Sunday, May 13, 2012

10 tips for a victorious vegetable garden

Few things make more sense than planting your own vegetable garden. Cheap, high quality vegetables spring up just a few feet from your door, and gardening is a healthy and educational experience for the whole family.

The trouble is vegetable gardens take time and effort to maintain, and not all of us have the time. But the financial impact, as well as the fun factor, ensures you'll be well-compensated for the time spent with your hands in the dirt. Take these 10 tips from Whispering Hills and the University of Illinois Extension and start building your own backyard farm stand.

It's a cliche for a reason. Just as location is important in everything else you do, a successful vegetable garden starts with the right plot. Make sure your veggies aren't close to trees or shrubs that will compete for resources, and make sure the garden fits in with your landscape design. Do we have to tell you that vegetables need a ton of sunlight? If possible, plant your garden close to a water source as well.

Make a list of the vegetables you want to plant and look up growing tips for each kind. The University of Illinois' horticulture extension has a handy chart to help you with this. Sketch out which vegetables will go where before you just go buying all kinds of plants at the store.

This is the most important part of a vegetable garden. Proper soil for a garden is soft, loose, nutrient-rich and well-drained. Northern Illinois soil does not naturally have those properties. It is hard and full of clay, so be sure to mix in an adequate amount of topsoil and a nutrient-rich amendment (like mushroom compost, Bumper Crop, or material from your own home compost pile) to prime your bed before planting.

Try to plant on a cloudy day or in the evening. Dig the holes for your vegetable plants as deep as their original containers, and be sure to water the plants in their original containers before planting.

If you're thinking about planting in March or April, have plant covers ready in case of frost. You can purchase specially designed plant covers or make your own. Just make a simple frame and drape a cover of newspaper, bedsheets, plastic tarps, cardboard or other lightweight material over rows of plants. For individual plants use milk jugs, flower pots, and anything else that fits over the plant and traps heat. The covers MUST be removed as soon as the frost thaws to prevent overheating and suffocation.

Use a cultivator or garden hoe to get rid of weeds AS SOON as they sprout, because they'll be competing with your plants for water and nutrients. Avoid using herbicide in or near your garden, as the runoff or application of such chemicals could spoil the vegetables. If you must use a herbicide in your landscape, speak with professionals at a garden center first.

Vegetable plants should receive 1 inch of water per week, including rainfall. Thoroughly soak the soil so the water penetrates the root zone (about 6 inches deep). A good trick to keep track of how much you're watering is to set out empty cans in the area you're irrigating. The cans will collect the same amount of water as the soil.

Don't plant the same vegetables in the same spots year after year. Crop rotation helps guard against disease, pests and soil depletion.

Store sweet corn, peas, asparagus, and leafy crops such as lettuce in 40-degree temperatures as soon as possible to avoid decay. Pick and handle vegetables with care, as bruises cause a faster rate of decay. Check out yet another handy chart from the University of Illinois Extension to find out exactly when specific vegetables are ready to be harvested.

Always be on the lookout for new products and tricks that will help your garden do better. Talk to experienced gardeners, and pay a visit at least once a month to your local garden center to see if there's anything else you need or could use. You should remember that your garden, as well as your whole landscape, is alive. It is like a natural construction site. Things are always changing, and if you take the time to keep up with the changes and the maintenance duties, you will see a significant return on your investment.

When grown right, vegetables in your backyard are cheaper, fresher and more readily available than those from the grocery store. Gardening is also a fun and educational experience for kids, and any help you enlist from the family will make it seem less like a chore.

You've read the tips. Now get outside, get your hands dirty and get growing!

Information in this post provided by Whispering Hills staff and the University of Illinois Horticulture Extension.