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Click here for more on
New England gardening
Anyone Can Start
a Vegetable Garden!
By Carl Majewski

Despite the many benefits vegetable
gardens offer, starting one may seem like a daunting project.

After all, there’s all that tilling, fertilizing, planting, and watering, right? While
there’s no denying that a garden involves a lot of work, it really isn’t that
difficult.

The following provides some tips and ideas that will help make your garden a
success.

Selecting a Site

More than anything else, a successful garden depends on putting it in the right
spot. The ideal site for a garden would include a loose, well-drained loam soil
with plenty of organic matter.

Perfectly level ground isn’t absolutely necessary, but it decreases the chance of
soil erosion and makes it a little easier to work. A garden needs to receive a
minimum of six hours of full sun each day; and eight to 10 hours are even
better. Any buildings, trees, or shrubs that shade the garden limit the amount
of sunlight your garden receives and will stunt plant growth.

Of course, many sites are less than ideal for one reason or another; just make
the best of what you have available. If your property isn’t perfectly level or
well-drained, stay away from steep slopes or low spots with frequent flooding.

Building raised beds also helps to alleviate minor soil drainage issues. If you
don’t get the minimum amount of required sunlight, see if you can remove
some trees or prune away some branches to make things a little brighter. If soil
fertility leaves something to be desired, work at improving it over the course
of a few years.

Deciding What to Plant

Of all the benefits of raising a garden, one of the biggest is providing your
family with fresh vegetables you all enjoy. Make a list of the vegetables you all
like the most, and use it as the basis of your planting decisions.

Keep in mind that some species require a longer growing season than others,
and some crops just aren’t suited to New England's growing season in USDA
Hardiness Zones 4 and 5.

When figuring how much of each crop you should plant, consider whether or
not you want to can or freeze produce for use later on in the winter.

Purchase seeds from a reliable source. Most seed catalogs and garden centers
supply high-quality seed, but beware of those 50 cents seed packets in
supermarkets or drug stores -- you generally get what you pay for.

Also, remember that seed remains viable for up to five years as long as it’s
kept in a cool, dry place -- go right ahead and use up those leftovers from last
year.

Soil Preparation

In order to thrive, plants need a fertile soil that provides major plant nutrients.
A soil pH between 6.0-6.5 keeps those plant nutrients available to your crops.

Organic matter enhances your soil’s water and nutrient-holding capacity, and
it improves soil tilth to make it easier to work. A good way to start is by
getting your soil tested. Make sure you fill out an ID form that you can either
download from our website or pick up at the Extension office. You’ll receive a
soil test report that details soil pH and nutrient levels and provides
recommendations for any lime and/or fertilizer you’ll need to add.

Apply lime as early as possible to get the best plant response; fall is an ideal
time for lime applications that will benefit the following year’s crops.

Animal manures and compost make ideal soil amendments. In addition to
plant nutrients, these materials provide some organic matter. Make sure you
factor in manure nutrient contributions (checking a box on your soil test ID
form lets the lab know you plan on using manure, and they’ll do all the math
for you).

Some manures are best used after they’ve had time to decompose. Horse
manure often has a large proportion of sawdust bedding, and this will tie up
soil nitrogen at the expense of your crops. Using horse manure that’s had a
couple years to rot avoids this problem.

Seeding and Transplanting

When planting seeds, pay close attention to directions on the seed packet.
Some crops -- peas, for instance -- tolerate cool weather quite well and can be
planted as soon as the soil is dry enough to work.  For most other crops, wait
until the soil has dried out a bit and is at least 55 degrees F.

Planting too early won’t do your crops any good and may in fact cause some
losses. Once the seeds have germinated it’s important to thin the seedlings
according to recommendations on the seed packet.

Some crops, such as tomatoes, peppers, squash, and cucumbers, require too
long a growing season for direct seeding. Instead, start these crops indoors in
late winter and transplant seedlings in the garden in spring.

When starting transplants, use artificial growth media instead of soil dug from
the garden. Keep the young plants warm (about 60-70 degrees F), and feed
them regularly with a soluble fertilizer for strong growth.

Transplants need to be acclimated to outdoor conditions before putting them
in the garden, a process called “hardening off.” About 10-14 days prior to
transplanting, gradually reduce the plants’ water, withhold any fertilizer, and
gradually expose them to cool temperatures.

Container Gardening

There are some who want to enjoy fresh vegetables, but don’t have the
available land or time for a full-sized garden. Container gardening, where
plants grow in relatively small pots, tubs, or planter boxes, may be a practical
alternative.  

Any spot that has eight hours of full sunlight -- patios, balconies, even roofs --
is ideal for a container garden. Focus on relatively compact plants -- tomatoes,
peppers, lettuce -- instead of large species like squash or sweet corn.

Feel free to be creative with your choice of container, but remember that it
should be large enough to hold your plants without tipping over and that it
should be well-drained.

Also, avoid reusing oil drums, bleach jugs, or other containers that previously
held toxic materials. Use artificial potting mix instead of garden soils, and
remember that containers dry out quickly: water them at least once, maybe
twice, each day.

Frost Protection and Season Extension

Again, New Englanders can usually expect 120 frost-free days during the
growing season.

However, we can also get unexpected cold spells that will injure some crops,
but there are ways to protect your crops and sneak in a few extra growing
days. Hot frames or cold frames enable you to start plants outside earlier.

Floating row covers made of spun-bonded polyester or tunnels made of plastic
film act as miniature greenhouses, trapping warmth from the sun to protect
newly transplanted seedlings.

For individual plants you can use waxed paper "hot caps" that serve the same
purpose. Some gardeners fill old plastic jugs with water and set them next to
plants; they absorb heat from the sun during the day and provide a few
degrees of extra warmth during cool nights.

Most of these items are available at reasonable costs, and considering the
protection they offer your crops, it’s money well spent.

About the Author: Carl Majewski is a UNH Cheshire County Extension Educator,
Agricultural Resources.  For more information visit:
http://ceinfo.unh.edu
Anyone can start a vegetable garden!
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