Establishing a summer vegetable garden

Published 9:11 am Wednesday, April 20, 2011

by Janet Spencer

A summer vegetable garden can be a wonderful addition to any yard, either large or small.

While it does require some effort on your part to have a successful garden, the rewards can be great. Here are some guidelines to get you started.

First of all, choose an appropriate location for the garden. Vegetables require at least six hours of full sunlight, although eight to ten hours is ideal.

Try to avoid low spots in your yard. Water run-off can accumulate in these areas and may cause growth problems for the plants.

Speaking of water, no one wants to haul buckets of water around, so chose a location where a water supply is easily accessible. And of course, place the garden where it’s easy for you to get to it when you have a few minutes to work. You will be less likely to regularly work in the garden if it is in a remote location of your yard.

When it comes to soil preparation, the very first task to be completed is a soil test. While fall is the ideal time to have your soil analyzed, it can be done now. Just remember that soil amendments used to adjust pH can be slow acting.

An ideal pH for vegetables ranges from 6.2-6.8, although something slightly lower or higher won’t necessarily spell disaster for the vegetables.

Physically preparing the soil can be a daunting task. A small vegetable garden can be turned by hand, while something larger would require some type of mechanical tiller. There are many different tools and devices one can use, however be sure to choose ones that are appropriate for you and your situation.

When choosing items to plant in your garden or even how much to plant, ask yourself the following questions:

• What do you and your family like to eat?

• Will the veggies be used fresh, or do you plan to can or freeze excess produce?

• Will you share produce from your garden with neighbors and friends?

The answers to these questions will help determine what to plant and how much. Plant and variety selection is a personal choice. Just about everyone I come across has an opinion on which type of tomato taste better, or which variety of sweet corn is the sweetest, so I find it hard to make specific recommendations for variety selection.

Virginia Cooperative Extension does have a list of varieties recommended for Virginia, which can be used as a starting point. As you become more comfortable with vegetable gardening, experiment with different varieties to find out which ones you like the best.

Keep in mind there are three things all plants need for survival — food, water and light. We’ve already discussed light, so let’s take a moment for food and water.

Most vegetables require about the same amount of fertilizer (food) throughout the season. These applications should be made based on recommendations you receive from your soil test analysis. There are many different fertilizer formulations available, so again, choose something that suits your specific needs.

Unfortunately, our growing season for summer vegetables also coincides with this area’s dry period. A general rule of thumb is at least one inch of water per week for optimum plant growth. This number will increase during very hot periods, when soil moisture will quickly evaporate.

Irrigating during the plant’s critical water periods can help to conserve water. Typical critical water periods are during initial plant establishment, flowering and fruit development. For instance, the critical water period for tomatoes would be just after transplanting, when the plant is actively flowering, and when it is setting tomatoes.

If you decide to plant a summer vegetable garden, these guidelines should help with establishment. Please contact your local Extension office if you desire more information.

JANET SPENCER is the agricultural and natural resources extension agent in Isle of Wight County. She can be reached at