Advice for First‑Time Gardener

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First, the garden spot. A vegetable garden must have sun. A garden site should receive at least six hours of sun per day and preferably eight to 10 hours. That nice shady area in the backyard may be perfect for a hammock but not for a garden.

If your potential garden is now grass, be cautious. Better to kill such grass with an herbicide before starting the garden.

How big should the garden be? Six hundred to one thousand square feet is an average size for a vegetable garden. But err on the side of smallness. A garden that is too big can become a chore to work. Better for the beginning gardener to start small and enlarge the garden next year.

Now that you’ve found a sunny spot free of grass, the next step is to till the soil. You can begin tilling the soil anytime from late February on. The soil shouldn’t be worked when it’s wet. A test to determine if the soil is too wet: squeeze a handful of soil into a ball, and then drop it; if the soil remains compacted, it’s too wet to work.

Gardeners usually work the soil with machines called tillers. Tillers are usually fairly expensive, so the beginning gardener probably won’t want to buy one. You may be able to rent one from a garden centers or equipment rental businesses. However for a small garden a spading fork can be used.

The soil should be tilled to a depth of 6 inches. If the soil is mostly clay, gardeners may want to add organic material such as compost to make it more loamy.

You will also need lime and fertilizer. A soil test is the only way to determine the exact fertility needs of your garden. Soil test kits are available at Cooperative Extension Service center here in Macon County. In the absence of a soil test, a complete fertilizer with a formulation such as 8-8-8 (the 8‑8‑8 label means that every 100 pounds of fertilizer contains 8 pounds each of nitrogen, phosphorous and potash) or 10-10-10 may be applied at the rate of 20 to 30 pounds per 1000 square feet. Lime may be applied at 50 pounds per 1000 square feet. Both should be turned in to a depth of 4 to 6 inches.

Having decided what to plant, the gardener must go in search of seeds or transplants. Transplants are small plants. Farm supply stores and garden centers sell seeds and transplants.

Look for plants that are short, stocky and have a good green color ‑‑ plants that appear healthy ‑‑ when selecting transplants. Many transplants are grown in peat pots. Peat is the medium in which the transplant is grown; it forms a sort of miniature root ball. The peat should not be removed from the plant, and should be planted below the soil surface. If the peat pot is not covered by soil, it will dry out more quickly than the surrounding soil and wick, or pull, moisture out of the soil.

But remember, most vegetables should not be planted until the soil has warmed and we are frost free (around May 10 in most of Macon County). However, some garden vegetables can and should be planted earlier. These include cabbage, lettuce, onions, garden peas, potatoes and turnips. Extension publications offer other suggestions on fertilizing, planting, care and culture of your garden.