Preparing and Planting a Vegetable Garden
Growing a vegetable garden is a rewarding experience. Begin by choosing a site in your landscape with ample room and sunshine. Also, consider building a raised garden bed, or where space is limited, plant vegetables in large containers. If you are a first-time vegetable gardener, start small, and then expand the garden each year.
For a successful garden, plan well in advance. Sketch a design of the garden on paper. If the garden is going to be in a place where you plan to grow vegetables year round, investigate sun exposure. You might want to plant taller plants in the background and sprawling or lower-growing plants in the foreground of the garden. Plants could be grouped together by the length of their growing season, if planning a year-round garden. Vegetable gardens require a location that receives at least six to eight hours of full sun each day, and must have excellent drainage. The area should have good air movement and be protected from the wind. Avoid planting the garden in any low spots in your yard. These areas are subject to frosts and are slower to warm up.
When deciding on the garden spot, choose a location that is close to your house and easily accessible. You need to check on your garden at least once a day to monitor for possible pests and keep track of your plants’ general health. Decide if you want to grow warm or cold season vegetables, or both. The choice of plants can be determined by your likes and dislikes of certain vegetables—choose ones that you enjoy eating and cooking with. What are your family’s favorites? It is also just as important to know what varieties of vegetables grow best in the Southwest desert. Check with local nurseries and your Cooperative Extension Service for recommended varieties. Also, decide if you are going to plant from seeds or transplants.
Since vegetables have different growing requirements, become familiar with when certain plants should be planted. Some vegetables are cool season, while others need the warmer temperatures to grow. Warm season vegetables include eggplant, pepper, tomato, sweet corn, sweet potato, cucumber, melons, pumpkin, zucchini, and other summer squash. These plants require hotter temperatures to develop and produce fruit, and do not tolerate frost. However, if the temperatures are extremely hot, tomato fruit can sunburn, and the ears of the corn could be damaged. Cool season vegetables include carrots, lettuce, onions, peas, potatoes, broccoli, celery, cabbage, beets, radishes, pumpkins, spinach, and turnips. These plants mature during the cooler weather and do not tolerate the heat.
Whatever spot you use for your garden, prepare the soil before planting. A fertile, well-draining soil high in organic matter is essential for optimum growth and success. Use effective garden tools and equipment when preparing the beds. For a larger garden, hire someone to dig the site using a mini excavator or power rotary tiller. Remove any rocks or large debris from the growing area. Add combinations of manure, peat moss, and fertilizer into the soil at rates of three to four pounds per 1,000 square feet. Apply a complete fertilizer, such as a 10-10-10 nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium combination, evenly to the entire garden area. The nitrogen encourages shoot and leaf growth, potassium hastens root development, and phosphorus stimulates fruit production. Mix amendments into the top foot of prepared soil.
Different types of vegetables like different levels of soil acidity. The pH levels of soil determine the soil’s alkaline or acidic content. The pH scale is divided into 14 units, on which values of 7.0 to 14.0 are alkaline and those from 0.0 to 7.0 are acidic. Most vegetables prefer a pH level of 5.0 to 7.0 and most plants enjoy a soil pH of about 6.5. Since our desert soils are very alkaline, amendments are necessary in order to grow healthy vegetables. Soil tests can determine the correct pH of the soil; send a sample to a local soil-testing lab or take a core sample of the soil to your local Cooperative Extension Service, an excellent resource that many people do not realize they have. It provides free services and informal education programs that can help you not only with your soil questions, but also with other concerns such as pest management and plant problems.
If you are planning on planting vegetables in raised garden spaces or containers, use good potting soil that comes from a garden center. For large raised beds, buy a planter mix from a nursery or dealer that sells soil in bulk. This is more cost effective than buying bags of packaged potting soil. Do not use soil directly from your yard, since the soil may lack the necessary drainage required by vegetable plants. Add a slow-release fertilizer to the soil, providing the required nutrients to support good plant growth.
If your garden soil is poor or heavily compacted, raised bed gardening is a great way to grow vegetables. A raised bed can be made from wood, cinderblock, stone, or brick. Raised gardens don’t need to take up a lot of space, and drainage should be excellent in a raised bed because all of the soil can be imported from a good source. Fill the bed with good quality soil to a depth of a foot or more for vegetable roots to grow.
Planting from Seed
When planting seeds in a container, add soil to about one inch from the top of the pot and wet the soil before adding the seed. Gently press vegetable seeds in the container, raised planter, or ground, and then add a light topping of soil. Read directions of individual seed packets regarding recommended depth and spacing. Water your seeds with a light misting and keep the soil evenly moist until seeds germinate and develop their first set of leaves. After that, space irrigations. Germination times for seeds vary. Once germination occurs, pick the weakest seedlings and remove them without disturbing the healthier seedlings. The selective removal of seedlings provides room for plants to grow and mature. Keep a close eye on seedlings until they become better established.
When it is time to move the seedlings into the ground, sow them in wide rows. Plant the larger vegetables such as cucumbers, pumpkins, squash, melons and corn on mounded areas at recommended spacing. Continue to thin seedlings as needed after germination. Make sure you use fresh seed each year when planting to increase germination rates. Avoid using seed left over from previous years.
Planting from Transplants
Many types of vegetables can be planted in the garden as transplants from either pony packs or other small containers. Tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers might not have enough time to establish in the garden if planted from seeds. When vegetables are purchased for your garden, always buy from reputable local nurseries. Plants should be large and healthy with green leaves, and have a sturdy root system. Be knowledgeable about how many days it takes from planting to harvest of the vegetables you are planting. Find out what varieties to grow for your specific planting location. This ensures success with your garden.
If plants come in pony packs or peat pots from the nursery, protect them when transplanting to the ground by gently removing them from their pots and installing them immediately. Prepare the ground and soil before setting out transplanted vegetables. Additives such as mulch, manure, and fertilizers should have broken down for a week or two in the garden space before setting out new plants.
When planting, work early in the morning or evening, during the cooler parts of the day. Do not let plants dry out and be careful not to disturb the plants’ roots. Set out plants level with the ground. Tomato plants should be planted deep enough to have only two or three sets of leaves exposed above the soil; they will produce new roots from their stems.
Irrigate newly set plants at least once per day, perhaps more on hot days. Once plants are established, reduce the amount of water. Weather conditions help determine how often plants need to be watered. Soaker hoses are easy to use and can be incorporated into your garden watering system. A drip system with emitters can be installed along with spray misters, and as covered in Chapter Three, your system can also be designed to include an automatic valve and timer system. Check with landscape irrigation contractors to design an irrigation system that is easy to use and provides adequate water for your vegetable garden.
Understand that different plants have various fertilizer requirements. For example, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cantaloupes, sweet corn, eggplants, pumpkins, head lettuce, summer squash, tomatoes, and watermelons are heavy feeders. They usually need to be fertilized twice during their growing season. Peas, carrots, onions, sweet potatoes, beans, and garlic are light feeders and require minimum fertilization throughout the growing season. The amount of fertilizer needed depends on the crop being grown, the amount of organic matter in the soil, and the soil’s natural fertility.
If plants need additional fertilizer during the season, apply the nutrients three to four inches from the plants and let the roots absorb the chemical. The second application of fertilizer helps supply plants with essential nutrients required to grow and produce. Provide adequate water to the garden immediately after fertilizing.
Some vegetables need trellis support. Tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, peas, and other vegetables benefit from stakes or trellises. This minimizes space in the garden, protects plants, and aids in harvesting the crops. Set the supports at planting time. The climbing vine vegetables need sturdy upright supports to grow vertically. Pre-made trellises can be found at most garden centers that sell tomatoes and other vertical growing plants. You can also construct your own supports by using materials such as wrought iron, lumber, wooden or steel stakes, and other sturdy materials. Since our summer sun is so hot, trellises also protect maturing crops from sunburn and insects
Keep plenty of shade screen and netting on hand for possible rodent, pack rat, or other animal infestations. There is nothing more frustrating than having animals destroy all of your hard work by eating the maturing crop. After planting seeds or young transplants, cover the area with a light wire mesh or chicken wire to prevent animals and rodents from digging in the newly planted areas. Protect older plants by covering or surrounding them with chicken wire or other smaller, meshed materials. Rocks or similar materials can be dug into the perimeter of the garden to hold down screening material. These materials deter digging and tunneling into your garden. A light netting material also protects maturing crops from sunburn in late summer.
Most crops are harvested several times throughout their growing season. To achieve best results, harvest vegetables when they are young and tender for best flavor and to enhance later production. Different vegetables have different ripening times. The quality of vegetables does not necessarily improve after harvest. When harvesting, avoid bruising or damaging your crop. If ripe vegetables are not easy to remove from the plant, use a sharp knife or tool to carefully cut them. Always check your garden frequently for crops ready to pick. Enjoy your vegetables and have fun growing them.