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If you've never gardened before or just haven't planted anything in a while, you might be wondering where to start. Well, the best place to begin is the place your plants will grow: the soil. Treat your soil properly, and it'll grow great vegetables for years to come. Here's how to get growing the right way:
Test the soil
The first thing you want to do is make sure your soil is healthy. By taking a soil sample and sending it to lab at the University of Minnesota (soiltest.cfans.umn.edu), technicians can determine if your soil has major problems, such as a lack of potassium or other important nutrients or if it's too alkaline (most vegetables like a slightly acidic pH of about 6 to 7). The charge for the regular lawn and garden test is $15, with additional fees for some special tests.
Many garden centers sell soil test kits, which usually work quite well. The advantage of the university's service is that it tests for all the most common soil problems and includes recommendations on how to fix what (if anything) ails your soil.
Find the right site
Most vegetables need plenty of sun, so try to locate your garden where it will receive at least six hours of sun during the spring and summer.
Also, garden soils must be well drained. If you can, place your garden in a part of your yard that is a little higher than the rest. If you have a low-lying yard where water collects, consider building a raised bed. (Plant roots can rot if they're in standing water.)
You can make a simple raised bed by mounding soil in your garden into small hills. Or, you can use timbers, rocks or some other material to build a frame atop your existing garden, then fill it with soil.
Get rid of grass
If you're planning to start your garden in an area that has been covered in grass, it's best to kill the grass first. Grass can end up being a prolific weed in your garden. You can use an herbicide (such as Round-Up), but it must be one that doesn't contain pre-emergents. They're designed to kill young plants, so they can be devastating to young vegetables.
To remove grass organically, spray vinegar lightly over the area. Use undiluted vinegar in a hand-held spray bottle. You may need to apply the vinegar several times. Another option is called solarization. All you do is spread a thin sheet of clear polyethylene over the area and let the sun do the work for you. After a couple of weeks, the grass under the polyethylene should be dead.
Time to till
Before you till your new garden, add an inch or two of compost right on top of the soil. (If you're a composter, use compost from your pile. If not, you can buy compost from a garden center.) As you till, you'll be incorporating valuable nutrients into the soil.
After the first tilling, you may not need to till again if you choose the no-till method of gardening. All you need to do is put down a layer of organic mulch (such as wood chips) every year and dig holes only for the young vegetables you plant in the spring. The mulch provides a weed barrier and, as it breaks down, will provide nutrients to the soil.
Feed if there's a need
If you are using a no-till gardening method or have added compost to your soil, you probably don't need to fertilize. However, if your soil has nutrient deficiencies or you want to give your plants a kick-start, then fertilize after the seeds have been sown and the young plants have been planted. Use a light application of a seaweed extract, fish oil emulsion, or alfalfa meal and be sure to follow the directions on the container.
Jeff Gillman is an associate professor of horticulture at the University of Minnesota. He also wrote "The Truth About Garden Remedies" and "The Truth About Organic Gardening" (Timber Press, $12.95).