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by Suzanne DeJohn

[caption id="attachment_2636" align="alignright" width="200" caption="Peppers and most other garden vegetables need full sun to produce their best. "]Pepper plant[/caption]

People are rediscovering the pleasure and satisfaction that comes from growing their own food. If you're new to vegetable gardening, here are some guidelines and tips to help you start off right.

  1. Sun. Choose a spot for your garden in full sun — that means at least 6 hours of direct sun in the middle of the day. This is especially important for "fruiting" crops like tomatoes, peppers and squash.
  2. Soil. Healthy soil is as important as sunshine for a productive garden. Be sure the soil drains well (water doesn't puddle after a rain). Add organic matter, such as compost, to improve drainage as well as water-holding capacity and to provide some nutrients, too.
  3. Location. Choose a spot that's as convenient as possible. You'll want to visit your garden daily to check progress and pull a weed or two. You'll also need a water supply nearby.
  4. Consider raised beds. Raised beds warm up and dry out in sooner in spring and reduce soil compaction, too, if you avoid walking in the beds. You can purchase raised beds; build your own from wood, stone or pavers; or simply rake soil into flat-topped mounds.
  5. Grow in containers. Most vegetables adapt well to growing in pots and many of the plants are attractive, too. Grow peppers on a sunny deck or basil near your kitchen door for easy harvesting.
  6. [caption id="attachment_2643" align="alignright" width="200" caption="Many herb plants, including this Thai Basil, are ornamental as well as delicious."]Shop for Thai Basil[/caption]
  7. Mix vegetables with ornamentals. If you have flowerbeds in full sun, consider tucking in some attractive vegetables and herbs — beets, chard, lettuce, peppers, basil and sage, for example. Make sure any pest control sprays are safe for use on edibles.
  8. Be realistic. It's tempting to want to plant some of everything, but remember that a garden requires maintenance. It's best to start small — say, a 12' x 12' plot — and plan to increase the size in subsequent years. A small, well-tended garden will yield more than a large one that is overrun with weeds.

Creating a Planting Calendar
How do you know when to plant each crop? Create a planting calendar. Start by marking your average last spring frost date. Some crops thrive in cool weather and will tolerate a light frost, while others need warmer temperatures. Next, determine each crop's preferences and divide seeds into four categories:

  • Short-season cool-weather plants: Fast-maturing vegetables that prefer cool temperatures are usually best sown directly into the garden rather than started indoors. They germinate in cool soil, grow quickly and are ready to harvest by early summer. Examples include beets, lettuce, mesclun, radishes, spinach and peas. Because they can tolerate a light frost, these crops can be sown outdoors in the garden 3 to 4 weeks before the last frost date.
  • [caption id="attachment_2641" align="alignright" width="200" caption="Tomatoes are the most popular crop for home gardeners."]Shop for Tomato Seeds[/caption]
  • Long-season cool-weather plants: Some cool-season crops do better when set in the garden as transplants. Broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage suffer in the heat of summer; start seeds indoors in early spring and then transplant the seedlings into the garden a few weeks before the last frost date. This gives them time to mature before hot weather arrives.
  • Short-season warm-weather plants: Plants that like warm weather and mature quickly are also best sown directly into the garden. Beans and corn are good examples. These plants germinate and grow quickly and don't like having their roots disturbed by transplanting. Wait until after the last frost date, and make sure the soil has warmed and dried out from spring rains before sowing.
  • Long-season warm-weather plants: Several popular garden crops, including tomatoes, eggplants and peppers, require a long frost-free growing season. These crops are best started from seed indoors and set in the garden as transplants after the last frost date.

Cucumbers, melons, squash and pumpkins can be direct sown in the garden or started indoors.