Start a home vegetable garden now

Daniel Gill, Bogren, Richard C.  |  3/2/2009 10:47:12 PM

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For Release On Or After 03/13/09

By Dan Gill
LSU AgCenter Horticulturist

Visions of delicious home-grown vegetables can become a reality with a little planning and some work. As the economy slows, home vegetable gardening is becoming more popular – something we have seen in past economic downturns. The following information is particularly important for new gardeners just getting started.

The planning part involves such considerations as where to place the garden and what to plant. The working part involves preparing the soil, fertilizing, planting, mulching and, my favorite part, harvesting.

The site selection is very critical to the success of your vegetable garden. The site should receive a minimum of six hours of direct sunlight every day. Full or all-day sunlight is preferable. Vegetable plants that don’t receive sufficient light will not be as productive.

The site must also be well-drained. Low-lying areas that hold water after a rain are not suitable. To improve drainage even more, we typically plant vegetables in raised rows or raised beds.

Plan to grow what you and your family like to eat. While deciding what to grow, also consider how much you want to plant and the room the crops will need. You’ll get better at this with experience. Be careful here. One of the most common mistakes is to create a garden that is too large. Start modestly until you see how much work is involved – then expand later.

The real work begins with soil preparation. Clear the site of all weeds or grass. This can be done by physically removing the unwanted vegetation or by spraying with a herbicide with the active ingredient glyphosate. When the weeds have been removed or are dead, turn the soil with a shovel or tiller to a depth of 8 inches.

Next, add a generous amount of organic matter. Don’t scrimp on this! Compost is likely the best choice, but you can use aged manure, partially decayed leaves or peat moss. Spread a 2- to 4-inch layer of organic matter over the tilled area. Fertilizer can be added on top of the organic matter. Apply a general-purpose fertilizer following package directions for rates.

Gardeners should consider having their soil tested through their local LSU AgCenter extension office to determine the pH of their soil and calcium and magnesium levels. You may need to add lime to raise the pH of your soil and provide calcium (use dolomitic lime if the magnesium level is low). You’ll also be informed of the levels of various important plant nutrients required for your crops.

Organic gardeners may choose to use any of the organic fertilizers available instead of commercial fertilizers – or just stick with compost and manure.

Mix the organic matter and fertilizer thoroughly with the soil using a shovel, garden fork or tiller. A tiller works great for this step.

Next, make raised rows by using shovels and/or hoes to pull soil up to create a raised area. Rows should be at least 36 inches wide from furrow to furrow and as long as you like. Wide rows will give you more planting surface and make more efficient use of your garden area. The bed may be as wide as you like, as long as you are able to comfortably reach the middle without stepping into it.

You may decide to build raised beds. Raised beds are usually easier to maintain and can be more productive than in-ground beds. Make them 8 to 12 inches high with sides constructed from your chosen materials, such as landscape timbers, bricks, cinder blocks or pressure-treated boards. The beds should be constructed 3 to 4 feet wide and as long as you like. Topsoil or garden soil mixes are generally used to fill new raised beds. The soil company or nursery can help you decide how much soil you need based on the dimensions of the beds.

For small-scale jobs, it is often easiest to purchase bagged soil mix from a local nursery. For larger jobs, soil companies will sell you a blended soil mix by the cubic yard and deliver it (if your order is large enough). Or you often can go and get it yourself if you have a pickup truck. You won’t need to add organic matter to a blended top soil or garden soil, but you should still add fertilizer.

Whichever way you go, make sure the bed is not full to the top when you are finished because this will make it hard to water and apply mulch.

By planting in raised rows or raised beds, you improve drainage. This is especially important because of the deluges we are subject to receive any season of the year.

Mulches are a critical part of vegetable gardening. Most important, they suppress the growth of weeds, but they also conserve soil moisture. Apply 1 to 2 inches of organic mulch (leaves, chopped leaves, pine straw, dried grass clippings) immediately over a prepared bed until you’re ready to plant. Plant transplants directly through the mulch. Pull the mulch aside to plant seeds, and do not replace it over the area until the seedlings are big enough so they won’t be covered.

Planning what vegetables you want to grow is almost as much fun as harvesting and eating your bounty. Next time, we’ll look at some of the popular vegetables to plant in March.

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Contact: Dan Gill at (225) 578-2222 or dgill@agcenter.lsu.edu  

Editor: Rick Bogren at (225) 578-5839 or rbogren@agcenter.lsu.edu  

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