Tips for new vegetable gardeners

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According to a 2010 survey by the National Gardening Association, 43 million households grew their own fruits, vegetables and herbs, up 19 percent from 2009, and 21 percent of food gardening households were new to gardening.

"It is likely that the number of new vegetable gardeners has continued to rise since the 2010 survey," said University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator Ron Wolford. "For somebody new to vegetable gardening, the glut of information can be overwhelming."

Here are a few tips to ensure a successful vegetable garden.

Don't rush the growing season. The frost-free date for Chicago is around April 25 near the lake and May 15 away from the lake. The term "frost-free" means that there is still a 50-50 chance of frost.

"Our unusually warm March weather this year made it really tempting to start planting, but recent frosts show that patience is a virtue in gardening," said Wolford. "Be prepared for late spring frosts. Cover tender plants with row covers, cardboard, blankets, hot caps, or newspaper. We have had frost as late as Memorial Day."

Start small, Wolford emphasized. A 600-square-foot garden, if well managed, can provide a steady supply of vegetables for a family of four. A garden that is too large will become a time-consuming headache for a first-time gardener. "You can increase the garden size from year to year as you become more confident," he said.

"Choose a location with at least six to eight hours of full sun," Wolford advised. "Have your soil tested! Your soil is the foundation of your garden. If you have insufficient nutrient levels in your soil or low organic matter, your garden will not produce to its fullest potential."

Tests for soil pH, phosphorus, potassium, and organic matter run $15 to $20 and should be done every three to five years. Most vegetables do well with a soil pH between 6.2 and 7.0. Phosphorus promotes root and fruit development, and potassium helps with disease resistance. The soil testing lab will also give you recommendations on how to improve nutrient levels.

Never work the soil when it is wet. Digging or tilling wet soil will compact it, turning it into clumps as hard as concrete. It will take several seasons of adding organic matter to the soil to rebuild its structure.

"To check if the soil is dry enough to work, take a handful and squeeze it," said Wolford. "If it crumbles through your fingers, you can work your soil. If it stays in a ball after squeezing, it is too wet to work and needs a few days to dry."

To prepare the soil for planting, dig it to a depth of at least 8 to 10 inches. Add a two- to four-inch layer of organic matter and incorporate it into the soil.

"Organic matter will improve your soil structure and will add nutrients to the soil," Wolford explained.

Add organic matter every year, preferably in the fall. The organic matter will have a chance to start to decompose in late fall, and the garden will be ready to plant in the spring.

Choose easy-to-grow vegetables -- cauliflower and head lettuce are NOT recommended for a first-time vegetable gardener. Vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, zucchini, beans, and cabbage are easiest for new gardeners. Add new vegetables, space permitting, each year.

Use organic mulches, such as compost, straw, leaves, pine needles, and dried grass, in the vegetable garden to hold moisture in the soil and reduce weeds. Do not use clippings of grass that has been treated with pesticides. As the organic mulch decays, it adds nutrients to the soil and helps to improve its structure and drainage.

Apply a four- to six-inch layer of mulch around plants. Another application of mulch may be needed later in the season. Dig the mulch into the soil at the end of the growing season.

To prevent diseases, buy disease-resistant varieties, use young, healthy transplants, and avoid overhead watering. Remove plant debris from the garden in the fall and destroy it (do not compost it) if you have had disease problems.

"Water the vegetable garden early in the day," said Wolford. "Watering during the hottest part of the day can cause 50 percent of the water to be lost."

Watering early allows foliage to dry, thereby reducing the likelihood of diseases developing. Vegetable gardens need on average an inch of moisture per week.

Walk through the vegetable garden every day to check for insects. Populations of insects, such as aphids and whiteflies, can build up very quickly if allowed to go unchecked. Check the undersides of leaves for insects and egg masses. Identify the insect before taking control measures. Clean up the garden at the end of the growing season because insects will overwinter in dead plant debris.

"Gardening is an adventure. You can't control the weather or Mother Nature," said Wolford. "During some growing seasons, rains arrive at just the right time, and during others, you're dragging out the hose to water on a weekly basis. Learn from the challenges each year brings, and enjoy your harvest of fresh, home-grown vegetables."

Wolford recommends these web resources:

Watch Your Garden Grow: http://urbanext.illinois.edu/veggies/

Ask Extension: Vegetables: http://bit.ly/HK1Rh6

Ask a Master Gardener: http://bit.ly/kZAtvl

U of I Extension vegetable gardening resources: http://www.scoop.it/t/vegetable-gardening-resources

UI Cooperative Extension