If you have never had a vegetable garden before, this year is the year to do it. Grocery prices are encouragement enough! Don’t be timid; people have been cultivating plants for thousands of years. Start small, grow a few plants of only vegetables that you know you like and that you know how to prepare for the table, and do not be afraid of crop failure (it happens from time to time no matter what you do).
The very first thing to do is to choose a spot in the yard, in the neighborhood or at the local community garden that is in full sun (or the fullest sun possible with at least 6 hours of full sun each day).
Design the garden plot in sections, like a grid. A series of 3 x 5 or 2 x 4 beds (whatever you desire and have space for) arranged in a rectangle works perfectly. The advantage of this plan includes easier management in terms of prep, planting, watering, and weeding; inter-planting of different vegetables aids in pest management and allows for easy crop rotation; and it allows us to grow more vegetables in a smaller place. In the future the perimeter of this grid can be planted with perennial vegetable crops, herbs, flowers and fruit; it can also be fenced in if necessary…but let’s stick with the basics for now.
Once you have plotted your scheme it is time to start prepping the planting areas (but do not work the soil until it dries out, working wet soil compacts soil particles, the opposite of what we will be working toward as a goal). I recommend first laying out a layer of wood chips, mulch, or gravel (I prefer organic material because it will improve the soil) where you want your walkways between your individual beds. Let the wood chips be the positive space in the grid while you work up the negative space of the beds. Cut the edges of the beds out cleanly with your spade, then take the spade or garden fork and turn the soil, add composted manure, and turn again. It sounds like a recipe because it is.
Prepping the soil properly is indeed the recipe for success. I cannot stress enough what a difference a well-prepared garden makes. We want good tilth, drainage (with moisture retention during a drought) and an organic source of nutrients to slowly feed our plants…composted manure and gently worked soil will deliver this. Some of us have good soil; some of us do not so the amount of work this will take depends on what you have to work with.
We are nearly there. Once your garden plots are laid out and prepped, they are ready to plant, this is easy but be thoughtful about what goes where. I typically put taller plants like pole beans and tomatoes on the north side of the garden, so they do not end up shading shorter growing crops like potatoes, peppers and squash (the summer sun move high through the southern horizon).
Lettuces and peas can tolerate a little shade so no need to worry about them, but they will be finished by mid-summer and can be replaced with a late crop of beets or kale or some other green.
Planting times for crops have to do with soil and ambient air temperature, as well as the threat of frost. Some crops like it cool and some like it hot. Early crops that can be planted before our May 10th frost-free day include greens, lettuces, peas, onions, potatoes, leeks, carrots, beets, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and broccoli. Save some room in the garden for your favorite summer crops like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant (to be set out as seedlings) and squash, beans and cucumbers (to be sown directly into the garden), watch the temperatures but usually we can do this around May 1.