As winter slowly yields to spring, the call to get our hands into the soil becomes irresistible. These spring tips for vegetable garden success are a valuable guide to the essential steps everyone can and should take for a bountiful and productive garden.
Joe Lampl's audio
Pick the best location
You may have heard the phrase, pick the right plant for the right place. And while that is absolutely true, when starting a garden, you need to pick the right place for the plant too. Since nearly all edible plants benefit from full sun and well-drained soil, the closer you are able to provide these conditions from the start, the better. Plants can’t move themselves, so it’s up to you to set them up for success from the very beginning. The more appropriate your plants are for the environment you’ve placed them, the more productive they’re going to be, and the less work you’re going to have to do to maintain them through the season.
Perhaps the sunniest, or only sunny spot in your yard is in the front yard. Or worse, what if you live in a neighborhood where your covenants and restrictions don’t allow a front yard food garden? You can still grow food there. Consider tucking in your favorite edibles amongst your ornamental plants and/or your foundation plantings. Foodscaping is becoming more popular than ever. The term is aptly named because it refers to working edibles into your landscape in a pleasing and aesthetic way. With so many attractive edible plants to complement any ornamental landscape, there’s no reason not to grow food in your front yard these days. And the good news is, your neighbors and homeowners association will never even know.
If you’d like to learn more, our podcast episode on Foodscaping with Brie Arthur, the author of Foodscape Revolution takes a deeper dive into this groundbreaking movement.
And for anyone who has been gardening in the same spot for years, there’s a good chance that location is no longer as sunny, or productive as it once was. Encroachment from overhanging tree limbs inevitably creeps in slowly but surely. That garden once bathed in unlimited sunlight may now only receive a fraction its former self. If this is indeed the case for you now – before you plant out your next garden, consider taking this time to remove some of those sun-robbing branches or trees.
As I settled into the permanent location for my raised bed garden here at the GardenFarm™, I had to remove some very large overhanging tree limbs that were shading out a large part of my future growing space. While that definitely did the trick for several years, now it’s time to do it all over again. It will be an ongoing issue from many who love their trees like I do but need that sunny spot to have a garden.
Great drainage is another non-negotiable when selecting or maintaining your garden site. Especially for inground beds. Even the best soil and hardiest plants will suffer in soil that doesn’t drain well. Low areas of your property or areas where heavy clay soil hasn’t been improved will not work in your favor for a productive food garden. While even poor soil can be made great, an area of your property that drains poorly or collects water may be beyond the effort required to make it garden-worthy.
Prepare the planting area
As previously mentioned, any soil can be made better and spring is the ideal time to improve the soil in your existing garden beds. In fact, it’s essential to replenish nutrients depleted over the previous season. Doing so between growing seasons from a cool to warm-season summer garden is the perfect time for that.
Here at the GardenFarm I never miss an opportunity to amend my existing garden beds each spring, typically about two weeks before my beds are planted with summer crops. At this time the beds are temporarily empty from the spent cool-season crops. For me, it’s one of only two times of the year where I can really get into my beds to improve the soil. My method of choice is simple. I spread about a one-inch layer of compost over the existing soil. That’s it. The existing soil is full of beneficial organisms and the compost is too. There’s no need for me to work the new compost into the existing soil because the natural processes of healthy soil will do that for me soon enough.
I grow vegetables year-round in my zone 7B Atlanta garden so I relish these brief times in spring and early fall to continually improve my already great garden soil. Like I said, any soil can be made better. Compost and plenty of organic matter is the way to do that.
No matter if you are starting a brand new garden or you’ve been gardening for years, a soil test is a great tool for providing valuable information about your existing soil conditions. Your country extension office offers this service for a very nominal fee and the report can be quite extensive. One key measure you’ll want to know is your soil pH level. Getting it to the range suggested in this report will free up vital nutrients to be utilized by your plants.
Speaking of nutrients, a soil test report will indicate what nutrients (if any) are lacking in your soil, including information on what you’ll need to do to bring deficient nutrients in balance. Yet what I like about this analysis is what it doesn’t tell you. By noting what nutrients you may need to add, you can surmise that for whatever nutrients are not specifically listed, you don’t need to add them because they’re not deficient in your soil. More often than not, gardeners add fertilizer just because they think if some is good, more is better. That is false. Nutrients can build up to excess levels in the soil, leading to additional problems. The bottom line is to gather the baseline information from your report before you do anything related to fertilizing.
There’s one more reading that you should look for in the soil analysis – the percentage of organic matter in your soil. The ideal amount of organic matter in soil is 5%. Surprisingly, most native soils fall well below that level. This is one of the main reasons I’m always advocating for the addition of more organic matter to your soil as a natural way that feeds the soil, so the soil can feed the plants. You do this by adding organic matter provided by compost, manure, rotted leaves, worm castings and more.
While you’ve likely heard the expression your eyes are bigger than your stomach, your garden ambitions are likely bigger than the space you have to garden. As excited as even veteran gardens are with the arrival of each new season, it requires superhuman discipline to hold back from over planting an empty garden bed and beyond. Yet I implore you, this too in moderation, please.
If you want to quickly experience garden overwhelm, pack in the garden plants and sow those seeds shoulder to shoulder. If you’ve done what I’ve already mentioned, your garden will quickly come to life, and keep on growing. While that is what you want, it can become too much.
Keep in mind, plants are genetically programmed to thrive in the right conditions. Those tiny seeds and small plants grow up quickly – sometimes too quickly. And when they do, they will need you to ruthlessly cull them out, likely sacrificing many for the greater few. Yet take comfort in knowing it happens to even the most experienced gardeners.
I live in the world of overwhelm – especially in the garden. I just can’t help myself. So each year I make a deal with myself, vowing to grow 50% fewer tomato plants the following season (I currently grow 36 indeterminate heirloom varieties every summer). And yet I can never bring myself to follow through on that promise. I get it. Gardening can be irresistible. But take if from this seasoned veteran. If you want to enjoy your garden without the overwhelm, plant less of each crop than you think you need to fill the space. I promise you will still have more harvestable fruit than you ever imagined. And if at the end of the day you find that you want to plant more, you can. There is always tomorrow and next season. By planting your garden with a touch of restraint, you will be more inspired next time because you didn’t fizzle out quickly from having to manage more than you bargained for.
Care and maintenance
While a gardener’s shadow is always the best remedy against the build-up of pests, diseases, and weeds throughout the year, there are simple steps you can take at that start of the season to set your plants up for greater pest and disease resistance, and weed suppression all throughout the season.
First, give thought as to how you plan on providing water to your plants. While you could do so manually as needed (which I love), it’s not the most efficient method nor is it the best approach for the health of your plants. While many gardeners don’t think about watering (and simply do so only as-needed) plants (and people) benefit from a more systematic approach.
A better solution is to install a simple drip irrigation or soaker hose system at the start of the season. By doing so, it will deliver water slowly, deeply, and on target. From day one, it’s an effective system to properly establish newly planted seedlings. Then, ongoing to keep your plants consistently and evenly watered all through the season. It’s the most efficient way to give plants the water they need, while keeping foliage dry, minimizing runoff and water waste.
The part that makes this solution all work so well is the automatic timer. A one-time setup of the watering schedule puts your irrigation on autopilot and takes the worry out of ever having to give another thought to making sure you remember to water.
Another easy way to keep your garden growing strong and healthy is to apply mulch as soon as your seeds have sprouted or new plants are in the ground. Much does so much to help you and your plants all through the season and beyond. Weed and disease suppression, moisture retention, soil infiltration, and improvement, and soil temperature moderation are some of the benefits mulch provides for setting up your spring vegetable garden for success. I can’t imagine any garden season without a two-inch layer of mulch over all my garden beds to protect the plants and soil.
While the options are plentiful for the type of mulch you choose, my hands-down favorite is shredded leaf mulch. Each fall I gather a few hundred bags of leaves from friends and neighbors who have destined them for the landfill. I gladly use my Saturday mornings to pick them up and suck up those now shredded leaves with my lawnmower and bagging attachment. Then, it’s simply a matter of storing them in a pile, that by spring is the perfect mulch for my plants. It’s easy to work with and breaks down beautifully to improve my garden soil while feeding my plants. And it’s totally free. What could be better?
Take Notes and Pictures
Perhaps the greatest way we can all improve our gardens for even better success next year is to take notes and pictures all through this and every season. While you may be a write-it-down kind of gardener, today’s technology has never made it easier for the rest of us to record anything and everything in real time. While garden journals and phone apps are plentiful, I find the Day One app to be the perfect solution for me. Features include dictation, camera, keyword search, multiple albums and data syncing across all your devices. As long as I have my phone, I have my garden journal and camera forever at the ready.
I’d love to hear what you’ve got planned this year for your garden or what you’re going to do differently to make your garden even more successful. You can do that in Comments below. And if you haven’t listened to the podcast recording yet, you can scroll to the top of this page and click the Play icon in the green bar under the title.
With gardening, the success of next year’s season starts now. I hope this discussion reminded or taught you of a few tips to jumpstart your vegetable garden success this spring. Happy gardening!
By Joe Lampl' March 28, 2019