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Gardening Columns

Plant Some Veggies!

First published on on May 22, 2008, by Suzanne DeJohn

If you're new to gardening and are inspired to grow some vegetables, you might be unsure how to begin. Here are some things you'll want to consider.

If you want to turn part of your lawn into a small vegetable patch, choose an area in full sun where the grass is growing well. Don't choose the spot where the grass is struggling; chances are the soil there is too wet, too shallow, or has some other problem that will affect the vegetables, too. To get started you have a few options, the best of which will depend on your soil type, budget, and physical strength.

1. Install a prebuilt or homemade raised bed. Remove the sod from the area that will be beneath the bed, then use a garden fork to loosen the soil. (Save the sod and add it to the compost pile; it contains lots of nutrients.) Place the purchased raised bed over the area. Or build one from pavers, stones, or rot-resistant wood, such as cedar.

Then fill it with good quality topsoil. You may be surprised at how much soil it takes to fill a raised bed; a 4-foot by 8-foot bed that is 6 inches high requires 16 cubic feet of soil. Most bags of topsoil contain 1 to 2 cubic feet. So depending on the size, number, and accessibility of the beds, it might pay to have a small truckload of topsoil delivered. In any case, you'll need a strong back to haul, shovel, and spread the soil. While you're filling the bed, mix in one part compost to every three or four parts soil.

Another option is to create a free-standing, flat-topped, 6-inch-high mound of soil with sloping sides over the area. Or ...

2. Rent a powerful rototiller or hire someone to till the area. A large tiller will cut through sod, chop it up, and mix it into the soil. You'll need to pull out remaining clumps of grass, and it will be best to wait a week or two before planting so grass can begin to decompose. The benefit is that you'll be keeping all the nutrients that were contained in the sod; the drawback is that you'll have grass clumps resprouting. Add compost and mix it into the top 8 inches of soil. Or ...

3. Strip sod and use a garden fork to turn and loosen soil to a depth of at least 8 inches, preferably deeper. How much effort this will require depends on your soil type and how compacted it is. Moistening the sod and soil will make the job a little easier. Add compost and mix it into the loose soil. Or ...

4. Grow in containers and begin preparing a garden bed for a fall planting or for next year. Most vegetables adapt well to container growing, and the more time you take to prepare your garden bed, the better results you'll have when you are finally able to plant it. One way to start a new garden is to cover the area with a thick layer of cardboard or newspaper. Wet the area down, then cover it with an organic mulch, such as straw or shredded bark, or with plastic sheeting. In a few months the grass beneath will be dead and you can rototill the area. You can then sow a late-summer garden. Or sow a cover crop such as winter rye. Let it grow over the winter and into early spring, then till it in to add lots of nutrients and organic matter.

Don't forget that you can also add edibles to existing flower gardens. Tuck in vegetables among your flowers. Many vegetables are ornamental, or at least reasonably attractive. Colorful greens, such as red-stalked Swiss chard, and pepper plants fit right into a flower garden. Pole beans and cucumbers can share a decorative trellis with a flowering vine. Look for determinate tomato varieties described as good for containers (they'll sprawl less than indeterminates) and choose those labeled as disease resistant to minimize the various leaf blights that can make plants look sickly.

Many herbs are especially beautiful. Plant purple-leaved basil, sage, thyme, and rosemary among perennials. Add some edible flowers, such as calendula and nasturtiums, for a splash of edible color.

If you spray pesticides on your ornamentals, remember to check pesticide labels to ensure they're labeled for edibles -- or better yet, avoid using pesticides all together.

Soil Amendments
Compost is the best soil amendment; it improves both drainage and the soil's water-holding capacity. It also adds nutrients and boosts soil life. You can purchase compost or make your own. Or ask around; you might find a local source of composted cow manure you can buy by the truckload. Make sure it's well rotted before adding it to the garden -- it should look like dark, rich soil.

Test your soil's pH, a measure of the acidity/alkalinity. Your regional Cooperative Extension office may have soil test kits available for a nominal fee. Or purchase a kit and test it yourself. The benefit of a professional test is that the results will advise you on what you need to add, and this is especially important when it comes to adjusting pH. If soil is too acid or too alkaline, plants can't take up the nutrients they need.

Easiest Summer Crops
Starting from seed. The easiest vegetable crops to grow from seed include beans, beets, cucumbers, greens such as chard, melons, and summer squash. These also reach harvest size quickly. Bush-type varieties of beans, cukes, melons, and squash usually mature faster and take up much less space than vining types. Sow seeds for fast-growing herbs like basil, cilantro, and dill, too.

Pumpkins and winter squash, such as acorn and butternut, are also easy to grow, but you'll need to be patient since you'll harvest in the fall. They also take up a large amount of garden space.

Corn is a warm-season crop that grows quickly from seed. However, you need quite a bit of space since corn grows best when sown in relatively large patches. It's pollinated by wind so grow it in a block rather than a long row. Also, corn earworm is a common problem. I usually buy freshly harvested sweet corn from a local farmer.

Starting with Transplants. Although you can grow tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant from seeds sown in the garden, they are relatively slow-growing so most gardeners start seeds six to eight weeks before the average last frost date. You may still find starter plants (transplants, or seedlings) at garden centers; if not, go ahead and start some seeds, knowing you won't be harvesting until late summer. Herbs like sage, rosemary, and thyme also grow slowly from seed so you'll want starter plants of these, too.

Everyone Has a Green Thumb
And just a last word of encouragement for those of you who have struggled growing edibles in the past: Don't despair. Everyone has a green thumb; like so many other things, gardening takes practice. Fortunately, most gardeners love to share their knowledge. Ask a gardening neighbor for advice; if on an evening stroll you see someone out working in their garden, stop for a chat. Consult your county's Master Gardeners. Go on garden tours to get ideas and meet fellow gardeners.

Visit our Edible Landscaping Web site ( for lots of information on growing your own food. Here's a page on Vegetable Garden Design:

I can't think of any pastime that is as enjoyable, creative, practical, and heath-promoting as growing some of your own food. And children (and adults!) are much more likely to eat vegetables they've grown and harvested themselves.

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