Winter is winding down, and with spring just a few weeks away it’s not too late to plan your new vegetable garden.
If you’re a first time vegetable gardener, here are some things to consider when choosing your garden’s site:
• What is the purpose of my vegetable garden? Are you interested in a garden large enough to produce vegetables for the entire family for the season or would you prefer to grow a few varieties such as tomatoes and salad greens to start?
Hint: Many first time gardeners start out trying to grow too many varieties.
By growing just a few varieties the first season you can learn how to be a successful garden and keep a journal to learn from your mistakes for next year.
• Does the site receive at least 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight each day during the growing season? Most vegetable plants require adequate sunlight to yield healthy produce.
• Does the site have good drainage and what type of soil is currently in the area that you are planning for your garden? Different size soil particles make up the texture of the soil. Soil may be a combination of sand, silt, clay or loam. Garden soil needs a combination of particle sizes to create a ‘loamy’ soil that drains well, permits roots to penetrate between soil spaces, and allows water and air to flow through.
• What is the pH and nutrient component of your current soil? Will you need to amend or add to the soil to improve its texture and nutrient levels to support healthy plant growth? (Hint: You can contact your local cooperative extension for information on having your soil tested.)
Avoid sites close to a house, garage or barn that has old chipping or peeling paint that may contain lead-based paints that have fallen into the top few feet of soil or areas near an old or current treated deck or porch area that may have soil contaminated with arsenic?
If the current soil is not in good condition, do you have the time and resources to amend the soil or would you prefer to build ‘raised beds’ or use containers for gardening with good quality soil?
• Is there a water source close by to permit you to water the garden during dry periods?
• How much time do you have to devote to tending to your garden? Gardens require soil preparation, planting, weeding, mulching, watering, harvesting, and time to ‘put the garden to bed’ at the end of the season. Consider starting small with a few varieties and adding onto your garden in future years.
• Do you need a fence. Plan now to keep out ‘critters’ such as deer, rabbits, squirrels, ground hogs or neighborhood pets out of the garden.
• Do you have the physical ability to prepare or tend to an ‘in the ground’ garden site? If not, consider raised beds, or containers.
• Will you be gardening with young children? Gardening with children is a terrific way to teach them about where their food comes from and provides a fun outdoor activity you can enjoy together. Consider giving them their own small area and let them choose one or two fast growing vegetable varieties to grow.
• Do you want to start your own plants from seeds indoors or purchase plants from a local nursery?
• What is your plant Hardiness Zone and what are the first and last frost dates for your growing area? Knowing your frost dates helps you determine when you can safely plant seeds or plants in your area. Hint: Check with your local Cornell Cooperative Extension office or USDA Hardiness Zone Map to determine the hardiness zone for the area.
• Should you plant the garden in rows, use square foot grid methods or companion planting methods to maximize the yields? Are there plants that prefer not to be grown next to each other? Hint: Check out companion planting guides.
Once you have answers to all of these questions, you can sketch out your garden site on graph paper and begin planning your new vegetable garden. You can view more gardening tips by visiting our Cornell Cooperative Extension website at www.cceoneida.com or by calling our Horticulture Hotline at 315-736-3394, 9 a.m. to noon on Wednesdays and Fridays.
About the author: Catherine Bullwinkle is a master gardener volunteer with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Oneida County.