Farm Fresh Perspectives: A little planning goes a long way in the garden

We have officially “sprung ahead.” Now that we have that extra hour, many of us are taking advantage of that time to work outside getting garden beds prepared.

First and foremost, I want to re-emphasize my earlier recommendation to plant at least something you can eat. With a bit of planning, you could be reaping the benefits of a vigorous food crop with just a little more effort than you are already spending on ornamentals.

So, with the last average frost date for northern Illinois fast approaching, let’s talk about some simple steps you can take to make growing your own food as effortless as possible, before poor planning makes your garden too much of a chore.

The first decision about starting an edible garden is placement. Many vegetable plants love the sun, so be sure at least part of the garden gets six hours of sunlight per day; that is considered “full sun.”

Also, be aware that cold air flows like a fluid over the landscape, so if your garden is in a low spot where cold air collects, it may frost later in the season than surrounding locales. This can be helped with a shrub row or fence that diverts that air around your garden, but it’s probably a good idea to avoid such low spots anyway, because they are likely to have poor water drainage as well.

Next, get a soil test done. By analyzing a sample of your garden soil for fertility deficiencies, pH balance, and nutrient-holding capacity, you will be able to determine exactly how to amend your soil with organic matter and natural fertilizers to make a great planting medium. If you send your soil sample into a laboratory, be sure they know it is for a food garden, so they can give you the proper recommendations.

After you have chosen a space and improved the soil as necessary, it is time to figure out what you’re going to grow. My advice to you: don’t grow food crops that you don’t like to eat. There is no faster way to lose your motivation to care for a crop than to realize you aren’t going to eat it anyway.

Create a list of crops and learn a little bit about the plants, such as their water requirements, their size when full-grown, their tolerance to cold, their common pest problems, and how long they take to grow to maturity.

Then, on a sheet of graph paper, draw your garden to scale, and figure out how many plants of each crop you are going to grow.

Correct plant spacing is very important because, if plants are over-crowded, humidity builds up in the foliage and makes an ideal environment for pathogens. Adequate spacing, good sanitation and watering in the early morning so plants can dry before evening are the best ways to prevent disease outbreaks in your garden.

When drawing your garden, also keep in mind that you are going to want to rotate your plant families every year. Crops that are closely related to one another (such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and tomatoes; or broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and kale) often feed heavily on the same nutrients.

By putting your plant families in different parts of your garden every year, you can even out the consumption of fertility and make it easier to keep the soil balanced.

A garden rotation can also help break pest and disease cycles because some insects and pathogens require the presence of a very specific host to survive. If that host is gone from its original location when the pest emerges, the pest may not be able to complete its life cycle.

Another way to help control pests is to plant a diverse mix of crops, including fruits, vegetables, edible flowers and culinary herbs. Large areas of the same crop make perfect feeding and breeding grounds for pest insects, but a diverse selection of plants confuses pests and creates plenty of habitat for predator insects that can help keep pest populations down.

So, all you have left is to beat the weeds, and the best weapons are timing and persistence. Start removing weeds from you garden area now, and continue to do so regularly over the course of the season so they never produce seeds.

Plant your food crops into clean soil so they can establish a canopy quickly and shade out the weeds. When the soil gets warmed up, put down organic mulch to help suppress weeds even more. And, when in doubt, use the Santa Claus method: hoe, hoe, hoe. Eventually, you should be able to exhaust the existing weed seed bank in your garden, especially if you can prevent new weeds from coming in.

If you need more specific advice or further recommendations, remember to call the University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener Hotline in your county. Get the most food for the least work by putting some time into planning your edible garden now; preventive planning is much easier than combating garden problems you could have foreseen.

Andy Larson works with the Initiative for the Development of Entrepreneurs in Agriculture in University of Illinois Extension. He can be reached at (815) 397-7714 or

From the April 12-18, 2006, issue

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