Starting a vegetable garden at home is an easy way to save money -- that $2 tomato plant can easily provide you with 10 pounds of fruit over the course of a season.
Planting a garden with vegetables also gives you the pleasure of savoring a delicious, sun-warmed tomato fresh from the garden. In almost every case, the flavor and texture of varieties you can grow far exceed the best grocery store produce.
Plus, growing vegetables can be fun. It's a great way to spend time with children or have a place to get away and spend time outdoors in the sun.
Keep in mind when figuring out what to plant in a garden with vegetables that you don't need a large space to begin. If you choose to grow in containers, you don't even need a yard -- a deck or balcony may provide plenty of space.
There are three basic requirements for success:
1. Full sun. Most vegetables need at least 6-8 hours of direct sun. If they don't get enough light, they won't bear as much and they'll be more susceptible to attack from insects or diseases.
If you don't have a spot in full sun to plant a garden with vegetables, you can still grow many leafy vegetables such as lettuce and spinach. And if you're in a hot-summer climate, cool-season varieties such as peas may do better in part shade.
2. Plenty of water. Because most vegetables aren't very drought tolerant, you'll need to give them a drink during dry spells. When thinking about how to plan a vegetable garden, remember: The closer your garden is to a source of water, the easier it will be for you.
3. Good soil. As with any kind of garden, success usually starts with the soil. Most vegetables do best in moist, well-drained soil that's rich in organic matter (such as compost or peat moss).
Allow at least 18 inches between your rows so you have plenty of room to work between them. And as you sketch out your plan, place taller vegetables at the north side of the garden. This includes naturally tall plants -- like tomatoes -- and plants that can be grown on vertical supports -- including snap peas, cucumbers, and pole beans.
Check drainage by soaking the soil with a hose, waiting a day, then digging up a handful of soil. Squeeze the soil hard. If water streams out, you'll probably want to add compost or organic matter to improve the drainage.
Next, open your hand.
If the soil hasn't formed a ball, or if the ball falls apart at the slightest touch, the soil is probably too sandy. (Add organic matter to improve sandy soil.)
If the ball holds together even if you poke it fairly hard, you have too much clay in your soil. (Organic matter improves clay soil, too.)
But if the ball breaks into crumbs when you poke it -- like a chocolate cake -- rejoice! Your soil is ideal.
If your soil doesn't drain well, your best bet will probably be to install raised beds.
Build raised beds on existing lawn by lining the bottom of frames with several layers of newspaper, then filling with soil. That way, you don't have to dig!
Most vegetables like a steady supply of moisture, but not so much that they are standing in water. About an inch of water per week is usually sufficient, provided by you if Mother Nature fails to come through. Water when the top inch of soil is dry. For in-ground crops, that may mean watering once or twice a week; raised beds drain faster and may require watering every other day.
Weeds compete with your vegetables for water and nutrients, so it's important to keep them to a minimum. Use a hoe or hand fork to lightly stir (cultivate) the top inch of soil regularly to discourage weed seedlings. A mulch of clean straw, compost, or plastic can keep weeds at bay around larger plants like tomatoes.
Fertilizing your crops is critical to maximizing yields. Organic gardeners often find that digging in high quality compost at planting time is all their vegetables need. Most gardeners, however, should consider applying a packaged vegetable fertilizer, following the directions on the box or bag. Don't apply more than recommended as this can actually decrease yield.
By using vining crops like pole beans and snap peas when planting a garden with vegetables, you can make use of vertical space in the garden and boost yield per square foot.
Pests and disease are ongoing problems for most vegetable gardeners. Although specific problems may require special solutions, there are some general principles you can follow.
Deer and rabbits. Use fences to deter rabbits. Make sure the bottom of the fence extends about 6 inches under the soil to stop rabbits from digging underneath it. The fence needs to stand at least 8 feet above the ground to prevent deer from jumping over it.
Spring insects. Row covers, which are lightweight sheets of translucent plastic, protect young crops against many common insects. Row covers are also helpful to prevent damage from light frosts.
Fungal diseases. Reduce fungal diseases by watering the soil, not the leaves of plants. If you use a sprinkler, do it early in the day so the leaves will dry by nightfall.
If a plant falls prey to a disease, remove it promptly and throw it in the trash; don't add sick plants to your compost pile.
Grow varieties that are listed as disease resistant. Garden catalogs and websites should tell you which varieties offer the most protection.
Make it a habit to change the location of your plants each year. In other words, if you grew tomatoes in the northwest corner of your garden this year, put them in the northeast corner next year. This reduces the chances that pests will gain a permanent foothold in your garden.
Summer insects. Pick larger insects and caterpillars by hand. Once you get over the "yuck!" factor, this is a safe and effective way to deal with limited infestations.
Believe it or not, aluminum foil can successfully keep hungry insects and slugs away from your vegetable garden. Simply mix strips of aluminum foil in with your garden mulch to deter bugs and slugs. In addition, since foil is reflective, it will shine light back up onto your plants, giving them a solar boost.
Mothballs are another handy insect control device for the garden. You've probably heard of using mothballs in the closet to protect your sweaters, but you can also use them to kill bugs on potted plants. Simply place the plant in a clear plastic bag (i.e. a cleaning bag), add a few mothballs, and seal the bag for a week. When you take the plant out, it will be bug-free (and moths will stay away for a while too). Animals also hate the smell of mothballs, so you can toss a few into your garden and flowerbed as well, to keep away cats, dogs, and rodents.
Did you know onions are a natural pesticide as well? Here's an easy-to-make concoction that will repel insects (and animals too) in your flowers and vegetables: Use a blender to puree 4 onions, 2 cloves of garlic, 2 tablespoons of cayenne pepper, and one quart of water. Put the mixture aside and then dilute 2 tablespoons of soap flakes in 2 gallons of water. Pour all the contents in your blender, stir it up, and this gives you an eco-friendly bug spray to use on your plants.
Black pepper is another home remedy that works great for pest control in the garden. If insects are harassing your flowers, plants, and vegetables, simply mix pepper with flour and sprinkle it around your plants. Bugs won't be so eager to munch.