Planning the vegetable garden

By Dawn Pettinelli - UConn Home & Garden Education Center
Featured Article - posted Thu., Feb. 23, 2012
- Contributed Photo

The key to growing a successful vegetable garden, as with many of life’s ventures, is planning. Veteran gardeners are familiar with this satisfying annual ritual selecting the varieties you want to grow, deciding on how many seeds or transplants to put in, and where and when to plant. Novices may feel a bit overwhelmed, especially if we have another season like last summer with too much rain and cloudy weather. Perhaps these following suggestions will give new vegetable gardeners some things to consider when planning their gardens.

A successful vegetable garden will be located in full sun. For almost all vegetables, the more sun, the better. This means plants should receive six to eight hours of direct sun each day. A few varieties will still produce a decent harvest with a minimum of five hours of sun. These include beets, lettuce, radishes, carrots, chard and spinach.

Except for tall crops like corn and pole beans, it does not matter whether your rows or beds run north and south or east and west. Do place tall growers on the north side or wherever they will not shade their neighbors. Occasionally this shade is actually beneficial, like when setting out lettuce transplants in the latter part of the summer. If your garden is on sloping land, run the rows along the contour rather than up and down to prevent serious erosion and nutrient loss in runoff.

Think about planting in beds rather than rows to cut down on space devoted to pathways. Leave enough room to maneuver a wheelbarrow between beds. Raised beds are ideal for many vegetable gardens and they need not be fancy.

Measure your garden for an estimate of square footage. Once you know the size of your garden, the amounts of limestone and fertilizer needed can quickly be calculated. Have a soil test done to determine what nutrients are in short supply and what your soil’s pH level is. Without a soil test, add not more than 5 pounds of limestone per 100 square feet, and always follow the directions on the fertilizer package. Whether you are using a chemical or a natural fertilizer, if it is overapplied, it is not good your plants and for the environment.

Vegetables vary in their ability to withstand cool temperatures. Cool season or hardy crops include members of the cole family (like broccoli and cabbage), lettuce, spinach, peas, potatoes, carrots, radishes, beets, onions and turnips. They can be planted as soon as the weather becomes more spring-like and the ground can be worked, which is when soil squeezed into a ball will crumble under slight pressure. Typically this will be in mid to late April.

Warm season crops or tender vegetables include varieties put in as transplants like tomatoes, peppers and eggplant, and as well as some which are direct seeded. Usually melons and vegetables such as beans, corn, squash, cucumbers and pumpkins are seeded directly into the garden where they are to grow. Neither seeds nor transplants of warm season vegetables should be planted in the garden until after the danger of late frost has past. The average last frost date for Connecticut is May 15, but this varies by your location in the state, with microclimate effects and with the weather, so always listen to long-term forecasts before planting.

Plant any perennial crops like rhubarb and asparagus to one side, so they will not be disturbed by cultivation. Consider successive plantings of quick-maturing vegetables such as lettuce and radishes. Plant small amounts of seed at seven to 10 day intervals for a continuous harvest. Keep in mind cool season crops do poorly in the hot summer months. Lettuce, radishes and spinach, among others, will bolt (produce seed heads) and become unpalatable once temperatures climb too high.

Avoid the temptation to overplant. Two hills (groups of seeds) of zucchini or 8 tomato plants should provide enough fresh produce for a family of four, unless more is needed for canning or freezing.

If space is at a premium, go vertical. Cucumbers, peas and pole beans are natural climbers, great for growing on a trellis or fence. Select compact or bush varieties whenever possible if garden space is at a premium.

Keep notes on what you do. That way you can refine or change your techniques or timing for a better garden every year.

If you have questions about growing vegetables or on any other gardening or home topic, call, toll-free, 877-486-6271, visit or contact your local Cooperative Extension Center.

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