Tips on starting a vegetable garden this spring
Story by Michelle Stein
Thinking about starting your own vegetable garden this year, but unsure where to even begin?
Gretchen Staley, volunteer coordinator for the Allen County Master Gardener Volunteers, has got you covered — from the ground up.
“It sounds silly but it’s important they plant things that their family will actually eat,” Staley said. “Sometimes looking at seed packets and seed catalogs, we tend to have glorious dreams about how I will grow this and I will be having kale salads every night — except nobody really likes kale. And then it’s a waste.”
Placement of your garden is key, she explained. Whether you’re planning a garden in your native soil, a raised bed or a collection of containers, it’s important to settle on a full-sun site.
“Most vegetables are happiest with eight to 10 hours of sun, so you want an area of your yard that is definitely full sun all day,” she said. “So if you have a lot of trees overhanging and shady areas or neighboring houses that shade part of your lawn for part of the day, you definitely want to take into consideration that so they’re getting enough light.”
It’s important, too, to select a spot for your garden that is close enough to your house to be convenient for watering, Staley said.
“If you have in your head that it wouldn’t be a big deal to drag jugs or buckets of water back to your garden if you wanted to tuck it in a corner out of sight, you will find that you won’t haul water in August,” she said. “Place that somewhere where you’re seeing it, walking by it, and that it’s up close to where you will see it to work on it.”
Preparing the soil is another important factor. This process can begin as early as the fall before planting season for native-soil gardens.
“If you’re planting in your native soil at ground level, you want to make sure that your area is weed and turf-free,” she said. “Using an herbicide like Roundup is acceptable. That’s a about a two-week process. And then removing that dead turf is my preference, or it can be dug under, but you tend to get a bit more reemergence of those grass roots.”
A soil test can be taken and sent in to find out the pH of your soil, which should ideally be in the 6.5 range, Staley said. Knowing this number will help you know what nutrients to add, and it will tell you what you don’t need to add.
Raised beds — which tend to be bit easier for beginning gardeners — also rely on good soil condition. For raised beds, ideally you want to have them 8-12 inches deep, especially if you want to grow any root crops, like carrots or potatoes.
Making a plan
Step one really beyond getting your site and soil set up is really making a plan for what you do want to plant.
“My recommendation would be start small and have a small, successful garden than a really large failure,” Staley said. “I think sometimes people underestimate the amount of time and attention it takes, and they get frustrated if they try to do to too large of a garden. So start with one or two raised beds that give them no more than 100 square feet of garden. That would be plenty big for a beginner.”
As a general rule of thumb, St. Patrick’s Day (March 17) is the earliest that gardeners begin planting cold-season vegetables. This includes crops such as peas, lettuces, broccoli, spinach and onions.
“A lot of times people will kind of succession plant, where they’ll start the season with those cooler crops that can tolerate light frost and then switch some of those out to warmer season crops,” Staley said.
Warmer season crops such as tomatoes, cucumbers, lima beans, pumpkins and sweet potatoes, need soil temperatures to be at least 50 degrees, she said. So planting would be done closer to Mother’s Day, around May 15.
Tending your garden
As far as using pesticides in your vegetable garden is concerned, Mark Badertscher, agriculture and natural resources educator at the Hardin County Ohio State University Extension office, recommends using a process called Integrated Pest Management.
1. Identify what the pest is. Is the pest an insect? A disease, a weed, a fungus or something else?
2. Identify what caused that damage. “Some common types of damage that we see with insects is the chewing, the defoliation of leaves, or damage to the fruit or vegetable,” Badertscher said. “Common damage that you see with diseases a lot of times are spots on the leaves of plants. And then obviously, weed problems they compete with the garden plants for sunlight as well as moisture and nutrients that are in the soil.”
3. Determine the threshold. “Then you need to make a decision about how bad is your problem — we call that a threshold — and there are different thresholds for different insects and for different diseases,” Badertscher said. “The threshold will tell you whether or not you need to do something right now or whether you can avoid it and do something later.”
Then, make a plan of action.
If you reach that threshold the next step then would be to figure out what you’re going to do about it.
1. Cultural practices: “If you’re having problems with your melons, for example, a common practice would be to rotate your crops,” Badertscher said. “So you’re moving your melon patch to another area in the garden.” Another cultural practice might be some diseases are caused by wet soils. So you might find that you’re going to drain your garden, either installing some tile drainage, for example, or moving your garden to higher land where there’s better drainage.”
2. Mechanical practices: Mechanical practices can be anything as simple as pulling weeds, using mulch around plants to keep weeds out and to keep moisture in, or using things like row covers — like cheese cloth that you put over the rows to protect them from insects. “For pests like deer, rabbits and raccoons, the best defense is to fence off the garden to try to keep them out,” Badertscher said. “A gardener may also choose to plant a ‘sacrificial’ crop or plant around the outside of the garden area, which creates a natural barrier. This way, the animals will eat this instead of the vegetables in the middle of the garden.”
3. Biological practices: There are natural predators out there that will attack and feed on some of the undesirable insects. For example, ladybugs feed on aphids. Some garden catalogs have these insects available for order to release in your garden.
4. Chemical control: A lot of gardeners don’t like to use chemicals unless they really have to, Badertscher said. The main thing about using chemicals is you need to read the label. The label is the law, so follow it closely. Be sure to research organic pesticide options.
Need more specific help for those garden pests? Your local OSU Extension office can help with that, too.
“They can contact their local extension office, and we can provide them with some help to help solve their issues that they’re having,” Badertscher said. “Or, you can also go online and there’s an ‘ask the expert’ where you can actually ask a question online, and an expert in horticulture or gardening will get back with the person to give them an idea of what they should do.”