Getting your garden ready for spring really starts in the winter. If you are a seasoned pro at growing vegetables, or a first-timer, planning is one of the best ways to ensure success in the garden.
Designing a vegetable garden is more about which vegetables grow well near each other, than about how things look. Some vegetables will excrete substances that can inhibit other plants growth. Tall vegetables can shade out shorter vegetables. Vegetables in the same family will attract the same pests and need to be moved around each year.
The good news is that most vegetables have similar growing requirements, so when you are deciding where to put your vegetable garden, you can follow these guidelines:
Sun - Vegetables are sun lovers. Most will grow their best with 6-8 hours or more of direct sunlight. Leafy greens can handle less sun, and crops that prefer cool weather, like lettuce, will continue to grow throughout the summer if shaded by taller plants. However, you will want to choose a full sun location for your vegetable garden.
Access - Ideally your vegetable garden should be close to both a source of water and your kitchen. Vegetables will need water on a regular schedule. If they are watered erratically they will exhibit problems like cracking open, not setting any fruit or becoming prone to cultural problems like blossom end rot.
Proximity to the kitchen or at least easily accessible from some entrance to the house will give you the incentive to remember to water and check on your garden every day. You'll also be more tempted to run out and pick something fresh while you're cooking if your garden is near the kitchen.
Soil - Soil is the most important factor in any garden and perhaps more so in a vegetable garden. Annual vegetables spend their entire season producing flowers and fruits. They are very heavy feeders and a rich soil will not just keep them growing strong, it will also help ward off disease and pest problems. The soil in your vegetable garden should be rich in organic matter, which should be replenished every year. Compost and composted manure can be added in spring and/or fall. A soil test should be conducted periodically to identify if any other amendments need to be added or if the soil pH needs to be adjusted.
An easy way to ensure great soil for your vegetable garden is to create raised beds. Raised beds simply mean the soil you are growing in is higher than the ground level by 6 or more inches. You can pile it between paths or create elaborate structures, but raised beds allow you to control the soil in the planting area, it never gets stepped on and compacted, it drains well and it warms up faster in the spring, so you can plant earlier.
One final consideration when looking at your soil is to be aware of drainage and run-off. Vegetables don't like to sit in wet soil, so if your soil is heavy the texture will need to be improved. Hopefully the organic matter will make a dent. You also don't want all the nutrients you add to simply run off elsewhere. If your site isn't level, you'll need to create run-off barriers. Similarly, you don't want water from less favorable sources, like the driveway, running into your vegetable garden.
Tools - Vegetable gardening can be broken down into 2 stages: (1) preparing the garden and (2) caring for the plants. Creating the garden requires turning a lot of soil. The basic tools needed for preparing the garden are the following: a shovel, a fork, a trowel and a tiller. To care for the plants, the tools required include the following: a hoe, a hose and nozzle or some type of irrigation system, stakes, twine and pruners.
Fencing - One last thing to consider is fencing. Fencing can be an eye sore and a hassle, but will be beneficial to keep animals out of the garden. Protecting your vegetable garden from animals without a fence is an endless battle. In fact, you might need fencing both above and below the garden because many animals will burrow under a fence and some, like prairie dogs, will pop up anywhere.
Organization is the key to a successful garden. Making sure to plan the layout, have the proper tools available and preparing the soil ahead of the spring thaw will give your garden the best chance at producing delicious vegetables.