The 6 Basic Steps to a Nutrient Dense Vegetable Garden
Yes, it’s winter and it seems like forever until spring. But that’s how it felt this time last year. Was your vegetable garden planted on time or did you have to scramble to get a garden spot ready, find plants, and add compost? This year get a head start – if you ordered any seeds at all last year, you’re already getting seed catalogues. Plan your garden now so you can take advantage of early-bird sales and get the varieties you want before they’re sold out. This growing season make your vegetable gardening the best yet.
Start small (10 foot x 10 foot is ample) and only plant the type of vegetables that your family really likes to eat. Two or three tomato plants are plenty for fresh eating, a maximum of 2 zucchini plants, lettuce (if your family really eats a lot of salads). Swiss chard, cucumbers, green beans, and peas are other options. Plant your family’s favorite vegetables, what they’ll eat or you’ll end up with a season of gardening frustration.
Step 1 For a Fantastic Vegetable Garden – Select and Prepare Site
Make sure the place you want to put your garden or raised garden beds is in full sun. You also want easy access to a water source, good drainage, and relatively leveled.
If this is your first vegetable garden, you’re probably looking at a place in your lawn that you’re converting into a garden. That means you’re looking at grass.
DO NOT till that spot. It will look good for a very short time and then all those tiny pieces of grass roots will put up shoots. You’ll be battling grass for seasons to come. There’s a better way to prepare your garden spot.
Do you have a pile of cardboard boxes in the garage? If they don’t have shiny inks will be perfect for getting rid of that grass. Make lasagna layers (for example, cardboard, woody or straw materials, some greens and browns and compost) and create a new bed for your plants.
You just need to take all that cardboard, and newspaper if you get one, and lay it over the grass where you want your garden. Make sure there’s plenty of overlap between boxes and paper. What you are doing is depriving the grass of sunshine so it can’t grow (all plants need sunshine for photosynthesis to work) but the roots will decay in the ground, leaving a lot of organic matter. That’s what you want for a fantastic vegetable garden.
It doesn’t matter if the ground is frozen. This is the perfect time to prepare for next spring. You’ll have to put something on top of the cardboard to keep it there. Well-rotted compost, some topsoil, or decomposed leaves will do the trick. And those materials will make your garden spot even more fertile come spring. If you’re buying topsoil research the source.
It’s interesting in a world with everything defined there’s no legal definition of topsoil. It’s whatever’s on top. So, if it’s sourced from a sand dune, it’s sand; from a bog, it’s peat; and everything in between. If possible, look at and touch the topsoil, it should be gritty – that’s the mineral content. The dark color is the organic matter. Both minerals and organic matter are necessary for a good garden and soil health.
Step 2 For a Wonderful Vegetable Garden – What Seeds to Order
It’s the time of year to order seeds. Try to find organic seed because the plant is only as healthy as the seed. Seed grown organically is better suited to your non-chemical garden. Also try to find seed that’s been grown in an area at least one growing zone colder than yours. They’re already hardy for your environment that way. How do you think seeds grown in Texas, USA will do in Quebec, Canada?
Root vegetables like carrots, beets, and radishes are some of the easiest crops to grow. Don’t worry about that cardboard stopping growth, it’ll be decomposed by the time the root crops get that far in the ground. The next easiest crops are leafy greens and cucumbers. You may want a trellis for the cucumbers, just to save garden space for other crops. Almost everyone wants to grow tomatoes and peppers (sweet or hot) and you’ll have to decide if you’re going to start your own plants inside – that’s the topic of another blog – or buy plants from your local nursery.
If you’re just starting, I’d recommend buying starter plants. It’s a whole other skill set starting plants inside.
Step 3 For a Marvelous Vegetable Garden – Paths and Beds
In the spring you’re going to want to start planting - but wait! You have to distinguish walking areas from planting areas. You don’t want to walk in your garden beds.
If you’ve laid out a 10-foot x 10-foot garden area, part of that has to be paths so you can reach all sides of a garden bed to plant, weed, and harvest. Enlist the aid of a friend and have them measure the width of your legs spread comfortably apart to straddle a garden bed. We’re all a different height so this is different for everyone. I’m short so my most comfortable stance is 3 feet apart. That means my garden beds can only be 3 feet wide. I have to devote more of my garden to paths than my friend who is 6 feet tall.
I’ve got a 10-foot x 10-foot square, so I stand looking at my garden and take a stance (3 feet wide), then I put a stake in the ground to remind me I need to add some wood chips there for walking so I’m not walking in mud. Move just a foot down the garden and put in another stake, that’s the width of my path. Repeat until you’re at the end. So, I end up with a 3-foot bed, 1-foot walk, 3-foot bed, I-foot walk, and then a 2-foot bed. It’s 10 feet square, what can I say, that’s the math. You can plant a lot in that 2-foot bed.
Devoting more space to paths doesn’t mean you have less production. It means you get more creative in how you lay out your garden. I use a lot of trellising so my garden space is used wisely (it’s also easier to harvest if you don’t have to bend over). I also put trailing vines like watermelon and winter squash on the edges and let them go into the yard. I’m sneaking a little more space into my garden. The grass gets a little tall, but the vines do great.
Because my beds are narrower, I also do a lot of companion planting so I get double crops from the space. For example, radishes and tomatoes like each other and radishes have a very short season and compact roots (roots are what you eat). I set up tomato cages and plant my young plants with radishes around them. The radishes are ready to harvest in about 25 days. I pull up the biggest radishes (some won’t take the whole 25 days) while I’m waiting about 100 days to eat my home-grown tomatoes. I can have 4 different varieties of radishes around my tomatoes if I reseed every time I harvest.
Step 4 For a Superb Vegetable Garden – Plants Need Their Space and Time
All seed packets and plants tell you how far apart to plant seeds. Pay attention to that information and follow the rules. If you have planted carrots too thickly, for example, they won’t develop any good size. You’ll be disappointed. So, if you’ve planted too close you need to gently pull up the weakest seedlings that are crowding the others.
This always feels sad. But even little seedlings taste wonderful and contain all the nutrients from your soil. Wash off your seedlings and think of them as gourmet carrot bites. Only the gardener gets to indulge in such luxury, but share if you must.
The seed packet also tells you if you’ll end up with shorter plants, whether they’ll survive in partial shade, and what soil temperature is optimum for germination. A seed packet is a wealth of information.
You’ll need to find out when the last frost date (last day your area can expect frost) is in your area. Then you can coordinate that information with the seed packet information about planting dates.
Step 5 For a Luxuriant Vegetable Garden – Healthy Soil
The basis of healthy food is healthy soil. Growing your own food is heading in the right direction. You need to consider everything you put on your garden will eventually end up in you. For that reason, you need to know where the soil amendments are coming from. You know where your own compost comes from but…
…if you’re adding a prepared garden fertilizer, do you know what’s in it or where it came from?
One of the reasons you’re growing your own food may be nutrient density. In order to achieve nutrient-dense food, you have to have plant available nutrients in your soil. Kaytonik is a certified organic soil amendment and contains humic acid, fulvic acid, and promotes microbial activity. That microbial activity is critical to strong plant growth and nutrient-dense food. Those critters in the soil feed your plants and make water and nutrients more available.
A strong component of healthy soil is mulch. It also makes your life easier because there are fewer weeds. Shredded leaves, grass clippings, or straw (not hay – it’s full of seeds) are examples of inexpensive and biodegradable mulching materials.
Step 6 For a Bountiful Harvest – Pick When Vegetables are Small
We’ve all see monster zucchini. It takes overnight for a zucchini to go from delicious to “need to shred for zucchini bread, I guess.” Plants don’t produce fruits and vegetables for us, they’re trying to reproduce and survive. We happen to be able to benefit from those actions. But if you want your tomatoes, zucchini, or beans to keep producing they have to be harvested. Once a plant has set seed it’s done its job – reproduction. The plant will cease flowering or setting new fruit and slowly die.
There’s a fine line between when a vegetable or fruit is ripe and when it is past prime. At that past prime stage signals go from the fruit to the plant and if you haven’t been harvesting right along you will notice a decrease in plant productivity. The plant did its job, did you do yours?
Those are the 6 basic steps to start and continue harvesting fresh vegetables from your garden. There are many books written on this topic and I’ve merely skimmed the surface. For more information on healthy soil – healthy food – healthy people check our gardening blogs.
Kaytonik is a certified organic soil amendment that helps soil retain water, cycle nutrients to plants, and contains active native biology which all contribute to healthy soil.