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Growing your own vegetable garden can be an enjoyable and rewarding experience, but like anything of value it takes some advanced planning and preparation. So let’s review the essentials of a vegetable garden. For best results, most vegetables need six to eight hours of direct sunlight a day. Leafy greens like spinach can thrive on less, but as a general rule six to eight hours of sunlight is best. The ideal location has loose soil that drains well. If your soil is less than perfect, don’t worry because you can improve it by adding organic matter such as compost.

The size of your garden depends on how much time, space, and energy you have. However, the dimensions listed here will give you a basic understanding of a vegetable garden's layout and care. A twenty-by-twenty-foot plot gives you room to grow a variety of crops. A twelve-by-sixteen-foot plot is sufficient for a garden with a variety of greens, herbs, tomatoes, peppers, and beans. By growing plants in succession and using three-foot wide beds with eighteen-inch paths, you should have plenty of vegetables for family and friends.

Now that you have found the perfect location for your garden, what’s next? Stake it out. You will need a tape measure, plenty of string, twelve- to eighteen-inch stakes, and of course, a hammer to drive the stakes into the ground. For the best exposure to the sun, have the rows running east to west with the tallest plants on the north end. After this is done, drive a stake in each of the four corners of the garden. Next, measure and stake each garden bed, or row, with the string.

Feeding the soil, or fertilizing, is arguably the most important step in the gardening process. Try addressing the soil's long-term needs by gardening organically. Use organic fertilizers, such as manure, and work them into the soil with a rake. Nutrients from organic products are released into the soil slowly, but it’s worth the extra effort. For a twelve-by-sixteen-foot garden, use either thirty pounds of aged chicken manure, seventy-five pounds of horse manure, or seventy-five pounds of commercial compost. Use twice as much for a twenty-by-twenty-foot plot.

Many vegetables are started from seeds sown directly into the ground. Others go in as seedlings. Keep in mind which vegetables are frost tolerant. This information should be on the back of the seed packets. The average date of frost is the key date in the gardening process. If you don’t know that date in your region, check your local nursery or extension service.

You can safely plant the cool season vegetables--such as broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, celery, parsley, peas, radishes, and spinach--before the last frost date. Arugula, beets, endive, leaf lettuce, parsnips, and potatoes are less frost-hardy but still grow well in cool weather. Warm season vegetables--such as green beans, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, melons, peppers, and tomatoes--should only be planted after the first frost has passed.

Like everything in life, you learn as you go. In time, you will be able to fine tune your garden to your particular environment. But first you must start. So get out there and plant.