In my Garden Thyme article last month, I wrote about "money in the bank," i.e. the value of nitrogen fixing plants, and how we can benefit. At that time, we didn't know the seriousness of the looming financial crisis, nor the serious adjustments in standard of living that would come quickly for so many. The first and hardest effected will be the poorest. I am afraid there are stressful times ahead. I am already hearing about folks who are now thinking about what garden produce they might grow to help their financial situation. As Master Gardeners, we can do more vegetable gardening for ourselves and help others.
Many of you say that you do not have a place in the back yard for vegetables. Well, how about the front yard?! Don't count it out. I have plenty of back yard garden space, but this year for demonstration purposes, I planted a cherry tomato in the front yard and surrounded it with marigolds. See recent October photo. I used a heavy wire, 5-foot high, 30-inch diameter cage for good support of the tomato vines. From that single plant, we have picked hundreds of plumb-size tomatoes and as of today, October 15, there are still more than 150 tomatoes on the plant. That one plant is sufficient for all our fresh tomatoes, and more. I will cover that plant for the first light frost or two, so we will likely have fresh tomatoes well into November.
Don't restrict yourself to tomatoes for the front yard. You could do about any vegetable crop. The only troublesome ones might be the vine-type vegetables like cucumbers, melons, or pumpkins that are hard to contain.
Here are the questions to ask as you decide where you place your garden. (1) Do I have enough direct sun? Ideally, go for full sun, but six hours of direct sun will do for some crops. (2) Where is my best soil? If you have choice, probably more important than anything else, select the soil that is the deepest. Get out the shovel and dig some holes. Soils low in organic matter and nutrients can be fixed. (3) Are there nearby troubling tree roots? My recommendation is that you stay 30 feet or more from any tree crown drip line. Once tree roots get into your garden space, you will have trouble. They will quickly proliferate, and rob the site of minerals and water. Keeping the tree roots cut off will be a challenge. Some people will cut down a tree in favor of the vegetable garden. I know, I have done it.
Besides selecting the garden site, I encourage you to plan your garden in considerable detail. Draw a map of the garden and decide what crop is going where. Get your seed early, and share seed with others. Last spring, seed companies experienced record sales, and ran out of seed. Next year promises to be an even bigger year for seed sales. I will be ordering some seeds in bulk, including some heirloom varieties, growing some plants, and having some available for my organic gardening class students and for Master Gardeners. If interested talk to me early about this.
By all means, get a soil test in January. The nutrient content cannot be determined by just looking at the soil. Whether it is a first-time vegetable garden or not, I recommend you get the organic matter content tested. It costs a few dollars, but is well worth it, especially if you are coming to me to get advice on an organic fertilization program. I am willing to help on organic gardening problems, but much like a human medical situation, better advice is assured with more information. I generally want a history of the site (fertilizers, pesticides, mulches, cover crops, composts, etc), soil test results, and problems during the last season. Together that gives me clues about what you might need to do to grow nutrient-dense produce.
I have looked at hundreds of Arkansas soil test reports, and the results from gardens are extremely variable. For different gardens, for any given nutrient, the pounds per acre from the lowest to highest can be 20 fold or more. Without a soil test report, any fertilization recommendations given will be little more than a wild guess. I prefer to leave the gambling to those going to Las Vegas.