Vegetable Gardening: A Beginner’s Guide

Vegetable gardening is becoming more popular—both as a pastime and a food source. We experience satisfaction in planting a seed or transplant, watching it grow to maturity, and harvesting the fruits of our labors. In addition, vegetable gardening offers a good source of exercise, with the added benefits of healthy snacks and food for the table.

Vegetable gardening consists of selecting a site, planning the garden, preparing the soil, choosing the seeds and plants, planting a crop, and nurturing the plants until they are ready for harvest. The end result is fresh produce to eat, share, or sell.

Anyone who is willing to invest some time every day or two to nurture the plants can grow a vegetable garden. It doesn’t take a lot of money, time, or talent, although some of each would be helpful. With patience and practice, your skills will improve every year. Don’t be discouraged if the first attempt isn’t a huge success.

Growing vegetables takes some space, but not necessarily acres. A vegetable garden can be in the ground or in a planting bed, but it doesn’t have to be. Many vegetables can be grown in containers. For example, enough lettuce for a salad can be grown in a 12-inch pot on the back deck. Add a few radishes and carrots, also grown in 12-inch containers, for spice and sweetness, and you have a good start on a delicious salad.

Success, however, takes more than just a place to grow the vegetables. They need sunlight, water, air, soil, fertilizer, and care.

Choose a convenient site in full sun with easy access to water and fertile, well-drained soil. Avoid areas near trees and large shrubs that will compete with the garden for sunlight, water, and nutrients.

Sunlight. Most vegetables need at least eight hours of direct sunlight. Plants that we grow for their leaves—including leafy greens such as lettuce, kale, chard, and spinach—and plants that we grow for their storage roots (such as radishes, turnips, and beets) can be grown in as little as six hours of sunlight but do much better with eight hours or more. Plants that we grow for their fruit, including tomatoes, squash, and cucumbers, need at least eight and do better with 10 hours of sunlight.

Water. One of the most important aspects of gardening is water, which makes up 90 percent of a plant’s weight. Water is heavy and difficult to move, so locate the garden near a potable water supply, making it easy to water the garden properly. Dragging a hose hundreds of feet or carrying buckets of water across the yard every few days makes having a garden a lot more work. On average, vegetables need one inch of water per week, and you need to provide only what is not supplied by rain. Water the soil, not the plant. Many diseases are spread by water splashing on the leaves. Overwatering can also lead to insect and disease problems as well as washing nutrients away, converting a valuable garden resource into pollution in nearby streams.

Gardening is not as easy as simply planting a seed or transplant and watching the plant grow. Once a site is selected, there will be several other questions to consider in the planning phase.

What type of garden?

Container gardens, raised beds, traditional rows, and intensive plantings are all possibilities.

Container gardens. Many vegetables can be grown in containers that are deep enough to support their root systems. Containers may range from as small as a 12-inch flowerpot to a half whisky barrel. The bigger the container, the easier it is to be successful. The larger the mature plant, the larger the container needs to be. Vegetables that do well in containers include beans, beets, carrots, collards, cucumbers, eggplants, garlic, kale, leeks, lettuces, mustard greens, peas, peppers, potatoes, spinach, squash, Swiss chard, and tomatoes. Mix and match vegetables in one container for extended beauty and harvest. Containers require more frequent irrigation than gardens, especially as the plants grow and require more water. A drip irrigation system connected to a timer is a great addition to a container garden.

Raised beds. A variety of materials can be used to construct raised beds, but do not use materials that might leach chemicals into the soil, such as old railroad ties. Soil in raised beds will heat up more quickly in the spring and stay warm longer into the fall. Vegetables in raised beds will require more frequent irrigation than those in an in-ground garden. When planned and planted properly, one 4-foot by 8-foot raised bed may supply a good portion of the produce for one or two people. The addition of trellises provides vertical gardening and increases the space available to vining plants like cucumbers and beans.

Use intensive gardening techniques to optimize use of the space. Succession planting will also aid in maximizing the harvests from a raised bed in a small area.

In-ground gardens. Larger areas allow gardeners to choose traditional row gardening or gardening in beds. While a row garden is easier to manage with a tractor for planting, harvesting, and other garden chores, planting in a bed makes better use of available space. Using beds allows for several rows to be planted closer together, shading weed seeds and preventing them from growing later in the season. Beds may require a bit more labor to plant initially. But when planted correctly, beds can reduce the need for weeding later in the season. You can also incorporate vegetables in your ornamental beds.

Whichever garden style is chosen, start small. Only plant the amount of space that you can manage joyfully. The garden should be fun and fascinating, not a chore to be dreaded and avoided. Start small, improve the soil, manage the weeds, and expand the garden as your skills and interests grow.

What to plant?

Grow what you like to eat. If space is limited, concentrate on vegetables that yield the greatest return for the effort, such as pole beans, tomatoes, root crops, and leafy greens. If you like to cook unusual foods, try vegetables that are difficult to find or expensive in the market—such as specialty lettuces or broccolini.

In North Carolina most vegetables are grown as annuals, but some biennials and perennials are also grown. Vegetables are grouped by when they grow:

  • Cool-season annuals. Plant these crops in early spring and early fall. They are cold-hardy and thrive in spring and fall when temperatures are below 70°F: beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, collards, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, mustard, onions, peas, potatoes, radishes, rutabagas, spinach, Swiss chard, and turnips.
  • Warm-season annuals. Plant these crops after the last spring frost when soils have warmed up. They are frost sensitive and thrive in summer when temperatures are above 70°F: beans, cantaloupes, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, okra, peppers, pumpkins, southern peas, squash, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and watermelons.
  • Biennial crops such as artichokes grow the first year, and flower, fruit and die the second year.
  • Perennial crops such as asparagus and rhubarb live for many years once established.

When to plant?

Plan for year-round production through succession planting.

Spring. Plant cool-season crops early and warm-season crops in late spring. Use a cold frame or frost cloth to begin earlier in the season.

Summer. Cool-season crops will bolt as the days lengthen and temperatures rise. Use shade cloth to protect plants and extend the season. Warm-season crops planted in late spring will grow until the first fall frosts. In late summer, plant cool-season crops for fall.

Fall. Cool-season crops established in late summer will continue to grow through moderate to freezing temperatures.

Winter. Cold hardy crops (such as kale, collards, and turnip greens) planted in fall may live through the winter. In colder areas, use a cold frame or frost cloth to extend the season.

Scheduling when to plant and when to harvest can be done in several effective ways. Writing the planting dates and projected harvest dates on a calendar is a method used by many gardeners and farmers. Another method is drawing a diagram of the garden and writing projected planting and harvesting dates on the garden diagram. Knowing when an area will be harvested helps with planning when to plant another crop in that space. Using this method of planning allows for a small space to be managed to its fullest potential.

How to organize the garden?

If planting in rows, run them across the slope of the land to reduce erosion. If there is little or no slope, north to south orientation makes the best use of sunlight. When planting, group tall crops (corn, okra, and sunflowers) and trellised vines (peas and beans) together on the north side of the garden so they won’t shade shorter plants.

Do not foster the buildup of insect and disease pests by growing the same types of plants in the same spot year after year. Instead, plan a three- to four-year crop rotation for each bed or garden area to prevent crops in the same plant family from being planted in the same space in succession (Table 1).

Carrot (Apiaceae)carrot, celery, parsley, parsnip
Goosefoot (Chenopodiaceae)beet, spinach, Swiss chard
Grass (Poaceae)barley, corn, oat, rye, sorghum, wheat
Mallow (Malvaceae)okra
Mustard (Brassicaceae)Bok choi, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, Chinese cabbage, collards, kale, kohlrabi, mustard greens, pak chio, radish, rape, rutabaga, turnip
Nightshade (Solanaceae)eggplant, pepper, potato, tomatillo, tomato
Onion (Alliaceae)chive, garlic, leek, onion, shallot
Pea (Fabaceae)alfalfa, bean, clover, lentil, pea, peanut, vetch
Squash (Cucurbitaceae)cucumber, melon, pumpkin, gourd, squash
Sunflower (Asteraceae)artichoke, endive, Jerusalem artichoke, lettuce, sunflower

Crop rotation reduces the likelihood of nematode, insect, or disease buildup in the soil. This method of planning works well when the garden consists of three or more raised beds or is large enough to be divided into three or more plots. Table 2 depicts a sample four-year crop rotation plan for a garden with four plots growing vegetables from four plant families.

 Plot 1Plot 2Plot 3Plot 4
Year 1ABCD
Year 2BCDA
Year 3CDAB
Year 4DABC

Having a garden plan makes it easier to decide what seeds or transplants to purchase, how many will be needed, and when they will be needed. Keeping a garden journal with previous garden plans is a good way to record what worked and what didn’t. Part of garden planning is going over what has worked in the past and what hasn’t, so past mistakes can be avoided in the future. Things to record in the garden journal would include a list and map of what was planted, planting dates, varieties, source of plants, air and soil temperatures during the growing season, soil test results, fertilizers and pesticides applied, rainfall received, and amount and dates of harvest. Include photographs throughout the season.

Vegetable gardening consists of selecting a site, planning the garden, preparing the soil, choosing the seeds and plants, planting a crop, and nurturing the plants until they are ready for harvest. The end result is fresh produce to eat, share, or sell.

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