Rutgers Cooperative Extension (RCE) delivers public outreach and education programs and recently launched an online-learning curriculum, “Rutgers Community Gardening Series,” that is designed to benefit school, community and home gardeners by teaching new gardeners to successfully grow vegetables.
But before you jump right in to test your ‘green thumb,’ first consider where to place your vegetable garden. Here are some important tips to consider when choosing an ideal location for your backyard or community garden.
Sunlight and Sun Exposure: Choose a location that receives a minimum of six hours of direct sunlight each day. Locations with 8-10 hours of direct sunlight each day are ideal for most vegetables. The more sun exposure the better.
Watering and Water Sources: The location of your garden or planting containers should be near a clean water source to make watering convenient and easy. Using recaptured water from something like a rain barrel for watering vegetables is often discouraged due to pathogens that may be present from bird droppings and other contaminants. Water your garden during morning hours so leaves will dry quickly; wet foliage will encourage plant diseases from fungi and bacteria that may harm plants.
Garden Soil Quality: Vegetable plants prefer well-drained soils that do not puddle after heavy rains. Fortunately, many soils in New Jersey are well suited for vegetables. Also, choose areas where the soil is free of any potential contaminants, like areas near sidewalks that may have had ice-melting treatments or where water from road run-off may drain.
Proximity to the Residence: Having a garden in close proximity to your home will encourage more time caring for the garden. More weeds will get pulled, more vegetables harvested, and plants will be watered more often if you can see the garden.
Wildlife/Pet Exclusion: Fences work best to protect plants from deer, rabbits, and other animals. The size of the fence depends on the size of the animals. A three-foot fence made of chicken wire will keep out smaller animals such as rabbits. For deer, fences of at least 6-8 feet in height are necessary.
When choosing vegetable varieties to plant, picking those with disease resistance characteristics generally noted in the seed catalog or on package label descriptions is recommended. Although these varieties may cost a bit more than some “old standards,” they can result in improved quality and may eliminate or reduce reliance on pesticides in the garden.
Availability of seeds from online sources may be the best option right now to help abide by social distancing recommendations. To confirm your seed order is able to be shipped and delivered within a timeframe for spring planting, call or email the company before ordering online. Quality seeds are important for a successful garden. Seeds may be viable for a few years but, for best results, purchase new seeds each year.
Starting seeds indoors is a fun and interesting activity. The germination process is a miraculous transformation to observe over a short period of time. Seeds can be started in many types of containers, including recyclable materials such as cardboard milk cartons cut in half, aluminum pans, and plastic clam shell containers from strawberries or grape tomatoes. Covering newly planted seed containers with plastic wrap can hold in moisture and warm the soil to hasten germination. Once seeds germinate and emerge from the soil, the plastic wrap can be removed. New seedling trays and starter soils are available to purchase online and from garden centers. Once plants are ready to go outside, having the right supplies to work the garden is important.
Before planting, turn the soil to at least 8-12 inches deep with a shovel or rototiller to loosen the soil. While the best time to till soil is in the fall for the start of a new garden season but early spring is also a good time to till soil, after the thaw from winter freezes. After tilling, rake out stones and clumps of grass (grass refuse can be composted), level the soil in the garden, and apply a small amount of a complete fertilizer that contains nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium throughout the garden and rake fertilizer into the soil. See the fertilizer container or RCE publications for rate recommendations. If fertilizer is left on top of the soil surface, nitrogen may be lost to volatilization. For this reason, it is best to incorporate fertilizer into the soil with a rake or hoe.
Once the ground has been prepared it is time to plant. For early spring plantings with late spring harvests, choose cool-season vegetables such as leafy greens (kale, lettuce, spinach), broccoli, radishes and peas. A late summer to fall harvest might include early spring plantings of vegetables such as onions and white potatoes. Mid-spring planting for summer harvests, include crops such as tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, squash, cucumbers, melons and others that can be planted after the threat of springtime frosts pass. Consider perennial plants, too, like strawberries and asparagus. Once established, perennial food plants can provide years of great harvests.
For information on harvesting vegetables, see the RCE Fact Sheet Picking Vegetables in the Home Garden, part of the online training, Rutgers Community Gardening Series. The next step is to enjoy eating the fruits of your labor.
Happy Spring and happy gardening!
Tips provided by Michelle Infante-Casella, agricultural agent, Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Gloucester County.