CAPTURING SPRING'S BOUNTY
Tips on creating a vegetable garden
by Diane Silcox-Jarrett
Fresh tomatoes - bright red, juicy and right off the vine - might be the taste of summer itself. That taste is even sweeter if the tomato comes from a vine just a few steps from home.
If you've always wanted a vegetable garden but were hesitant about how to get started, perhaps some advice from area experts is just the nudge you need to have those delicious tomatoes at your fingertips.
Knowing where to plant a garden is the first hurdle to conquer. The location should be based on how much sunlight the area gets. Most vegetable-producing plants require six to eight hours of sun each day.
"If you try to start vegetables in a shaded area, then all you're going to be is disappointed," says Helen Yoest of Raleigh, owner of Gardening With Confidence and field editor for Better Homes and Gardens.
Size also matters, according to Benjamin F. Case III, owner of Down to Earth Designs Inc. in Raleigh.
"For vegetable gardens, you need to be realistic about how much space you're willing to maintain," he says.
"I've seen some ambitious folks start large gardens, only to realize that it's a lot more work than they expected."
But if you think that a garden has to go in the back yard, think again.
"Break from tradition," Yoest suggests. "My son planted a victory garden at the top of our driveway last summer. The cars blocked it from view, and the location turned out great, with plenty of sun."
Once a spot is chosen, the garden will need some organic compost, fertilizer and lime. It'll also need to be turned over with a shovel, says Frank Hyman, a garden designer, lecturer and contributor to several gardening magazines. Yoest agrees that using organic materials is best when preparing soil, and adds that a raised garden is a good option if you're unsure whether the soil is rich enough.
The Rock Shop in Durham offers several examples of raised gardens for future vegetable growers.
"We have six different raised beds, which include tomatoes, herbs and broccoli," says owner Mark Brogan.
"Raised beds help you organize your vegetable garden and allow you to get your soil near perfect by using the different compost that we offer," he adds. "This makes for some great-tasting vegetables."
Gardens don't have to be large in order to produce a bounty of vegetables. According to Hyman, a four-foot-by-four-foot garden can produce plenty for a new gardener. And early spring gardens can bring some cool-air treats to the table, from lettuce and spinach to carrots, onions, sugar snap peas, and potatoes. This type of garden can be planted between Valentine's Day and the end of March.
While preparing to enjoy these cool-season vegetables, a warm-season garden - including tomatoes, peppers and eggplant - can be planted in the same amount of space. If you're itching to get started before it gets warm outside, then start the garden early by planting seeds inside. Once it's warm enough, the plants will be ready to transfer to outside.
"Heirloom plants, such as tomatoes, are best started from seeds," Yoest notes.
"There are more varieties available from seeds," she adds. "You're not as likely to find heirlooms already started at the local garden center."
The important thing is to choose varieties that are tried and true to the area, says Bill Matheson, co-owner of Sweetwater Landscapes LLC in Raleigh.
"Also remember that birds, rabbits, deer and other wildlife love the same foods you do," he notes. "Plan on how you're going to protect your investment from wildlife."
Water, water everywhere
Once you've found the right spot, prepared the soil and chosen what to plant, consider how best to keep your vegetable garden hydrated. Area experts agree that mulch is essential in keeping soil moist once it has been watered. Placing a soaker hose underneath the mulch allows water to dribble out into the garden with less evaporation. According to Yoest, it also helps moderate soil temperatures.
Hyman suggests using a soaker hose made from recycled rubber tires.
"You can hook up the soaker hose to a rain barrel or the drain pipe air conditioner," he explains. "It's easy to do and in every way good for the environment."
Adding compost also is important, Brogan notes.
"It also helps with keeping watering down," he says. "Compost has its own hydrating properties when it's applied to the soil in your garden."
When all is said and done, you should be able to create a plentiful garden that doesn't break the bank.
"By its very nature, planting a vegetable garden is very low budget," Yoest says. "Carve out a little spot and take good care of it, and you'll be pleased with the results."
Diane Silcox-Jarrett is a freelance writer based in Raleigh.