Vegetable gardeners everywhere know a real life secret that non-gardeners have yet to discover: growing your own vegetables can change your life! That sounds like a pretty bold statement when you think of the humble vegetable but just look at this short list of benefits: Growing your own vegetables saves you money, contributes to a healthy lifestyle and offers a rewarding life-long hobby to be shared with friends and family.
Economically speaking an inexpensive package of seed can yield many delicious meals throughout the summer. Your grocery budget can be stretched even further if you freeze or can your fresh produce for fall and winter meals.
You can't beat the nutritional value of home grown vegetables that are eaten within a day or two of harvesting. If you choose organic, non-genetically modified seeds, such as Heirlooms, you spike the nutritional value even more. Pair nutritional value with the exercise benefits of digging, stretching, bending, and the cardio workout gained from running a wheel barrow around the yard and you can almost justify letting you gym membership expire.
When you consider these benefits along with the learning experience, the tradition of vegetable gardening and the fact that all your friends are doing it, isn't it time you got in on the secret? If your answer is an emphatic Yes! Then read on for my suggestions on how you can get started.
As soon as the sunny days arrive each spring, no matter what the thermometer says, I can't help but begin daily visits to my vegetable garden to check the consistency of the soil. The magic moment for planting cool season vegetables outdoors is when a handful of soil gently squeezed falls apart at the edges but stays loosely together in the center. If the soil stays in a compacted form when squeezed its too early. If the soil holds no form at all when squeezed, I know I had better step up my planting schedule because I have just lost valuable growing days.
I like to plant my vegetables in raised garden beds because the warming rays of the sun are more concentrated there and I can plant successfully one or two weeks earlier than in a traditional flat ground bed.. Raised garden beds also allow for drainage which is crucial for most vegetables.
Because I am a lazy gardener, I pull my spent vegetable plants in the fall and leave the non woody stems and leaves on top of the soil. I then spread 2 or 3 inches of compost over the top and let all the worms and micro organisms such as beneficial bacteria and fungi work their magic over the winter.
If I didn't get around to adding the compost last fall, I will rake it into the top 2-3 inches of soil the spring. Just remember if you add compost in the spring you must be sure it is finished compost so further break down is not necessary, as this delays your planting time even more.
I don't like to dig my beds each spring partly because it's a lot of work (did I mention I'm a lazy gardener) but also it can be damaging to the soil structure and it disturbs the important work of the earth worms and organisms already on the job..
Once the soil is ready to be worked, I rake off any debris that has accumulated over the winter and start planting. Veggies that like cool spring temperatures go in first. Some of these are garden peas, most lettuces, radishes, spinach and other greens. You can also plant vegetable starts of cabbage, brussel sprouts, broccoli, onions and cauliflower during the cool days of spring. Check your seed packets or plant tags for recommendations.
The traditional flat ground gardening method is still a favorite of many gardeners. If you choose this method, you can achieve some of the benefits of raised bed gardening like sooner-to-warm soil and free drainage by employing the French Intensive Gardening technique. This technique involves raking your soil into several long mounds about 3-4 feet wide and 6-8 inches deep. Vegetables are then planted in blocks rather than rows for easier watering and better weed control.
Remember that vegetables need at least 6 hours of sun each day. Eight hours is even better. When choosing a site for a new garden remember to consider nearby trees and the fact that bare branches now will let the sun through, but once the leaves appear your site could be too shady for optimum yields.
For new garden sites remove all existing vegetation, break up the soil and add a good quality pre mixed soil specifically designed for vegetable production. You will need a generous amount, say 6-8 inches. If purchasing a pre mixed soil, be sure that it contains 25% compost.
Don't' be discouraged if your existing soil is a bit on the sandy side. Sand is actually a very important component of perfect gardening soil as it allows for free drainage. (There are very few vegetables that like to be water logged.) You will want to mix 3-4 inches of finished compost into your sandy soil. Once your veggies are off to a good start, a compost mulch will conserve moisture and provide a slow release organic fertilizer for your garden.
Keep your newly planted seed beds evenly moist until the new sprouts begin to peak through. Then you can begin a regular watering schedule that allows your garden to dry out on the surface and stay moist, but not wet, 2 or 3 inches below. Whether you choose a drip or overhead watering system, watering during the morning is best. This allows for the water to penetrate the soil without losing too much to evaporation and gives the leaves a chance to completely dry throughout the day thus avoiding conditions that can allow diseases to breed.
Finally, you will achieve the best results by adopting a regular feeding program of diluted organic fertilizer. Choose the fertilizer according to the needs of the plants you are growing and remember less is more when it comes to fertilizer.
Now you're ready to begin enjoying the life-changing benefits of growing your own vegetables. You could be healthier, have extra spending money and embark on a joyful gardening life to be shared with all the people you know. Give it a try. You won't be sorry.
Written by Guest Columnist Kristy Wittkopf, Wittkopf Landscape Supply.
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