Tips for the Best Vegetable Garden. Ever.
Starting a vegetable garden couldn’t be easier. And much like store bought eggs can’t hold a candle to eggs collected from your backyard flock, commercial tomatoes just can’t compare to a sun ripened tomato straight from the vine. Farm to table eating is en vogue right now and with good reason. The shorter a trip produce has to make from the garden to your plate, the fresher and more delicious it will be.
Planting a vegetable garden for your family is as easy to doing some proper pre-planning and then right diving in. Don’t worry if you don’t have a green thumb -armed with just a bit of basic knowledge, your garden will be a success. I promise. Even if you don’t have much space for a garden, lots of plants do just fine in patio containers. Tomatoes, cucumbers, peas and all kinds of herbs will thrive in planters on the back patio.
Tips to Consider Before you Start a Vegetable Garden
#1 Location, location, location – Just like in real estate, gardening is all about location. Be sure you choose a spot for your garden that will receive at least 6 hours of full sunlight a day – and 8 or more is better. Consider the distance to the house for frequent trips back and forth with your harvested produce, as well as the ease of getting your hose to the garden.
#2 Size Matters aka Bigger isn’t Always Better – Decide on a realistic size for your garden. A book like Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew (Cool Springs Press, 2013) can come in handy to help you figure out how many plants you can fit in each square foot of garden space – and how big (or small) a garden you should plant. If you start too big, your garden will likely get away from you and you’ll lose interest in weeding, bug control and even harvesting all your produce.
#3 Test the Soil – Most university labs or extension services offer soil testing kits for a nominal fee. Preferably the fall before you plan to start your garden, scoop some soil into the cardboard box provided in the kit from the area you plan to plant in, send it off, and wait for the results. Then add the recommended soil amendments to correct your pH levels. Most vegetables like soil pH to be between 6.0-6.5. If your soil is too acidic, add some wood ash or lime, if it’s too alkaline, some pine needles can add acidity.
#4 Prepare the Soil – Turn your soil over to aerate it, lessen compaction and eliminate any grass or weeds growing in the plot you’ve chosen for your garden. If you plant a few months ahead, consider instead just covering the plot with plastic tarp to smother the weeds and existing grass and to make it easier to prep your soil in the spring. Manually turning over the soil with a shovel also works but can be back-breaking. A mechanized tiller often compacts the soil too much and destroys the structure. Consider saving yourself some work and turning your chickens loose in the area to help eradicate weeds and grass a bit more gently.
#5 Fence it in – If you have a deer or rabbit problem, consider fencing in your garden. Poultry netting, chicken wire or deer netting will all work to keep out wildlife – as well as your chickens who will just love to eat your seeds, munch on your tender seedlings, and scratch up your plant roots!
#6 Get in the Zone – your planting zone that is. Find out what plant hardiness zone you’re in and choose plants that will do well in your climate. Most seed catalogs and packets list the appropriate planting zones for that particular variety, as well as the timing as to when you should sow the seeds.
If you’re in a cold climate, you might want to consider starting seeds indoors to get a jump on the growing season, but if you’re a new gardener, direct sowing into the ground once the soil has warmed and the danger of frost has passed is far easier. Be sure to invest in some row covers or straw mulch to use to protect your seedlings in the event of an unexpected cold snap. Check this map to find your planting zone. Straw mulch also helps keep weeds at bay and helps the ground retain moisture throughout the growing season.
#7 Plant What you’ll Eat. This seems like simple advice, but too many gardeners starting out like to plant exotic or odd vegetables that, while often fun to grow, no one wants to eat. So plant those things in your vegetable garden that you’ll be apt to use in your cooking and that your family will enjoy eating. The basics make a wonderful harvest, so consider things like tomatoes, lettuce, spinach, cucumbers, peas, zucchini, peppers, beets, potatoes or eggplant.
#8 Feed your Garden – add some compost or other organic matter to nourish the soil before planting. Top dressing the soil with chicken poop tea after your seeds have sprouted is a great way to provide them essential nitrogen to grow nice green leaves, as is adding chicken feathers to your soil. Your soil test will also measure the phosphorus and potassium levels in your soil. Shrimp or lobster shells will add phosphorus to your soil, while banana or kiwi peels will add potassium. If you need more calcium in the soil, wood ash or crushed eggshells both provide that much-needed nutrient.
#9 Give your Plants a Drink – Plants need an inch of water a week. Put a rain gauge in your vegetable garden to measure the rainfall and supplement the rain with manual watering from the hose or a watering can if Mother Nature isn’t cooperating.
#10 Attract Natural Pest Fighters – Put up birdhouses and bat houses, set terracotta pots upside down under the shade of a plant with a small ‘door’ knocked in one side for toads with a small dish of water nearby. Plant herbs such as borage, mint and yarrow that attract the ‘good bugs’ among your vegetable plants, and ring the perimeter of your garden with pest-repelling plants such as calendula and dill. These steps can all help control the bad bugs and keep them from munching on your vegetables. (If you do find bug-eaten vegetables, remember to share them with your chickens. They don’t mind a worm or bug in the least.)
#11 Encourage the Pollinators – Many plants need pollination from another plant in order to produce fruit. Encourage bees, butterflies, ants and other pollinators to your vegetable garden by planting colorful flowers such as sunflowers, Echinacea, bee balm or salvia in among your vegetable plants – and consider letting some of your herbs flower to keep the pollinators coming back throughout the season. Basil, dill, thyme and pineapple sage in particular have pretty flowers in addition to smelling wonderful.
Note: there are commercial fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides on the market, but many can be harmful to your family, the environment, and your pets as well as your chickens, so if you are an organic gardener or allow your chickens into your vegetable garden on the off season, you’ll want to stick with some of the safe, natural ideas suggested here.
Following these simple tips and a bit of careful planning should ensure that you’re eating sun-ripened tomatoes right from your backyard in no time!
If you’re interested in learning how to integrate your chickens into your vegetable garden for the mutual benefit of both your flock and your crops, keep an eye out for my new book Gardening with Chickens (Voyageur Press, 2016) set to be released this coming December.