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Beginning a vegetable garden may be the best investment you can make in your physical and mental health and that of your family.This new challenge needn’t be difficult, and we’ll guide you through a few important first steps to get you launched for success.First, determine what you want from your garden. Just a few vegetables for the table now and then? Large quantities of vegetables or fruits to freeze or can? Do you want to concentrate on maximum food production, or will this new adventure include some plants just for beauty, whimsy or experimentation?Next, you need to decide where your garden will be located. If it’s to be an in-ground garden, look for a flat location with 8-10 hours of sun daily, good drainage and ready access to water. Try to locate it within easy reach of the house, where you can tend it easily and visit it often. Place the garden as far from large trees as possible, as tree roots can extend underground for great distances, and compete for water and nutrients. The roots of black walnut trees actually interfere with the growth of many other plants, including those in the tomato family.Traditionally, an in-ground garden was laid out in long rows, separated by wide paths. But that model is outdated for most home gardens, as it wastes too much space and is predicated on horse-power or machine turning of the soil. It’s more efficient and productive to create raised beds, usually 3-4 feet wide and 8-10 feet long. These beds can simply be areas of mounded soil, or can be framed with lumber, composite material or block. Once established, the raised beds and the pathways between them are maintained as they are year after year, the paths becoming more compacted, thus discouraging weed growth and the soil beds kept traffic-free and friable, without need for machine turning.If you intend to have only smaller harvests, you may want to do deck or patio gardening in pots, planters, window boxes or tubs. Happily, there is a vast array of such containers now available to gardeners, and they are attractive and user-friendly. Moreover, plant breeders are producing more and more container-appropriate vegetables and fruits to accommodate this new trend.Every container must have at least one drainage hole in the bottom, so that collected water will not rot the roots of your plants. You may have to water quite often to keep containers moist, and you will need to fertilize your potted vegetables regularly.Regardless of where you grow, good soil is the basis of success. For in-ground growing, you may be able to mound your native soil into raised planting areas, but if it is too stony or has too much heavy clay, you may want to add to or replace your native soil with imported soil. Commercial blends of soil are available from many nurseries, designed just for raised beds. These are usually a mix of quality topsoil, compost and peat or other organic matter.Several weeks before planting, the soil in your growing beds should be soil-tested to determine the pH (relative acidity or alkalinity) and the levels of major nutrients. A Penn State or other land grant university test will give you those values and will provide a recipe for exactly how to amend your soil to make it idea for the vegetables you want to grow. These test kits are available for about $9 at county Extension offices or online at Penn State’s soil-testing lab (https://agsci.psu.edu/aasl/soil-testing/fertility).A pitfall, even for experienced gardeners who know better, is to succumb to spring fever and plan too much garden to maintain when the summer heat, bugs and droughts make gardening less appealing. Beginners are advised to start small, with the promise that a happy first experience with gardening can lead on to expansion later.It’s also wise to start with crops that are readily available and relatively foolproof to grow. Among the best bets are green beans, garden peas, carrots, lettuces, red beets, radishes, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and onions. But there’s no point in growing something that you or your family will not enjoy eating, so consult your household’s diners to tailor your plant list.Now a few more decisions. Will you be gardening only in the summer months or do you want to expand the range of options by jump-starting the garden in April-May, or prolonging into October-November?The former may encourage you to become a seed-starter, growing seedlings indoors ahead of the season, to be ready to go out in late spring. Some early vegetables can be seeded directly into the ground, and spring growers often have first crops like peas and onions in the ground in March.Extending into fall weather will introduce you to a range of tasty fall crops, and to row covers and other strategies to protect against colder conditions, so that your garden will still be feeding you after the warmth of summer is over.Will you grow only annual plants, which must be started again each year, or would you also enjoy perennials, like asparagus, hardy herbs, or strawberries? Perennial plants will persist in the ground (and sometimes in pots, with extra care) to produce year after year without replanting.Detailed information on all of these options is available from Penn State Extension. Be sure to check out the numerous webinars and workshops offered online by Penn State Master Gardeners such as the free 10 Part Series “The Victory Garden Reinvented” (https://extension.psu.edu/victory-garden-reinvented-watch-on-demand). Personalized advice is available by emailing the Master Gardener Hotline at [email protected] or calling Dawn Knepp at the extension office (610-378-1327) to make an appointment for a personal Zoom meeting with Master Gardeners.Elizabeth Finlay is a Penn State Extension Berks County Master Gardener Volunteer.
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