Grow Your Own: Starting a Vegetable Garden, Part Two

Red boot matching a spade into a garden humus in an attempt to till the soil.

Making sure your soil provides the proper nutrients and drainage will help prevent problems such as pests and disease.

In Part One of this article on vegetable gardening, we covered how to get started: setting up a raised bed, buying soil, choosing your plants and installing irrigation. Once your garden is established and your plants are growing, your attention is needed to prevent pest infestations and disease.

We have tips that will be helpful for you when it’s time to harvest your veggies: canning and preserving, and best of all, cooking!

Step 5: Identify and eliminate pests and disease

Pests are called pests because we don’t like them. But, in their world, they’re doing what they are supposed to do: eating, growing and proliferating. We’d rather they just go away, and, so, with the best of intentions, we hose down our veggies with pesticides. But is that the best method?

Relying on heavy doses of pesticides means we contaminate our food with chemicals, and even with that sacrifice, the bugs might linger. There is a better way.

By providing your plants with ideal growing conditions, you give them the opportunity to be the strongest they can be. Great soil in a raised bed, the right nutrients, plenty of sunlight and consistent irrigation make your vegetable plants thrive, so they can fend off attacks from insects and disease.

This doesn’t mean that hungry pests (not always insects — don’t forget about deer and other critters!) and disease will pass over your garden. You’ll probably have some issues along the way. Before you bust out the pesticide, find out exactly what is going on.

Your investigative work should lead you to insect and disease identification guides, the most reliable of which can be found on the websites and printed materials produced by your Cooperative Extension service. As I mentioned in Part One of this series, the vegetable gardener’s greatest support system is the Cooperative Extension Office. This state university program exists throughout the United States and offers phenomenal, locally oriented advice for gardeners in the form of trained agents whose purpose is to help you grow successfully, classes and training for those who want to become experts and online articles and charts written by experienced horticulturalists.

Once you know what pest or disease is ailing your veggies, treat specifically for that. For example, if aphids are descending upon your cucumbers like a plague, first try spraying cold water on the plant’s leaves. Then try spraying a solution of water, dish soap and cayenne pepper. Or buy a bag of live lady bugs to let loose in the garden. Make chemicals your last resort. If you use organic pesticides, make sure they are truly organic by investigating the product’s ingredients. These tips and more are available to you through your Cooperative Extension service, so take advantage of the lessons the volunteers there can teach you and give back by becoming a volunteer yourself.

Step 6: Harvest and store

When your veggies are ripe, it’s time to pick them, right? It depends. Some veggies are best picked slightly before maturity. To get the specifics, check out the amazing harvest and storing chart, created by the University of Minnesota Extension service. Here you’ll find a list of vegetables, when to harvest them, and even better, how to best store them.

Before harvest, prepare storage areas for any veggies you plan to keep without canning. If you are a lucky duck with a root cellar, then you can keep your potatoes, carrots and beets there in cold and moist conditions for five months or more. Other veggies that prefer cold and moist storage, like asparagus, beans, broccoli and cabbage, can be stored there, too, but not for nearly as long.

After all the effort you’ve put into growing a garden, you want to extract every possible benefit of its bounty. Many gardeners give away large quantities of tomatoes or beans at harvest time because the alternative is having more than they can handle (also, gardeners tend to be sharers, which is nice), or eating the same veggies in every meal for two weeks straight. But you don’t have to burn through your fresh veggies. Canning, as old-fashioned as it sounds, is a viable option that is hardly outdated.

Canning is an easy process, but it’s important to do some research and to follow proper sterilization procedures to prevent spoilage, as well as to prevent food contamination (food-borne botulism is one reason you don’t want food contamination).

The University of Georgia’s National Center for Home Food Preservation offers helpful articles on how to safely and effectively can, freeze, dry, cure, smoke, ferment and pickle food, in addition to how to make jam and jelly. For beginners, consider taking a free online course in preserving food at home. The class provides foundational knowledge in safe handling and steps in canning.

Step 7: Cook

The joy of local, seasonal cooking is a pleasure that can’t be matched by any other eating experience. There’s a reason this dining trend has caught fire and gardeners knew this long before it was en vogue: homegrown food just tastes better.

Planning your meals alongside your garden harvest places you squarely in the middle of a major cultural moment where people are recognizing the value of knowing where their food comes from and in some way have taken part in producing it.

One of my favorite cookbooks, designed to match up with garden harvests, is Deborah Madison’s Local Flavors. When I’m wondering what to do with my kale or black-eyed peas, this cookbook is my Bible. But that’s not all. and each offer gardener-approved dishes worth trying.

Sarah Kinbar is a freelance writer and editor for leading print and online publications. Formerly editor in chief of Garden Design, she has also written and edited for Cottage Living, Modern magazine and Orlando Arts. You can find her on Google+.

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