How To: Vegetable Gardening Basics
Gardening is not only a great hobby because it is enjoyable, it is a great way to make a hobby into something productive that your family can eat! I have always loved plants, so much that I even considered majoring in horticulture or botany in college! In the end nutrition won out, but I feel like gardening plays a big role in nutrition for your family. From an early age, kids can learn where food comes from and also enjoy eating fruit and vegetables from their own yard. Growing a garden does require work, but the benefits are so worth it! If you get your family involved it can also be a lot of fun.
Planning the Garden
Location. Choosing a location for your garden is the most important step in the garden planning process. Vegetables and fruit need at least 6-8 hours of sunlight for best growth. Choose a location as far away as possible from trees and shrubs. You will want a place that has good soil with good drainage. If your soil is not great, you can always add to it to make it better. Also you will want to make sure you have a nearby water source. If you are going to have to drag a hose across the yard to water your garden, you might want to rethink the location.
What to Grow. It is easy to get excited about planting everything that your heart (or mouth) desires after looking through seed magazines or perusing your local nursery. It is best to grow what your family will actually eat. To read about some of our favorite places to get seeds see this post.
- Seeds Vs. Plants. Depending on your growing season, there are definitely things you will want to start as plants when they are in your actual garden, and some things that do great started as seeds. Buying plants does cost more money than seeds. A packet of seeds usually contains way more than you would ever plant. Sometimes you really just want the headstart with certain plants and it is totally worth the $2-4 you will pay for the plant. This is my own personal reference when it comes to whether to plant seeds or plants:
- Seeds: Summer Squash, Winter Squash, Cucumbers, Carrots, Beets, Swiss Chard, Radish, Beans, Peas, Broccoli, Cabbage, Corn, Spinach
- Plants: Peppers (all varieties) Tomatoes, Berries, Onions, Herbs (annuals)
You can definitely start seedlings in your home, but I like to peruse my local nursery for varieties of certain plants that they have already started. Usually your local nursery will grow things that do well in your area.
Draw a Plan.
It doesn't have to be super fancy, but if you draw it out first it helps you plan what you want to plant and where. Then you can determine if you have enough space before you get things in the ground and have to dig them up and move them. This is my garden plan. My husband drew it up in Excel (he is an accountant - not only precise but lives in Excel :)
Plan Your Space. If you don't have space in your backyard or only have access to a sunny balcony or patio, you can still grow vegetables in containers. A container for vegetables can be as simple as a a hanging basket or as elaborate as a wood garden box. It really just depends on how much space you have. If you are planting in a small container (pot) it must have drainage. Soil in containers will dry out quickly, so frequent watering is necessary. Containers with no drainage will cause your vegetables to develop root rot. If you decide that you want to build garden boxes, see our instructions here.
Soil. This is a very important part of gardening. If you don't have good soil, it will be much harder to grow anything (except for weeds) If you are planting directly into the ground, it is a good idea to add a two to four inch layer of organic matter and incorporate it into the soil. Organic matter will improve your soil structure and will add nutrients to the soil. Organic matter is basically the remains of plants or animals that has broken down. This can include: compost, leaves or bush and tree trimmings, or animal manure.
When we moved into our house, our soil was so horrible that we decided to do garden boxes and bring in all new soil. We purchased soil from a local nursery and added a blend of 1/3 screened top soil, 1/3 mushroom compost, and 1/3 nutrimulch. We have had really good success with this blend and I feel like we can grow anything!
Watering. Different plants need different amounts of water, and also your watering schedule will depend on your soil and the type of container you have your plants in. If you have a more clay type soil, it will hold water longer and so you will need less water less. A more sandy type soil will require more water more frequently because it will drain quickly. We have found that a drip system works best for almost every kind of plant. You can get all of the supplies needed for a drip system at your local sprinkler supply store. Also, Lowe's and Home Depot usually have drip system supplies. This is what our drip system looks like for our tomatoes. We have an individual drip running to each plant. For some of our other plants that have a lot more plants in a smaller space (carrots), we have a drip that sprays a small spray to get to all of them.
Tools. These are the tools I have found to be helpful with gardening.
- Hoe: Great for weeding, covering seeds and chopping up the soil.
- Rake: Used to prepare the seedbed and to break-up large clods of soil.
- Spade: Helpful for digging holes to plant seeds.
- Labels, string, ruler: Used to layout rows and measure correct spacing. Labeling your rows and seeds help keep your garden organized until things start growing and you can recognize what it is.
Involve Your Kids! Include them in the process from beginning to end. Let them choose which seeds or plants they want to try in your garden and let them help you plant. Give them the responsibility of making sure their plant gets watered and weeded. The fun part is harvesting and if they have actually taken care of their plant, it will bring so much more satisfaction when they can pick the produce and know that they grew it! Yesterday I let my girls harvest lettuce. They LOVED it! They picked the lettuce, brought it in the house, and rinsed it. Then my 4 year old wanted to share it with her friends and so she bagged some of it up and delivered it to them. She was just like the little red hen (except she shared with everyone else).
And last but not least, keep a gardening journal. Gardening is definitely a learning experience and you will likely want to change things from year to year depending on what worked well and what didn't. Every year is different because of weather conditions and different elements that are out of your control. Also, it is fun to see progress from year to year when you are keeping track of your garden. When you put the time and effort into gardening, then the rewards are definitely worth it! This is from one picking from my garden last year after I had gone out of town for the weekend!
What gardening tips and tricks do you have that have worked for you? What are some of your favorite varieties to grow?