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So you've been considering vegetable gardening....where to start?

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So you've been considering vegetable gardening....where to start?

Post  Admin on Wed Mar 10, 2010 5:27 pm

Spring is around the corner, with its burst of warmth, renewal, and an irresistible call to come outdoors. Why should we bother heading out to our yards with shovels and seeds?

There are many good reasons;

  1. Fresh air and sunshine: (there shouldn't be any need to explain this one!)

  2. Cost savings: While home values, goods, and services are deflating, food and energy costs are rising. Even eating at home costs were up 0.4% this January alone. Economic conditions may take a long time to change, and it is very possible that we will not return to continuous economic growth.

  3. Supply chains are shortening: Also called "relocalization" or "reverse globalization", 'near-sourcing' describes the return of American-based goods and services in order to decrease shipping expenses. As freight costs remain high (and oil prices are only going to trend upward), globalization has become less competitive and is expected to remain so for the foreseeable future.

  4. Pesticides: You decide which (if any) pesticides are used on your food, not some distant industrial agri-corp. There are natural pesticides and/or methods that rely on the encouragement of natural pest predators (e.g., Ladybugs eat aphids, tiny Brachonid wasps lay eggs in Hornworms), and companion plantings that discourage pests (e.g., basil next to tomatoes, marigolds near a variety of vegetable, etc).

  5. Genetically modified: You decide which plants to grow, not Monsanto or ADM.

  6. Self determination: You are less reliant on big chain supermarkets, and can choose to grow the items you want that are not readily available at Loudoun's farmers markets and CSAs.

Where to Start?

Planning a garden is an important first step that should be given high priority. It is far easier to learn from the many mistakes of others than it is to reinvent the wheel, so in this article, we will focus on planning.

Think big, start small - think about where you want to be in 3 years, 5 years, etc, but start with a small plot the first year, to get your feet wet and learn what works best for you. Layout a design that you can grow into, so that you can expand your garden according to a vision. For those who really want to consider what their whole yard might look like when considering herbs, fruit vines/shrubs/trees, and nut trees, see this informative introduction to permaculture by the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. Permaculture is a broad topic, and will be discussed in more detail in future articles.

Some resources that I value highly include;

  • Loudoun County Master Gardeners: There is a wealth of information on their website, at clinics they hold, and terrific examples at their demo garden. One clinic is coming up on March 20-21.

  • Friends/Neighbors who garden: Always a great source of information about what works well in the area, especially in regard to pests and soils. It can be helpful to coordinate some pest control measures, such as Japanese Beetle traps.

  • Books:
  • There are many excellent books, more than we can reliably list here (especially those from the Rodale Institute), but let me share a few that have proved valuable to me and others;

    • The Garden Primer - Barbara Damrosch: Covers garden basics and the main garden crops with superb details on each. I consider this a must-have for every beginner.

    • Great Garden Companions - Sally Jean Cunningham: Covers planning, garden design, raised beds, companion plantings, plant family rotation, natural pest control. Highly valuable for beginners and intermediates alike, another must-have.

    • The New Organic Grower - Elliot Colemen: Covers planning, garden design, raised beds, pest control

    • Four Season Harvest - Elliot Coleman: Shows how to plan a garden to take advantage of lightweight, movable greenhouses to enable productive gardens Spring, Summer, Winter, and Fall.

    • Square Foot Gardening: I've not tried this but some people report positive results.

  • Weblinks:

Major Planning Steps

  • Where to plant: Select a garden site that has plenty of sunlight, is a place you will want to spend a little time, and has reasonable access to water (think about where you will run your hose or bury a warm season water line to take water directly to your garden).

  • Preparation: For those who do not already have a garden, a new garden site is often part of the yard, currently covered with grass. There are a number of ways of preparing you soil, and most of them start with how to kill the grass. Simply turning it over doesn't always kill the grass down to the roots. Some approaches;

    • Lay down a layer of newspapers covered with mulch/compost: This is a simple way to start. The grass roots decompose after dying, providing in-ground compost biomass that acts as a fertilizer.

    • Lay down a layer of black plastic: Also reasonably simple, and kills the grass more quickly due to the heat trapped at ground level by the black plastic. Some approaches call for punching small holes through with you would plant.

    • Tilling: They range between large gas tillers and small electric tillers (I use the latter from time to time). Some approaches don't even use tillers at all. Most rental companies carry them.

    • Shoveling: This approach provides the greatest opportunity for exercise. The doubledigging approach is the most shovel-reliant.

  • Soils: What is the fertility and alkalinity of your soil? How deep is it? Don't worry, soils in this county can be easily amended to produce bountiful yields. Know a neighbor who is looking to get rid of horse or livestock manure? Properly composted, it can yield tremendous benefits to your garden's productivity.

  • Seed sources: Some of the obvious names are Park Seeds, though they rely fairly heavily on hybrid varieties. There are now many seed suppliers that distribute open-pollinated (and/or heirloom) seeds, that allow gardeners to save their seeds and have a reliable crop the following year. Attempting to save and replant hybrid seeds is almost always disappointing, as the genetics of the progeny are unpredictable and many hybrids are often either sterile or bear no fruit.

  • Tools: Ever buy a tool that way cheaply made and didn't last anywhere near as long as you expected? I can't count the number of times this has happened to me with Chinese-made tools purchased at the big hardware stores. So I started buying mine from Lehman's in Pennsylvania, and have been very pleased with the workmanship and sturdiness of these tools. I'd rather pay twice as much any day for a tool that lasts 5 times as long. So of the tools you will need (others will be particular to the gardening style you select);

    • Shovel: no surprise here. A trenching shovel may also come in handy.

    • Stirrup hoe: A fascinating improvement to the old fashioned hoe. Now there is no more lifting and hacking, just moving the hoe back and forth over weeds to shear them away.

    • Hand cultivator: This one is multi-purpose.

All this may seem like a lot, but when you start small with a vision of what it will become in the future, it becomes quite manageable and enjoyable. Make the leap!

-- Will Stewart


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