Q: I want to plant my first vegetable garden this year. Any tips?

A: So this is the year that you want to plant a vegetable garden. You are not alone. Backyard gardens are making a comeback. Victory gardens began in the 1940’s to provide over 40% of the fresh vegetables during wartime. Food supplies were low and economic times were hard. Sound familiar?

It is good to see that we are returning to our (please excuse the pun) roots. Fresh, local and organic seem to be the buzzword these days. You want to jump in but you might be saying, “Where do I begin?”.

The first thing is to find a good spot for your garden. It needs to be level and sunny. Ten hours of sun each day is best. The more sun the better. If you are not sure here is a simple tip. Do a sun survey. Draw a circle where the sun shines on your garden at 8 AM, noon and 4 PM. If all three circles enclose your garden you have selected the right spot. A partially shaded garden will produce less than satisfactory results.

A family of four could easily use the vegetables grown in a 20 ft by 20 ft plot. If you don’t have that much space a small 4 ft by 8 ft garden could grow nice salad vegetables for the entire family. Perhaps you only have a narrow strip by your fence. You could still build or buy a trellis and grow pole beans, cucumbers, or even tomatoes. My friend Ross Krummel grows some of the best tomatoes this way.

January is a great time to plan your garden. For many this next step is probably the most fun. Sit down with all the people in your household and make a list of all the vegetables that you like to eat. Now make a scale drawing of your garden plot.

It is time to pencil in where and what you want to plant. The taller growing vegetables should be planted on the north side of your plot. Spacing is so important. The biggest mistake new gardeners make is planting their veggies too close. Here are some guidelines: tomatoes should be at least three feet apart, peppers should be spaced 18 inches, zucchini should be planted four feet apart and carrots should be spaced one to two inches apart.

Now that you have your garden space figured out and your garden diagram drawn you need to go on a field trip. Visit your local garden shops. They have experts that will help you decide which varieties to plant.

In the spring, as soon as the ground can be worked, you will need to add an amendment such as aged cow manure or compost to your garden bed. Make sure the soil is not too damp or it will clump when you work it. Cover your garden with a three inch deep layer of your chosen amendment and, with a shovel, work it down eight to ten inches deep. You are now ready to plant.

Around the end of April you can plant spinach, lettuce, radish, carrots, peas, cabbage and broccoli. Wait until all danger of frost has passed (usually mid to late May) before planting your warm weather crops like tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers, corn and beans.

Here are a few more tips:
Visit your garden daily to check on water needs and to check on bugs.

Harvest when your crop is ready. Don’t delay.

If your seeds are not sprouting, replant.

In Colorado Springs do not plant on mounds. Plant in a small trench (1 inch deep or so).

For your tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and squash use planting techniques that protect your plants from harsh winds and keep the soil warm.
For more information you can visit Pikes Peak Urban Garden’s web site. Go to “Gardening Tips”. The web site is: www.ppugardens.org. Happy Gardening!

Contributed by Larry Stebbins, Colorado Master Gardener and Director of Pikes Peak Urban Gardens. For answers to your horticultural questions, contact the Master Gardener Help Desk at 636.8921 or CSUmg2@elpasoco.com
(A version of this article was published by The Gazette on 1/13/09.)