The Q&A Archives: Planning a Vegetable Garden in IL

Question: I am just embarking on gardening (vegetable) for the first time. I will be planting in a space a little larger than 10'x10'. The soil here is very "clayey". What types of fertilizers are best--should I plant directly in earth, or start with seed-starter kits? I would like to grow such things as cucumbers, peas, carrots, tomatoes. When is the best time to start planting and buying materials? There are a couple of things I need a bit of clarification on and was wondering if you could help me.I know row covers are good for keeping pests out, moisture in and encouraging seeds/transplants to take. Do they take care of giving the seeds/transplants enough moisture on, or do I water when required? Is it true that row covers should be removed around 80 degrees F? How soon after adding organic matter, is it turned into the existing soil? How long should I wait before adding seeds/transplants? The local nursery said it can be done as soon as the day after, but I recall reading somewhere that the matter should fully decompose and if that is the case, how long will that take? We shall be leveling the swing set in our yard this weekend - the temperatures are still around 40-43 degrees and the soil is still somewhat frozen/mushy. When will be a good time to start to rake, till and add the organic matter? I am confused about the application of mulch. Here is how I have it all understood: rake, till organic matter under to existing soil; let sit; make my raised rows; plant seeds/transplants accordingly; now is it when I add the mulch and how much (thickness) should be added; Row covers/stakes; voila! I thank you in advance and have a nice day. Susan Dobrovolny Naperville, IL

Answer: First of all start by building the soil. Add lots of organic matter in the form of compost, leaves, and grass clipping for example. If your soil is tough to work because of the clay, try growing your vegetables in raised beds. Raise the soil up about 10" high and create a bed 3' wide by as long as you wish. Start with planting transplants of tomatoes, peppers and lettuce. Crops to seed are peas, carrots, beans, squash. Follow the directions for spacing on the packages. You can buy the seed now, but wait until you're ready to plant to buy transplants. You should be able to put the cool season crops such as peas, carrots and lettuce in the ground by May 1st, but wait until the end of May for the beans, squash and tomatoes. It sounds like you're really getting into it. Great! You'll need to moisten the soil after planting even under row covers and keep it moist while the plants are germinating. If you add already composted manures... to the soil you can plant immediately afterward. For uncomposted materials such as grass clippings, hay... wait at least 2 weeks before planting. You add mulch after transplanting cool season crops like broccoli. Wait for seedlings to grow to at least 6 leaves before mulching. Warm season crops suchas tomatoes should be mulched after the soil has warmed up (usually mid June or so). I can taste your fresh vegetables already!

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