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Planning Your Garden

gardening tools on top of soil

Growing a garden can be a relaxing hobby and is an excellent way to provide food for your family. Whether you choose to have a large in-ground garden or a single raised bed, preparation and planning can increase the likelihood of your success and raise your overall production. Most vegetables prefer loose, fertile, well-drained soil that is high in organic matter and in a pH range of 6 to 7. However, conditions do not have to be perfect to have a successful crop, and if your soil isn’t ideal, there are steps you can take to improve it.

Site Selection and Preparation

Select a site that is close enough for convenient access to be worked regularly. Some of the other major considerations for choosing an appropriate site include:

  • Sunlight – Most vegetables need a minimum of eight hours of direct sunlight per day and many prefer full sunlight.
  • Water access – Being able to water new plantings is essential and may also be necessary throughout the season if the weather is dry. A portable source, such as a rain barrel, may be an option if an access point isn’t nearby. Drip irrigation with a soaker hose or drip tape will save water and may reduce foliar diseases.
  • Soil Type – If possible, choose loose, well-drained soil and avoid compacted soils or those with a high clay content as these conditions may trap water and restrict oxygen availability to roots.
  • Slope – Avoid waterlogged soils and areas where water may drain into and accumulate, as it may cause rot and be detrimental to air movement. Sloped areas may be difficult to plant and may cause erosion during rains if cultivated.
  • Previous Land Use – Consider any previous or current use of the land that could have a detrimental effect on a future garden, including pesticides applied, buildings or equipment that may have had lead paint, oil or other fluid leaks, septic tanks, etc.

Improving Soil

Sandy soils drain quickly but have a low capacity to hold water, and nutrients may be lost if water drains too quickly. Clay soils hold water, sometimes too well, which can cause problems with air movement to roots and rot when roots become waterlogged. An intermediate between the two is needed.

Adding organic matter to soil can create a balance by increasing water holding capacity or by separating clay particles to increase drainage. Organic matter can be increased by planting a fall cover crop, such as annual rye and clover, that can be tilled under in spring. Other options include fall leaves, sawdust, compost or peat moss. Grass with seed heads, hay or straw may increase the weed content of a garden and should be avoided.

All organic matter should be applied in the fall, as the chemical process of breaking down the material can temporarily tie up nutrients, particularly nitrogen, and make them unavailable for developing plants, causing a deficiency.

Animal manure often contains bedding material and can be an excellent source of both organic matter and nutrients for plant growth, but it is best if it is composted first. Composting to at least 145 F will kill weed seeds and pathogens. If applying fresh manure, it should not be applied to crops within three months of harvest, four months if the edible portion is in contact with the soil such as carrots and beets. Considering the length of the growing season for most crops and West Virginia’s soil conditions in winter, it is realistically only appropriate for fresh manure to be applied in the fall to meet this guideline.

It is recommended that all gardeners test their soil annually in the fall. West Virginia University Soil Testing Lab provides free soil testing services to all West Virginia residents. Visit soiltesting.wvu.edu for sampling instructions, the soil test submission form to send in with your sample and other information. Organic matter content is available for $6 per sample.

Many areas of the state have acidic soil and may need lime applications to get to the recommended pH of 6 to 7 for vegetables. Some vegetables, such as tomatoes and potatoes, prefer a lower pH. Your soil test will provide you with your soil’s pH level and your local WVU Extension Service agent can help you tailor it to your specific crop, if necessary. A list of local WVU Extension Service offices can be found at extension.wvu.edu/offices. The soil test also will make recommendations based on your soil’s nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium needs, which can be converted into your fertilizer recommendations. Again, your local WVU Extension Service agent can help you with the calculations, if needed.

Size, Type of Garden and How Much to Plant

There are various types of gardens depending upon the space and resources available. While an in-ground garden may offer the most space for planting with a seemingly low input cost, raised beds, container plantings and low or high tunnels can offer much more production per unit of area. Raised beds and vertical gardens also can be a great choice for those whose mobility is limited. High tunnels have a much higher start up cost but can offer increased production with earlier and later crops. The soil in raised beds will tend to warm slightly earlier, and inexpensive PVC or metal hoops with row cover can be added to offer some season extension and frost protection in a low tunnel setup.

The size of your garden may depend on the number of people in your family, what is suitable for your area, what you like to eat and what you would enjoy growing. If you are interested in canning or freezing some produce, you might want a larger quantity of certain vegetables to mature at the same time, where as succession planting may be a better idea if you would prefer smaller amounts of each crop to mature throughout the season.

Succession planting is planting smaller amounts of one crop, such as beans, every few weeks so that the harvest continues throughout the season. Alternatively, you could plant different varieties of beans with different maturity dates so each would ripen at different times throughout the season. Another type of succession planting involves starting early in the season with cool weather crops and as those are harvested, replacing those crops with warm season crops so that the garden is continually in production. In this version, the garden is in intensive production from early spring to late fall, optimizing yield.

Suggested Crop Spacing and Amount to Plant Per Person (Amount to plant will vary if you are preserving harvest or not)

Crop

Row Spacing (inches)

Plants Per Person

Asparagus

12

6

Beets

2 to 3

10

Bok Choy

6 to 18

6

Broccoli

12

5 to 7

Brussels Sprouts

12

4

Cabbage

12

4 to 8

Cantaloupe

12 to 24

3

Carrots

Thin to 2

15 to 20

Cauliflower

12

3 to 5

Collards

12

3 to 6

Cucumbers

12

3 to 5

Eggplant

12

2 to 3

Green Beans

2 to 4

10

Head Lettuce

10 to 12

5 to 8

Kale

12

3 to 5

Leaf Lettuce

1 to 3

10 to 12


Crop

Row Spacing (inches)

Plants Per Person

Onions

2 to 4

20

Peas

2

20 to 25

Peppers

12

3 to 5

Potatoes

8 to 10

10 to 15

Pumpkins

12 to 36

1

Radishes

½ to 1

24 to 36

Rutabaga

3 to 4

10 to 12

Spinach

1 to 2

12

Summer Squash

12

2 to 3

Sweet Corn

6

15 to 20

Sweet Potatoes

6 to 12

5

Swiss Chard

6 to 12

3 to 5

Tomatoes

12 to 18

3 to 5

Turnips

3

8 to 10

Watermelon

24 to 48

2 to 3

Winter Squash

12

2 to 3

Plant Spacing in Raised Beds

Plant spacing is important to allow for plant growth and air movement to reduce disease issues, as well as leave room for cultivation between rows for weed reduction. Appropriate spacing will be listed on the seed package. If planting in a raised bed, consider the height of the plants and which will need to be trellised, staked or supported. You need to be able to access taller plants for harvest, but they shouldn’t block smaller plants. For instance, you don’t want to have to reach across tall tomatoes to harvest peppers or reach through your peas to pick lettuce.

As a rule, raised beds should never be more than 4 feet wide to allow the gardener to reach into the center from either side. While some gardeners plant raised beds in rows, another option is to plant yours in squares. The entire bed is divided into 1-foot-by-1-foot squares with each square being its own mini garden; for instance, an 8-foot-by-4-foot bed would have 32 squares. It may be helpful to run string lines or make a visual grid to mark this division when planting. Plants are then planted within the squares according to the spacing on the seed packet. Gardeners can decide whether rows or squares work best for their situation or use a combination of each. For crops that need support, such as peas and cucumbers, string, wire or trellises can be used to encourage upward growth. Some general recommendations are listed below:

Plants Per Square Foot

Tomatoes 1

Peppers 1

Eggplant 1

Cabbage 1

Brussels Sprouts 1

Winter Squash 1

Summer Squash 1

Cauliflower 1

Broccoli 1

Melons 1

Zucchini 1

Pumpkin 1

Kale 2

Cucumbers 2

Sweet Potatoes 2

Celery 2

Potatoes 2

Most Herbs 2

Kohlrabi 4

Corn 4

Garlic 4

Rutabaga 4

Sweet Onions 8

Peas 8

Spinach 8

Beets 8

Parsnips 8

Turnips 8

Leaf Lettuce 16

Carrots 16

Radishes 16

Green Onions 16

Companion Planting

Companion planting or intercropping is growing two or more crops in the same area over the course of the gardening season. This maximizes the efficiency of small spaces, and many vegetables, herbs or flowers have complimentary effects on each other. There are numerous combinations of garden crops that can be intercropped within the garden. When choosing plants to grow together, select plants that have different days to maturity. For example, a fast-growing leafy green can benefit from being shaded by a larger plant, such as a tomato or cucumber, and will be harvested earlier than the fruiting vegetable. Plants that have deep roots and are considered heavy nutrient feeders are usually excellent companion plants with shallow-rooted, light-feeding plants.

Plant

Companion Plants

Beans (bush)

Lettuce (leaf), beets, onions (bunching), mustard, Irish potatoes

Tomato

Arugula, basil, beets, carrots, chives, lettuce, onions (bunching), radishes

Broccoli

Beets, lettuce, mache, onions, radishes, spinach

Pepper

Basil, lettuce, spinach, onions (bunching)

Cucumber

Beans (bush), eggplant) lettuce, radishes

Cabbage

Arugula, Asian greens, beets, Swiss chard, sage, rosemary

Importance of Pollination

It is important to protect pollinators as many vegetables, such as cucumbers, squash and melons, rely on them for proper pollination. Inadequate pollination will lead to bloom drop, misshapen or underdeveloped fruit, or lack of fruit completely. It is essential that insecticides are not applied when plants are in bloom. Corn is pollinated by the wind, so there must be a sufficient-size area of corn planted together instead of just a single row to ensure it is pollinated from the wind blowing in different directions. Incidentally, corn will cross-pollinate, affecting this year’s crop. For other vegetables, related plants may cross-pollinate, but this year’s fruit will not be affected. This is only an issue if one is saving seeds.

References:

Raised Bed Gardening (2020) by Lewis Jett WVU Extension Specialist for Commercial Horticulture https://extension.wvu.edu/lawn-gardening-pests/gardening/raised-bed-gardening


Jodi Richmond, WVU Extension Service Agent – Mercer County

 

 

 

 

 

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