Your Best Vegetable Garden Ever

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Avoid These Five Pitfalls to See Success

I love our Virginia summer mornings when the fog lays low over the fields as a bright new sun stretches its sleepy arms. Usually, the heat of the previous day is subdued in the night, and the mornings are cool and comfortable. This is when I find myself most productive. I have a cup of coffee, take a few minutes to greet the day from the porch, and then stroll over to my favorite part of my yard: my vegetable garden.

Many people, myself included, find gardening to be a sort of soul-affirming ritual. It makes us feel closer to the earth and for me, closer to God. It slows down our thoughts and narrows our focus while we care for things small and tender. It gives us something to share with our friends and neighbors (and gardeners love to share) and it allows us to enjoy the fruits of our own hard work, directly.

A lot of people are hesitant to start a vegetable garden. It can seem a bit overwhelming. Still, 2020 saw a worldwide spike in home gardening as people developed pandemic-inspired anxieties about food security, and suddenly had the time to test out their green thumb. Growing your own food isn’t hard to do and it ensures healthy, accessible nutrition for you and your family, even in uncertain times.

I say, “it isn’t hard,” but also acknowledge that there are a slew of factors that cause new or amateur gardeners to get overwhelmed. Here are some pitfalls to avoid
so you won’t give up this season.

Pitfall One: Stretching yourself too thin
My eyes are sometimes bigger than my appetite. When you’re tending to everything from a veggie patch to fruit trees to gourd trellises to chickens, it can be a bit much. For your first season, set reasonable goals. You don’t need to go from zero to a five-acre farm. A 10×10 patch is a whopping 100 square feet, is manageable by one person, and can really pack a ton of produce. There’s nothing wrong with going smaller, either.

Also, beginners are better off starting in the spring when the weather is pleasant and the ground is warm and soft before attempting winter growing. You’ll want to pick a spot that gets plenty of sun—at least six hours a day. It also needs to be convenient. Make sure your hoses reach, you don’t have to hike to it, and it isn’t in the way of your other outdoor activities. These little inconveniences can cause a gardener to neglect their patch.

Pitfall Two: Not paying special attention to your soil
Good dirt covers a multitude of sins. It’s arguably the most critical component of successful gardening, so we’ll spend a minute here. It’s worth having a soil test done to find out what you’re lacking. You’ll want to do it as soon as possible, and you can pick these up for cheap at any garden center. You’ll send off a sample of your soil, and the lab will send you a report detailing your pH and nutrient levels. I know this sounds like it could get complicated, but it really isn’t.

There are many nutrients found in healthy soil, but the three that plants need the most are: nitrogen for healthy green leaves, phosphorous for strong roots, and potassium for overall plant hardiness and disease resistance. On garden fertilizers, you’ll see these nutrients identified as N (nitrogen) P (phosphorus) and K (potassium). When choosing a fertilizer, it’s a good rule of thumb to get a complete fertilizer with a higher middle number (phosphorous). Something in the 10-20-10 range is a good start. Organic additives such as compost are also great for adding nutrients to the soil.

Of course, in order for plants to have full access to these nutrients, proper pH is absolutely critical. Most garden plants prefer a pH range of six to seven. If your pH is low, you can bring it up by adding agricultural lime. If it’s high, you can lower it by adding aluminum sulfate or sulfur. You can find all of this at a garden center. Most soil tests even include advice for how to amend soil for certain issues.

Pitfall Three: Planting garden enemies together
First off, I highly recommend starting from seed. Read my article in our previous issue, (“Starting from Scratch,” March/April, available online) to learn all about seed starting. While it’s a little too late for that this year, there’s always next season.

Select your plants from a local garden store. You can find decent stock at department store garden centers, but your local stores will have a wider variety of stronger, healthier plants.

When it’s time to actually put your plants in the ground, remember this: Everyone likes to spend time with friends, and vegetables are no different. Some plants do better when grown near their companions, with whom they have symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationships.

On the contrary, some plants do not get along. For example, tomatoes love how basil repels the insects that threaten them. However, tomatoes do not appreciate the way broccoli competes for much needed nutrients in the soil. Meanwhile, zucchini and squash have a great relationship with beans, which replenish nitrogen for the hungry squash. But zucchini and squash should not be planted near pumpkins, which are unruly and can cross-pollinate, infecting the flavor of your squash.

Another thing to keep in mind is don’t plant tall plants at the “front” southern-facing side of your garden, where they will soak up all that long-day sun but overshade smaller plants in the back. I like to plant my taller plants on the sides of my garden (east and west) and leave the long center open for shorter plants.

Pitfall Four: Neglecting routine maintenance
It’s so important to visit your garden every day if you can. Your plants will thank you, and so will your mind and body. Remember, gardening is good for you!

When you check on your garden, make sure that you’re not letting weeds encroach on your veggies as they eat up vital soil nutrients and choke out your plants. Ensure that your plants get regular waterings, and when mother nature isn’t providing enough rain, get out the hose! Feed your plants if they start to look wilted or discolored. Side-dress with a little compost or a gentle water-soluble fertilizer.

Pitfall Five: Getting lazy during harvest time
Reap the rewards of your hard work! Fruits left on the plant can quickly grow too large, which causes them to lose flavor or be eaten up by wildlife. Also, regular harvesting is another component of routine maintenance, since it encourages new growth for most garden favorites.

The best part about learning to garden is that the first season is the toughest. But there is some kind of spiritually satisfying joy that comes from plucking a snap pea or a cherry tomato off the vine and snacking as you tend to errant weeds under the summer sun. After your first successful season, you’ll be hooked for life.
Be careful—gardening is addictive!

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