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Grow a Healthy Vegetable Garden

The benefits of vegetable gardening go way beyond cutting food costs. Here's a guide to planning, planting, and relishing your own backyard harvest

Food for the Family Table

Photo by Kolin Smith

There's nothing like the earthy crunch of a just-picked carrot or the sweetness of a juicy tomato still warm from the sun. And the taste is even sweeter when it's one you've grown on your own.

For parents like Phil Nolan and Michele Rast, backyard vegetable gardening has intangible benefits, too. "We want our kids to appreciate the way things grow and to understand the value of food," Nolan says when asked why he dug up part of the family's New Jersey lawn to put in a formal 18-by-32-foot veggie garden.

Shown: The 576-square-foot plot produces veggies all summer for a family of four, with plenty left over to share. Tidy raised beds and gravel paths make it easy to care for, and evoke an English country garden.

Homegrown Harvest

Photo by Kolin Smith

Nolan's garden, now in its third season, has thrived, but not every homeowner is so lucky. Why do some fail where others succeed? At least one aspect of soil preparation, plant selection, or growing wasn't right.

"Often, just a few tips can make all the difference," says Katie Pencke, who teaches vegetable gardening for the Seattle Tilth gardening education program. Her first tip about how to grow a vegetable garden: Don't attempt too big a garden. "If you start small, you make small mistakes," she says, "and it's a lot easier to achieve success."

Shown: Besides growing garden staples, such as tomatoes and beets, try a few unusual varieties. These red carrots proved especially sweet.

Find the Right Site

Photo by Kolin Smith

To grow well, vegetables need good soil, the right amount of water, and sunshine. You can amend poor soil and deal with too much or too little moisture by building raised beds (bottomless frames that hold soil above the grade line) to keep vegetables above muck, or by irrigating in dry weather.

But there is no practical work-around for deep shade. Thus, sunshine is the Number 1 site requirement to grow a vegetable garden. Fruiting plants like tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and pumpkins need sun at least 8 to 10 hours a day. If your garden gets a few hours less sun, you can still grow peas and also plants that have edible parts underground, such as potatoes, turnips, carrots, and beets. If your garden gets only 4 to 6 hours of sun, focus on greens: lettuce, spinach, arugula, Swiss chard, collards, and kale can all still do well.

Shown: Homeowner Michele Rast collects brussel sprouts and other goodies to fill a basket for friends.

Take Measurements & Pick Your Plants

Photo by Kolin Smith

Seattle Tilth's community-garden plots are 10 feet square, a nice size for novices if you can spare the space. Create a horseshoe-shaped bed within it, and you'll be able to reach everything from the center or perimeter.

In a larger garden you'll probably want rectangular or curved beds with paths between them. Beds 2 to 4 feet wide generally work best. "Just make sure the bed isn't more than twice the length of your arm," says Pencke with a laugh. Make main paths at least 3 feet wide so that you can get a wheelbarrow through.

In a small garden it often works best to divide a bed into square-foot sections. Devote each one to the number of plants that can use the space efficiently. So you might put in nine bush beans, since they need about 4 inches between plants, or 16 onions, spaced 3 inches apart. Once you've settled on a tentative site and size for your garden, sketch various plans for planting beds and paths on paper to help you choose a design.

Shown: Lettuce grows fast but turns bitter as it sends up a flower stalk. To be sure you always have young leaves to harvest, plant a few new seeds every few weeks.

Build the Raised Garden Beds

Photo by Kolin Smith

There's a hard way and an easy way to build garden beds. You can skim off the sod with a flat shovel and dig down deeply to aerate the soil and mix in compost and whatever other soil amendments you need. Or you can just layer things on top. Start by mowing down any tall grass or weeds. Shovel on a couple of inches of compost. Cover that with a weed-suppressing layer of cardboard or multiple sheets of newspaper. Top that with a mixture of brown and green plant material, just as if you were building a compost pile. "Mix it up, like in a salad," Pencke advises.

If you want to plant right away, add a few inches of compost or topsoil, and the beds are ready to go. Or wait a season and let microorganisms in the soil make the compost for you. After you harvest your first crops, you can "double dig," going down twice as deep as a shovel blade, to incorporate everything and aerate the soil. "But do this just once," Pencke says, to keep from undermining the soil structure.

Shown: A homeowner drills weepholes into a raised planting bed. You can slip a short length of 3/8-inch copper pipe into the weep holes to protect the wood and make clearing clogs easier.

Create Optimal Conditions With Compost

Every vegetable garden benefits from a few inches of compost each year. But what about adding lime, other trace minerals, or fertilizer? To learn what you need to grow a vegetable garden, get a soil test. The University of Massachusetts offers a $13 test to gardeners in all states that measures pH levels and any heavy metals, and identifies nutrients and organic matter that plants need.

Shown: Finished compost looks like rich organic soil—dark and crumbly in texture, with no large chunks of material. To check if yours is ready, grab a handful, put it in a pot, and place a few grass seeds in it.

Water Regularly—and Smartly

Photo by Shelly Strazis

Even though you probably won't need to water much early in the season, it's smart to plan ahead for the hottest, driest days of summer. You'll use the least water and minimize disease problems if you irrigate in a way that delivers moisture directly to the soil rather than spraying it in the air. Seattle Tilth advises against using soaker hoses made of recycled rubber tires if you're concerned about chemicals leaching into the soil. In general, drip irrigation works best.

Shown: You can install a simple drip irrigation system in just a couple of hours.

Get Planting

Photo by Kolin Smith

You can plant your garden with seeds or set out partially grown plants. Starting with seeds costs less and often results in more robust plants, since there's no risk of damaging fragile root hairs during transplanting. But you might need to drape row-cover fabric over the bed for a few weeks to keep birds out, and to set cardboard collars around seeds or small transplants to block cutworms, which nip off shoots at the soil line. With larger transplants, you're less likely to see bird or cutworm damage.

Many gardeners use both strategies, starting hot-weather crops, such as tomatoes and peppers, from transplants and planting most other varieties from seeds. Root vegetables, such as carrots, don't transplant well, so they are best started from seed.

Shown: Labels identify which seeds have been planted in which beds.

Use Space Wisely

Photo by Kolin Smith

If you want to get the most out of your garden space, don't try to plant everything in a day. Put in greens, peas, potatoes, carrots, beets, and other cool-weather crops early, following package directions. Plant heat-loving crops later. The best dates for each crop vary according to where you live, so seek advice from a good local nursery, a master gardener program, or your local cooperative extension service.

Shown: Starting with transplants, not seeds, makes it easier to get the wide spacing that some plants, including this broccoli, need.

Care for Your Crops

Photo by Kolin Smith

If you have healthy soil and avoid planting the same crops in the same places each year, you may never have serious pest or disease problems. That's certainly been Nolan's experience. He set out a birdbath in the center of the garden and planted a few blueberry bushes along its perimeter to attract birds, which help keep insect populations in check.

Shown: Instead of buying wire cages, build simple supports that look better and store more compactly. On his table saw, homeowner Phil Nolan rips 1-inch strips from a 5/4 cedar board. He makes a point on one end of each pole and drills holes every 3 to 4 inches for jute twine.

Control Pests Organically

Photo by Kolin Smith

If you do find holes in your Swiss chard or a broccoli plant covered with aphids, there are good pest-control measures that don't require pesticides; tucking row-cover fabric over plants helps keep out harmful insects, for example. And you can simply pick off aphids or rinse them away with a hose, then irrigate deeply. Aphids usually attack plants that are under stress, which can be caused by a lack of water.

Shown: Spent and damaged plants get pulled up and chopped—by running over them with a lawn mower—before going into a compost tumbler.

Find Balance

Photo by Kolin Smith

Appreciating the natural rhythms of a garden is one of the joys of growing vegetables. "In a garden, you need to have the whole good guys-bad guys balance," Pencke says. "You don't want to wipe out pests, just keep the population down. Predators who can do that need to eat, too." At a store, you might shun greens with a few insect holes. But when those greens are fresh from your garden, it's easier to see them as signs of life and good health.

Shown: In grocery stores, broccoli usually has thick stems; plants are harvested just once. Home gardeners can cut thinner, more tender stems and get repeat harvests from side shoots.

Protecting the Produce

Photo by Kolin Smith

To keep critters at bay, Nolan installed a 4-foot-high fence around his garden with wire mesh between the rails. But he readily admits that isn't what keeps deer from feasting inside—the credit goes to Cargo, the family's Labradoodle. If you don't have a dog and live where deer are an issue, you'll need a taller fence, 6 to 8 feet high. A fence 2 to 3 feet high with wire mesh to the ground will keep out rabbits.

Shown: Cargo, the family dog, makes sure deer don't jump over the 4-foot fence.

Vegetable Garden FAQs

Photo by Kolin Smith

Seattle Tilth's Laura Matter responds to the top 5 questions posed on its hotline (206-633-0224) by gardeners nationwide

Q: What should I use to build raised beds?

A: There are lots of options: naturally rot-resistant wood, such as cedar or juniper (avoid treated wood); concrete or granite blocks; bales of straw sprinkled with a nitrogen source, such as alfalfa meal, and covered with a thin layer of topsoil (next spring, the bales can be kicked apart and mixed into the soil); or no edging at all—just mound up the soil to create a berm.

Shown: Peppers grow best from transplants, so the family starts seeds indoors in January.

Q: What kind of soil should I use in a raised bed?

Photo by Kolin Smith

A: Just add organic matter to soil dug from elsewhere in your yard. If you buy compost, make sure it's registered for use on organic farms. If you buy bagged soil, get a potting mix.

Shown: Meaty and prolific, plum tomatoes are the favorites in this garden. Though often described as "canning tomatoes" and viewed only as an ingredient in pasta sauces, they're also a great addition to salads and stir-fries.

Q: When can I plant my tomatoes outside?

Photo by Kolin Smith

A: Once the soil in the root zone is at least 50 degrees F. Use a soil thermometer to test it.

Shown: Peppers come in many shapes; these are balls.

Q: How much fertilizer do I need to add?

Photo by Kolin Smith

A: Possibly none, if you focus on amending the soil so that it has enough organic matter and minerals, and the right pH level (around 6.8 for most veggies). A soil test will tell you what to add.

Shown: Peppers start out green and change color as they ripen. Most eventually become red, so grow a yellow or orange type if you want something to brag about.

Q: What's the white stuff on my squash leaves?

Photo by Kolin Smith

A: It's powdery mildew, a fungus that thrives when humidity is high. Minimize the risk of infection by watering early in the day so that soil and leaves dry by nightfall. If it appears early in the season (unusual), control the spread by clipping off infected leaves. Late in the season, it doesn't reduce harvest, so it's mostly a cosmetic issue. Don't compost infected plants at home; send them to a municipal operation, where the compost piles get hot enough to kill spores.

Shown: Sugar snap peas are easy to grow and popular with kids. Pick a variety that suits your spot. The original grows as a vine and requires a trellis or cage for support; bush varieties may not.