Gardening is a life-long learning process. And while there's an abundance of gardening information available in books, magazines, and on-line, this article covers a few tips to help get you started, including:
Testing for heavy metals:If your garden is located in an urban area, near a road, or an older building, you should test the soil for elevated levels of lead. Lead is often found in soils because for many years it was an ingredient in both paint and gasoline. Other heavy metals could be present if there were mining or other industrial activities nearby. Local or state health agencies often provide test kits for heavy metals for low cost, or for free. Test kits may also be available at local hardware and garden stores. If you have high lead concentrations in your soil, the best option is to cover the soil with a permeable weed barrier and install "raised beds" filled with clean soil or a specialized Raised Bed Mix.
Evaluate the potential productivity of your garden in terms of soil type, fertility, drainage properties, and the amount of sunlight
Soil Types and Quality: Soil is made up of MINERAL matter and ORGANIC matter. Mineral matter is basically "weathered", or ground up rock. The relative size of the mineral particles is used to classify soils as either sandy, silty, or clay.
The organic matter in the soil consists of both LIVING organisms (e.g. insects, worms, bacteria, fungi, etc.), as well as the decomposing remains of DEAD plants, animals, and insects. The portion of dead organic matter is called "loam" and when loam is present at high levels, soil is classified as either clay-loam, sandy-loam, or silty-loam. For lots of reasons, soils with higher organic matter content will also be more fertile. For home gardeners, adding compost and protecting the surface of the soil with a layer of mulch is the easiest way to increase the amount of organic matter in soil.
Since plants need and absorb oxygen through their roots, when the soil is saturated with moisture and/or is compacted, the amount of oxygen available to growing plants will be reduced. For this reason, gardens should be located on well-drained soil and NOT where water collects and/or the soil tends to be wet for long periods of time. And if finding an alternative location is not an option, raised beds can be installed to elevate raise the height of the root zone above the wet soil.
Access to Sunlight:
Most garden vegetables need at least 5 to 10 hours of DIRECT sunlight per day, with some needing lots of sun (e.g. tomatoes, eggplant and peppers) and some needing a bit less sun (e.g. lettuce and spinach). The amount of sun exposure also can effect soil temperature, which is important because some vegetables require very warm soil (e.g. tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, beans), while others can tolerate cooler soil temperatures (e.g. peas, lettuce, spinach). It's also important to consider garden placement in regard to the shade that will created by nearby trees that will grow taller and wider over time.
Essential ToolsThere's a huge variety of gardening tools available, but here's a few tools that I consider essential:
Turning a lawn or field into a vegetable gardenIf a proposed garden is currently covered with grass or vegetation, there are a few techniques to prepare the area for planting, including:
Ensure there's sufficient nutrients and organic matter in your garden soil In addition to water and oxygen, plants require a variety of nutrients for optimum growth. And while most people have heard of the three major (or "macro") plant nutrients - nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K) - plants also require a variety of "micro-nutrients". Though not critical, collecting a soil sample and having it analyzed by a soil testing lab can provide some useful information about the existing nutrient levels, pH, and organic matter content in your soil. There are many soil testing labs, including those at "land-grant" colleges for between $25 to $50.
Although animal manure has long been used to add nutrients and organic matter to agricultural soils, because of the presence of pathogens and weed seeds, fresh or raw animal manure should not be applied to a backyard garden. However, since properly composted animal manure is free of both weed seeds and pathogens, it's a good source of both nutrients and organic matter for a home garden. Compost is also made from food scraps, leaves, grass, and other plant matter. More information on the value of compost can be found the article Compost and the Living Soil".
Compost can be purchased in bags or in bulk (ie. by the cubic yard). And since there's lots of different compost products on the market, there's also a wide range in quality and price. The amount of compost needed will depend on the size of the garden, the soil type, the existing organic matter content, whether it's a new or existing garden, how well the soil had been cared for, and how deep you're able to mix in the compost. You'll want to achieve a concentration of about 15 to 20% compost (by volume, not weight) within the root zone, which is roughly the top 8 to 10 inches. To estimate the volume of compost you'll need, it's useful to know that one cubic yard (27 cubic feet) of compost spread out one inch thick will cover 320 sq ft, a cubic yard spread out two inches thick will cover 160 sq ft, and a cubic yard spread out three inches thick will cover 120 sq ft.
Nitrogen is a key macro-nutrient that garden vegetables need for optimum growth. All compost contains some amount of nitrogen, and there's generally higher concentrations in compost made from animal manure, and lower concentrations in compost made primarily from plant-based material. In either case, the nitrogen in compost is in a "stable" form that's only slowly available to plants. And since vegetables tend to need relatively high concentrations of nitrogen (compared to slower growing shrubs and trees), there might not be enough nitrogen available at the time when the plants need it most. There are lots of possible causes for vegetable plants to struggle, but if the problem is insufficient available nitrogen (which is often evidenced by slow growth and yellowing leaves), an extra dose of readily-available nitrogen can be provided from the use of "fish emulsion" (ground up fish), "blood meal", or an organic granulated fertilizer. A deficiency in phosphorus can be avoided by adding bone meal, or compost made from animal manure, especially poultry manure. A product called "green sand" is typically used if the soil is deficient in potassium.
To avoid or correct a deficiency in one or more micro-nutrients, gardeners and farmers often use a product called Azomite and/or sea kelp.
Garden design/layoutThere's lots of information available about garden design and layout, but the most important considerations include:
Planting from seedsVegetables are either grown from seeds sown directly into the soil, or from seedlings, which are young plants grown and/or purchased in pots.
Vegetables typically planted from seeds:
Planting from seedlings
Vegetables typically planted from seedlings:
Tips to reduce "transplant shock"
Depending on the amount of disturbance to their root systems, plants will undergo an acclimation period as they grow new root hairs to replace those that were damaged during transplanting. "Transplant shock" describes the situation in which the damaged root system is incapable of taking in as much moisture from the soil as the plant is losing from its leaves, which can result in temporary "wilting". The following actions will help reduce the potential and/or severity of transplant shock:
Weed managementThe commonly accepted definition of a weed is a plant that's growing where it's not wanted, often due to competition for sunlight, nutrients and water. For most people, weeding is one of the least enjoyable gardening activities, and methods to minimize the amount of time spent weeding include:
Soil moisture management Since vegetables need constant moisture to thrive, maintaining optimum soil moisture throughout the gardening season will mean the difference between a healthy garden, or one that struggles just to stay alive. And while it may seem that watering is a pretty simple, it's actually a bit more complicated than most novice gardeners realize.
For example, most of the water that plants need is absorbed through their root systems, NOT through the leaves as some novice gardeners might assume. Therefore, rather than wetting the leaves of plants, proper watering requires that the SOIL is thoroughly moistened. And since the roots of vegetables often extend to a depth of 6 to 10 inches, the soil needs to be kept moist to a depth of 6 to 10 inches as well, and this requires a LOT more rain and/or longer watering sessions than most novice gardeners would think. And ultimately, the only way to know if enough rainfall or watering has been done is to manually check the moisture level with one's fingers to at least a depth of three or four inches.
A note about raised beds: Although there are many advantages of raised beds, they do tend to dry out more quickly than in-ground garden beds, especially during periods of hot and dry weather, which is becoming increasingly common in Vermont. And while the use of straw mulch will help reduce moisture loss from the soil, raised beds generally need more frequent watering than regular gardens.
Planting flowers in a vegetable garden:There are lots of reasons to plant annual flowers in and around your vegetable garden, including aesthetics, attracting pollinators, and being able to harvest "cut" flowers. Unless you have lots of space, the best flowers for this purpose are those that don't get too tall or wide, and don't easily re-seed and become weeds. There are lots of choices, but one of the best flowers for this purpose are snap dragons.