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Vegetable garden simple to start, maintain

When I’m not on the road, I enjoy cooking meals at home. I’m big on using fresh ingredients, yet store-bought “hot house” tomatoes in winter will never compare to the quality and taste of homegrown. Many fruits and vegetables travel about 1,000 miles to get to us. It’s no wonder they’re picked well before maturity and never really develop the taste or nutritional value that only locally grown food can provide.

I’m also tired of taking out a small loan every time I head to the store to buy fresh herbs and vegetables. So when I consider the impact on our environment, and my wallet, I’m more motivated to keep a food garden growing at home year-round. It’s also the best way to ensure that what I’m feeding my family is truly organic.

A home vegetable garden is easy to start, and doesn’t require as much effort as one might think to keep it growing strong. Follow a few simple steps, and you should be enjoying the fruits of your labor in no time.

Location is key

Most vegetable plants do best in full sun. Find a location that gets at least six hours of it each day, if you can. Place the tallest plants, such as corn, indeterminate tomatoes or pole beans, on the north or west side so they do not shade the smaller plants.

It’s all about the soil

The best soil suitable for vegetables includes lots of compost and other organic matter, including aged manure. Whatever you’re starting with, incorporate enough of it so that the amended soil is neither sandy nor compacted.

When the mix is right, it will bind together when you squeeze it but break apart when disturbed. This soil is full of living microorganisms that will help feed your plants. The water will be sufficiently retained and yet won’t saturate the soil either.

Water wisely

For most vegetable plants, 1 inch of water per week is adequate. An efficient way to deliver the proper irrigation is by using soaker hoses or drip irrigation lines. The water is delivered slowly and evenly, allowing roots time to absorb the moisture and soil to adequately hydrate. Automatic timers take the effort and worry out of this all-important step.

But however you water, try to do so at the soil level only. This will help to keep the foliage dry. Wet foliage for extended periods can promote diseases.

Use patience with pest control

Although pests are usually a given at some point in a vegetable garden, nature usually takes care of the problem. If you’ve done the steps mentioned so far, you’ve taken the measures to promote the growth of healthy plants that are better able to stand up to potential pest invasions.

If you must use insecticides, apply them responsibly. That means only late in the day — and then only when necessary. Never apply pesticides in the morning when beneficial insects are most active. Otherwise, you’ll likely kill them as well.

Don’t over-fertilize

Too much fertilizer, especially nitrogen (the first number on the fertilizer package), can promote plenty of lush green growth but at the expense of less fruit and a smaller harvest. Excessive fertilizer can also harm plants and soil.

If you practice what I’ve “preached,” you’ll get your garden off to the right start and set it up for a fruitful season.

Preparation is key, but the reward is a healthier, more productive garden — and fresh food that tastes better than anything you can buy at the store.

Joe Lamp’l, host of “Fresh from the Garden” on the DIY Network and “GardenSMART” on PBS, is a master gardener and author. For more information, visit www.joegardener.com and www.DIYnetwork.com.

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