It’s easier than you might think to turn your backyard into a vegetable garden

gardeningBy Scott Huffman

W ho doesn’t love the thought of a plump homegrown tomato sliced and salted, or a flavorful, freshly picked salad straight from the yard? Planting a backyard vegetable garden can be a rewarding do-it-yourself project, regardless of one’s experience level. Here are a few helpful guidelines for planting and maintaining your vegetable garden.

What to grow. “The best veggies for our area are tomatoes, peppers, many varieties of squash, cucumber, okra and beans,” says Marie Jenkins, retail manager at Brumley Gardens nursery. Heirloom tomatoes are especially popular, but for early plantings, Jenkins recommends broccoli, onions, cabbage, cauliflower and potatoes.

When to grow. Spring is the conventional time to start a vegetable garden, but it’s hardly the only one. “Many types of vegetables can be planted in the fall, as the temps cool down,” Jenkins notes. “Fall tomatoes can be the best!”

Location. Selecting an appropriate location is critical. Most vegetable plants need at least six hours of sunlight each day to thrive. The ground should be relatively level, though a slight slope will help provide good drainage. You should also consider the proximity of your garden to watering sources — the closer your garden is to your everyday life, the more likely you are to spend time maintaining it.

Preparation. The basic tools for vegetable gardening include a flat-end shovel for digging and turning soil, a pointed-end shovel for tilling, a rake for leveling and assisting in the removal of rocks and debris, and a hoe for moving soil. You will also want a supply of compost and manure, which will (when mixed with the soil) nurture your plants.

Design. First-timers may want to start out with a smaller garden, which is easier to maintain and cut your teeth on. It will also help prevent the feeling of being overwhelmed with maintenance. Even an area as small as 10 square feet is a starting point; you can even subdivide it into smaller areas for plantings. “It doesn’t matter how much space you have for your garden as long as you have enough sunlight,” Brumley says. When designing your vegetable garden, be sure to leave paths for walking and avoid creating areas that exceed easy reach. For visual appeal, you may wish to plant flowers or herbs around the perimeter.

Planting. The first rule of thumb is simply to grow vegetables that you enjoy eating — if you don’t like zucchini, why spend your Saturdays cultivating them just to rot in the compost pile? Vegetables can be grown from seeds (beans, peas, lettuce, and radishes), slips or sets (onions and potatoes) or seedlings (tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and squash). Consult the professionals at your local garden center when selecting your vegetables for advice on placement and optimum planting times.

Maintenance. Water and weed your garden regularly. Water your vegetable garden early in the day to allow proper evaporation. Avoid evening watering, which can leave droplets on leaves and potentially promote fungal and bacterial growth. Weed the garden regularly so that water, nutrients and space are used only for your vegetables. Mulching can also help prevent weed growth. “Composting is a wonderful, environmentally-friendly cycle that reuses kitchen scraps to make foil for your garden, so you can grow wonderful, healthy food to eat,” Jenkins says.

Harvesting. This is ultimately the fun part. Be sure to harvest your vegetable appropriately for peak flavor and freshness. The timely removal of ripe vegetables also helps ensure that garden nutrients are used to support new growth. If your harvest is abundant, consider canning, or, better yet, share your bountiful harvest with friends.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 25, 2014.