Ready, Set, Grow!

How to plan a vegetable garden

By Signe Porteshawver of The Veg Table

My first garden occupied one of the rare yards of Somerville, Massachusetts. I felt so lucky to have a space to start with, as if it were fate. My garden was far from productive, but was a joy to work in, water, and share.

Backyard gardening has the power to bring together neighbors, friends, families, and even strangers to celebrate something intrinsic - the growth, beauty and wonder of plants and their ability to produce food.

At this time of year, dreaming up garden plans can be the saving grace from vitamin D deficiency. Get excited about building, planting, and harvesting! The more beautiful your garden is, the more time you’ll want to spend there.

So let’s get down to the nitty gritty, the practical know-how you'll need to start your first garden:

Start small: I recommend building a 4x4 or 4x6 raised bed out of cedar. It’s a nice amount of space, but not hard to work with. Don’t make your raised bed much wider than 4 feet because you’ll need to reach the center to weed and harvest. Good news is, if you fill up your raised bed with plants, you can add containers as the season goes on.

Find the sun: Vegetables like full sun and need about 6-8 hours of direct sunlight a day to produce large, healthy fruit sets. It can be hard to get a nice sunny spot in the city, where all the close buildings are casting their shadows. Luckily some plants handle partial shade well: leafy greens like arugula, lettuce, and kale, in addition to radishes, peas, beans, carrots, and beets. Fruiting plants (tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and other vegetables with seeds) need lots of direct sunlight.

Check your water source: Outdoor spouts are best. Schlepping water canisters can prove a bit cumbersome, but serve as a way to apply liquid fertilizer.

Test your soil: The biggest worry is lead and other heavy metals. There are some approaches to remediating contaminated soil, but for your first season I’d recommend gardening in containers if your soil is not up to snuff. Most states have a Cooperative Extension Service that will test your soil for contaminants.

Plan your plants: While it’s possible to harvest a constant supply of veggies from your garden, it requires a lot of planning and planting. Note: It’s easier to plan once you have a knack for growing. However, if you know you really like to eat arugula, seed it every two weeks. Most seed packets will tell you how often to plant to get a constant harvest. Obviously, the more you plan it out, the more home grown veggies you’ll be eating. Yum for you and yum for yen!

  • Grow the veggies you like to eat but know that there are some vegetables that are just hard to grow, like broccoli and watermelon. Go for it if you really like these foods and are up to the challenge, otherwise support your local farms for those crops.
  • Organize your planting area. I recommend square foot gardening if you are planting in a raised bed. If you have a bigger area, plant in rows to better handle weeds, or intensively to grow more food. Keep the sun in mind. Plant tall crops like tomatoes and beans on the north side so they don’t shade out your other plants.

Score some seeds: Find your local seed company or visit Johnny’s Selected Seeds, a great source for seeds and information. A good option for beginners is to buy starts instead of seeds. You’ll know when it’s a good time to plant the seedlings because you'll see them for sale at your local farmers market. You won’t get to be choosy about varieties, but you’ll end up with stronger plants. When selecting seedlings for purchase, make sure their leaves are nice and green, their stems not too long or stringy. Squeeze the underside of the container a little and pull the plant out by its stem. If the soil comes with the plant, but the roots aren’t all gnarled and crowded you’ve got yourself a good transplant. Definitely buy seed for arugula, lettuce, carrots, spinach, beets, radishes, cucumbers, summer squash and beans.

Amend your soil: If you’re building a raised bed or gardening in containers you’ll have to mix up your own soil. You’ll want your soil to have air space so that water can move through. If you are planting in the ground, add some love in the form of compost and other additives.

Now you are all set to start growing!  Stay tuned for my next installment on planting and caring for your crops!

Do you have plans to start a vegetable garden this year?

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Signe Porteshawver is an aspiring farmer, food activist, and writer. She's worked as a farmer and restaurant accounts manager at a diversified vegetable farm in Massachusetts. She's been on staff at theMOVE for several years, drives a delivery truck for Farmers to You and helps organize an annual Farm Share Fair. This spring she begins an apprenticeship in herbal medicine. She maintains a blog at The Veg Table, enjoys cooking, preserving food, growing sprouts in her kitchen, and dreaming up future farm enterprises. She lives in Jamaica Plain.

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