Tips for starting a home vegetable garden

Richard Bogren, Gill, Daniel J.

Vegetable gardens can provide a bountiful harvest throughout the year in Louisiana. (Photo by Dan Gill. Click on photo for downloadable image.)


Vegetable gardens of any size can be highly productive. (Photo by Dan Gill. Click on photo for downloadable image.)

For Release On Or After 03/15/13

By Dan Gill
LSU AgCenter Horticulturist

Visions of delicious homegrown vegetables can become a reality with some planning and a willingness to put in the time and work that planting and caring for a garden require.

The planning part involves such considerations as where to place the garden, how large it will be and what to plant. The working part involves preparing the soil, fertilizing, planting, mulching, controlling pests and, my favorite part, harvesting.

Site selection is critical to the success of your vegetable garden. The site should receive a minimum of six hours of direct sunlight, preferably full or all-day sunlight. Vegetable plants that do not 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 space 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 with a small garden until you see how much work is involved, and then you can 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 the herbicide 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. Well-decomposed compost is likely the best choice, but aged, composted manure (horse manure from local stables or cow manure in bags from your nursery) or partially decayed leaves also are good choices. 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 appropriate rates.

Gardeners should consider having their soil tested through their local LSU AgCenter extension office to determine the soil pH 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 also is low.

The test results also will provide the levels of various important plant nutrients in your soil. This is very helpful when choosing what fertilizer to use.

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 into the soil using a shovel, garden fork or tiller. A tiller works great for this step.

Next, make raised rows by using shovels or hoes to pull soil up to create a raised area 8 to 10 inches above the furrows. Rows should be at least 36 inches wide from furrow to furrow and as long as you like.

Wide rows will give 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. These 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 materials such as landscape timbers, bricks, cinder blocks or pressure-treated boards (2-by-12-inch boards work well).

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. A 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 blended soil mixes by the cubic yard and deliver it if your order is large enough. Or you can often get it yourself if you have access to 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.

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

Rick Bogren
2/27/2013 1:24:25 AM
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