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    Tips for growing a successful vegetable garden

    Authored by P. Allen Smith, Photography by Kelly Quinn

    If you are starting a vegetable garden this year, congratulations! You are about to join the ranks of millions of Americans who have discovered how much fun it is to grow their own food.

    However, I think it's only fair to warn you that this is a wonderfully addictive hobby. In fact, gardening is one of America's favorite pastimes. You'll understand why once you've tasted your first home-grown tomato or enjoyed the delicious flavor of fresh corn on the cob. Before you know it, you'll be discussing the merits of heirloom varieties with fellow gardeners and impressing your guests with tasty recipes made from your homegrown garden produce.

    Now, before you turn your entire back yard into a vegetable plot, I encourage you to be realistic about how much time you have to work in your garden and the amount of money you want to spend. It's far better to start small so you can enjoy the process and be successful. You can always expand your garden later.

    Choosing a garden spot

    A successful vegetable garden needs at least seven hours of full sun each day. To find that spot on your property, check the area you have in mind for your garden several times from sunrise to sunset.

    Choose a spot close enough to an outdoor faucet or source of water for efficient watering. Soaker hoses and drip irrigation systems that can be attached to a water timer make watering less of a chore.

    I'd also encourage you to choose a location where you can see your garden every day; that way, you are more likely to notice when it needs to be watered or if something is ready to be harvested.

    But the foundation of any great garden is the soil. If you don't get the soil right, gardening will be a constant struggle with less-than-rewarding results. Most vegetable plants are rapid growers so they need rich soil.

    Now, don't be concerned if your property isn't blessed with the ideal blend. This is where framed beds can come in handy. A framed bed is a bottomless box made of wood that you place on top of the ground and then add your own soil mix. I have used this method for years with great results.

    All you need are four 1-inch x 12-inch boards that are 4 feet long. Using 3 wood screws in each corner, securely attach the boards together to create a square. Place a level along the top of the board on each side to make sure the frame is balanced. You may need to dig a small trench under the frame so it sits level on the ground. Then position a 2-inch x 2-foot wooden stake at the center of each board on the inside of the bed and hammer the stake into the ground about 1-foot deep. This will help anchor the beds. With the frame in place, you are ready to add the soil.

    I have a good deal of clay in my soil so this is the recipe I use to create the perfect growing medium in my framed beds:

    Framed bed soil recipe

    Blend the following ingredients in these ratios:

    • 50 percent existing garden soil
    • 25 percent aged manure
    • 25 percent compost or humus

    Fill the framed beds with this soil mixture to about 2 inches from the top of the bed so there is just enough room to tuck your plants in and add a layer of mulch. Many garden centers will deliver premixed garden soil by the cubic yard and you can also buy it by the bag for small beds.

    One cubic yard covers about 100 square feet 3 inches deep. My raised beds are 4 feet x 4 feet or 16 square feet and 12 inches deep, so I use a little over a half cubic yard of soil for each bed.

    Planting seeds or seedlings

    Most gardeners buy some of their garden plants such as green peppers and tomatoes as seedlings, rather than grow them from seeds. This ensures that they will be able to harvest the produce earlier in the season. For fast-growing vegetables such as lettuce, radishes, and beets, you can sow seeds directly in the soil outdoors.

    When you grow vegetables in framed beds, don't plant in traditional rows. I divide the bed into sections and plant vegetables in blocks. To determine how many seeds or plants to put in a block requires knowing how big the plant will grow.

    Large plants such as green peppers and cherry tomato plants need about a square foot of space. Bush beans and leaf lettuce need about 4 inches between plants and radishes require only 3 inches.

    Lay a yardstick or tape measure on the soil of the bed so you can measure off four 1-foot squares. Use your finger to draw lines in the soil. Within each block use your finger to make a small indentation in the soil where each seed or plant should go, based on its spacing requirement.

    So one green pepper plant would grow in the center of a 1-foot square, but in another 1-foot square you can divide it up and put several plants inside that square. For example, you can divide the square into nine 4-inch blocks and plant a bush bean seed in each block. Or you can divide the square into 16 3-inch blocks and plant a radish seed in each block.

    Make a hole with your finger and cover the seeds with fine soil to that depth (no clods or rocks) and lightly tamp the soil over the seeds. Water the area thoroughly using a gentle spray so that you don't disturb or uncover the seeds.

    Special seed preparations

    As you plant more types of vegetables and herbs, you'll discover that some seeds have hard outer coats that need some extra preparation.

    My grandmother soaked okra seeds overnight in buttermilk and said that always guaranteed a good rate of germination. I've found a few other methods that work as well. Place the seeds in six times their volume of hot (not boiling) water and let them soak for 24 hours before planting. Other gardeners I know file the seeds carefully with sandpaper or an emery board.

    Start slow-sprouting seeds such as onions and beets under a strip of burlap, which will warm in the sun and let water in. Keep them moist and check them daily for signs of sprouting, then remove the cover at the first signs of growth.

    Succession planting

    Vegetables mature at different rates so your radishes will be ready to eat long before your tomatoes are ripe. Once an early-maturing crop has been harvested, use that empty space to plant more vegetables.

    Some gardeners start plants in pots and when a space opens in the garden, they transplant it to finish in the framed bed. I plant broccoli seeds between broccoli seedlings so they won't all be ready at the same time.

    Crop rotation

    A rule gardeners follow is not to grow the same crop year after year in the same place. Disease-causing organisms gradually accumulate in the soil over time. Different vegetables are susceptible to certain diseases, so rotating crops helps avoid this problem.

    This rule also applies to plants in the same botanical family, so cabbage and broccoli which belong to the mustard family, and tomatoes and eggplant, both members of the nightshade family, should not be planted in the same areas in successive years.

    Frost dates

    It is important for you to know your area's average first and last frost dates because it determines your growing season. Several online sites provide the dates based on your ZIP code.

    These average dates may differ slightly year to year, but they provide a basic window of time for your planting schedule.

    Most vegetable seeds and tender seedlings need to be planted outdoors after the last frost date, so you shouldn't start your garden until after the danger of frost has passed. However, you can start seeds indoors a few weeks in advance, and if your growing season is long enough you can also plant successive crops.

    Look at the back of seed packets to find out how many days are required for the vegetables to produce. This will tell you when to sow the seeds indoors and if your growing season is long enough for successive plantings.

    What to plant

    When you are starting out and using the framed boxes, I recommend you plant vegetables that are relatively easy to grow and don't take up much room. But even more importantly, you should grow things you want to eat.

    Here's a list of some of my favorite vegetables that are fun to grow and produce a good yield:

    • Leaf lettuce (My favorites are Buttercrunch and Salad Bowl)
    • Radishes (There are lots of varieties. I like Cherry Belle)
    • Cherry tomatoes (Compact and tasty)
    • Green peppers (You'll save lots of money growing your own)
    • Bush green beans (Big yields from small plants)

    Pest prevention

    Eliminate aphids, spider mites, or mealy bugs with this homemade remedy:

    Combine 1 tablespoon dishwashing liquid with 1 cup vegetable oil. Then dilute 1 tablespoon of this concentrate in 1 cup of water and spray onto infected plants. Test on a small area first before applying to the entire plant.

    Allen's gardening tips

    A safe way to set back an invasion of caterpillars in your vegetable garden is to spray them with Bacillus thuringiensis also known as BT, an effective bacteria used for natural insect control.

    • Plant extra parsley in your garden for swallowtails and other butterfly larvae.
    • Strips of old panty hose are great to tie climbing vines, such as tomatoes, to their supports.
    • Experiment! Try some of the new and different vegetables such as yard-long asparagus beans.
    • Save money by growing "pricey produce" such as lettuce, fresh herbs, and tomatoes.
    • Wrap the stems of tomato plants with a band of aluminum foil at the soil line to keep cutworms away.