Healthy vegetable gardens do more than provide a beautiful area in your yard. They repay your labor with nutritious food and a healthy varied diet. Vegetable gardeners are in tune with the environment, giving back to the soil what they take from it. Abundant vegetable gardens start with healthy, rich soil. Compost and mulch contribute to that natural wealth.
About 11,000 years ago, the first farmers began to select and cultivate desired food plants in the southwest Asian Fertile Crescent – between the ancient Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Although we believe there was some use of wild cereals before that time, the earliest crops were barley, bitter vetch, chick peas, flax, lentils, peas, emmer, and wheat. About 9,000 years ago, Egyptians began to grow wheat and barley. About the same time, farmers in the Far East began to grow rice, soy, mung, azuki, and taro.
Then, about 7,000 years ago, ancient Sumarians established the first organized agricultural practices that made large-scale farming possible. Of particular note, they established irrigation as a way to nurture crops where none were possible before. Vegetable gardeners today use many of the same techniques established in early history. But today’s vegetable gardeners have millennia of experience behind them. Trial and error today is success or failure at the margins. Failure is not disaster.
As in centuries passed, a successful vegetable gardener cultivates the garden before planting for three main reasons: to eliminate weeds, to distribute air and nutrients throughout the soil, and to conserve moisture. Preparation of the soil is the single most important step in assuring abundant harvests.
Weeds are the most powerful enemy of a healthy vegetable garden. Letting them multiply in your vegetable garden will create much work and disappointment through the growing season. And when your vegetables begin to grow, removing weeds can your new vegetable plants beyond repair. Weeds also steal the precious nutrients necessary to produce healthy vegetables.
Rather than sacrificing the new garden to a patch of weeds, the successful vegetable gardener will cultivate the bed often, breaking up the soil to maintain healthy air, moisture, and heat to facilitate desirable chemical processes that produce abundant plant food. Ancient growers learned by trial and error the importance of keeping the soil loose around young plants. Early farmers deposited rotten fish beneath their crops as fertilizer and then used tools of shell and stone to nurture healthy soil and get plentiful air to the roots of their crops.
As important as air is water, even when the vegetable garden is a promise waiting for new seeds. Consider the process of “capillary attraction” – the ability of a substance to pull another substance into it. When you dip one end of a strip of blotting paper into water, you’ll see that the moisture moves up the invisible channels formed by the paper’s texture. But when you place the side edge of the blotting paper into water, the moisture won’t move upward. In a vegetable garden, capillary attraction describes the attraction of water molecules to soil particles. Well cultivated, loose soil maximizes capillary action, maintaining an even distribution of moisture throughout your vegetable garden soil.
Even so, water stored in soil during rain immediately begins to escape, evaporating into the air. Surface water is the first to vaporize into the atmosphere. With capillary action, sub-surface water moves upward and evaporates. Left to natural processes, your garden will lose its moisture as quickly as if you left sponges in the topsoil. Cultivating your vegetable garden by hoeing the soil around your plants disturbs natural capillary action and slows the loss of water for your vegetables.
It’s important to hoe your vegetable garden often, particularly those areas not shaded, at the very least every other week. If this seems too difficult, using a wheel hoe will reduce your labor and keep your vegetable garden healthy and productive. Looking somewhat like an old-fashioned plow, the wheel hoe allows you to cultivate very close to your healthy plants, maintaining an even depth and destroying new weeds before they get established. With the wheel hoe, you can cultivate as fast as you can walk.
If you wait until weeds are established, you’ll have to pull the weeds by hand, damaging the root systems of your vegetables, depleting the soil of nutrients, and creating a much greater workload for you as gardener. And the work you invest will not be to cultivate a productive crop. It will be to prevent damage that may have already been done. A wheel hoe is essential for a large vegetable garden, but it will also save much time and effort in a small one. However, a simple scuffle hoe is effective in small spaces as well. It takes less storage space and cultivates the soil effectively.
Preparing your vegetable garden properly before you plant vegetables is well worth the investment in time and labor. Keeping your vegetable garden rows free of weeds later on is slow going and difficult. Here are a few tips for keeping your vegetable garden clean and clear of weeds as your plants mature:
1. Work at the weeds while the ground is soft and/or moist. Soon after a rain is the best time. Weeds will come out by the root easier without breaking off, leaving the unwanted plant to grow again.
2. Just before you weed your vegetable garden, cultivate the rows with your wheel or scuffle hoe very shallow in the topsoil and as close to your vegetable plants as possible. This will loosen the soil and make weeds easy to see. A double-wheel hoe with discs is best for this purpose, especially for large plants.
3. Make sure all of the soil is loosened when you cultivate. Pull all the weeds out carefully, avoiding disturbing the vegetable plants. Your weeder will destroy weed seedlings, but you’ll have to hand-weed near plant bases and where weeds have matured.
4. Use a small hand-weeder near your vegetable plants. It will loosen the soil, making weeds easier to eliminate, and save a lot of wear and tear on your hands and fingers.
5. Practice with your wheel hoe. At first, watch the wheel’s direction and the pressure you put on the handles. The discs or rakes will follow automatically, maintaining an appropriate cultivation depth in your vegetable garden rows.
6. “Hilling” was once a common way to nurture young vegetable plants. This is done by building the soil up around the stems of young vegetable plants, usually the after you’ve hoed your garden two or three times. In wet soils or dry climates, hilling may still be the way to go. But in most areas, level soil is best. It makes it easier to cultivate the soil in the long run, thereby assuring healthy vegetable plants through the growing season.
Rotating Vegetable Crops
Crop rotation, or growing different vegetable crops each time you plant, is an important part of maintaining a healthy, productive vegetable garden. Some Roman texts mention crop rotation, and early Asian and African farmers also found rotation a productive method. During the Muslim Golden Age of Agriculture, engineers and farmers introduced today’s modern crop rotation methods where they alternated winter and summer crops and left fields fallow during some growing seasons. With Chemical Revolution of the mid-20th Century, crop rotation lost some of its appeal. But for home vegetable gardeners, rotation eliminates the risks of using dangerous chemicals and prevents the environmental consequences associated with modern pollutants.
Each different vegetable plant depletes the soil of different nutrients, and each leaves different nutrients as its roots and stems decay. Rotating crops with each planting keeps the soil balanced and rich. Planting the same crop time after time drains it of necessary nutrients, leaving it less productive. Crop rotation also reduces the build-up of pathogens and pests that destroy healthy vegetable gardens. Rotation helps maintain a healthy mix of essential nitrogen in your vegetable garden.
Rotating crops is more important with vegetables like cabbage, but it is a good practice for your vegetable garden generally. Even the hardy onion benefits from rotation, especially if you’ve done a good job of breaking up the old garden soil and mixing the remaining vegetable plants to serve as compost for the following crop. Here are some basic tips about crop rotation:
1. Do not rotate crops of the same vegetable family, for example turnips and cabbage. Be sure the following crop is a complete different type of vegetable.
2. Deep-rooting crops like carrots or parsnips, should follow vegetables with roots near the surface like onions or lettuce.
3. Follow root crops with vines or leaf crops.
4. Rotate vegetable plants that have long growing seasons with quick-growing crops.
5. Decide on your vegetable garden rotation when you’re constructing your planting plan. Making these decisions in the middle of the growing season will be more difficult and waste time and money.