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The First Steps to Planning Your Vegetable Garden

Some people have labeled them victory gardens. Others call them recession gardens, crisis gardens--even survival gardens. No matter what you call them, industry surveys are showing a double digit increase in the number of folks starting vegetable gardens this year. If you want to jump into the wonderful world of gardening, it's not too late. There is no better way to increase your health while stretching your food budget dollars! Here are a few important first steps to getting started.


Find Your Hardiness Zone

Finding your USDA Hardiness Zone is a key first step to planning a successful garden. The USDA Hardiness Zone Map is divided into 11 different zones based on the average coldest temperatures for each region. When shopping seed catalogs and reading plant labels, hardiness zones are listed to help you avoid planting flowers and vegetables that can't manage your region's temperatures. You can find your USDA plant hardiness zone here:

Know Your Frost Dates

Knowing your last average frost date (in the spring) and first average frost date (in the fall) is vital to when it comes to planting and harvesting your vegetables. Nearly all vegetables succumb to frost, so knowing when it's safe to plant and when to provide plants with frost protection are important. Every vegetable variety needs a certain number of days in a growing season to reach maturity. The number of days between your first and late frost is the approximate number of days in your growing season. Visit the National Climatic Data Center to find the freeze/frost probability tables for your state.


Choose Your Crops

Once you know your hardiness zones and first and last frost dates, you're ready to think about what kinds of vegetables you want to grow. To help you decide, answer the following questions:

  • What do I like to eat? What does my family like to eat?
  • Which vegetables are the most expensive to buy?
  • Which vegetables are the most nutritious?
  • What is my gardening skill level?
  • Do I plan to preserve vegetables over the winter?

The following crops are considered some of the easiest to grow for first time gardeners:

  • tomatoes
  • green beans
  • peas
  • cucumbers
  • squash
  • carrots
  • beets
  • radishes
  • peppers
  • salad greens
  • herbs (parsley, basil, and chives)

All of these crops can be grown from seed, which is the most cost-effective way to garden. If you're in a cooler zone, you may want to get a jump on the growing season by buying seedlings from nurseries or garden centers that can be transplanted.


Select a Site

Now that you have decided what to grow, you need to decide where to grow it. Do you want to grow your vegetables in containers on the patio, build some raised beds, or break ground on your first garden plot? Whatever you decide, it's always a good idea to start small. As you gain skills and confidence you can continue to expand your garden.

Most vegetables need a minimum of 6-8 continuous hours of sun per day. The site should be somewhat protected from wind, and offer good drainage. You'll want to plant taller crops on the north and west sides of your site to avoid shading your shorter crops. Sketching your plans on graph paper may be helpful at this stage in your planning.

Gather Some Tools

You don't need more than a few simple tools to get your garden started.

  • Garden shovel/spade: digging, turning over soil, and cutting sod.

  • Hoe: weeding and aerating the soil.
  • Metal rake: smoothing and leveling soil.
  • Trowel: spot weeding and planting seedlings, container gardening.
  • Twine and wooden stakes: marking and laying out rows in garden beds.

Buying brand new quality tools is a bit of an investment. Good tools stand the test of time, and you can usually save yourself a lot of money by picking them up at auction sales and flea markets.

Get a Soil Test!

To grow vegetables, garden soil needs to be loose and crumbly to a depth of at least 12-18 inches. It should contain plenty of organic matter, provide good drainage, have pH levels in the 6.2-7.0 range, and be safe for planting edible crops (low in heavy metals). To find out what your soil does and doesn't contain, contact your local county extension agency about information on obtaining a soil test. They will give you instructions on how to collect soil samples (it's easy!) and where you can send the sample for analysis. You'll save yourself a lot of time and frustration if you do this before you plant your first seed. It takes 2-3 weeks (and around $15) to get detailed results on what, if anything, you need to add to your soil to have a successful garden.


Good luck!

About The Author: Ellen Brown is an environmental writer and photographer and the owner of Sustainable Media, an environmental media company that specializes in helping businesses and organizations promote eco-friendly products and services.

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May 19, 20090 found this helpful

Although this article contains good advice, it does make gardening seem very complicated. It need not be so. I have been gardening all my life. My mother also always planted a garden, and will still do so now that she is 80, although she is just planting a few things in her flowerbeds around her house. We live in Saskatchewan, which has a relatively short growing season, and the gardens are lovely. My advice to first time gardeners is to find a neighbour or someone in your community who gardens, and ask their advice. Gardeners love to share their tips.


My most important tip is to make sure that your garden plot has good sunlight. My neighbour's trees shade my yard from the west, and my house shades the garden spot from the south for part of the day, and so although the plot looks like it gets lots of sun, it actually does not. It is best to situate the plot where it will NOT be shaded.

I would add potatoes (which are grown from seed potatoes), green onions and regular onions which are usually grown from "sets" (little onions), and brocolli which in our area is best grown from seedlings (as are tomatoes and peppers). Zuchinni is a wonderful crop for first time growers (don't plant a lot of plants -- two is plenty unless you are a family of 12) and pumpkins are fun if you have a lot of space.

There are different varieties of plants, and that can make a big difference to your success. Usually the seeds you find in your local stores will be good varieties for your area, but even so, some are better than others. A local gardener is your best source of advice for this.

Happy Gardening.

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May 20, 20090 found this helpful

I'd like to see all givers of advice tell their zone first, so those who don't live there won't take advice for other areas and try to apply them to their own. Not all soils are the same, not all weather or pests are the same. I'd say that container gardening might be better to start with, then slip a few of those things that have grown a bit into the flower beds with an application of Epsom salts water (about 1/4 cup to a gallon of water, I hear.) Most plants love it because it's Magnesium Sulphate which makes leaves green and plants flourish, supposedly. This will be my first year to use it. All other years I have used Sea Kelp from Garden's Alive, with great results for even slower growing plants.,

This gardening is a science folks, so don't take it for granted unless you already have lots of experience and great soil/ weather/ light. I have way too many trees. Where there's trees there's roots. Where there's less water, the roots turn upwards towards the surface. Also, it's important to know if you have deep soil or shallow soil sitting on top of say a layer of soft rock?

Study the direction all sunlight comes from and pretend to be each plant, planting according to sun
direction and instructions on the label. Few plants are made for the outdoors shade. Most need more sun, until it gets too hot, then you may have to shade them unless you have automatic sprinklers, like I don't but wished I did have!

I prefer to plant from seedlings, but couldn't afford them and had to hope that last years and last few years seed collections might still grow. We'll see in a few more days! Good luck. : )

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