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Getting Started With Home Vegetable Gardens

“To forget how to dig the earth and to tend the soil is to forget ourselves” 
— Mahatma Ghandi 
Staying home through 2020 has renewed an interest in growing. And why not?  If you are lucky enough to have a yard, there’s nothing more satisfying and delightful than reaping your very own vegetable harvest. Perhaps you bought a few seedlings from your local garden center and planted them in pots, or maybe you dug your very own little vegetable patch.  
Whichever it may be – one or both or none at all, in this article, I’ll lay out some of the best options for growing your own harvest, whether you want to dabble a bit, or work towards something more intensive.  
Types of Gardens 
If space is at a premium, container gardening is the way to go. Options range from planting seedlings in a few large pots to installing a raised, contained bed. The beauty of this type of gardening is that you can place your plants wherever you choose, and possibly even move them around as the angle of the sun changes with the seasons.   
  • Flexibility for small spaces 
  • Less weeding 
  • Mobility 
  • Plants dry out faster 
  • More fertilizer is required 
  • Plants generally won’t grow as big or produce as much 
Container gardening is a wonderful way to dip your toes in the water without getting in over your head, although, if you do end up getting bitten by the gardening bug, this won’t keep you satisfied for very long! 
It’s really as simple as picking up a shovel and starting to dig. You could also rent a rototiller; however, they are a little hard to handle, and in my opinion, you miss out on all of the great exercise of really digging into the earth. If your gym is closed due to Covid-19, no matter: pick up a shovel and have at it. I never feel stronger and in better shape than towards the end of the summer after I’ve been working my core with a shovel (and sometimes a pick axe), increasing my flexibility with weeding “yoga” and trekking wheelbarrow loads of mulch and compost around the yard. Not to mention feeling happier, more relaxed, and infused with depression-reducing microbes from digging around in the soil. Yes, that’s a real thing. Getting your hands dirty actually makes you happier by increasing serotonin levels.   
“Gardening is cheaper than therapy, and you get tomatoes” 
—Author Unknown 
Another option is to build slightly raised beds out of lumber, where the soil is piled up somewhat, to increase drainage, but you are still gardening directly into the ground. This requires more labor and materials up front, but you are rewarded with a more aesthetically pleasing garden that has clearly delineated boundaries.  It also makes weeding and harvesting easier, keeps the area looking neat and creates a system for crop rotation, which is important for avoiding pest infestations. I am currently in the process of installing raised beds after many years of gardening with stepping stones in between my crops, which I found to be challenging when the crops and weeds grow large in late July and August.  Another benefit to raised beds is ease of access for children, who generally love to help out in the garden. Be sure to make the beds narrow enough to comfortably reach across from either side.   
There are many tutorials about how to make and install in-ground raised beds online. You can seek out scrap lumber and upcycle it, which is certainly the most sustainable option.  Or, you can purchase cedar boards and have your beds built to your specifications, as cedar will last the longest in the ground without rotting and needing to be replaced. Even bricks or stones can be used to provide a border for a raised bed; you can get creative with whatever materials you prefer.   
Whichever garden style you choose, I’m an adamant proponent of beginning with fencing. If you plant it, they will come. And, by “they”, I’m referring to rabbits, chipmunks, deer, squirrels, groundhogs and any other plant-eating creatures that take notice of the all-you-can-eat buffet you so kindly planted for them. Some people will shrug and say they don’t mind that all of their hard work was devoured by animals other than themselves, but if you want to reap what you sow, start with reinforcements.    
Of course, if it’s your first-time gardening, you may not know what creatures will come around and therefore what type of fencing will be best. If deer are the major culprits, a 6 foot or taller fence is your best bet, or a double fence. A double fence is two parallel fences installed about 5 or 6 feet apart. The deer cannot judge the depth between the two fences and therefore will not try to jump over it. But, if smaller critters are the main issue, an excellent choice is a four-foot high, half-inch hardware cloth buried about 6 to 8 inches into the ground. This prevents rabbits from digging under it, and the weave is tight enough that squirrels and chipmunks won’t be able to squeeze through holes. Some animals may still climb over it, but it will still deter most of them. If rabbits are the main issue, another decent option is 2-and-a-half-foot high garden fencing that has holes that gradually get smaller towards the bottom. This fencing is easier to install and blends in better if aesthetics are an issue. Fences aren’t the prettiest, but if you want to stay ahead in the battle for actually getting to eat what you plant, they are necessary.   
Planting and Seasons 
Certain crops such as beets, carrots, turnips and spinach, to name a few, do not do well with transplanting. These you will need to direct seed in the ground according to the seed packet instructions, or you can find charts online that detail what dates are safe to begin planting based on your agricultural zone.  Here in Ridgewood, we are Zone 6b. Most plants, however, don’t mind being transplanted and can be started indoors.   
If you want to have more control over when you begin gardening for the season, starting your own seedlings under lights indoors is helpful. Crops such as onions, scallions, leeks, kale and many leafy greens can be transplanted in early April as they are able to withstand some freezing temperatures.  Have you ever noticed how wild onion grass begins poking up in March?  Onions are in the allium family and are close relatives of many spring bulbs like daffodils who don’t mind a little snow on their leaves.   
To start your own seeds indoors, you will need shelving, grow lights, seed trays and a seed-starting soil blend. Once your transplants are ready, you will need to harden them off. This is the necessary step of slowly acclimating them to outside temperatures and the elements so that they don’t get frostbite or sunburn.  Just like people, if plants aren’t used to bright, outdoor sunlight, they can suffer from exposure if they are out all day.   
If you don’t mind planting your crops a bit later in the season, you can purchase seedlings that have been grown at a farm or garden center.  If you are able to find cold-hardy plants ready to go in early April, start planting right away.  However, you may need to wait until May when most garden centers have all of their transplants ready at once to match the last frost date in our zone.  Plants like tomatoes, eggplants, cucumbers and squash cannot withstand colder temperatures and shouldn’t be planted until early/mid-May, depending on the forecast for those weeks.   
If you want to extend your growing season even further, you can start a second crop of cold-hardy plants in early August.  This can be tricky given that August is usually quite hot and pest pressure is often at its highest. But if you can nurture your seedlings through the end of the summer, you will be rewarded with harvesting things like broccoli, lettuce, spinach and arugula well into November, and possibly even December. The plants will need to be large enough by October when daylight hours begin to decrease significantly, as they will grow very slowly from that point forward.  Covering your fall crops with floating row covers (a lightweight, white fabric that allows light and water to penetrate) once nights dip into freezing temperatures will extend your crops even further.  Or you can use old wood windows on top of raised beds with an angle towards the southern sky to act as a passive solar greenhouse for your plants. You can actually garden all year round this way, as this will provide enough protection for cold-hardy crops through January and February. This is called a cold frame, and if you are interested in learning more about them, Eliot Coleman’s books are a great place to begin.   
Gardening is full of possibilities.  At its simplest, all you really need are a shovel, a rake, some seeds and a hose to get started in your yard.  Consider how much time you want to devote to the project as a whole and how much food you’d like to harvest.  Remember that weeds are always in abundance, and weather is the great unknown.  If you want to take it up a notch with raised beds and start your own plants inside, be sure to get a sense of the time commitment it will require.  It’s easy get caught up in the excitement of growing your own food and planting more than you have time to really care for. Start small and expand a little bit each year and experiment with different methods to find what works for you.   

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