When seed and plant catalogues start arriving in the mail in early January, I eagerly flip through the pages, looking for inspiration and ideas for our summer vegetable garden. Not that it really matters – we tend to stick to the tried and true vegetables, such as cucumbers, zucchini, tomatoes, beans, peppers, and broccoli, but the catalogue pictures are fun to look at. Of course, these pictures always show vibrant, thriving plants in lush gardens, which is a goal we all strive for, but sometimes have trouble achieving, but hope springs eternal!
Experienced gardeners know that, unfortunately, gardening is a little more involved than just digging a hole in the ground, popping a seed or two inside, and watching the plant grow. Vegetable gardening is actually a lot of hard work with many variables at play which can affect the success of your efforts, including weather, pests, and diseases, but most of us are motivated by the thought of the rewards when harvest time comes around, with fresh vegetables readily available for immediate gratification or for preserving for future enjoyment. And an added bonus is that you can control and limit any outside chemicals used in your garden, so that you know what exactly has gone into the food you are eating.
If the gardening bug has hit you this year and you are ready to put in your own vegetable garden, one of the key things to consider, as is commonly said in real estate, is “location, location, location!” A successful garden needs adequate space, lots of sunlight, and good, rich soil.
A wonderfully informative (and free!) resource for beginning gardeners (as well as more experienced gardeners) is the UNH Cooperative Extension. The Cooperative Extension has an office in every county plus the Family Home and Garden Center in Manchester, and staff members are available by phone and email to answer questions about agriculture, consumer issues, home and garden, wildlife, forestry, and nutrition. They can be reached toll free at 1-877-398-4769.
Help and information is also available online at www.extension.unh.edu/. The website has a long list of publications which you can view and print out free of charge. Topics about vegetable gardens include general gardening, guidelines for transplanting starter plants to the garden, pest control, plant diseases, nuisance wildlife, mulching, pesticides, and fertilizers, just to name a few. The Cooperative Extension also offers services such as soil testing for a small fee, so that you can determine just what your garden needs to improve its composition before you start.
Two publications that I consider to be useful to beginning gardeners include a very general one-page guideline to vegetable gardening optimistically entitled, 10 Steps to Success with Your Vegetable Garden, and it highlights ten things to consider when planning and taking care of your garden, including site selection, selecting plants for our New Hampshire climate, spacing requirements, disease prevention, and watering.
The other publication which is particularly helpful is entitled, Choosing a Home Garden Site. This publication stresses the need for a site that receives sun all day, is protected from the wind, has well-drained, fertile top soil, and is free of weeds and rocks. The publication reads, “Fertile soil is essential for a productive garden. Vegetable crops do not absorb nutrients well in either heavy clay soils or light, sandy soils. Poor soils can be improved greatly with…ample additions of compost and well-rotted animal manure.”
The key here is “well-rotted.” If you add fresh manure to your garden, the plants can be “burned,” so manure that has been allowed to age is preferable. We found this out the hard way in our own garden when we added fresh cow manure from a local farm to our soil one year before planting, only to have trouble with our plants failing to thrive during the growing season.
Another mistake that we made a few years back was that we continually added wood ash from our woodstove during the winter to the garden spot, thinking it would enrich the soil come spring. Wood ash may be good in limited amounts – but like anything else, wood ash can seriously alter the organic composition and pH balance of your garden, so a little goes a long way.
We also learned an important lesson about the difference between screened loam and unscreened loam. If your soil is not high quality to start with and you ask a helpful friend deliver a truck load of top soil and loam – make sure that it is screened! When we first put in our garden 15 years ago, the only sunny spot was rocky and full of ledge, so we had some loam trucked in – rich loam freshly removed from a construction site near a local river. It was unscreened, so I dutifully spent a few days picking out rocks and sticks – only to come down with one of the nastiest cases of poison ivy that I’ve ever had! We had our “friend” truck the loam right back out and replace it with screened loam, and to this day, we occasionally remind him of how thankful we were for his generosity….
Another tactic that you can use if you have really rocky soil all over your yard is to create raised beds. Raised beds consist of some sort of barrier, which can hold in about 6 inches of added top soil. Most people build these rectangular barriers out of wood, especially if they are just putting in small herb gardens, but we have a neighbor who is quite creative in making raised beds – he recycles old rubber truck tires and round pieces from plastic barrels, which he places in various sunny spots in his yard. Surprisingly enough, his efforts are quite successful.
Before planting anything in your garden, you probably should consider having your soil analyzed to determine what, if any, types of fertilizer that you need to add to optimize growing conditions. A lot of people (us included) just blindly pick up bags of fertilizer at the garden stores that contain standard amounts of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium without knowing if the garden already has enough of these nutrients.
The UNH Cooperative Extension offers soil testing for $17, and the analysis will detail amounts of lead, calcium magnesium potassium, phosphorus, and organic matter in your soil, as well as measure the pH (acidity) level. Obviously, you don’t want lead in your soil, but the other elements need to be in balance too.
After a few years of harvests that were getting more and more mediocre from our garden, we had the soil tested last fall, and found out that we have very high levels of phosphorus – about 12 times as much as recommended. This imbalance probably came about due to the fresh manure and other composted organic matter that my husband faithfully rototilled in year after year “to improve the fertility of our garden.” In addition to the analysis, the Coop also offers recommendations to correct any imbalances (in our case, they basically suggested that we avoid composts or manures for awhile). Soil tests are recommended every couple of years.
A couple of other things to consider when planning a garden include its size and whether or not to fence it in. The size obviously depends a great deal on how much space is available, what you want to grow, and how many people you want to feed. If there are only a couple of people to consider, a huge garden is probably not necessary, unless you plan to do a lot of canning and freezing later in the summer.
I’ve always heard that the general rule of thumb is that two or three tomato plants will produce an ample amount of tomatoes for personal consumption during the summer, but my husband and I have a hard time throwing away plants, so we routinely end up putting in two or three dozen tomato plants (as well as planting five or six hills of squash and cucumbers, which we fail to thin out). As a result, much of my late summer and early fall time is spent making pickles, relishes, zucchini bread, and tomato sauce, much to the delight of family, friends, and neighbors.
Once you decide what it is you want to plant, you have to allow enough room for the plants as they grow – and grow, and grow. This is particularly true of squash and cucumber plants, which start off small and neat in their little hills and then insidiously start to take over the rest of the garden, making it hard to move around without accidently stepping on a vine. Likewise, tomato plants like to take over and expand outside of their neat little tomato hoops, making it a challenge to reach and harvest these nice ripe tomatoes in the middle of the tight pack!
Whether or not to fence in your garden is another thing to think about when planning your garden. It’s probably impractical to fence in a really large garden, but it makes sense to fence in smaller gardens, particularly if you have active, curious pets or live near areas teaming with wildlife. Although a fence may not be able to keep out 100% of animals, such as hungry deer interested in nibbling your lettuce and cabbages, or burrowing animals who want a taste of your carrots and turnips, a fence at least makes it harder for these unwanted animal pests to help themselves and destroy all your hard work, so we always put one up. At the very least, the fence does keep the dogs out.
Although it may seem that having a home garden takes a lot of hard work and time, the rewards are great – you have the satisfaction of watching your seeds and seedlings turn into fresh, high quality produce that is conveniently located right on your own doorstep!