Building A New Vegetable Garden
If you are interested in a flower garden, same stuff, just insert the word ‘Flower’ wherever in the following text it says ‘Vegetable’ -
The first decision is always site selection. You will need an area with as much sun as possible; a minimum of eight hours, preferably afternoon exposure. Try to locate your garden close to the kitchen if possible for easy access. Most garden problems can be related to lack of sun. There is just no substitute for sunlight!
In the book ‘Square Foot Gardening’ Mel Bartholomew touts that two garden beds of a 4’ x 8’ size can produce enough vegetables to keep a family of four and there neighbors happy. With this in mind, decide how much space and time you wish to dedicate to this new venture. This size, about 64 sq. ft., will require approximately an hour a week of maintenance; plus harvest time!
If there is existing turf-grass in the desired new bed area it will have to be dealt with. If the grass is either St. Augustine or our native clumping type this is fairly easy. Start by mowing and then weed-eating the grass as low as possible. Rake off the debris. Spray the area with ‘Blackjack 21 Weed Stomper’ or another mixture of strong vinegar and orange oil. Bermuda grass is an entirely different story. Bermuda grass is a tuff, pugnacious ‘weed’ in a vegetable garden. To totally remove it from the area takes a lot of labor and patience. Firstly, follow the previously mentioned two steps of mowing and herbicide applications extending the boundaries of your intended bed space by at least 6” on all sides to control the grass from running in during the construction process. An hour or so later dig, grub, or turn the area to a depth of 4-6” removing ALL visible traces of Bermuda grass roots. The slow method would be to rake the area smooth, then water well, hoping to encourage any left behind pieces to sprout. These would then be dug out or sprayed with ‘Blackjack 21’. Repeat this process for at least six weeks to ensure complete removal. Fertilizing would encourage this process. After you feel reasonably sure all Bermuda has been eradicated and kept from encroaching you can continue by laying down a weed blocking fabric. If you are working in an area with an established Bermuda lawn, or are willing to gamble and skip the digging part, I will encourage you to double layer this material. Use fabric wide enough that there are no seems unless overlapped generously. St. Augustine will not require a fabric.
Recently some folks have mentioned the eradication of Bermuda by; A) mowing it down B) covering the area with a generous layer (1”-2”) of compost C) add some dry molasses @10-20lbs. per 1000sq. ft. D) water deeply E)cover the area with black plastic or several layers of newspaper F) Wait. After 90-120 days the Bermuda should be dead, I would assume the warmer the weather the faster the action.
Now we are ready to put up the walls or sides of our garden. As discussed earlier a four foot wide ‘raised bed’ is a very efficient width. This allows one to reach in to the garden, without having to step in it. Soil compaction should be avoided at all cost. The worst thing we put into a garden is our feet! If you have to locate your garden flush against your home or fence, consider narrowing the width to three feet, so you can reach comfortably to the back without stepping in. So consider two 4’x8’ beds rather than an 8’x12’ which would be too difficult to access the middle of. Beds can be of any length but allow enough room for a wheelbarrow to pass comfortably between. Your side walls can be constructed of many materials such as cement, stone, cedar post or untreated lumber (which will need to be occasionally replaced). When utilizing a fabric it must extend underneath the outside edge of your chosen sidewall material. Many folks are concerned by chemicals which may leach out from treated woods; I encourage avoiding any such when constructing a vegetable garden!
Vegetable Garden care and Maintenance
A minimum of 6” of soil depth is acceptable but a depth of 1’ or more (especially over a fabric) is encouraged. Calculate the length, by the width, by the depth of your finished bed(s); Divide by 27 if done in feet, or 324 if done in inches. This will be the number of cubic yards of material necessary to fill the bed(s). Visit or friends down at Stone and Soil Depot for there special garden mix, they can even arrange for delivery.
We would suggest adding an additional 20% to your calculated total, as soil settles fairly quickly. You will find that with a few additional ‘tweaks’ applied on a regular basis your garden can perform beyond your greatest expectations. It is not within the limits of this single page to extol the virtues of these enhancing products but once tried, there benefits will be obvious.
Rock phosphate is the first amendment no garden should be without. A generous handful of this calcium and phosphorus rich product can easily double the production of any vegetable crop. Whether placed at the base of a tomato or cabbage transplant or in a band under a row of bean seeds, there is no other single thing that can boost any and every crop it touches.
Other rock minerals which can add to the health of our garden soil include greensand, lava rock, basalt, expanded shale and zeolite. Greensand, or glauconite, is a mined mineral rich in slow release iron and magnesium. The benefits of lava sand or basalt come from the paramagnetic energy they release. This sounds like some kind of hocus-pocus, mumbo-jumbo too many folk but trust me, it works! Zeolite is an interesting mineral that bonds natural fertilizers, holding them in place until the microbes can make use of them. Expanded shale is an extremely porous rock that holds moisture and natural fertilizers slowly releasing them back over time.
We gardeners are truly in magnificent time. Several specific varieties of beneficial fungi and even microbes themselves are available for purchase. While it is true that under a natural based gardening program these life forms will eventually colonize our garden beds, we have the ability to dynamically speed up that process. Like rock phosphate, these are added at planting time, down in the soil. Inoculating either microbes or fungi into a garden can improve yields. Combined the effects are, well… astonishing!
On a recent excursion to Austin we had the pleasure of inspecting the trial garden beds at John Dromgoole’s nursery, the Natural Gardener. In addition to many side by side demonstration beds we took away an appreciation for the one constant ‘amendment’ the most outstanding beds had in common –Earthworm Castings- “everything get a handful at planting time” according to the gentleman with his hand in the dirt at the time. The results, again astronomical!
Maintaining Soil Fertility
No single product or amendment can compare to the benefits of compost. It is the slow release of nutrients and humic acids that loosen the heavy clay, allowing the microbes in the soil to break down the minerals into an available form for the plants.
The perfect food for all plants; Grass, trees, tomatoes, or tulips, is humus. Humus is the dead bodies and castings of the microorganisms which live in the soil. There are, conservatively, about two million microbes in a healthy tablespoon of soil; living, dying and reproducing about every sixty days. This myriad of life forms feed on decomposing organic materials. It can thus be said: the more organic material (compost) equals more microbial life, which begets healthier plant life from the soil.
Water and Fertilizer
Watering is actually fairly simple…When your plants are a little limp in the morning, water. All plants show signs of heat stress at 5 in the afternoon, I know I do! If you watered deeply in the morning they will be fine. Most established veggie gardens needn’t be watered, deeply, more than once a week; leaf crops maybe a little more. Soaker hoses and drip systems work wonderfully. Lay them on the soil surface, cover with a mulch, and turn them on for a few hours every Saturday morning while you watch cartoons…just that easy! Of course, newly set out transplants and seeds take a little more care to get going.
Another good point is to make sure the new bed is watered well PRIOR to planting. The soil should not be sopping wet, but planting into dry soil is very stressful to new plants and they won’t take root as well.
Fertilizers like “Maestro Gro’s ‘Rose Glo”or “Espoma’s ‘Tomato Tone” help by maintaining an adequate amount of minerals and nutrients. Any granular organic fertilizer can be used , the more nitrogen (the first number) the more vegetative growth, think lettuce, chard, mustard etc. Fertilizers with higher phosphorus contents (Middle number) are for blooming plants, think tomatoes, peppers, okra etc… They work exceptionally well incorporated into the soil at planting and used regularly as a side dressing during the growing season. Well blended dry products like these provide a constant, balanced base of nutrition for the microorganisms.
Yet another quickly growing dynamic in the garden world are the benefits of foliar spraying. More people are starting to appreciate this old-timers trick. Foliar feeding is the quickest way to get nutrition into a plant. There are several different products which, when combined, bolster the health of both the plant directly and the microbial activity on the plants surface. Molasses, Compost Tea, Seaweed and Garlic, are but a few of these ingredients. The benefits to plant health and production are immediately visible, and a regular program pays marked dividends.
Mulching is every bit as critical in a vegetable garden as it is in any other landscape application. It serves to reduce water use by reducing evaporation, and keeping the soil cool. By it’s decomposition it softens and improves soil structure. And to an extent it covers weed seeds from direct contact with soil, so any that do germinate on top of the mulch are easier to pull.
Compost itself is excellent mulch at @ 2” deep over the garden soil; it breaks down quickly, about the time for the next crop for most short seasoned veggies. Mulch consisting of 50% compost mixed with a shredded hardwood is our choice for coverage for most of the spring and summer vegetable. They have a longer growing season, so mulch that last longer makes more sense. Substitute cedar for hardwood if you have root-knot nematodes, it helps to repel these pests. There are many different alternatives to mulching, all have there individual merits. Just make sure you do it, your plants will be grateful.
Kick Starting a New Bed
If you are a regular listener of Bob Webster’s Garden Show you’re here talk about compost tea.
We can simplify the process into a paragraph; First, we strip the beneficial microbes off a sample of high quality compost, by adding a special mixture of food-stuffs we ‘Brew’ the tea, multiplying their numbers by the millions. This ‘tea’ can be used as a foliar spray or in this case as soil drench. This will fast-forward the biology of a new bed one hundred times over.
One of my old garden-guru’s once told me “Ask the same question of ten different gardeners, hopefully you will get ten different answers. It’s up to you to sort through all the information and choose what might apply to you.”
Howard Garrett recently ‘published’ in one of his weekly newsletters the same topic ‘Bed Preparation’; Take a look!