The Q&A Archives: Starting a Vegetable Garden

Question: I am a rookie in the true sense. I am starting a vegetable garden for next year. I have laid out an area of 8'x8' with landscape timbers. What is the correct way to prepare my soil and when should I plant my tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers?

Answer: First of all, I don't want to scare you off from gardening, but are the landscape timbers you're using pressure treated? There are two sides to the story concerning the safety of pressure treated wood in gardens. one says they are safe, site studies showing little or no leaching of arsenate for years. The other side has it's own studies and says it does leach at dangerous levels. So, I err on the cautious side and recommend gardeners not use pressure treated wood, especially for food plants. Try cedar, redwood, hemlock, plastic wood or cement blocks as alternatives. If you already have the wood in place, line the inside with plastic to reduce the risk of the chemicals leaching into the soil.

That said, let me next say that you're starting your planning at just the right time! The first step in soil prep is to have the soil tested for nutrient and organic matter levels. A soil test performed by your agricultural extension service (ph# 302/831-2506) will result in recommendations for balancing soil nutrients and improving drainage and structure if that is necessary. In general, soil can always use a boost of organic matter. It's the "glue" that holds the mineral part of the soil together, and truly makes soil a living substance. Organic matter (also known as humus) results from the decay of living plant and animal tissues, and increased moisture retention on soil particles, improved drainage, increased nutrient availability, and helps balance the populations of "good" and "bad" organisms in the soil. You can often purchased bagged compost from garden centers, but I also recommend that you start your own compost "factory". It can be as simple as a pile in a corner of your yard or as fancy as a store-bought compost bin. Heap grass clippings, yard trimmings and leaves, as well as your vegetable/fruit kitchen waste (meat and dairy products are more likely to attract flies and larger critters) into your compost, turn it once in a while, and it will rot down to beautiful humus. There are lots of publications on composting out there, and I'll bet your extension service even offers one.

If you can get your soil tilling and improvement done by the end of the month, you may have enough time to start some cucumbers, but for best results, wait until next spring to start the crops you've listed. Tomato and peppers transplants can be put out in the garden in late April, when the danger of frost has passed and the soil has warmed. Cukes seeds should be sown directly in the garden soil at about the same time. Again, I'll bet your extension office has a calendar of planting times and tips for vegetable gardeners -- they can provide you with a wealth of information. We're always here if you have specific questions their literature doesn't answer. I also recommend a couple of great gardening books for beginners: Real Gardeners' True Confessions, by Pat Stone (Storey Publications, Pownal VT), is a collection of stories and instruction from gardeners who learned the hard way, and want to pass on the knowledge gained from making LOTS of mistakes, so hopefully you won't have to repeat them! Another is Burpee's Complete Vegetable and Herb Gardener (available on their main webpage). Here's to you and your first garden!

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