Winter weekends leave me daydreaming about warmer weather more often than not. As temperatures reached the mid 60s on Sunday, I couldn’t help but feel like we’re on the cusp of spring. And spring means it’s time to start planning for a vegetable garden.
When the days get longer and the seed catalogs arrive it’s tempting to order right away. However, planning ahead can save you both time and money. Even a small vegetable garden can provide quite a bit food for a family with a good plan and proper care.
The size of your vegetable garden should reflect the personal resources you can devote to it. It’s better to have a small garden that you can manage than a larger, neglected one.
Before you make a decision, ask yourself these four questions:
- How much time do I have to work in my garden?
- How much space do I have available to plant?
- If I want to preserve some of my harvest, where will I store it?
- What is my budget?
Time, space, storage and a budget need to be considered before committing to more of an undertaking than you really want.
The first step to grow a successful vegetable garden is to select a hospitable location. Some things you need to look for include good exposure to sunlight, fertile, well-drained soil and a nearby water source.
Sunlight: Vegetable plants grow best when exposed to direct sunlight for at least eight to 10 hours a day. Plants grown in shaded areas produce very little, while growing tall and spindly with weak stem and small leaves. Plants that receive the direct sunlight they need are usually stocky with sturdy stems and healthy leaves. Sunlight is the most important factor when considering location as soil health can be improved over time.
Soil health: Although fertilizers and soil conditioners can improve soil, you need to chose a location free of severe erosion as soil fertility can’t be maintained. Cultivating a garden in the same location every year makes soil loss inevitable. However, avoiding slopes and other areas where erosion is a problem can minimize your losses.
Water source: A source of water improves soil moisture, which improves seed germination, the establishment of transplants and continuous growth during dry periods. Additionally, make sure your garden isn’t too close to trees or shrubs to avoid competing for water.
Once you have established your garden in a good location, keep it there. This helps soil improvement in both tilth and fertility.
Choosing the right location allows you to start a garden with your best foot forward. Unfortunately, even if you find the perfect spot, the work doesn’t end there.
Your next task is to consider what kind of soil makes up your garden. Vegetable plants prefer fertile, well-drained sandy loam soils supplied with organic matter. Most gardeners are not fortunate enough to start with this type of soil.
Coarse, sandy soil dries out quickly, making it difficult to keep fertile. Clay soils are compact and usually remain wet until late spring, making them difficult to cultivate. Both require soil conditioners such as peat moss, compost, sawdust or other available organic materials.
For more detailed information on preparing your garden’s soil and conducting a soil test, visit Michigan State University Extension.
After you’ve prepared your garden plot, you need to create a planting schedule based on soil temperature, rather than air temperature. You can find the preferred temperatures of individual seeds on their packaging.
The following is a short list of the lowest germinating temperatures for common crops, according to the Ohio Farm Bureau. Warmer temperatures may yield better results for some.
- 35 degrees: Lettuce, onions, parsnips and spinach
- 40-45 degrees: Beets, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, parsley, peas, radish and turnips
- 50 degrees: Swiss chard
- 60 degrees: Beans, cucumbers, pumpkins, squash (cucumbers, pumpkins and squash yield better results at 75 degrees)
- 75 degrees: Tomatoes, peppers, tomatillos, eggplant and okra grow better when transplanted instead of from a seed.
You can check local soil temperatures at two and four inches deep by visiting the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center or you can check out Ohio State University Extension’s planting guide for suggested dates on specific crops.
What to grow
Deciding what to grow depends heavily on your climate. Living in Ohio, I’m fortunate to be able to choose from more than 40 different vegetable crops.
Once you know what grows well in your region, you can make selections based on the amount of growing space you have available and the needs of your individual family. When space is limited, planting vegetables that are more productive will result in a greater yield.
After you’ve decided what you want to grow, you can determine how to arrange your garden. Follow these tips to simplify the process:
- Plant perennial plants (asparagus and rhubarb) along one side of the garden, so they are out of the way when you prepare the remainder for annual vegetables.
- Taller crops should be planted along one side of the garden where they will not shade lower-growing vegetables.
- Space rows about three feet apart for easy cultivation and harvest. But be careful not to plant your crops too far apart. Growing plants close together will help retain soil moisture, control weeds and provide shade.
- Sweet corn should be planted in blocks of short rows instead of a long single row to allow for better pollination and ear fill.
- Use trellises of fence for vining crops to encourage upward growth. Some vegetables that grow well this way include: pole beans, peas, cucumbers, and Malabar spinach.
Succession and companion planting
If you want to maximize your garden’s production for the growing space you have available, using companion and succession planting may be the answer.
Companion planting: Companion planting allows you to plant crops that require more growing space by planting them next to crops that mature early. By the time the larger crop is ready for harvest and takes up the full amount of space it needs, the other has already matured and been removed from the garden. For example, alternating lettuce and cabbage in the same row allows you to grow more in the same space. The lettuce is harvested before the cabbage reaches maturity, never interfering with its growth.
Succession planting: If you want to insure a continuous supply of fresh vegetable from early spring to late autumn, you might consider succession planting. There are three types of succession planting:
- Plant the same vegetable in three or four separate plantings every seven to 10 days. For example, you could plant radishes April 15, April 25 and May 4. This method would give you a continuous supply of the same vegetable over a period of time. Some vegetables that work well with this method include arugula, beets, lettuce, radish and turnips (25 to 40 days); kohlrabi and spinach (40 to 50 days); bush beans, broccoli and cucumbers (60 to 70 days, plant in four-week increments) and cabbage and carrots (70+ days).
- Plant several vegetable cultivars with different maturity dates at the same time. For example, on the same day you could plant three different varieties of sweet corn with one maturing early, one mid season and one maturing late. This method would give you a steady supply of sweet corn over several weeks.
- Plant an early-maturing crop and replace it with a totally different crop once it’s been harvested. For example, following the harvest of an early sweet corn variety, you could plant turnips or Chinese cabbage in its place.
Planting in intervals is the best way to extend your harvest and reduce waste. It allows crops to ripped at different times rather than all at once, providing a continuous supply of fresh vegetables without the excess.