May 22, 2022

Extension Notebook: Planting the first-time vegetable garden

There is clearly an uptick in households interested in planting a vegetable garden right now. Seasoned gardeners may be expanding the size of the existing garden, finally trying new vegetables that had not won a spot in the garden ever before.

First-time gardeners, this column is for you. There are all sorts of gardening gadgets out there, yet first-timers only really need some basic tools to get your first vegetable garden planted.

Tools to get started include:

• The garden shovel.

• The garden hoe.

• The garden rake, not to be confused with the lawn rake.

• Some version of a string/cord and a couple of stakes to hold the line in place.

Tools for later include:

• A cultivating tool like a tined digger to lightly loosen the soil and remove weed seedlings.

• The hoe used carefully around vegetables.

• The garden hose or watering can if you choose to water the garden.

• A bucket for the weeds, spent plants and damaged vegetables you are not going to eat.

Beds have traditionally been square or a rectangle, yet the vegetables really do not care. There may be a spot in a perennial bed for the tomato or pepper plant. Maybe a row of snap beans will provide the green foliage backdrop for the shorter flowers down front in a bed.

Carving out a new vegetable bed from the existing lawn can be done, too. Of course, that will take more time and effort. Maybe the best sun in the backyard is on the patio, so consider using a growbag on the corner or lining the back walk with several of them.

The bed in the lawn would entail removal of the grass with an inch or more of soil to be sure you get nearly all the grass plant crowns and roots so grass does not become a “weed” in the vegetable bed later. Do not throw that turf away — there is likely thinned areas it could be used elsewhere in the home lawn. That grass can also go into a compost bin or pile and added back to the garden or another bed once it has decomposed.

Since some soil was taken away, this is a great time to add organic matter or compost to enrich the garden soil. Work any amendments into the existing soil using your garden shovel. Do not worry too much about how smooth the bed looks — again, the vegetable plants will not mind, and Mother Nature will deal with that as the growing season moves forward. When planting into an existing landscape bed, the soil preparation is for the most part already done. You will be digging individual holes for the vegetable transplants you buy and will use the corner of your garden hoe to create those small furrows where the seed goes.

As a guide for the size of the traditional garden, a 10-by-10-foot garden will supply the fresh vegetables for a family of four for the summer. That is one tomato plant (maybe two), one or two peppers, snap beans, radishes (to be replace with snap beans), a bush type cucumber, etc. Plan on more than one planting of snap beans and be ready to plant fall radishes. The seed packet will provide all you need to know about each vegetable, how deep to sow the seed, how far apart, when to thin, and how many days to harvest.

Start small, use the garden’s potential for multiple plantings, and enjoy the garden!

Richard Hentschel is a University of Illinois Extension educator.