Create a Vegetable Garden
Here’s what you need to know to get going on your backyard bounty
If you’ve ever bitten into a sunwarmed tomato fresh off the vine or savored a salad of tender just-picked greens, you already know some of the joys of vegetable gardening. And if you’ve never grown your own, this just might be the year to give it a try. There are more easy-to-grow hybrid veggie varieties on the market than ever and a wide selection of DIY kits that make creating your own raised bed a snap. (If you need inspiration, check out the White House vegetable garden, now in its fifth successful year.) We asked Catherine Allison, greenhouse manager at Abma’s Farm Market & Nursery in Wyckoff, and Carmia Schepmoes, garden care accounts manager at Jacobsen Landscape Design and Construction in Midland Park, for tips on creating a farm-to-table garden in your own backyard.
Our experts agree that one of the essentials for a successful vegetable garden is full sun and lots of it—“at least six hours, preferably between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m.,” says Allison. You’ll also need easy access to water, so it’s best to site your garden close to the house (or the hose). Another must: well-drained, fertile soil. “The best way to determine the quality of your soil is to send a sample to your local cooperative extension for a soil test,” Schepmoes advises. Then follow the recommendations that accompany your results.
You can grow a surprising variety of veggies— including cherry tomatoes, basil, peppers and most herbs—in 14-inch-diameter containers, notes Allison (one plant to a container, with the exception of the herbs, which you can bunch). But if you’re ready to plant bigger, a plot of about 60 to 100 square feet is a good size for a beginner’s vegetable garden. (A 100-square-foot garden, for instance, can easily accommodate two tomato plants, four to six bell peppers, four zucchinis, four basils and 18 lettuces.)
What to plant
If this is your first vegetable garden, you may want to start with the most reliable veggies, such as cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, beans, lettuces and herbs. While you can find an increasing number of wonderful old heirloom varieties in both seed and plant form, newer hybrids have been bred for reliability and output and are usually easier to grow. But, says Allison, “plant with your family in mind.” It doesn’t matter how easy that zucchini is to grow if your family isn’t going to eat it.
Making bad soil good and good soil better
Unless your soil is incredibly rich, it can probably benefit from augmentation with well-composted organic matter, which adds nutrients to the soil and helps it retain moisture. “If you add enough organic matter to the soil, you may not even need to fertilize,” says Schepmoes. Still, adding a good, organic fertilizer before planting and periodically during the growing season can give your plants a leg up on growth and production (and because it’s organic, you don’t have to worry about chemicals on your food and in your soil). Allison recommends the Espoma line of fertilizers, which she adds to Abma’s gardens once a month.
What about layout?
To determine spacing of your plants, follow the directions on the seed packet or the starter pack of vegetable plants. Don’t be tempted to crowd the plants to get a higher yield. “That can lead to poor air circulation, which can cause plants to rot,” warns Allison. If you’re really after maximum harvest, consider rotating cool- and warm-weather crops. Cool crops like lettuce, arugula, broccoli and peas can be planted in spring, then replaced when the weather warms up with summer staples like tomatoes, basil, peppers and beans. Make sure you place taller vegetables like corn and pole beans at the northern end of the garden, advises Schepmoes, “so they don’t shade out smaller plants.” And, she adds, “leave room between plants for weeding and harvesting.”
Are raised beds better?
Raised beds—garden beds with solid wooden or plastic borders to hold in soil—aren’t necessarily better than plots dug directly in the ground, but they’re a whole lot easier. For one thing, you won’t be facing the odious chore of digging and turning compacted soil and “you can create the perfect soil mixture,” says Schepmoes. And if you use a series of smaller raised beds, you don’t have to worry about leaving room for weeding and harvesting. If you’re setting your beds on a lawn, remove the grass beneath each bed before adding soil, which should be a mix of good garden soil and well-composted organic matter.
Let it rain
Whether it’s from precipitation or watering, make sure your bed gets at least an inch of water a week. Schepmoes recommends snaking a soaker hose (a hose perforated with small holes to allow water to slowly drip into the soil) around your vegetable rows, because it won’t leave you with wet foliage, which can encourage fungal growth. Keep in mind, Allison advises, that “the bigger the root ball, the more water the plant needs, which means you should be watering more as your garden grows.” To make sure you’re not underwatering—which can lead to “chewy,” rather than juicy, vegetables— stick a finger into the soil to test for moisture; the soil should be moist down to a depth of several inches. Here, as in other aspects of vegetable gardening, simpler is better.
Related Read: Putting the Garden into the Garden State