word of warning about fertilizer: it’s best to under-fertilize than overdo it. Over-fertilizing can do more harm than good. Follow the directions on your fertilizer package as they all vary.
Growing Organic Foods
Growing organic foods is easy. Organic soil, free of chemicals and pesticides, is readily available online and in most nurseries. As for warding off pests, you don’t need to spray harmful chemicals or pesticides on your plants. You can use natural methods or use a chemical-free natural pesticide (more about this later on).
If you’re planting in your garden soil and are not sure if it’s free of chemicals and pesticides, you can remedy this somewhat by digging a hole deep enough for your plants’ roots to grow into and replace the garden soil with organic soil.
Watering Your Plants
Sticking with the correct watering schedule for your plants is part of the necessary ongoing maintenance. Giving your plants the right amount of water will pay off in the end with healthy plants that produce an abundant harvest.
Not surprisingly, plants have a range of watering needs: some prefer dryer conditions whereas some like the soil to be quite moist. However, never let a plant stand in soggy soil, which will encourage rot and fungal diseases. So, good drainage is essential – whether planting in the ground or in containers.
So, make sure you research each plant’s needs carefully. It’s not a bad idea to draw up a watering schedule, especially if you’re a gardening novice. However, if you’re concerned you won’t have time to water your plants, stick to the more drought-resistant vegetables such as beans, squash and peppers.
Regardless of a schedule, it’s a good practice to regularly check the moisture of your soil, especially during the hotter months when it can dry out more quickly or in times of drought. Obviously, this won’t be such an issue with indoor plants.
Weeds are the enemy of healthy plants. They take essential nutrients and water from the soil, attract bugs and pests and crowd out your plants.
If you have just a few plants, it’s a simple task to keep weeds under control. Just spend a few minutes each week pulling any weeds gently by the roots and that should do the trick. This is of course less of a problem with outdoor containers and should be a non-issue with indoor plants.
Pests and Diseases
Pests are another unwanted visitor to your plants, but again, regular checks will help you spot them before they become too much of a problem.
Attracting birds to your garden can help control slugs and other “tasty” pests. Installing a bird feeder would “kill three birds with one stone” (excuse the pun) since the birds get food, you’re rid of some pests and your outdoor garden will come alive.
As for other pests, fortunately, there are also several natural ways to combat the pest problem. Growing certain plants alongside each other can help ward off pests. For example, some flowers and herbs give off unpleasant scents that deter some pests. In the gardening world, this is called companion planting.
Or, there are natural pesticides like horticultural oils and neem oil that are harmless but very effective. Also worth considering is diatomaceous earth which you sprinkle on the soil around the plants.
A new venture into vegetable gardening may simply be a rewarding hobby where you grow a few of your favorite fruits and vegetables. Or it could gradually expand to the point where you’re mostly eating your own freshly harvested produce. So, start off small, master the basics and you and your family will soon be enjoying the fruits (excuse the pun) of your new vegetable garden.