Starting a vegetable garden can be confusing

April 25, 2009


Creators Syndicate

Q: Like so many other people, I am thinking of starting a vegetable garden. I have never done one and from what I am reading about the subject, it looks rather intimidating. I don't know exactly where in the yard it should go. I don't own a rototiller and the expense of even renting that one thing will eliminate any savings on food. There are lots of other tools and supplies listed, such as compost, that I don't know if I need or not. Can you help me figure this out?

A: I would be happy to help. I am glad you are doing some research on the subject, but you are right - there are a lot of confusing things to read. Part of that is because some of the authors are trying to sell you stuff. And part is because some of the authors only know one kind of vegetable gardening, but make all-encompassing statements about other kinds. When these statements are applied to the other styles of gardening, they make little or no sense.


Let's start with some gardening styles. If you know what style you want or what style an author is talking about, you will be able to understand things a bit better. There are container gardens where the vegetables are grown in anything from flowerpots to EarthBoxes. Next up is the Square Foot Gardening method, which has a very nice beginner's garden in a 4-feet-by-4-feet box. Then we have backyard plots that are around 15 feet by 30 feet on the small end and an acre or two on the bigger end. We also have herb and kitchen gardens to think about. There are more, but a beginner can start with these.

Container gardens are wonderfully easy. Instead of filling all your large flowerpots with geraniums and other annuals, plant a few with a different kind of ornamental plant. Try red, purple or yellow bell peppers or one of the white or purple eggplants. Just as easy are hot peppers, bush beans or bush cucumber. Vines, like some of the cucumbers, peas, squash or melons, will need a support or can be used in a hanging basket. Many varieties of tomatoes will grow in a patio container.

An EarthBox has an easy-to-use watering reservoir and is designed to fertilize your plants for the whole growing season. They can be moved on the wheels that are supplied. The box is about 2.5 feet long by 1 foot tall and wide, and it will hold two tomatoes, four peppers, or a variety of quantities of plants. I have used one for several years and I highly recommend it for anyone, but especially a beginner.

The Square Foot Gardening method is also very successful for a beginner. It uses a box made from 2-inch-by-6-inch boards that are 4 feet long. The 4-foot-by-4-foot box allows for a compact 16 square feet of garden space. The soil used in the box is a mix of one third peat moss, one-third compost and one-third vermiculite. This creates a very well-drained soil that still holds plenty of moisture. Almost all roots on vegetable plants grow in the top 6 inches of soil, so the box is plenty deep. Maybe one of the best things is that the soil is weed free. There is a cost to build the box and buy the soil mixture, but it can be less than starting a new garden in the backyard. It has a higher success rate than a typical garden that will help you want to stay in gardening rather than give up. If you decide you like vegetable gardening and want a bigger one, you can add more Square Foot Gardens or make it longer - just keep one dimension at 4 feet for easy access to the middle.

There are many benefits to this style of gardening.

What many assume is the only kind of garden is the in-the-ground style. This is the old-fashioned one that is great for gardeners who know what they are doing, but it is the hardest for the new gardener. Typically, new gardens go in a spot that already has plants, usually a lawn. So the lawn needs to be killed first, or else you will have a huge grassy weed problem. If you have the time, the simplest way to kill grass or weeds in a garden is to cover them up for a few weeks. Cover them with newspapers that have been piled several layers thick and are held down with stones, bricks and compost. Cover the newspapers a couple of inches deep to keep them from blowing around.

Adding compost is beneficial to almost every soil type for any garden. Organic matter helps loosen clay soils and helps sandy soils hold water better. In a few weeks when the grass is dead, rototill the compost, newspapers and grass into the soil.

There are several keys to success for all of these gardens. Almost all vegetables grow and produce better in full sun rather than shade, so the garden should be in a sunny spot. The soil should remain damp but not waterlogged. Organic matter in the soil acts as a sponge and improves aeration. A well-tended soil will produce a lot of vegetables without the need for additional fertilizer.

The Herald-Mail Articles