The best gardens take into consideration efficiency, convenience, and beauty. A little prep and planning on the front end can help save time and energy on hot summer days. In this post you'll find the basics of traditional and raised bed vegetable gardens.
A note to beginners: take what you can from this post to get started. Gardening is an experiment, you will become a better gardener with every success and failure. Have fun and keep a sense of humor about your garden. Celebrate your first tomato, even if it's the only one you get all season. And remember that we're always here to answer your questions and give suggestions!
Siting & Design
The first step to creating a vegetable garden is deciding where to put it. Watch how the sun moves across your property. Fruiting vegetables (tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers) need eight hours of sun for optimal production. Root vegetables like carrots or beets can produce with six hours. Leafy greens can grow with less.
If possible, site the vegetable garden north to south, with taller plants on the north end. This will prevent plants from shading each other as the sun moves across the sky each day. Cool-weather lovers like leafy greens and brassicas can be planted in shady spaces between sun-loving plants. Nebraska gardeners need to think about winds and water, too. Make sure there's good drainage and access to a source of water.
Raised beds have become a popular choice for gardens. They're simple to build, provide good drainage, and their long, narrow shape allows gardeners to work their plots without causing soil compaction. Keep them about four feet wide so you can work from both sides without walking in the garden.
To save space and add visual interest, consider trellises for plants like cucumbers and melons to climb. Tuteurs and teepees work well for beans. Structures can be made cheaply with stakes and twine, or upgraded to decorative wrought iron options, depending on the aesthetic of the garden. Planting small, shade-tolerant plants like salad greens in the shade of tall trellised plants can save space without competition between plants.
To take the garden design a step further, think about the textures of foliage, colors of fruit and flowers, and plant heights. Consider adding some companion flowers like marigolds, or cutting garden favorites like dahlias or gladiolus. Vegetable gardens can be both useful and beautiful.
Nutrient Demands & Companion Planting
Different plants use nutrients in different ways. For an efficient garden, organize plants by nutrient demand. Plants harvested for their leaves, like spinach, use high levels of nitrogen. Plants grown for flowers and fruits like broccoli or tomatoes need phosphorus. Root crops like garlic and onions use lots of potassium. Spreading these crops out throughout beds will allow nutrients to be used efficiently. Rotating rows each year will prevent nutrient depletion. Beans and peas help replenish nutrients in the soil.
Plants in vegetable gardens form communities, working with (and sometimes against) each other to grow and produce. For example, marigolds can repel squash bugs and tomato hornworms. Plants like carrots and dill attract beneficial insects like ladybugs that prey on damaging pests. Plants in the mint family repel cabbage moths. A good resource for vegetable companions is available here.
Soils are a complex community of weathered minerals, decaying organic material, microorganisms, fungi, plants, and animals. A healthy soil community is the foundation of healthy plants and will make the gardener's job easier. Soils in urban areas, especially newer developments, are often compacted and starved of nutrients. It can take years to build healthy soils, but there are ways to amend and nurture the soils along to grow healthy plants even in the first year of your garden.
When creating a small-scale home gardens, soil tests aren't necessary, though they are available through the county extension if you'd like a professional analysis. Usually, a little digging is all you need to get to know your soil. Dig down a few inches and pick up a handful of soil. Is it soft and fertile? Sandy and loose? Heavy, gluey clay? It's good to know what you're working with. Amend heavy clay with compost. Composted manure can add nutrients, but use sparingly so it doesn't burn young plants. Raised beds can be filled with good-quality top soil and compost. Consider layering yard waste like leaves with compost and soil, lasagna-style. Over time these materials will break down and feed the soil.
Healthy soils reduce the need for chemical fertilizers, but if your plants become nutrient deficient, especially in the first few years, they might need a boost. Organic fertilizers will deliver necessary nutrients to the plants and can help build soils to keep your garden healthy.
Choose a warm spring day to plant. A few days of overcast weather will help transplanted seedling adjust to their new home. Sun and wind can be hard on tender seedlings. Planting in the afternoon will also help transition seedlings. Rake soil up in mounds to create rows or beds of loose soil for the seeds and seedlings.
Refer to the spacing on the seed packet or plant label. Keep plants far enough away from each other to allow air to circulate between plants, but close enough to shade out weeds later in the season.
Seeding or transplanting
These plants grow well when sown directly into the ground. Seeds should be planted in the ground at a depth two to three times their width. Water after sowing:
Corn, peas, beans, squash, melons, pumpkins, spinach, carrots, beets, radishes, turnips, kohlrabi.
These plants grow the best when planted as seedlings, whether started indoors or purchased from a nursery. Press soil around the base gently and water in to get rid of air pockets around the roots:
Tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, cabbage, broccoli, brussel sprouts, onions.
Growing plants need about an inch of water a week. Water plants lightly and frequently when they are young. As plants grow, encourage healthy roots systems by watering less and forcing the roots to seek water deep in the soil.
Keep beds free of weeds while young seedlings are growing. Biodegradable recycled paper weed barrier covered with mulch will help keep moisture in and weeds from germinating. At the end of the season, these products can be tilled into the garden to decompose.