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February 4, 2006 | Episode 5

Host Cydnee Welburn and Rob Keefe reap the rewards of a fresh vegetable garden
Hosts Cydnee Welburn and Rob Keefe shop for fresh vegetables
Real Simple Television Productions Inc.

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How to Start a Vegetable Garden

A primer on cultivating your own little patch of heaven

Find a Site

It may sound obvious, but make sure you plant in a place that gets plenty of sun. “You need a full-sun site,” says Sarah Price, landscape director at Montgomery Place, a national historic landmark in New York’s Hudson Valley that is known for its gardens. “That means at least seven to eight hours of sun a day.” Keep your garden away from trees so the roots don’t get in the way when you’re digging, and avoid standing water — liquid shouldn’t puddle on the garden ground. But you should be close to a water source, such as a hose, so you can irrigate the plot during dry periods. If you have only the space to be a rooftop gardener, don’t despair: “Just about all vegetables have varieties that are small enough to be grown in containers 10 to 12 inches in size,” says Chip Tynan, horticultural-information specialist at the Missouri Botanical Garden, in St. Louis.

Prepare the Site

Price and Tynan both suggest having the soil tested in the area you want to use. This will help determine the soil’s pH, or acidity, and whether it has enough nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium to support your crops. Get in touch with your local office of the Department of Agriculture’s Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service to arrange an appointment (for contact info, go to www.csrees.usda.gov). Or purchase testing kits at a garden center. The goal, Price says, is neutral dirt (as in chemistry class — not too acidic, not too alkaline), which has a pH of between 6 and 7 — ideal for your plants’ nutrient uptake. If your soil isn’t perfect, don’t panic: You can add lime to cut down acidity or compost to boost the nutrients. The Extension Service will give you recommendations on what to add and directions on how to add it after the service completes the testing.

You can make all these adjustments when you start tilling the ground. That means pulling off the grass or sod, removing all the roots, then churning the soil to make it soft and ready for sowing. This is called “turning the soil,” and it’s equivalent to plowing, which farmers once used oxen for. Since your garden is probably a lot smaller than a farm — and you probably don’t have farm animals — do this part either by hand with a garden fork (which basically looks like a flattened pitchfork and comes in all sizes, from handheld to full-body size) or with a motorized machine called a rototiller, which is like a lawnmower that churns the dirt as you push it. “Turning the soil makes it what is called friable — sort of like cookie dough, nice and soft,” Price says. “And that makes it easy for water and roots to penetrate.”

Choose Your Crops

“Knowing the difference between cool-season and warm-season vegetables is essential,” says Tynan. Cool-season vegetables — such as most cabbages, cauliflowers, lettuces, radishes, and carrots — go in the ground when it’s still chilly outside (around April) and come out as soon as a month later, depending on the plant. Sow warm-season crops — including eggplants, tomatoes, peppers, and squashes — after the last frost and enjoy them during the summer. Francisca Coelho, director of glass houses at the New York Botanical Garden, recommends checking in with your Extension Service or searching online to find the estimated date of the last frost in your area. Then just plant what you like,” says Tynan, who loves cherry tomatoes, sugar snap peas, radishes, herbs, and lettuces.

Sow

The question now is, Do you want to use seeds or plants? “A mix is good,” says Tynan. “Certain plants are easily started from seeds directly sown in the ground.” But, he adds, beginning gardeners might find it easier to deal with what are known as cell packs, which are sold (along with packages of seeds) at garden centers. “Someone has sprouted the seeds and nurtured them when they’re young and small and gotten them to a state where they can stand on their own out in the garden,” says Tynan. “On average, these plants are somewhere between four and eight weeks old. It’s like having a kid and going straight to six — skipping the infant and toddler stages.” Seed packets will have sowing instructions, explaining how deep in the soil to set the seeds and how much space is needed. (You can also contact your local Cooperative Extension office or botanical garden for input; many have online information and even live call-in hours.)

As you’re arranging your plot, consider how the grown plants will affect one another. “You can’t put something very tall, like tomatoes, on the south side, because they will shade what’s right behind them,” says Price. Also think about arranging the garden in beds, so that all the carrots, say, are together. That way, after you harvest, a whole bed is open and ready for another crop. Price suggests making beds narrow enough to reach across (about three feet). And if you have room, include a footpath between them. Then you can walk through the garden to harvest and weed without compacting the soil.

Tend

The garden should receive an inch of water a week, Price says. “There might be enough rainfall to provide that, but if it there isn’t, water.” You can keep track of rainfall with a rain gauge, which is basically a cylinder that has inch markings on it. If it fills up to the one-inch line, you’re set. If not, turn on the sprinkler. Price estimates that 45 minutes of sprinkler time gives you an inch of water. But you can test a sprinkler’s abilities by setting a coffee can underneath the shower of drops. Watch how long it takes to fill up with an inch of water and you’ll know how long your garden needs.

Stay vigilant for weeds, too. After you’ve worked hard to get the garden set up, you don’t want wild plants taking over. Price suggests putting down a layer of mulch after planting to help retain water and keep weeds down. “There are different things you can use, and it depends on what’s available and what’s inexpensive,” she says. “A lot of people use grass clippings; some use newspaper and hold it down with rocks. That works fine. It’s not as attractive, but it works.”

Reap

Before long, depending on what you grow, you’ll start to see results. But you can’t just sit back and wait. “Gardening takes persistence,” says Price. “It’s one of those things you don’t do and walk away from. You need to devote some time every week to your garden.” Tynan agrees: “Nobody said that gardening isn’t exercise. It is. It’s exercise for the mind and body with the bonus that it produces good food to maintain your health.” If you’re willing to put in the effort, you’ll be rewarded. And those rewards are, well, delicious.

 
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