Guide to Planting a Vegetable Garden: Follow the Sun!
Not everyone has the room for a real vegetable garden with rows of sweet corn and green beans climbing on a trellis. Not everyone has room for strawberries to spread or grapevines to arch. Not everyone wants their garden to take up their whole backyard.
Still, you can plan a productive garden in a 12' by 12' space (3.66 m)2. (If space limits you to 10' X 10' or 8' X 8', you can follow the same discipline.) Location is the key because sun is the one indispensible element of a good vegetable garden. The garden needs to enjoy as much sunlight as possible, so place it where the sun arcs over from east to west at a slight angle from the south. That way the garden will not be in the shade of a house, outbuilding, or fence.
While sunlight promotes health and growth, hot sun dries and scorches. So, your garden would benefit from a "rooftop" of light fabric elevated by a rack of pvc tubing. You can even erect a few beach umbrellas to protect from the late afternoon scorcher, especially in those climates where the sun hurts in the afternoon and the nights are warm.
·Go for a raised garden bed; this is easier to start and, certainly easier on the back once you have it underway. Stake out the area with the sort of stakes you would use for a tent, and string them together with twine to mark your planned garden location.
· Use a strong organic herbicide spray to kill the weeds, grass, and growth in the square footage where you want to plant. Let the herbicide do its work over three days or so. Then, cover the area you have marked out with weed control fabric, available at any home and garden center. Remember, weeds and devil grasses will fool you every time, so after you have stapled a layer of this fabric in place, place another layer on top in the opposite direction. This should create a good barrier to weed growth.
·Use treated or artificial wood, stone, or imitation stone, or railroad ties. Treated wood or the new synthetic woods are very easy to work with, and it is not difficult to purchase or attach hinges at the corners of your square. The wood comes in a variety of lengths and widths, and you can stack more than one tier to raise the bed higher. Granite or brick can be very attractive but may require some masonry training. Imitation stone is made like cinder block but looks like granite or fieldstone. It is easier to work with than the real thing because it comes in consistent sizes and shapes. Railroad ties are very durable and can be rustic in look, but they are not easily managed because of their weight.
Tip: The height of the raised bed is important . You need 12' or more for adequate root growth, and you want it raised high enough that it is easy on your back when working in the garden. If you are working with wood or railroad ties, their measurement will decide what you can do, but working with stone, lets you layer as high as you want.
· Having framed the garden, you need to fill it. All dirt is not the dirt you need to garden. The soil you prepare is going to be used year after year. So, you want to get the hard part right the first time around. Put down a 2" to 4 " layer of organic material, such as pine needles, straw, or old plants. Wet them down thoroughly and, then, add another 2" to 4" high nitrogen materials, like manure, kitchen garbage, and grass clippings. Mix together 1 cup of bone meal and another cup of cottonseed meal and work it into the layers you have already put down.
Now, you can go the easy way, and ask your garden center professional to recommend a vegetable garden soil for your region. Or, you can mix your own soil. A 12" x 12" by 12' plot is going to take a lot more soil than you think. You want 2/3's of the mix to be native soil and the remaining 1/3 to be additives, such as humus, manure, and lots of compost. Work up a sweat mixing and tilling this soil together so that you have a thorough mix of textures and nutrients. Buy a soil test kit to determine the phosphorous (ph) and acid levels. If they are high, ask your garden expert for advice on an additive to reduce these levels.
Tip: You are going to water this plot thoroughly and frequently for three days to encourage the soil to settle. This is a good time to wind a soaker hose throughout the plot to make watering easier later and to assure deep watering when you do. Once the soil has settled, add more soil mixture until you reach the top of the bed.
· You can plant now but not without a plan. Remember how the sun moves. I once planted tomatoes so they would get the first sun, but I lost my tomato blossoms to that same hot sun. Now, I choose vegetable plants that are marked for a zone hotter than my own.
Tip: (The U.S. is zoned for plantings that will do best in the numbered area across the country. With global warming, I have found it smarter to buy plants that are ready for the zone south of my native zone; this allows them to be ready for warmer days and nights.)
Draw a plan on paper with space between rows and between plants. Place onions around the edge; they do not take up much room. Plant a row of flowers, such as cosmos or marigolds; they fend off varmints and insects and create some beneficial shade at the bottom of the garden.
Plant corn to grow tall in the next row. This will get the morning sun first and provide some needed shade for upstarts in the next rows. After one row of corn, I plant some eggplant and cucumbers which lay low and spread among other plants. In the last rows, I place peppers and tomatoes. The tomatoes and peppers will grow lush and fruitfully because they have been in filtered sun throughout the morning. Notice that their best fruit is on the lowest branches where they do not get the harsh afternoon sun.
Plotting, filling, and planting is not the end. You must water morning and evening, and keep weeds from the base of the plants and rows in between. But, you will be picking peppers and tomatoes within 60 days and the rest shortly thereafter. Enjoy!