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Vegetable gardening regaining favor

Jessica Walliser
| Saturday, April 11, 2009

Millions of Americans already do it, and now the Obamas are doing it, too. It's all the rage these days, and it's probably the only investment in today's economy that actually will show a return. Vegetable gardening is back in vogue.

Gardening-trends research tells us that tens of thousands of new gardeners will be digging in for the first time this spring. To all you newbies: Welcome to the club. Maybe you're hoping to whittle the grocery bill or you want to eat food that didn't come from the other side of the world, or, maybe, you just want a bigger hand in feeding your family. Whatever your reason, know that everyone starts somewhere, and even long-time gardeners will admit that there always is more to learn. So, newbies, here are a few tips and ideas for getting started; and, old-timers, maybe you'll glean a few good tidbits of info you can use to make this year's garden better than ever.

Where to grow

Before you get dirty, think carefully about where you're going to put that new vegetable garden. Most vegetable plants need at least eight to 10 hours of full sunlight to thrive and produce. Try to locate the garden away from large trees whose roots might invade and compete with crops. Also remember to put it somewhere with easy access to water. No one wants to lug a hose 300 feet to water the garden every week.

When you decide where to grow, you'll need to decide how big to make the garden. My vegetable garden is about 30 feet by 25 feet, and it's just right for my family of three. If you want to pickle, can, freeze and dehydrate what you can't eat fresh, then go as big as the yard will allow; but, remember, it's way easier to make the garden bigger every year than it is to take care of a jumbo-size garden your first year in the trenches. If you really aren't sure whether you're going to like this gardening thing, or how much time you'll have to dedicate to it, start with just a few raised beds. You can purchase kits to create raised beds, or you can build your own out of untreated lumber, bricks or rocks.

Raised beds are placed on top of the lawn and then filled with soil, so there is no need to remove the existing sod, but if you plan to grow your garden in the ground, you'll need to strip off the sod. You can do this by hand or with a sod-cutter (available from many local equipment-rental companies). I've done it both ways, and no matter how you do it, removing sod is hard work. The good news is, you'll have to do it only once.

After the sod has been removed, focus on your soil. It's probably clay (most of Western Pennsylvania's soil is) and will benefit from being amended before you plant. Because clay is so sticky and poorly draining, mixing in lots of organic matter every year helps to build better soil by "breaking up" the clay. Find a farmer with a pile of horse or cow manure (preferably about a year old), call your municipality to see whether they give away free leaf compost (many do), buy bags of compost at the local garden center, or, better yet, have a truckload of commercially produced compost or leaf mold (also called leaf compost) delivered right to your driveway. All these different types of organic matter work to create the healthy, living soil that plants need to thrive. Add 2 to 3 inches of organic matter every year if you can. Don't skimp on this part. There is no substitute for good soil.

Planting time

When it comes to planting your garden, timing is everything. All crops can be separated into two categories: cool-season crops and warm-season crops. Cool-season choices are those that will tolerate frosts. These crops can be planted early in the season and perform best before summer's heat arrives. I plant my peas, lettuce, broccoli, onion sets, cabbage, radish, carrots, beets and kale in early to late April from seed or as nursery-purchased transplants. Warm-season crops don't tolerate frosts and should be planted after May 15. These include tomatoes, peppers, melons, beans, corn, cucumbers and squash. When choosing which varieties of these veggies to plant, talk to local farmers, nurserymen and gardeners to find out which ones grow best for them. Choose disease- and pest-resistant varieties whenever possible.

After it's planted, mulch your garden well. It not only cuts down on weeding, but also reduces the need to water and cuts down on soil-borne diseases. You can use finished compost, untreated grass clippings, straw or hay to mulch. One of my favorite techniques is to lay down newspaper 10 sheets thick (don't use the glossy inserts), plant right through it, then cover it with a few inches of straw or grass clippings. It makes a virtually weed-proof barrier and can be turned right into the soil the following spring.

Most plants need about an inch of water per week, from Mother Nature or your garden hose. You'll seldom need to water in the spring or fall, but during hot weather, water in the morning and try to keep the foliage dry to prevent foliar diseases. Soaker hoses are a great option for the vegetable garden, as they put water directly on the soil and can be used with a timer, but a good sprinkler works, too.

If you amended your soil right, you probably won't need to do any extra fertilization. There are enough nutrients in one inch of compost for a full season's plant growth. But, if you didn't get that soil in shape, or a soil test noted a nutrient deficiency, add an organic granular fertilizer at the start of the season. Most local garden centers carry organic options that are less likely to burn plants and cause a salt buildup. My favorite brands are those that use alfalfa meal, greensand, bone meal and other natural ingredients. Read the label and use as recommended. More is not better.

No doubt there will be lots to learn this gardening season for all of us (the Obamas included). Vegetable gardening is not rocket science, but there is a learning curve. If you start off right, you'll be picking your own fresh veggies within a few months; and, it will get better, and easier, every year. Gardening is a great teacher -- so pay attention.

Horticulturist Jessica Walliser, co-author of the book "Grow Organic," can be heard from 7-8 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio's "The Organic Gardeners." You can also find her teaching at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, where she has been a faculty member for more than 12 years.

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