VEGETABLE GARDENING HAS TAKEN on dimensions unimaginable when the current boom began back in the early 1970s. At that time, one out of every four vegetable gardeners was brand, spanking new. Today, only one in fifteen gardeners is just starting out
That, of course, doesn't mean that a tremendous number of new gardeners won't be turning over their first shovelful of dirt in the late 1980s. It does mean, however, that America today has a great many experienced vegetable gardeners who are looking to extend their experience, to try new things. According to the National Gardening Association, home vegetable gardening today has become a vast and almost invisible enterprise spread across 1.7 million acres in 29 million backyard and community plots, in flower borders and in boxes on apartment terraces and rooftops. In 1987, the national Gardening Association estimated the gross national home-garden product at $12 billion.
Why is the vegetable gardening boom still accelerating at full speed?
The reasons are somewhat complex. According to a Gallup survey, all or many of these home gardeners claim they raise vegetables to save on food bills. But perhaps a more fundamental motive is that vegetables picked fresh from the home garden taste a lot better than the stiff, often overripe, vegetables found in the supermarket. Corn, for instance, reaches a peak of sweetness, then holds it only two to five days. Other vegetables hold their peak taste only a short time after picking. And, says Joseph Williamson, managing editor of Sunset magazine, "a really good-tasting tomato is so tender you couldn't carry it around the block."
Some gardeners feel they obtain a healthier product from their own garden. There are no commercial grade chemicals used on home garden vegetables and no forced ripening by ethylene gas.
Gardening is also therapeutic and is playing an increasingly important part in treating many of the maladies of our modern age; it alleviates stress, helps the recovery of stroke victims, the rehabilitation of alcoholics and is often an ingredient in convalescent programs. "There's something about planting and working with the soil" said Pam Neace of the Chicago Botanic Garden, which over the past ten years has helped 50 institutions start plant therapy programs. "We have worked with nursing homes, rehab settings in hospitals and amputee patients. It really helps' In addition, gardening has become recreation for two-income families who need relaxation on weekends. It has also become a fashion statement in some circles, as mini vegetables began to appear in innovative restaurants such as Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California and specialty food markets such as Balducci's Mew York. Currently, tiny gardens of mini-vegetables are popping up on patios and in the small backyard gardens of gourmet cooks and hostesses almost everywhere.
Indeed, gardening is an avocation that gives pleasure to millions. For those who would like to start a vegetable garden of their own, it is first necessary to know a few fundamentals.
The first step to a more productive garden is selecting the location. Be sure to pick a spot that will receive six to eight hours of sunlight per day. The soil should be fertile, well-drained, and located several feet from trees and other vegetation that might rob your plants of nutrients. Start your garden in January or February by laying it out on paper. Select your favorite vegetables from seed catalogs or garden shops. Then, using a sheet of graph paper, sketch in the garden's vital statistics.
Garden size depends primarily on space available. A standard plot should be no less than 100 square feet (10 x 10 feet). With a garden this size, you can plant as many as fifteen different types of vegetables, including corn, lettuce, beets, radishes, carrots, tomatoes and green beans. If your family is large and the space is available, a standard garden 25 x 50 feet, when properly tended, can provide all the fresh vegetables five people are likely to eat in an entire season; so can smaller gardens when intensive techniques are used.
In plotting your rows, it is best to run them from north to south to maximize sun exposure. Place tall plants at the north end so they don't shade other vegetables in your garden. Large plants should also be placed against a fence whenever possible. Fences make nice trellises for tall plants like cucumbers and green beans.
How much of each crop to plant will depend in part, on your plans for canning or freezing. If you want just enough for immediate consumption, 25 feet or less of each vegetable will probably be enough. (See Figures 1-01 and 1-05.)
After you've determined the size and 'lay' of your garden, you're ready to collect the tools you'll need to do the job. To minimize the time and effort you'll spend, proper tool selection is vital. (See Chapters 4 and 5.)
For the small garden (less than 100 square feet), only the basic tools will be needed—spading fork, rake, hoe, trowel, tape measure, garden hose, string and label stakes. If your garden is larger, you should also think about investing in a rotary tiller.
Local weather conditions usually dictate the best time for you to begin tilling. Dig up a trowelful of dirt and squeeze it with your hand. If it packs solidly, the soil is too wet If it crumbles, the soil is too dry. If it just holds together nicely, conditions are right for tilling to begin.
To give proper richness and texture to the soil, commercial fertilizers or manure should be applied using a tiller or a shovel until the ground is a workable consistency. (See Chapter 2.)
After the initial tilling or digging job is completed, rake or harrow the soil. Break up any larger clumps that may be left, but do not granulate the soil. Fine soil will crust after a hard rain, making it difficult for plant sprouts to push through.
Different types of vegetables need to be planted at different times because some will withstand temperatures while others will not As a rule, the best time to plant sensitive crops is usually two or three weeks after the last freeze in your area. For more specific information on proper planting times, contact your county extension office or local garden shop.
After you've determined the proper planting time, you're ready to begin the actual planting process. Check seed packets for any special instructions, then stake out your garden area. Set up stakes at either end to ensure straight rows. Then begin making your rows with a hoe or till and furrow opener accessory.
Plant the seeds and cover them with a thin layer of soil. Firm the soil with your hand or foot Then label each row stake with the empty seed packet
Consider planting companion crops of early- and late-maturing plants in the same row. For example, radishes can be planted with carrots, and harvested and replanted before the carrot plants mature.
Green beans, tomatoes, cucumbers and certain other plants require only a third to half the normal space when properly staked or trellised. Staking and trellising should be considered, especially in smaller gardens.
For higher yields and tastier vegetables, correct garden care is essential. Proper care includes watering, cultivating, mulching and fertilizing. For maximum growth, your garden should receive no less than one inch of water per week, about 120 gallons per 12-by-15-foot area. (See Chapter 7.) Water between furrows until rows are soaked. It's far better to water thoroughly once a week than to water lightly every third or fourth day. A weekly soaking allows plant roots to grow deeply into the soil. Then, if a drought should occur, the plant's deep root system lets it draw from the water table' for continued growth.
Cultivate your garden whenever the need arises with a tiller or a hand cultivator.
Proper mulching and fertilizing also improve plant yield. Compost placed between the rows helps prevent weed growth, conserves moisture and provides added nutrients for the soil. (See Chapter 3.) Fertilizer stimulates root growth and produces fleshier, healthier fruit
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