Gardening is a great way to get outside, learn some science, and have a great time. Vegetable gardens are highly rewarding, paying you with the delicious fruits of your labor all summer long. There is nothing like cooking up a big meal made with ingredients grown in your own backyard.

Your garden is what you make of it, so be sure to fill it with plenty of vegetables that you and your family enjoy the most. If you are just getting started in the world of gardening, it is best to start small, both in size and variety. You’ll learn the science about each individual vegetable as you change and expand your garden year after year. 

Today, we’ll start by talking about a decent beginner garden around 32 square feet, or 8×4 feet in a raised garden bed. You do not need to use a raised bed, but it does make it easier to manage and helps keep out some of the animals that may try to eat your garden vegetables. We’ll have more tips for keeping pests out of your garden in another article.

Where to put the garden

Find a location in your yard that gets sun all day long. Remember that the sun’s path changes throughout the year, so pay attention to any trees or buildings that may get in the sun’s way later this summer. My favorite website for checking this is SunCalc.net. Here, you can plug in a future date and find out where the sun will shine during that time. We’re aiming for a location that will get at least 6 hours of direct sunlight, all season long.

If possible, pick a location with plenty of space to expand in future years, since you will inevitably have a desire to broaden your plant choices and experiment with new ones. Once you’ve identified the ideal location for your garden, be sure the soil is ready for planting. You can check out our article on soil preparation for more information.

Planting from seeds

Starting from seed can be very rewarding and gives you the most variety of plant types and breeds. However, it isn’t as simple as just picking tomatoes and growing the first one you find. There are hundreds of tomato plants that vary in growing conditions, size, flavor and more. Picking the right ones for you can be a difficult process, so it may be best to start with a seedling that you can purchase from a local garden supply store. They will have inventories of plants that are best for the growing conditions in your area.

Mid March to early April is the ideal time frame to start planting from seed indoors. Some vegetables like beans and cucumbers grow quickly and can easily be planted outdoors starting in May, but others such as tomatoes and peppers are more successful when started indoors. If you are going to plant these seed types outdoors, your crops will take longer to produce and you may not get the full benefit of your garden’s potential.

Other plant seeds, such as zucchini, beans, corn, carrots, lettuce, melons, and squash can all be sowed directly into the ground in early to late May with minimal impact on your crop yield. Be sure to follow the instructions on the seed packet for spacing and other planting instructions. You do not want your plants competing for sun, water, or nutrients as this will decrease yields and hinder plant growth.

Getting your seedlings ready for the garden

If you have already started your seeds indoors, or if you will be buying seedlings from a local nursery or garden supply store, you will need to transplant them into your garden. Wait to plant until the possibility of frost is completely gone or you risk losing your garden to a late cold snap. A good rule of thumb is to wait until Memorial Day weekend when all risk of frost has passed.

Transplanting isn’t just as easy as taking your plants and putting them in the ground. Careful planning and preparation must be done to ensure your plants will survive the move. The first step in this relocation is making sure the plant is ready to take on the conditions of the great outdoors. This process is called “hardening off.” It is the process of getting your plants used to being outside, where conditions are more harsh than the indoors. Hardening off your seedlings will consist of several rounds of exposure to naturally occurring conditions outside, such as wind, heat, cold, and drought.

To begin, alter the conditions inside to simulate the conditions outside. If you are using grow lights, set a timer so that the lights turn off in the evening and turn back on in the mornings. You can do other things like setting up a fan to simulate wind, skipping a watering to simulate drought, or altering other things about your set up to get your plants used to changing conditions.

A week before you will be moving your plants outside for good, start by taking your plants outside on a nice sunny day for just an hour. Be sure to place them in a protected area from the wind. The most important part of plant hardening is getting the plants used to direct sunlight and exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light. Too much exposure all at once could do more harm than good, so remember to take it slow, even if it is a beautiful calm day. The next day, leave your plants outside for 2 hours, and continue to increase the hours your plants are exposed to the elements by 1 hour each day until you’ve reached 7 hours. By the 7th day, your plants will be ready for transplanting!

Transplanting

While transplanting your seedlings is not an exact science, there are a lot of things science can tell us about how the process should be completed. The steps you take will also change depending on the containers you used for your seedlings and the types of plants you are adding to your garden. Recycled cardboard or Peat containers are the easiest to use for seed starting and indoor growing phases of your garden. Not only do they make transplanting easy, but they use decomposable materials to get the job done.

Water your plants until water begins to drip from the container. This will allow the soil to stick together better and will keep your roots intact. Remember that the plant’s root system is still very fragile and susceptible to breakage. Wetting the soil will help make sure everything stays together.

The holes that you dig for your seedlings will depend on the type of plant. Tomato plants, for example, can be buried quite deep to help the plant remain strong and develop larger root systems.

Tomato plants grow small white fibers, called adventitious roots, which grow out from the stem on the parts of the plant that are near soil or wet conditions. When grown in a greenhouse where humidity levels can be very high, you will see these adventitious roots growing practically all the way up the stem of the plant.

For most plants, you’ll want to level the surface of the seedling’s root ball with the surface of your garden. Remember to space out your plants based on the largest recommended spacing requirements included on the seed packet or seedling that you purchased. You can also look up suggested plant spacing using the Farmer’s Almanac Growing Guides.

Dig a hole for your seedling, digging about an inch or two deeper than the depth of your seedling’s container. Place a couple inches of compost mixed with coconut coir fiber (a sustainable peat moss alternative) and langbeinite in the bottom of the hole and fill with water. If using compostable containers, rip the sides and bottom of the container to provide easy access for the roots to grow out of the container. While the container will break down over time, it will be restricting in the beginning when your plants are trying to spread their roots and establish themselves. Large root systems help absorb more nutrients, provide stabilization in windy conditions, and have more access to water.

Place your seedling into the hole and surround it with the compost mixture, lightly pressing in on the sides of the hole. Never press down directly on top of the seedling. Remember that you are trying to protect the root ball from damage. Lightly pack and even out the soil around the seedling. Water the soil to the point just before the water begins to puddle. Keep your garden well-watered over the first few days while your plants adjust to their new home.

Written by Jason Kern for the Milwaukee Area Science Advocates

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