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Planning Your Vegetable Garden
By Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor, University of Vermont
Tempting as it is, try not to just buy and plant.
To have a successful vegetable garden you need to give it some thought ahead
of time. When planning your garden consider the site, varieties, where they
will go, and when you'll plant.
Be realistic, only plant what you can maintain with harvest you can use. It is
too easy, especially in the beginning, to start too large.
Vegetable Gardens Need Lots of Sun
A successful site for most vegetables, especially fruiting ones, should get at
least 6 hours of direct sun a day-- either continuous, or total from morning and
afternoon. If you don't have a sunny site, consider leafy crops such as lettuce
and spinach that can get by on 3 to 4 hours of direct sun a day. Root crops such
as carrots and potatoes need a bit more light, 4 to 6 hours a day, to have some
Create Good Soil
Another important site factor, and one you can work around more than light, is
the soil. A rich, well-drained loam is ideal but many aren't fortunate to have
this at the beginning. If it is clay or sandy, add lots of organic matter such as
compost each year in the spring prior to planting. If it is clay, poorly drained,
or quite rocky, you might want to consider building raised beds on top and
filling with a good soil.
Pick a Good Site
A flat site, or as near as possible, is best. Otherwise it can be hard to work on,
and rains can lead to erosion.
Accessibility of the site is important in three respects. It should be close to
home, otherwise "out of sight, out of mind" may apply. If you don't visit the
garden daily, or frequently, you may miss pest outbreaks and fruit that is ready
The site should be accessible to a source of water. The site should be accessible
as well by cart or even vehicle. If you need to bring in a load of compost, soil,
or mulch, or remove debris, how will you access it?
Pick the Right Crops to Grow
How do you choose among the hundreds of varieties available, and which
crops to grow? The first consideration is what you and perhaps family like to
eat. Even if a crop is trendy or popular, if you don't like it and wont eat it, why
Most crops have some, often many, varieties. These are particular types or
selections with certain characteristics such as fruit size or color. There are some
terms you may see in variety descriptions. A hybrid is a plant resulting from
the crossing of other parent plants. Since you need these parents to make seeds
of the hybrid, sowing seeds of hybrids wont give you the same plants.
The other main group is the open-pollinated varieties, or those that pollinate
each other in the field. They may not be as consistent, with all the traits of
hybrids, but you can save seeds of these and get similar plants. If a variety is
open-pollinated, and at least 50 years old, it may be called an "heirloom".
Choose Varieties That Will Grow in Your Region
When choosing varieties, look for ones adapted to your region. This may relate
to ripening time, or "days to maturity"-- one of the key factors I look for in my
northern garden. A great variety for warm climates, perhaps one you grew up
with, may not ripen in time in a short northern growing season. A warm
climate crop such as okra, for instance, has some varieties better suited to
cooler and shorter northern seasons.
A couple of cultural factors to consider in variety selection are disease
resistance and plant size. Some varieties, tomatoes being a good example, are
resistant to certain diseases. These are often labeled in descriptions with letters
and a key, such as TMV for tomato mosaic virus. The more letters the better!
Plant size relates to your site, and where these will be planted.
Assuming you have the right match of site conditions to varieties, consider the
size of crops and growth habits. Tomatoes, for instance, can be more upright
(determinate) or vining and sprawling (indeterminate). The latter may need
more staking, or more room, or both. Then there are compact varieties suited
to small spaces and containers.
Plan Your Vegetable Garden
When sowing seeds or planting transplants, information on seed packets,
labels, and books will tell you such details as seed or plant spacing in rows,
and amount of space between rows. These are guidelines, as some recommend
planting in blocks rather than rows. Depending on use, you may plant closer if
harvesting small carrots or tops of plants for instance. The goal is to have
enough space for plants to get the light and nutrients they need, without much
competition, and for you to be able to weed and work among the plants.
Once you lay out your plans roughly on paper, look at what plants are next to
others. Where is the sun coming from? You don't want tall corn for instance
shading out shorter plants. Some plants are believed by gardeners to help
others, perhaps by repelling insects. This is called "companion planting" with
books and articles written just on this topic. You may try nasturtiums, for
instance, next to potatoes to repel Colorado potato beetles. Radishes may repel
cucumber beetles, leeks may repel carrot flies, and basil may repel some
insects from tomatoes.
Finally consider when you will plant. Some "cool" crops (like lettuce) can be
planted earlier that other "warm" crops (like tomatoes). The two key factors are
first and last frost dates of the season. Since these can vary, be ready with frost
protection cloth or similar coverings.