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A Beginner's Guide to Fruit and Vegetable Gardening

How to Start an Edible Garden
  -- By Jenny Sigler, SparkPeople Contributor
People take an interest in gardening for a variety of reasons—higher quality produce, exercise in the great outdoors, or saving money. Whether you hope to discover your green thumb or save a little green, growing your own fruits and vegetables can be an advantageous pastime. When you're just getting started, gardening can be intimidating. How do you even know where to start? SparkPeople's gardening resources will help you learn the basics, starting with the five-step process outlined in this article.

Step #1: Gather Your Gear
You should gather several gardening tools before you get your nails dirty. I cannot stress enough the importance of quality tools. Speaking from experience, it is worth the investment to buy high-quality items, as broken or insufficient tools are not only frustrating but cost you more money and time in the long run. Proper tools provide more comfort and efficiency, which means less work for you! You can find most of these items in home improvement stores, gardening supply stores (or nurseries) and online retailers. Here's what you'll need to get started: Step #2: Choose Where Your Garden Will Grow
There are three common types of gardens, all of which have their own pros and cons: traditional (in-ground), container, and raised beds. Once you've picked out the sunny spot where your garden will reside, it's time to decide on one (or a combination) of these three garden types, depending on your needs. <pagebreak> Step #3: Prepare Your Soil
Next, check your soil. Poor-quality soil can seriously hurt a gardener's best efforts. What characterizes good soil? A high-quality soil for gardening will be: Simple tests are available from any garden center to check the quality of your soil, including its pH. Generally, most plants thrive in soil with a pH that is slightly acidic. (There are exceptions to this, however, such as blueberries, which love an acidic soil, and beets, which enjoy alkaline conditions.) If your soil is too acidic, try adding bone meal, dolomitic limestone, or wood ashes. To amend alkaline soil, try materials such as peat moss, sawdust, or pine needles. <pagebreak>

Beyond that, the entire permaculture of insects, bacteria, and microbes do better in well-drained soil. If your soil is too thick and does not drain well or does not hold moisture well, the answer is compost, compost, compost. Thick soil also does well with the addition of some sand.

If you are digging a garden on fallow land (or your garden needs a serious makeover), then you should prepare your plot in autumn by digging 6-8 inches into the soil, removing visible rocks, and working in as much organic matter as you can before you start to plant the next spring.

Step #4: Decide Which Plants to Grow
Deciding which fruits and vegetables to grow will depend on what appeals to your diet, which plants will fit within the size of your garden, and which plants are appropriate for your hardiness zone. Could you grow something exotic that is hard to find at your local farmers market? Is your favorite produce too expensive to buy from the grocery? Are you unsatisfied with the quality or taste of your favorite vegetables?

For the cost of a packet of seeds (usually a few dollars) your garden will more than pay for itself with the amount of edibles it will produce—not to mention be superior in nutrient content, freshness and taste to! Fresh fruits and vegetables--especially organic ones--are expensive to buy, but you could save a lot of money in just one season by growing some in your own backyard.

You can grow all plants from seeds, but many “starts” or seedlings are available from your local nursery—tiny tomato, pepper, onion, broccoli, and melon plants, started in a nursery greenhouse, are usually ready to plant directly into the soil. Buying seedlings is more expensive than buying a packet of seeds, but it's a great option if you're a fledgling gardener or want to save time as many seeds need to grow indoors for weeks before they're ready for the outdoors. If you're starting from seeds, read the label on every packet. If a label reads “direct sow,” you can sow the seeds directly into the soil, while others need to be started indoors. Either way, the packet of seeds or starter plant will include directions about the spacing, watering, and thinning practices that are most suitable for that particular fruit or vegetable. <pagebreak>

Step #5: Ready, Set, Grow!
You've got your gear, prepared your plot and soil, and bought your plants. Next comes planting them to ensure they'll get adequate sunshine and water as they grow.

Different plants have different needs for sunlight. Sun worshippers include tomatoes, squash, beans, eggplant, corn, and peppers, while those less dependent on the sun are leafy vegetables, potatoes, carrots, and turnips. You can sow plants that need less sun in early spring or late summer when the sun is less vibrant, too. When choosing what to put where, remember to place taller plants on the north side of your plot to prevent shadows from forming and inhibiting the growth of shorter plants.

After your seeds or seedlings are in the soil, you can use additional compost as mulch to improve water retention, help control weeds, and keep the roots cool in hot weather. Other mulch options include straw, grass clippings, untreated wood chips, gravel, or stone.

Unfortunately, Mother Nature isn't always reliable enough to provide sufficient rainfall for a garden. Moreover, depending on your region, you might need to supplement it by watering your plants a little or a lot. If you notice a plant’s leaves, fruit, or buds start to brown or droop, increase the water supply. Oddly enough if a plant is water logged, oxygen is unable to circulate to its roots and the plant will show signs of stress similar to dehydration. Green leaves and stems that turn yellow or lighten in color could also be a sign of overwatering. To confirm the problem, reason that waterlogged plants do not respond positively to more water. Some water-rich fruits and vegetables, such as melons and cucumber thrive when they receive more water, while others, such as tomatoes, hate getting their feet wet too long. Always water plants at soil level in the morning, as evening watering can make them more susceptible to disease and mildew. Sporadic deep watering is more effective than frequent shallow watering. Be diligent about watering and weeding your precious new garden and chances are, it will flourish before your eyes!

Finally, start small and begin with plants that are easy to grow. This way, you'll avoid situations where the joy of your new hobby is replaced by frustration. Most importantly, relax! There will be successes and failures, but half the fun of gardening is learning as you grow!