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Planning your first vegetable garden

Kohlrabi is a cool-season brassica that produces a turnip-flavored swollen stem in as little as six weeks. In addition to early and/or late-season crops, you can tuck in transplants or sow seeds anywhere space becomes available in summer. (Photo provided)

Growing your own vegetables, at least some of them, is a great way to provide fresh, tasty, nutritious food for your kitchen table. Homegrown vegetables are much fresher and taste better than industrially grown, supermarket-purchased produce. And vegetable gardening can be a fun, family activity.

I can think of no better way to leave the hardships of winter behind than to look ahead to spring and summer vegetable gardening. And if you intend to grow vegetables for the first time this year, planning your vegetable garden now will allow you make the most of the time and the space you’ll have available for gardening, this summer. There’s a lot more to vegetable gardening than just digging up a piece of ground and planting.

It’s best to start small. Newbie vegetable gardeners often plant more than they can care for and, because of this, they fail. Weeds and pests need to be controlled. And the time and commitment that this requires, especially in large gardens, cannot be overstated. You can always expand later on or next year. And, with patience and practice, your skills will improve year after year. For now, however, a small backyard in-ground garden, or raised bed for those who wish to avoid digging, should be suitable. Container gardens are an excellent option for additional production or for folks living in apartments.

By laying out your garden plan on paper, you can get an idea of just how big an area you’ll need to accommodate everything you’re planning to grow (and just how realistic or unrealistic your gardening plans actually are). The garden can be any shape you choose, but you must allow adequate space for fully-grown plants (spacing requirements can often be found on seed packages) and gardener access. Taller plants (such as corn, sunflowers) should be positioned at the north end of the garden.

It’s often better to select crops that allow you to produce more food in less space. Many vegetable crops mature within a few months. Several radish varieties, for instance, mature in 30 days or less. And every year, I discover more and more varieties of short season lettuces that are both tasty and attractive. Since lettuce likes cool weather, seed can be planted early in the spring and again, late in the summer. The same can be said for several frost-tolerant varieties of spinach. Several varieties of easy to grow, high-yielding bush beans also mature in two months or less. Bok choy, kohlrabi, and a few varieties of fast-growing beets will reach maturity within two months, as well. If you carefully plan it out and start your first crop early, you can grow a succession of crops in the same garden space: one early, one later and possibly even a third. For example, start with early season lettuce, or Bok choy, followed by a crop of radishes, followed by a late season crop of lettuce or spinach.

Root crops, like onions, beets, and carrots, which are all easy to grow, can be thinned out when they’re young and the smaller ones eaten. You can continue harvesting and eating as the plants mature.

When considering a site, keep in mind that adequate sunlight is essential to produce healthy plants. An appropriate garden site will receive a minimum of six hours of full sun, with eight hours preferred. If this isn’t possible, plan to use varieties that are shade tolerant and hardy. Keep in mind that objects that don’t cast shade on your garden in June, may cast a shadow on it in late August or September, when the sun is lower in the sky.

Good soil is essential, too. In fact, the quality of your garden soil can be the difference between thriving, healthy plants and sickly, struggling, unproductive ones. Loose, fertile, well-drained sandy loam or silt loam soils are best. Gardeners often have to improve or replace the soils they have with amendments that are rich in organic matter. Organic matter creates good texture, helps make garden soils more-readily workable, and promotes the biological activity that allows plant roots to take up necessary nutrients.

Ideally, a garden site will be breezy, but not windy. Good air circulation helps to keep foliage dry, protecting plants from fungal problems, like powdery mildew. But too much wind can dry plants out, stressing or even killing them.

A garden also requires lots of water, especially when you’re starting with seeds or transplanting crops. If it’s at all possible, you should have an adequate supply of water at or near your garden site. Choose a location that your hose or sprinkler can reach.

Last, but certainly not least, plan to keep a journal. Take notes about seed germination (percentages and time) and plant vigor. Note any disease or insect problems, should they arise, and keep a record of the time that you spend working in the garden and the results of your efforts. Mark the successes. And learn from the challenges and disappointments.

If you have questions, contact your local Cornell Cooperative Extension office.

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