There are many great reasons to grow your own food in your own vegetable garden, but we’ll stick to our favourite — you know exactly where it comes from.
By working the soil organically, you help the environment. And of course, vegetables taste infinitely better when you cultivate them yourself in your garden. (Maybe unabashed pride adds extra flavour?) It’s also fun, relaxing, and — pun intended —grounding. So, whether you have a big plot or just a few pots, read on, and get ready to roll up your sleeves.
1. Get started with your vegetable garden
Before deciding what you want to grow, map out a space and consider how much time and effort you can put into your garden.
Find a location
Look for a spot that gets at least 6 to 8 hours of sunlight a day. If planting in the ground, choose a well-drained area (no big puddles after rain). To prevent critters from accessing a new all-you-can-eat salad bar, fence it in (wire will do).
Know your soil
The foundation of any garden, your soil, should contain plenty of nutrients and organic matter. Contact your local cooperative extension, and send in a sample for analysis. Prior to planting, enrich your plot with a layer of compost. If you’re using containers, get organic potting soil.
2. Gather your garden tools
You’ll need a few essentials if you’re planning on establishing a vegetable garden. First up? A hori hori knife: It digs and cuts, and is especially helpful for removing weeds with deep taproots (like dandelions). Also invest in a pair of sharp, fine-pointed clippers; these garden scissors work well for harvesting cut-and-come-again greens and herbs. Round out your arsenal with a cultivator—this is the go-to tool on Martha’s farm for digging out weeds quickly—and a trug, so you can get your vegetables from the garden to the kitchen in a lightweight container.
3. Choose your growing method
There are three basic ways to grow edibles: in containers (pots), raised beds, or the ground. When deciding which to go with, weigh these options.
Containers are perfect for small spaces, even a city balcony. Just make sure they’re deep enough for roots to grow. They require frequent watering—almost daily when it’s hot and sunny. Since space is limited, stick with herbs, dwarf varieties, and greens that don’t require a ton of room.
You’re in full control when you choose to grow your vegetables in a raised bed. You can customise soil and bed size and correct problems easily. Since boxes are contained, the soil heats up faster, so you can plant earlier. An important note: Use only untreated wood, to prevent chemicals from leaching into the soil. There are a few cons—since you need to fill beds with soil, initial costs can be higher than growing in the ground. You may also have to water and feed more frequently because they drain so effectively (but usually less than with containers).
This method is the most economical and requires less work in the beginning. You can water less frequently than with pots or raised beds. But you do have to work with what Mother Nature has provided, which could include poor soil or lots of inconveniently placed tree roots or rocks.
4. Pick what (and when) you want to plant
Talk to fellow gardeners, visit your local nursery, and look through seed catalogues to learn what grows well in your area. Then comes the fun part: choosing vegetables. Select what you love to eat, and be open to branching out from the basics, like mixing in ‘Green Zebra’ tomatoes with your beefsteaks. Sketch out where you plan to plant what, and record everything you sow in a notebook. And while it may tempting to put everything in the ground on the first warm weekend in spring, be careful: Some varieties tolerate the cold; others cannot. Before you start, ask your local nursery for the last frost date in your area, consult seed packets and plant tags for growing times, and plan your plantings from there for your vegetable gardening.
5. Decide between seeds vs. seedlings
Seeds are inexpensive (you can purchase dozens for just a few rupees), and you’ll find a wider selection of unusual varieties. They do, however, require more effort, because you may have to plant some varieties, like tomatoes and peppers, indoors. Since you’re starting at the beginning of your vegetable gardening, you’ll also have to wait longer for the harvest.
Get seedlings at your local garden centre or farmers’ market. They’ll carry the varieties that are best suited to your vegetable garden. However, it’s not enough to just plant and go—seedlings need a little extra care as they establish. For example, to help keep moisture in and prevent weeds from taking root, scatter a layer of mulch around seedlings (leaving a radius bare around the bases) and over paths after planting. Some common mulches include seedless straw, salt hay, leaf mould, and even nitrogen packed grass clippings. Avoid regular hay, which can contain weed seeds that will cause headaches (and backaches, from endless pulling) down the line.
6. Group like vegetables when you plant
To maximise your space and streamline your tasks, put edibles that require similar amounts of water and sunlight in the same bed or container.
7. Tend to your vegetables
Congratulations! The work of preparing and planting your vegetable garden is done. Now all you have to do is keep up with routine tasks, like watering and weeding, and check regularly for signs of disease (such as leaf spots and powdery mildew) and pests (like Japanese beetles and tomato hornworms). Before you know it, you’ll be tossing fresh lettuces and revelling in your newfound status: Green God (or Goddess).
Follow these four simple steps to keep your garden beautiful and bountiful:
Add about an inch of compost at the start of the season. Then apply an organic fertiliser, like fish emulsion, or another thin layer of compost as the season progresses.
Water deeply when needed, about an inch once a week. Opt for a soaker hose or drip irrigation system that delivers moisture directly to the roots, rather than sprinkling down from above.
Do it often—as in anytime you see weeds sprouting. This will save you time in the long run, because if you remove them while they’re young, they won’t spread. Also, remember that you’re going to eat what you sow—so skip herbicides.
Fast growers like radishes, lettuces, and other greens can benefit from multiple plantings. Stagger the timing, starting seeds directly in the ground every few weeks so you have continuous salad fixings.
8. Stay on top of your harvest
There’s something magical about eating a perfectly ripe tomato just off the vine while it’s still warm from the sun. (Martha likes to bring a little salt with her into the garden to do just that!) You’ll know when your vegetables are ready by looking at their size, shape, and vibrant colour. Tomatoes will give with a gentle tug rather than needing a hard pull. Some plants, like okra, beans, and turnips, are extra-delicious and tender when picked young. Keep up with your harvest to encourage new growth: Cucumbers will slow their production if they aren’t plucked when ready, and when zucchini get too big, they aren’t as tender and tasty as when they’re smaller.
(Main and Feature Image Credit: Andrew Montgomery)
© 2021 Meredith Corporation. All rights reserved. Licensed from MarthaStewart.com and published with permission of Meredith Corporation. Reproduction in any manner in any language in whole or in part without prior written permission is prohibited.