7 Steps to a Great Vegetable Garden

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Jes Raised Beds 2013 (1)

Every year, I pull out my colored pencils and sketch out a plan for my garden. There are numerous planning tools online that allow you to create something more technical and perfect, but the whimsy of putting colored pencil to paper makes me feel more connected to the process. And hells bells, it’s just more fun! Goodness knows we all need a little more of that in our lives.

Despite the roughness of my hand drawn designs (I even wrote down 4’x8′ on each bed when they are actually 4’x4′), there is a plan and method to the madness. I think through a number of factors to plan my gardens, which I’ll share with you here. But even the best laid plans can be sabotaged by unexpected factors, and this season was no exception. I’ll get into that some, too, in the below.

1. Light. First things first, Sunshine. Almost all vegetables require a hearty dose of sunlight and very few will flourish in the shade. Plant where you have light. This is not something you can fix or substitute. Sunlight (or growing lights) are an basic requirement. If you only have shade to work with you do have some options. I suggest reading Shawna Coronado’s tips for growing a vegetable garden in the shade. I have had pretty good luck with herbs in the shade, too.

2. Space. Be realistic about the space you have and what can fit within it without overcrowding. Overcrowding your vegetable plants creates root competition for water, weakens your plants and assists with the development of diseases and invasion of biological pests. Read the labels on your plants and give them the space they need and deserve. I have a lot of vining plants in my raised beds- squash, cucumbers, watermelon (which was added after the drawing was finished). All of those plants are placed on outer corners where they can easily grow over the sides and be pulled onto the woodchips on the landscaping behind the beds. I planned for extra space outside the beds, but not in the grass, which I want to keep trimmed.

3. Good Soil and Fertilization. Healthy, nutrient rich soil with adequate organic matter is the basis of a bountiful garden. If you don’t take the time to build a solid foundation of earth for your plants, they will not thrive. In fact, depending on the conditions, they may just die. This year, I built raised beds at my new home, 1 – 3×3 bed for herbs and 4 – 4’x4′ beds for vegetables and fruit (tomatoes and watermelon). I had a local, (supposedly) reputable company deliver a top soil called “Gotta Grow” that was designed for raised beds and contained 30% compost. When the soil was delivered it looked muddy and rocky. I even found bits of plastic bags throughout the soil as I started to shovel it out. Instead of using my best judgment and calling to demand a replacement I moved full steam ahead with filling my new beds with this “soil”.

Seedlings at the Portland Farmers Market in Oregon
Seedlings at the Portland Farmers Market in Oregon
I planted over $300 in seedlings in the soil. Weeds were a constant problem and I was pulling them everyday (another red flag for the quality of the soil). Six weeks later my seedlings were mostly the same size, the leaves were yellowing instead of creating bright green new growth and nothing was flourishing. I finally did a soil test. The soil was off the charts alkaline with a very high pH. Even worse, there were no available nutrients in the soil. Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium were non-existent. My heart sank. These plants would never grow. I called the company and, without question, they immediately issued me a refund check for the soil and all of the plants. They knew they had sent me crap soil (Grrrrrrrrr).

I immediately took action to save my plants and my garden. I amended the soil with Organic Soil Acidifier. Usually reserved for changing the color of Hydrangea blooms and acid loving Blueberries, a potent soil acidifier was exactly what I needed to bring the soil into pH balance. I also added double the recommended amount of Organic Garden Fertilizer. The soil was greatly lacking in nutrients and needed a big boost. I watered these elements in thoroughly on a daily basis. Plants need the nutrients in a water soluble format to have the best uptake and absorption. Within a week my garden made a drastic turn around. The plants nearly doubled and, in some cases, tripled in size. Those babies wanted to grow and were just waiting for my help. Now, with regular fertilization, my garden is healthy and abundant. I’ve been eating the harvest for over a month now. Outside these types of extreme circumstances, you should follow the fertilization recommendations on the packaging.

I’ve also created a long term plan to build and amend this soil. It needs organic matter, acidity and a nutrient balance. This Fall I will plant Daikon or Groundhog radishes in each bed and intersperse it with Clover. I’ll allow the large radishes to stay in the soil and decay over the Winter to create organic matter for the mix. Clover, part of the legume family, is a nitrogen fixing plant and will add available nutrients to the soil for next year. I’ll also be adding and turning large bags of coffee grounds into the soil all season long (thank you Starbucks). Coffee grounds add acid to the soil as they break down. Finally, I’ll be building a batch of compost in my new compost turner, and will load the soil up in the Spring.

Repurposed wine bottles for watering, used after my initial planting this Spring
Repurposed wine bottles for watering, used after my initial planting this Spring
4. Water. This is a given for any living organism at anytime. We must have water to survive and thrive. Plants are, of course, no exception. Plan to have an easy watering source close by for your plants. Keep in mind that watering close to the ground through drip lines or other directed watering is the best use of water and reduces evaporation. Also, many plants in the garden do not like wet leaves. Squash and tomatoes in particular may form powdery mildew if their leaves are constantly made wet. This year, my friends gifted me some lovely Plant Nannies that have worked wonderfully in my raised beds. Using a repurposed wine bottle, they funnel water directly to the roots. I have four in each of my 4’x4′ beds. As an added bonus, they add a colorful and unique element to the garden, too.

Water is one crucial elements that you can’t always control. In Kentucky, we’ve had the most wet summer I can ever remember. We had over a month of regular torrential downpours. The rain was relentless. I didn’t water my garden at all for over a month in June and July. That is unheard of. Luckily, most of my plants survived the excessive water. But some of my squash and zucchini did have an uphill battle. The plants grew very well, but the zucchini themselves would sometimes rot out at the end before it grew due to over-watering. The winter squash are still trying to make a comeback but have some moldy spots. We’ll see how it goes. My alliums also greatly suffered – maturing Garlic and Shallots both are dying off, though the younger Leeks may survive the excess rain.

5. Plants suited to your environment. We are lucky to live in a time where a vast availability of heirloom seeds are coming back on the market. Plant the seeds that are best suited to your state and gardening zone. Heirloom plants have been passed on for many generations due to their hardiness and tasty final product. Some things just grow better in your neck of the woods. Talk to local nuseries and your extension service and find out what works best. Have a neighbor whose garden you envy? Ask them specifically what varieties they are growing and have the most success with. Don’t be afraid to rotate crops and experiment either. The more plants you try, the more success you’ll have.

Nasturtium, one of the best companion plants around. As an added bonus it is edible, too!
Nasturtium, one of the best companion plants around. As an added bonus it is edible, too!
6. Companion planting and crop rotation. The layout of my bed relies heavily on companion planting. My favorite online companion planting guide is at Self Sufficient Living. (There seem to be issues with their website recently, so hopefully it is still there when you try the link, if not, Google “companion planting” for other resources.) Catmint is planted in the center of my squash plants to deter squash bugs and Japanese beetles. Nasturtium is planted in the corners of all the beds and deters many harmful bugs including whiteflies and aphids. Marigolds aren’t really as great as most people think, but can potentially deter harmful nematodes in the soil. Hot Peppers like Eggplant. Cucumbers and Tomatoes, plus a little Basil do well together.

Another important aspect of vegetable gardening is crop rotation. Crop rotation, planting different types of veggies in different places from year to year, helps eliminate disease and insects in your garden. Also, creating Spring, Summer and Fall garden plans will help benefit the overall health of your garden. Rotate in small cover crops when possible to rejuvenate the soil.

7. Look out for critters. I live in a neighborhood that borders the edge of the city, heading out into more wooded, rural areas. Deer, rabbits, chipmunks, etc. all live in abundance in my yard. Many of my gardening neighbors have electric fences. Instead, I opted for a motion sensing water sprayer and the results have been better than I expected. I turn the sprayer on at night and it keeps most deer, birds and small mammals at bay.

Insects are another issue. I mostly rely on companion plants and beneficial insects. Next to my vegetable garden, I have an ornamental garden of Lavender, Bee Balm, Coneflower, Gladiolas, Cardinal Flower, Lilies and Hollyhocks. This garden attracts many beneficial insects that make their way to the edible garden and eat the bad guys. Overall, outside a recent Cabbage problem, I have had almost no insect problems in the edibles. I also support local nursery’s that use beneficial insects, because then I’m bringing them home to my garden to grow and thrive. You can also purchase beneficials to use in your garden and spread through the neighborhood.

I hope you find this helpful as you plan out your garden for years to come. Please write me in the comments section below or email me anytime with questions. Happy gardening!

Bee Balm, a wonderful companion plant for many veggies and a great attractor of beneficial insects.
Bee Balm, a wonderful companion plant for many veggies and a great attractor of beneficial insects.

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