Beginning a Vegetable Garden

Penn State Master Gardeners of Venango County

With some planning, you can grow your own vegetables at home. This article describes how to start a vegetable garden.

Have you resolved to start eating better? Growing your own food can be one of the best ways to achieve that goal. Your backyard can yield the freshest food, free from pesticides and tailored to your palate. Winter is a good time to plan a garden, so you are ready to plant as early as the spring thaw.
Begin with a garden journal. Answer the following questions:

Why you want to start a garden?

How much space do you have?

How much time do you have to commit to a garden?

How many months of the year would you like to garden? Conceivably you can garden from February and continue to harvest into December!

What vegetables do you like to eat?

How much food do you want to grow?

Once you’ve determined your goals, explore options for where the garden will be located. Note the sun exposure the site receives. Heat-loving or warm season crops like tomatoes and peppers need at least six hours of sun in mid-summer, but eight to ten hours is ideal. Cool season crops including greens, brassicas and some root crops can grow with four to six hours of sun; some will grow even better in light shade. Cool season crops grow best in the spring and fall.

Obtain a soil test. Soil tests measure the quantity of available nutrients and are used to determine the amount and type of fertilizer needed for the garden. The test will also measure the pH of the soil. Most vegetables grow best in a range of 6.8 to 7.2. This is important because if the pH is too low, plants cannot absorb nutrients from the soil. In addition, for a new site, testing for organic matter can be very useful, giving you a starting point for adding fertilizer and organic matter. If the pH of the soil is too low, lime should be added. The analysis will include the recommended amount. Soil tests can be obtained from your local extension office or at local nurseries and garden centers. Further information, including a form requesting soil test kits, can be found at Penn State Extension Soil Testing.

Know the history of the site. If it included an older building with the potential for lead paint, be sure to check for lead on your soil test. Lead testing is also done by Penn State’s Agricultural Analytical Services Laboratory and is detailed via the link provided on soil testing above.

Sites which once held a building or heavy material, might have deeply compacted soil, requiring extra effort in site preparation. Be aware of any underground obstructions. What is the existing vegetation at the site? After heavy rainfall, locate areas that remain damp for days. Check the soil structure for the presence of clay and shale. Will you need to protect the area from vegetable-loving mammals? How difficult will it be to provide supplemental water to the garden? All are correctable issues, but advance consideration of these obstacles is important.

As with most new projects, it is best to plan ahead and start small. As you gain experience, you can increase the size and variety of your garden. You may purchase seedlings to transplant into your garden from your local garden center or nursery. Most heat-loving vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers and okra are purchased this way, but they can also be started by seed, six to ten weeks ahead of planting outdoors.

There are many vegetables you can start by “direct sowing” into the garden, that is planting seeds straight from the packet into your prepared soil. Winter is the perfect time to order a seed catalog. Most provide helpful growing information and can be a season-long reference. Seed packets include planting and harvest dates on the back; they make their appearance in stores toward the end of winter. As you
gain experience, you might want to try some more unusual vegetables or specific varieties which pique your interest.

Soil and air temperature are important in determining the best time to plant seeds or transplant seedlings into the garden. Books, websites and catalogs include charts detailing this information. Planting seeds before the soil reaches an appropriate temperature will delay or decrease germination. Tomatoes, peppers and okra prefer night-time temperatures 50°F or higher. Rushing planting before that time stresses these heat-loving vegetables.

Information on “days to maturity” is helpful in knowing when to harvest your crop and plan for successive plantings to keep the garden producing over a longer period of time.

If you’re ready to embark on the adventure of growing your own food, Penn State Master Gardeners are ready and able to help you on that journey. Check your county Penn State Extension office for Master Gardener Garden Hotline hours and classes.


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