Plant Palette

Plant Palette

Vegetable Garden Design

Photo of Jennifer Schultz Nelson

Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
jaschult@illinois.edu

As a person that has been in a vegetable garden every year since she could hold a trowel, I found it humorous that according to a 2008 survey by the Garden Writers Association, vegetable gardening is a "significant new trend" among American gardeners. I guess my family was trendy without even realizing it!

They had also surveyed American gardeners in spring 2007 and found vegetable gardening ranked second only to lawns among types of growing gardeners intended to do that year. This is a huge change from previous years, as vegetable gardening has languished in fourth or fifth place for years, eclipsed by perennial and other ornamental gardening.

Judging by the volume of questions received at my office, I think this news holds true for central Illinois. The rising cost of groceries seems to be a major reason local interest in vegetable gardening is increasing. Many also desire to control application of chemicals to the food they eat, whether they are proponents of organic gardening which uses no artificial pesticides or fertilizers, or simply choose to limit their use of artificial pesticides and fertilizers. Also, after scares in recent years with Salmonella and E. coli contaminated produce, some people feel safer growing their own food.

Garden catalogs are everywhere this time of year. Seed displays are sprouting in local stores. Beginning and experienced vegetable gardeners alike will benefit from a little planning before purchasing seeds to maximize their efforts in the vegetable garden for 2009.

My family has always had a large vegetable garden. As a young girl, I just planted things where my mom or dad told me to plant them. Seeds or plants were planted in rows, using a string tied to two stakes which I never could manage to keep straight relative to the other rows.

As I got older I started to question the need for everything to be planted in rows. I had read about planting vegetables in blocks, a concept described by Mel Bartholomew in his book Square Foot Gardening. I experimented with this method, and my dad hated it. I loved it, and it is basically how I continue to garden today. My dad still prefers traditional rows, and we agree to disagree on how we grow our vegetable gardens.

I have found several advantages to growing plants in blocks or wide rows. One is soil compaction. When you plant in blocks or wide rows, ideally you never step on the row, you step around the edge. So the soil stays nice and loose, perfect for root growth.

Another advantage I see in my garden is weed control. Planting seeds such as green beans in a grid over a wide row or broadcasting tiny seeds such as lettuce in a block creates an environment where the mature plants will mostly shade out any weeds as they appear. Since the soil remains nice and loose in a block or wide row planting, it is very easy to remove any weeds that germinate while the desirable plants are still small and unable to shade out the weeds.

When designing blocks or wide rows in your garden, you should be able to reach at least halfway across from the edge. That way you won't be tempted to step in and compact the soil bed.

It is a great idea to add some organic mulch to your vegetable garden after planting to conserve moisture and discourage weeds. This is a wonderful use for fall leaves, especially ones that have been shredded. My trees aren't big enough to mulch my vegetable garden yet, but I have gotten leaves from friends and family, used shredded bark mulch, and have even used the bale of straw left over from our outdoor fall display. Non-glossy newspaper is also a good mulch, either shredded or just laid in sections around plants. At the end of the season the mulch gets tilled in and adds valuable organic matter to the soil.

Don't forget to mulch the paths around the blocks or wide rows in the garden. This will minimize weed growth and provide a nice clean path to walk on. One Master Gardener I know uses old carpet to line the paths in their garden. She and her husband got a whole room's worth of old carpet in a roll, and sliced off pieces with a chain saw which unrolled into perfect strips. What a great way to recycle!

Another method I use in designing my vegetable garden is to mound up the soil in my wide rows or blocks for planting. The walking paths are slightly lower than the growing areas. Essentially what results is a raised bed without any sort of permanent edging. It is a lot like what garden books call "double digging", where the ground is tilled extra deep, beyond the typical 8-12 inches. Each fall the ground we till the ground out level again and either a cover crop or shredded leaves are applied.

If you are new to vegetable gardening, I encourage you to start small. Better to be encouraged by success in your first years of growing a few plants than discouraged by a too-large garden that is overwhelmed with weeds by July. If you already have a vegetable garden, remember to rotate crop locations in the garden from year to year to minimize disease and pest problems.

Vegetable gardens should be located in full sun. It is a good idea to place the tallest plants anywhere but the western edge of the garden. For example, sweet corn planted on the western edge of the garden will shade the plants to the east during the afternoon, potentially slowing the growth of those plants. Furthermore, I have found sources that recommend orienting plants on an east-west axis rather than north-south, even if you are using wide rows. An east-west axis keeps any shading effects within that row of plants and minimizes shading across rows.

Take into account how much room you have vs. how much room mature plants need when designing your vegetable garden. Vines like squash and cucumber need room to sprawl. If you have limited space, consider installing a trellis so the vines can take advantage of vertical space.

Keep in mind that nothing says you have to have a dedicated vegetable garden. In our first years at our home, my husband and I planted vegetables in the beds around our patio. Even though we have a dedicated vegetable garden today, we still continue to plant vegetables around the patio. Having them so close to where we spend a lot of time outdoors is convenient, and the plants get a lot of attention as a result.

Many vegetable plants are beautiful in their own right; why not mix them in with your purely ornamental plants? Last year next to our patio I mixed red cannas, and various red, orange and yellow flowered annuals with an assortment of sweet and hot peppers. As the peppers ripened, they looked just as pretty as the annuals.

One of the best parts of my job is hearing from people who have just grown their first vegetable plant or garden. They are always amazed at how wonderful fresh ripe produce tastes. If you have never grown vegetables I encourage you see what you're missing and make 2009 the year that you try growing at least one of your favorite vegetables at home. University of Illinois Extension has great websites for beginners called "Watch Your Garden Grow" and "Illinois Vegetable Garden Guide" through the "Fruit and Veggies" tab on the Hort Corner website: http://www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/hort .

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