You can plant to put food on the table, but remember to start small, improve your soil, choose plants wisely and expect the unexpected.
Keep it manageable
Whether it's just a couple of containers of tomatoes or a plot in the back yard, having a garden you're willing -- and able -- to maintain is essential. If caring for your plants becomes too difficult or time-consuming, you're likely to get discouraged and give up. So, if this is your first time, start small. If you have a successful season, you can always expand your gardening horizons next year.
Site it right
For vegetables, that means a minimum of six hours of direct sunlight a day. More is even better. Avoid planting vegetables near large, established trees or hedges. Not only will they shade your veggies as they leaf out and mature, but they'll also compete for water and nutrients. Watering and fertilizing regularly will only compound the problem because those nearby woody plants will just send more roots into your garden.
Instead, put your garden close to the house and hose outlets. When a garden is conveniently located, you'll be more likely to tackle all the necessary little chores (including weeding), and watering will be easier, too.
Work the soil
If you're cutting a new garden out of your lawn, dig a little below the surface to remove the grass as well as its mat of roots. (Toss those chunks of sod into your compost pile.) Turn over the soil with a sharp pointed spade or garden fork, breaking up clumps as you go, or rent a rototiller. Rake the soil smooth before planting.
Your garden will probably benefit from addition of organic matter (such as compost or peat), especially if the soil is heavy and claylike or if it's very light and sandy. To find out what your soil needs, send a sample to the University of Minnesota's soil testing lab. (You can download the submission form and information on how to take a soil sample at soiltest.cfans.umn.edu/index.htm.)
It's easy to get carried away when you're shopping for seed packets or seedlings, but try to choose wisely and:
• Plant only vegetables that you and your family like to eat. Sure, it's fun to see Brussels sprouts develop, but if no one wants to eat them, there's no point in growing them.
• Plant a few early maturing vegetables, such as radishes and leaf lettuce, for almost instant gratification. But realize that many early maturing veggies bolt and go to seed once the weather heats up.
• Plant carrots, onions or beets, which you can eat when they're tiny as well as when they're fully grown.
• To extend your harvest, try succession planting. Rather than planting a full row of green beans, for example, plant only half the row, then wait a few weeks before you plant the second half of the row.
• Everybody loves sweet corn, but only plant it if you have lots of space. If you do plant corn, plant it in a block, rather than in a long row, to ensure good pollination.
• Avoid the boom-bust cycle by planting several types of tomatoes, including an early maturing variety, a later-maturing beefsteak-type and a cherry or plum tomato. If you plant all of the above, you'd better plan on sharing.
• Mix it up a bit. If you plant bell peppers, put in some eggplants, too, as long as you like eggplant.
Be sure to follow the directions on the seed packet for spacing. You don't need to plant in rows, but if you plant in blocks, they still need the correct amount of space between plants. It's also important to thin seedlings properly to get good growth.
If you plant seedlings, a good rule of thumb is to plant tomatoes and eggplants about 3 feet apart, bell peppers about 2 feet apart.
Whether you direct-seed or start with seedlings, make sure the tallest plants are on the north end of the garden so they don't shade the other vegetables as the sun moves from east to west.
Don't expect perfection
Don't strive for a perfect garden: There's no such thing. Gardening is a learning experience. Problems inevitably arise, and, to make it more of a challenge, the problems can change from year to year. But once you get to taste some of the fruits of your labor, you'll probably find that gardening is a challenge worth accepting.
Deb Brown is a garden writer and former extension horticulturist with the University of Minnesota. To ask her a gardening question, call 612-673-7793 and leave a message. She will answer questions in this column only.