Starting a Backyard Vegetable Garden
by Jim Binnings
Having a vegetable garden in the backyard can be a great activity for the family. Your family will benefit from fresh produce to serve at meals, gardening is good exercise and gardening can be a family activity with a lot of hands helping out. It is also an opportunity to learn a little something about nature. You will learn about plants, soil, insects, weather, and how they all interact together.
Since most people come to gardening with little prior experience, it is best to keep it simple and rely on proven methods to start. Master Gardeners follow research-based gardening principles. We are affiliated with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, which has a great website to help answer a lot of questions about gardening (https://agrilifeextension.tamu.edu). Here is the link to a good article from AgriLife: http://txmg.org/denton/files/2012/10/introduction-to-vegetable-gardening-web.pdf. And, of course, you can also “Google” and find good answers there. Just be sure you go to reputable websites. There are a lot of opinions out there! In this article we will stick to the basics of building the garden bed/plot, adding soil, and selecting the right vegetables.
When deciding on your garden plot consider the size, location, and materials used to make your garden bed. Until you have a few years of gardening under your belt it is best to keep the size of your vegetable garden small. A smaller garden is easier to manage. A small, well maintained garden can easily produce as much produce as a weed filled garden twice its size. The location of the garden is very important. Vegetables need full sun to grow their best. This means at least eight hours of sunlight a day. Also think about where the sun is in relation to your garden. If your garden is square, remember to plant taller plants on the north side of your garden. If your garden is a rectangle, orient your garden north to south so your plants will not be shaded too much. Again, plant your taller vegetables to the north end of your garden.
Your garden can be in the ground or, what is most common in urban Texas gardens, a raised bed garden. The soil in Collin County is mainly Houston Black Clay which, while nutrient rich, is hard to work and grow plants in without amending the soil to make it more plant friendly. In this article we will assume you have decided on having a raised bed. You can buy raised bed kits from your local big box store or build your own. If you build your own bed be careful what materials you chose to use. You do not want to use materials which will leach chemicals into the soil and eventually into your vegetables. For years, untreated cedar wood has been the favorite material for most gardeners. Untreated cedar is chemical neutral and decays very slowly so your border will last for years. Cedar can be a little pricy, but it is worth the cost.
Now that you have your raised bed built and in place, you need to fill it with a good nutrient rich growing medium. Good soil is key to giving your vegetables their best chance to be healthy and to taste good at dinner time. Before we talk about soils, let’s take a minute and talk about weeds and grass. Before adding soil to the bed it is a good idea to dig out all of the grass and weeds. After digging out the weeds and grass take this opportunity to turn the tough clay soil over a few times. This will help with water drainage and the releasing of minerals into the soil. After you have done this lay a weed barrier fabric down to keep the weeds and grass from coming back. Weed barrier fabric is not 100% effective but it is certainly very helpful keeping weeds and grass in check for several years.
You can buy a good topsoil/compost mix at your local garden center or big box store. Generally speaking, the bagged products will have good soil structure and have the minerals needed to get your garden started. If you want to mix up your own growing medium it should be 1/3 topsoil, 1/3 peat moss, and 1/3 sand or perlite. Vegetables are heavy feeders so they will use up most of the minerals in your soil after a few growing seasons. It is important to have a plan to keep your soil nutrient rich and healthy. For decades gardeners have been taught to fertilize their plants and not to spend much time working the soil. While the regular use of fertilizer will certainly work, research has shown that over time using this approach will break the soil down to the point where you will have to add more and more fertilizer each season to get a good yield from your garden.
Research now indicates that the regular application of organic matter to the soil will keep it healthy and mineral rich. It you keep to a regular program of adding organic matter to your garden, you will find in the long run your garden and your plants will be healthier. I will note here that since vegetables are heavy feeders it is a good idea to mix in a little soluble nitrogen and phosphorus into the planting area when you put your transplants in the ground. This will give them the boost they need to get off to a good start. It is also a good idea to have your soil tested every three years of so to check for any mineral imbalances which may have developed over time.
And now for the fun part. All of your daydreams of fresh vegetables at the dinner table can now become a reality. Are you thinking about large juicy tomatoes? Maybe a salad bowl full of fresh greens is what you want. It’s time to decide what you want to plant and come up with a planting calendar (yes, a planting calendar). Vegetables can be grown from seed or you can buy transplants from your local nursery. Starting from seeds will require you to start the plants earlier but you will have more varieties to choose from. Transplants take 30-45 days off the time to harvest, they are a little more expensive, and you are limited to what you can find at your local nursery. To help you decide what to plant, and when to plant, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension has a vegetable garden planting guide on their website which will be a huge help. Here is the link to their vegetable planting guide: https://agrilifeextension.tamu.edu/library/gardening/texas-home-vegetable-gardening-guide/. Here is another link listing easy to grow vegetables, https://agrilifeextension.tamu.edu/solutions/easy-vegetables-to-grow/. I would like to also add that one of the best things you can do at this point in your gardening journey is to keep a record or journal of what you have grown and things that happened during the growing season which made the season successful or not so successful. Was it a hot dry season or a wet cool season? Which plants did well? Any pest problems? What did you do? Write it all down. This journal will become a great reference tool for you in the years to come.
So, there you have it. You now have a simple, proven guide to help you and your family get started on your vegetable gardening journey. Be patient, put some sunscreen on, and go have some fun in your new garden.
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