Starting a small vegetable garden

By Kim Hudson

When starting a small vegetable garden, first and foremost you will want to choose an ideal location. You will need to find an area that receives at least six hours of sunlight a day. Choose a relatively level area or one with a slight slope for good drainage.

Next, you will need a water source close to your garden. A watering can will get pretty heavy if you have to carry it a long distance – not to mention the number of trips you’ll have to make! (If you are fortunate enough to have a building close to your garden you may want to consider setting up a rain barrel system that utilizes the overflow of rainwater from the roof.)

You will need basic gardening tools to start your small vegetable garden, such as a flat-end shovel, pointed-end shovel, rake, hoe and garden gloves. You will also need compost and/or manure and peat moss. It would also be a good idea to have a wide-brimmed hat and a pair of washable footwear.

First-time gardeners should start with a small vegetable garden. Small gardens give you more control and also keep you from feeling overwhelmed by upkeep, weeds and even crop abundance.

1. Start with an area approx 11’ x 11’; this will give you 9 – 3’ x 3’ areas to work with. This set-up will allow you a foot of walking space between each planting area and will give you optimum reach advantage from both sides.

2. Prepare your area by first using the flat-end shovel and clear away all grass and weeds including roots to at least a 2-3” depth. This may seem like a tedious task but this will dramatically reduce the weed population during the growing season.

3. Once you have cleared the area you will need to cultivate the soil. You can easily do this by renting a tiller from your local rental center, hiring someone with a tiller to do the job or rolling up your sleeves and tilling by hand with your pointed-end shovel. Either way, make sure the soil is not too wet. Note: You can check soil moisture by examining a sample in your hand. If you can crumble the soil easily then you are ready to start. Make sure to cultivate the soil to a depth of at least 12” to ensure proper root growth.

4. With your rake, level out the soil and remove any roots, rocks, and other debris and break up any large dirt clods from the area. Begin adding compost and manure for nourishment for your plants and peat moss to keep your soil light.

5. Now you can start to “lay out” your garden. Using your hoe, separate the garden using into nine distinct areas that are each 3’ x 3’ with 1’ in between each area.

6. Let’s start planting! And most importantly plant what you like to eat. Even with a small vegetable garden you may be able to plant early and late crops, depending on the length of the growing season in your part of the country. Early-season garden vegetables include potatoes, onion sets, peas, lettuce, spinach, broccoli and cabbages. Late-season crops include tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash, beets and beans.

Here are some suggestions on the different types of vegetable plants that are available at your garden centers. “Sets” usually include vegetables such as potatoes and onions. “Slips” are usually onions and sweet potatoes, and “packs” will include vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, lettuce and squash. The latter are vegetables that are cultivated from seed and usually grown in a greenhouse. You will find anywhere from 2 to 8 plants to a pack, which can be easily transplanted to your garden. Some vegetables, such as peas, beans, beets and radishes, are just as easy to plant from seed. Just plant according to the seed packet directions.

There are a few last-minute things to remember. Water your garden if it hasn’t rained in three or four days and try to water early in the morning so the water will have time to evaporate off the leaves. This will cut down on any fungus or bacterial growth. Weed, weed and weed….get those weeds out of your garden on a daily basis. The weeds will use up the nutrients, moisture and eventually choke out your vegetable garden.

Happy gardening!

See also: Garden Planning 101


Top 5 gardening books

Note: This article was written by Kim Hudson, a gardening whiz and friend of VegetableGardeners.com.

Many people want to learn how to garden especially during a downward economy. They either have the space in their own back yards or are fortunate enough to have a public garden plot in their neighborhood. Either way, first-time gardeners need to know where and how to start this journey. Gardening books are the answer. In the following books you will find hints, tips and plenty of good gardening advice to get your journey under way.

A great gardening book for beginners is “Living off the Land – A Handbook for Survival,” written by John H. Tobe and published in 1973 by Simon and Schuster. This gardening book focuses on the necessities of life, which as most of us know are food, shelter, fuel and water. This book also emphasizes self-sufficiency in your health and well being. And your ability to keep your family well fed with wholesome homegrown food.

The beginning of the book may seem a little gloomy because of Tobe’s political concerns. But, essentially what he is trying to get across to his readers is that we need to take more responsibility for our health and well-being. But as you read through it, you will find fascinating information on organic farming, diversity in what you grow and how you grow it, pollination, seeds and seed-sowing, and storing the fruits and vegetables that you grow.

Tobe also gets into drainage and irrigation as well as pollution and foods that you can forage from the forest such as arrow grass, which can be toasted and used as a cereal as well as more commonly known foods such as sunflowers, hickory nuts and black walnuts. If you want to dig a little deeper in your gardening quest he also teaches you the ins and outs of cash crops, independent fruit farming and even provides free land and homesteading information. This gardening book is helpful for the beginning gardener as well as the seasoned gardener.

Once you get your hands dirty (pun intended), you will want to get more involved in the techniques of home gardening. You will find “Getting the Most from Your Garden – Using Advanced Intensive Gardening Techniques,” (copyright 1980 by Rodale Press, Inc. written by Rich Kline, Nancy E. Lee, Vic Sussman and Ray Wolf) a tremendously helpful gardening book. This book offers a step-by-step guide on setting up, preparing and designing your garden bed, no matter what region of the country you live in.

The authors provide in depth information on the types of soil that are best for the plants you intend to grow as well as how to plant so that you will have a continuous harvest throughout the growing season.

This gardening book also helps you understand the process of germinating your own seeds. It offers reasons for starting your own seeds, as well as advice on how to care for the seedlings so that when the time comes to transplant them to your garden, you will grow strong and healthy plants. In the end this is what every gardener wants.

Even the best gardeners need help from time to time, and when they do they can refer to “Horticulture Gardener’s Desk Reference – The Ultimate Resource for Everything a Gardener Could Ever Want to Know,” written by Anne Halpin (copyright 1996 by Macmillan). The novice gardener to the master gardener will find a plethora of information between the covers of this gardening book — an essential tool for all gardeners.

This gardening book covers everything from soil pH, plant and soil nutrient deficiencies symptoms, fertilization, watering, mulching and weeding to a hardiness zone map. You will have at your finger tips information on every kind of plant, including vegetables, flowers, bulbs, vines, grasses and trees. This book will inform you on everything from how to plant, harvest and prune to how to predict the weather. This is a must-have for any gardener.

There is not a gardener out there who at some point in time hasn’t experienced a problem with disease or pests. Ortho has one of the best gardening books on this subject. You can find everything you need in: “Home Gardener’s Problem Solver,” copyright 2004 by Meredith Publishing Group. This gardening book will get you started with a diagnostic checklist to help you narrow down your search. Then it will take you step by step through the process of how a plant works. You will find help with disease and insect infestation for your houseplants, lawn, flowers, vegetables, fruits, fruits and nut trees. One of the highlights of this gardening book is the many high quality photographs that will help you identify your plants’ problems, whether insect or disease. Not only will this gardening book help you identify and solve the problem, it also gives you an analysis on why this problem may have occurred in the first place. This book is an asset to every gardener’s library.

Last but not least are the herbs, a must for every garden. An essential gardening book to add to your library is “The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs, Their Medicinal and Culinary Uses,” published by Dorset Press, copyright 1984. Herbs offer up beauty and aroma when grown alongside your flowers and vegetables. Herbs will bring a flowering beauty to your garden that will also attract beneficial insects, such as honey bees and butterflies, for pollination. This gardening book will give you the history of herbalism and help you understand the cultivation of herbs for culinary and medicinal purposes. You will learn how to identify herbs, if they are a perennial or annual plant, what time of year they will flower, and how to prepare the herb as a medicine or for cooking.


The benefits of a community garden

We can’t discuss the benefits of a community garden without actually defining what exactly a community garden is – and does.

Like its name suggests, a community garden is a garden planted by – and for – a specific community of people. Community gardens are set up in suburban neighborhoods, rural areas, schools, etc., on a designated piece of land suitable for a gardening plot. The land may be used as a shared garden space that serves everyone in a particular community or as separate garden plots individually owned and operated by members of the community.

Community gardens are ideal for individuals who live in apartments or homes that don’t provide enough space for personal gardens. It is also a wonderful way of revitalizing a downtrodden section of a neighborhood, like a vacant parking lot or even a rooftop. Getting involved in a gardening community allows individuals who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to grow their own plants and vegetables to do so.

Community gardens may differ from area to area. Some may solely grow flowers while others grow vegetables, or a combination of the two. The common thread, however, is that community gardens are actively maintained by the gardeners themselves, not outside vendors or city/county employees.

According to the American Community Gardening Association (ACGA), the benefits of community gardening are not just limited to growing and eating your own produce. Many other factors come into play, such as enhanced social interaction, improved quality of life, neighborhood beautification, lower family food budgets, conservation, better eating habits, even crime reduction.

Land for a community garden is either publicly or privately owned. More and more cities are turning vacant lots into community gardening spaces, which reduces neighborhood blight and deters crime. It also makes productive use of an otherwise abandoned area. Some government entities allow community gardens to be set up in public parks. They are also created as conservation gardens, where native plant restoration is the primary focus.

It’s necessary to take into consideration several factors when initially planning a community garden: location, ownership, purpose of the garden, organization of the garden and garden management, to name a few.

The ACGA is a national organization that oversees many community gardens nationwide. Check out their website for information on starting and planning a community garden. You can also find community gardens in your area if you’re interested in getting involved and/or participating.


Gardening products you can’t live without

Growing your own garden is a wonderful hobby, not to mention a very rewarding experience. There is nothing like indulging in the fruits (and vegetables) of your own labor. You may choose to start a small container vegetable garden, or perhaps a bigger plot in your back yard is sun-drenched enough for growing bigger crops. Either way, you will need certain gardening products or tools to get started.

Gloves
While gloves may seem like a given here (and they are, really), it is important that you spend a little money on a nice pair. Don’t go for the cheapest pair of gardening gloves you can find at the grocery store. Look for a pair of deer- or cowskin gloves, which you can find at any outdoor sporting goods store or online at reputable stores. The great thing about these gloves is the fit. They mold and stretch with your hands, but retain their shape – not to mention their softness. And they last for a long time, which is key when it comes to vegetable gardening. These types of gardening gloves are durable and can be used for more than gardening. Make sure they fit your hand and aren’t too big. It’s beneficial to have gloves that fit so you can use your fingers when going after pesky weeds.

Pruning Shears
Pruning is something you will spend a lot of time doing in your vegetable garden. This essential gardening product is used for trimming, pruning, lopping – you name it. When gardening, you will ultimately come face to face with stems, vines or weeds that need clipping back. Your pruning shears will save the day. Again, don’t skimp out on price for these. You want durable shears that can stand up to woody vines and weather (at some point you will absent-mindedly leave them outside when it rains). Cheaper shears tend to lose their ability to easily cut through stems and roots. Think about your scissors when they become dull. Now think of trying to cut a thick woody stem with those same scissors. Spend the money; you’ll be glad you did.

Gardening Hoe
The most annoying thing about your garden will be the weeds. And you will have to face the weeds; all vegetable gardeners do. Your hoe will become one of your most valued gardening products! Having a hoe will help make the job much easier (as will using your hands much of the time). Investing in a hand hoe and a full-length gardening hoe is best. The hoe will help you break up and turn over dirt, as well as swiftly remove weeds. Smaller hoes make it easier to get in between plants for more intricate soil work. Your gardening hoe(s) should be sturdy. When you shop for a gardening hoe, don’t get too bogged down in the many choices, not when you’re just starting your vegetable garden. Splurge on a basic paddle hoe with a wooden handle.

Trowel
Gardeners get dirty. That is the bottom line. Much of your vegetable gardening will require you to get down on all fours and play in the dirt. Your trowel will be your best friend when you’re down there. Think of the trowel as the mini garden shovel. You will use your trowel to plant your vegetables. A trowel with a steel blade is the best choice, given its durability. If you get really serious about gardening, you will likely end up with more trowels than you need, given the various blade types and what they can be ideal for. Some are better at digging into really compact dirt; others with wider blades are capable of removing larger amounts of dirt. Selecting a trowel is a personal experience. But, again, don’t go too cheap. You’ll wind up with a broken handle or busted blade.

Rake
Your old leaf rake will come in handy in the vegetable garden. Depending on the size of the rake and the size of your garden, you can use it to rake out fall leaves and other garden debris, such as dead plants, unused fruit, compost dirt, etc. You will find yourself using the rake more often than not just to keep your garden tidy. You can also use your rake (or you may have to buy a new one with straight teeth) to evenly spread out garden soil.

Watering Cans or Hose
Water is the source of life for your vegetable garden (and sunshine, of course). If you don’t have access to a nearby spigot, invest in a nice watering can. You will rely heavily on that watering can. Your garden will need watering near daily, so a sturdy can is your best investment. Make sure you don’t get the biggest one out there, unless you’re capable of carrying it when it’s full of water. A garden hose is ideal, of course, although it does spike your summer water bill a bit. If you want to conserve water, buy a rain barrel, place it appropriately under a gutter on the side of your house and hook a regular garden hose up to it. Your garden (and your wallet) will love soaking up all of that saved rainwater.

Wheelbarrow or Wagon
Carrying around bags of peat moss, top soil, dirt and manure can become heavy and cumbersome. When you’re first starting your vegetable garden, there will inevitably be much heavy lifting involved. Those bags of dirt are not light! The wheelbarrow (or even a wagon) will become your best friend. Once your garden is underway and growing, you will still find yourself toting plants back and forth, or more top soil or who knows what. The wheelbarrow will become your main source of transportation, especially if you have a large gardening space, or if the garden is a bit of a distance from the tool shed.


Avoiding Weeds In Your Vegetable Garden

I hate weeding my garden. I would much rather spend my time doing something more productive or even just sitting and enjoying the garden.

Fortunately, there are several things that can help prevent weeds in the first place, so you won’t have to deal with them once the garden is planted (or at least, not nearly as many of them).

1. Clear the ground before you plant Before you plant, put some extra time into clearing the soil of any perennial weeds. Make sure you get as much of the root as possible – not just the part that’s visible.

2. Don’t disturb the soil during routine care Cultivating the soil in your garden can bring weed seeds up to the surface where they can sprout. Try to keep the soil disturbance to a minimum
when maintaining your garden throughout the growing season.

3. Crop rotation Some crops are more capable of fighting weeds than others. For example, potatoes can crowd out the weeds a lot more easily than onions. By rotating your crops around your garden from one year to the next, it’s less likely that weeds will build up in one part of it.

4. Mulch Cover bare soil with mulch to keep weeds from getting the light they need to grow. This can be organic mulch, such as rotted compost, or inorganic mulch such as landscape cloth. Organic mulch is easier to spread between the vegetables you have planted. It should be one to three inches deep to suppress weeds.