Getting Started with Vegetable Gardening

Basket of PeppersMany families are turning to gardening this year, many for the first time, with expectations of providing nutritious, fresh produce to the family.  While this is realistic there are some considerations in starting your garden. Considerations can be grouped into 3 L’s, location, location, location and 3S’s, sun, soil, and seed selection.

In choosing a location we want full sun, i.e. all day sunny, location. Most of our vegetable crops require nearly full days of sun to grow and produce properly so choose a location with maximum direct sunlight.

The soil in the chosen location needs to be loose, rich in nutrients and well drained. Sandy soil is easiest to work; clay soils require more work and amendments. Any grass must be killed or removed before starting a garden. Grass, especially an invasive type like Bermuda, will overrun a fertile, watered garden quickly and become very difficult to control.

Clay soils require amendments to loosen the soil. Expanded shale is good for this as is compost or other organic matter (OM) i.e.: leaves, shredded hardwood mulch, etc. Don’t try to convert clay soil to sandy loam by adding sand. That will create a hard soil that is impossible to work. Sandy soils are preferred because of the ease to work and they drain better but these also require addition of compost or other organic material. As the OM decomposes it will release nutrients into the soil.

Most soils require additional nutrients added in the form of fertilizer, either organic or inorganic. A soil test from a reputable lab is best to determine the needs.

One way to minimize the work involved in developing a garden is to use an existing flower bed. These areas are already worked up and devoid of grass, have amendments added, and probably in sunny areas.

Vegetables growing around the house and the fence perimeter are very attractive with various colors and textures of foliage. Additionally, the fruits produced such as tomatoes, eggplant, carrots, etc. stimulate conversation amongst neighbors and science lessons for the kids. Tomatoes and eggplant add color while carrots, greens and the cole crops add interesting textures.

What you plant is dependent on how much space you have, what your family will eat and time of year. If you have a very limited area, don’t plant corn, vining crops like melons unless you provide a climbing fence for them to grow vertically, or others that take a lot of space per pound of yield. Crops like beans, carrots, onions, beets, lettuce are better choices. There are cool season crops like potatoes, cole crops such as cabbage, broccoli, most greens. onions, carrots, etc. These crops should be planted January through February. Warm season crops, beans, tomatoes, vining crops, eggplant, etc. should be planted early March through May. These will not tolerate freezing temperatures and the average date of last freeze in the Denton area is March 21.  When planting before this date and for several weeks following you must be prepared to protect any warm season crop in the event of a late frost.

So if I am going to start a new vegetable garden this year and have limited resources, space, money and time, I am going to look for the sunniest flower bed in my yard. I will send a soil sample into a lab for nutrient testing (see soiltesting.tamu.edu for forms and instructions), and then add amendments and fertilizer as recommended. I am going to choose only warm season crops, because we are already into March, and wait until early April before I plant any seeds to reduce the risk of a late frost.

Another inexpensive method of gardening in small areas is container gardening. Take several containers, nursery pots, pails with drain holes, wooden boxes, etc. and fill with flower bed soil or potting mix available at a home garden center. These are great for tomatoes, potatoes and other heavy-producing plants. One advantage is the portability for sun exposure as shadow patterns change with sun angle, and to open activity areas on the patio or yard.

Gardening is fun and rewarding, a great family activity, a great stress reliever. However it is not inexpensive and does require regular attention to control weeds and insect problems. Choose your space and get to work, it’s a great hobby.

– Alan Kirchhoff, Denton County Master Gardener

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