How to start a vegetable garden
Starting a vegetable garden may seem like a difficult project, while in fact it is quite simple and a lot of fun. As I'm often asked by friends for advice on beginning growing vegetables, I thought I would write down some ideas around it and hopefully inspire more people to try it out.
As a starting point, you may consider what you like to eat. Some people love the idea of picking herbs for the kitchen, while others love salads and tomatoes straight from the garden, and others still dream of their own new potatoes at midsummer. By considering what you like to eat and planning your vegetable garden around it, you will double the joy and nurture your body as well as your soul when bringing in food fresh to the table.
While starting out a new kitchen garden, it is ok to keep things simple and buy plug plants instead of starting seeds from scratch every time. Chilies for example, will do great in a warm location, and can easily be bought as small plants from the garden centres. Keep a look out for plants like salads, tomatoes and herbs that transplant really well from plugs into the garden, and buy others like carrots and peas, that need to be sown in situ to flourish, as seeds. Peas are a great starter vegetable as they pop up happily as long as the soil is warm enough, and nothing tastes quite as lovely as peas picked straight from the garden, boiled in slightly salted water and eaten with a knob of butter... Potatoes are another starter favourite, as is onions and zucchini (which I recommend starting off with by buying just one ready grown small plant as it will feed a family for the whole season!).
Once you have decided what to grow, the next thing is to decide on size and location of the vegetable patch. The location needs to be sunny, as almost all vegetables I know of need the light and warmth to grow well. Some people are lucky enough to have their own garden, whilst others grow stuff on their balcony or queue up for an allotment. My suggestion is to start small, and to let the garden grow as your interest grows too. Presently it is very popular to make raised beds, either by using pallets, building a wooden frame from planks or by using ready made frameworks that are available from all big garden centers. The idea is that you fill the pallets with soil and compost, creating a perfect instant minigarden area. An added bonus is that they will keep grass and weeds from the surrounding area at bay, as long as you line the bottoms of the raised beds with a really thick layer of cardboard or newspapers. If you want to start slightly bigger, it is also possible possible to make a new vegetable patch by digging up a patch of soil. If you are starting a new garden in the lawn, you can either make a traditional bed by removing a layer of the topsoil (because of the weeds and grass) and digging one spade down before mixing in manure and compost, or start a new no-dig bed. (For more on no-dig, I suggest visiting Charles Dowdings excellent homepage.) For flowerbeds I prefer the no-dig way, but when growing root vegetables I find that digging down and loosening up the soil actually helps the roots grow fleshy and straight. I don't recommend using a soil cultivator or rotavator in the garden, as what it will do is chop up weeds into small pieces and make tones of new root shoots from which weeds regrow, creating a weeding nightmare.
Gardening gurus often talk about soli type and pH, but this is something I don't think you need to worry about too much unless you want to grow specific acid or alkaline sensitive plants. (Blueberries for instance prefer an acidic soil, while raspberries are less fussy about soil type.) Whatever kind of soil you have, the solution to improving it is the same: add more compost frequently. Therefore I think the best thing to do when starting a vegetable patch is to also start a compost heap. (For more information on composting you can read another of my blogposts here.) I recommend starting out with adding a lot of compost in early spring before planting and then subsequently as a mulch around the growing vegetables (to keep weeds at bay and moisture from evaporating through open soil), but not in the autumn after harvest. This is because with the winter rains much of the nutrients from the compost leach out into the soil over winter instead of being picked up by the vegetables during the growing season.
The last piece of advice I have is simply to read the seed packets before planting. This may seem obvious, but for years I would more or less chuck in whatever I wanted to grow regardless of optimal soil temperature or really figuring out how long the growing period is from planting the seed to harvest. Nowadays, I'm something of a nerd regarding this aspect of gardening, and I will actually plan the growing season according to the growing season and preferred temperature of the vegetables. To me this is something akin to laying a puzzel; spinach for example is an early starter and thrives even in cold spring climates, being ready for harvest in June right when some late starter autumn brassicas are perfect for planting out as plug plants. I really love planning the growing season and use a notebook to keep track of planting location for the different vegetables. This also helps plan crop rotation, which is vital for healthy vegetables. Peas for instance really dislike being grown in the same location for many subsequent seasons as they bind nitrogen to the soil, and too much of a good thing turns out bad. Other plants harbour variety specific pasts or disease, like carrot flies or potato scab, and if you move them around in the garden in subsequent seasons they stay healthier so greatly reduces any need or temptation to use insecticides. If you are interested, there is lots more information on crop rotation here.
So be brave, get going, start a vegetable garden! Small or big, it is great fun and will spill over into many happy hours in the kitchen cooking meals from home made produce. And remember, it really doesn't matter if something fails once you have a compost heap! All vegetative material thrown on it will be recycled into nutrition for next years crops.