The food that makes up the average American meal travels 1,500 miles from farm or factory to your table, using an abundance of energy and racking up costs the farther it journeys from its source. Fortunately, you don't have to go far to cut your grocery costs―in fact, simply step out your back door. It's surprisingly easy to cultivate a garden with enough vegetables to feed your family, even if you've never done it before. Follow these steps, stick with it for a season and reap a home-grown bounty.
1. PLAN YOUR GARDEN
Where will it go? What size will it be? Use these tips to design a successful plot that's easy to maintain.
Start small. A 10-by-16-foot garden is adequate for a family of four, but go smaller if a plot that size seems too big a task.
Choose your location. Dig your garden close to the house to make caring for your veggies easier. Don't plant too close to trees and shrubs, which rob soil of nutrients. Be sure the plot gets at least six hours of sun each day.
Map it out. Using graph paper, make a scale drawing of your garden's layout to decide where your plants will go and how far apart they should be.
Head south. Make the southern side of your garden the "front," and plant your rows so they run north and south, allowing them to get the full effect of the sun.
Consider footpaths. Try to avoid walking near the plants―which would compact the soil and suffocate the roots. Plan walkways around or within your garden so you can tend to your plants with ease. The paths can be made of dirt, wood chips, brick or any other material that you can safely walk on.
2. PREPARE THE SOIL
Before digging a hole and plopping in a seed, make sure the dirt will provide the best growing conditions.
Don't start too early. Wait until after the frost, when the soil is no longer wet. Otherwise, the dirt will become hard and compacted, and plant growth will be limited for the entire season.
Test your soil. Take a sample to a local nursery. The experts there can help you determine if you need to add anything, such as fertilizer, to create an environment in which your plants will flourish.
Dig the dirt. Excavate down 12 to 18 inches, turning over each shovelful and removing any grass, weeds, roots or rocks. Chop the dirt with the shovel to loosen it. Then rake the soil and break up any additional clumps until smooth.
Add bulk. Every kind of soil can benefit from added microorganisms and nutrients. To get the most from those natural garden boosters, and to keep the dirt moist, apply a 1-inch layer of compost, mulch or peat moss on top.
3. PLANT YOUR CROP
Using your garden map, it's time to choose your favorite produce and get it in the ground.
Select easy favorites. Plant the fruits, vegetables and herbs that your family likes to eat. Check with a local nursery for the best types―and times―to plant in your area. The plants in "Grow these easy veggies" (above, right) thrive in most areas of the United States.
Mark out spacing. Use identifying stakes to determine where plants will go, put in poles for climbing plants and establish the paths you planned in step 1. Keep smaller plants closer together to prevent overexposure to the sun and to help soil stay moist, but give larger plants such as tomatoes plenty of room to sprawl.
Sow seeds, plant seedlings. Some plants (lettuce, chard, radishes and carrots) can be started by seed and will reach maturity before the end of the season, even if you plant them late. Others, such as spinach, can be planted several times per season to yield more produce. Veggies with longer maturation periods (tomatoes, peppers, broccoli and cabbage) should be purchased as seedlings. Be sure to use a reliable dealer, and follow the planting instructions.
4. KEEP YOUR GARDEN HEALTHY
Now that you've planted your plot, it needs daily maintenance to stay moist and weed-free.
Just add water. Make sure the garden gets 1 to 2 inches of water each week. If it doesn't rain, use a hose, but let the water sink in deeply. Surface watering creates thirsty roots, which grow upward, destabilizing the plant. Watering in the morning is best (you lose less to evaporation), but the evening also works well―however, don't soak the garden too much, or you'd risk a slug infestation and rotted seedlings.
Think thin. Removing extra seedlings (thinning) might seem wasteful, but crowded plants don't thrive and are more susceptible to disease. When they begin to bump into each other, pull out the smaller plants. If yanking out a seedling would disturb the roots of its neighbors, cut it off at soil level instead.
Remove the bad. Pay attention to weeds at the seedling stage to prevent them from multiplying. Use a long-handled hoe (work shallowly to avoid injury to plant roots) or carefully pull out each weed, root intact, by hand.
Grow these easy veggies
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