In the past two years, primarily due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Master Gardener program has had more than the normal amount of inquiries about vegetable gardening. The first of this two-part series will help you get started on your own vegetable garden — and you can discover how rewarding this experience can be.
Why grow vegetables?
• They are more nutritious and more flavorful because you can pick them when they are ripe.
• You can eat healthier because you can add more salads and veggies to your menu.
• It is safer because you control the chemicals; you can even be an organic grower.
• You get exercise while tending the garden.
• There is a definite sense of accomplishment.
• It can be therapeutic just walking in the garden and watching things grow.
• You can save money on groceries. (Not at first, though, as there are startup expenses involved.)
• It can be a source of beauty as you plant ornamentals (pollinators) as well as edibles.
• You can share the bounty of the harvest with friends and relatives.
• You can preserve the extra by freezing, canning and drying so you can eat well all winter.
• You can share the experience with your children or grandchildren, the future stewards of the Earth.
Planning is important
• Ask yourself: How much space do I have? How much produce do I want?
• You need to acquire the necessary tools to work in the garden.
• Be realistic of what you can do; it is important to start small and stay simple.
• Put your ideas down on paper and ask other gardeners with experience to offer advice.
• Read books, use science-based resources (edu sites) on the internet; call or email the WSU Master Gardener program with questions when you can’t find an answer.
• Keep a garden journal to know what worked and what didn’t.
Selecting a site
• 8 to 10 hours of direct sunlight. Avoid being near trees because shade to the plants and roots compete for nutrients.
• Well-drained soil. Avoid low wet spots — plants don’t like wet feet.
• Good air circulation. Avoid areas that get high winds.
• A level spot is easiest. (If you do terrace, use a south-facing slope.)
• Avoid low areas where cold air can be trapped.
• Make sure it is convenient to a water source.
• It’s nice to have it close to your kitchen and the garden tools.
• Avoid areas near a busy road, as dust from car traffic can coat the plant leaves and slow down their transpiration.
• Keep in mind crop rotation; genetically related plants need to avoid the same location every three years.
• You can choose to test the soil — check pH and available nutrients to assure the soil is good for gardening. This can be done at the Master Gardener clinic.
Choose a garden style
This often depends on your available space.
• Traditional style means orderly, narrow, single rows with plants in line with one another. You will need to rotavate between rows or have a path that is free of weeds.
• Wide row planting is where the plants are alternated. You need to know the diameter of the mature plant; you want them to touch but not overlap. Sprawling plants can be trellised.
• Raised beds have many advantages: The soil warms up faster for better growth; there is no deep digging required; there is better control of soil amendments; good drainage is naturally provided; the use of space is more efficient; it is easier to water and weed; you don’t have to bend as you can sit on the seat edge to plant, weed and harvest; you can have uprights that allow for application of shade cloth, plastic sheeting for frost protection and netting for bird control; you can more easily do successive crops; and it lends itself to square-foot gardening. Disadvantages include the initial cost of materials; it may be a bit labor intensive to build; and it is semi-permanent.
• Materials that can be used for raised beds include treated wood, stone, cement blocks or just mounding up the soil. The size is best at 3 feet wide and at least 10 inches deep. The shape is often rectangular but can be square, triangular or circular.
• The amount of space between rows is optional (wheelbarrow space or just walking room).
• The path between the beds again has many choices; with bare soil you will get weeds. Choices include grass that you will need to water and mow; wet, layered newspaper with lawn clippings added; steppable thyme for small areas (although it is costly and takes time to fill in); weed barriers such as black plastic; wood chips, shredded bark, pine needles, etc., which must be renewed periodically; or bricks, pavers or gravel for a more permanent solution.
• Flower beds. If you don’t have space for a garden and small need for vegetables, use the beds that usually surround a home or the perimeter of the yard but be sure to look at shading patterns with warm weather crops on the south side, cool weather on the north side. Plants can be interspersed between perennials and even annuals; assure the taller plants are placed in back and the shorter ones in front. You can place sprawling vegetables on a trellis or fence.
• Container pots on the patio, deck and driveway borders can be used as well. The pots can be from all kinds of materials: plastic, clay, metal, etc. When choosing pots, know that clay needs more water than plastic, and small pots need more water than larger pots. It is important to have a tray beneath for water drainage, as roots need oxygen and will rot standing in water. You should water more when hot weather approaches.
• Existing lawn can become a garden area; however, it is more intensive to remove the sod, rototill, and amend the soil. One technique is called the lasagna method (also called sheet compost) where a year before in the fall, lay down wet newspaper in overlapping sheets, pile on yard debris — grass clippings, leaves, etc. — let it decompose over the winter and add topsoil in the spring and you will be ready to garden.
If you have any gardening questions, feel free to contact our Master Gardener clinic or stop by at our booth at the downtown farmers market.