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27 tips, tricks and hacks for creating your very first vegetable garden

27 tips, tricks and hacks for creating your very first vegetable garden
Cilantro grows in a raised flower bed in Mar Vista. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Oh, vegetable planting time! Tomatoes, cucumbers, pumpkin, basil and other delicious summer edibles can all be planted now.

If you are building your first vegetable garden, here are some tips for success:

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1. Put the garden near your kitchen door. That might not be the most attractive spot for it, but the easier it is to get to, the more attention you will give it.

2. Build raised beds. Our soils here in Southern California are not naturally fertile enough for vegetables so rather than struggle to add amendments to the soil, build a big "container" and fill it with the best soil possible. That's a raised bed.

3. You need a water source in the garden and an automatic irrigation system. Hand watering is nice, but it gets old fast, and few people have the patience to stand and water for as long as it takes to thoroughly wet the soil.

4. In-line drip irrigation is the best kind of irrigation to use, especially with vegetables. The goal is to wet the soil, not the leaves, and to wet all the soil evenly. That's what in-line drip does.

5. Want to build your own raised beds? Here are two videos to watch: tinyurl.com/buildraisedbeds and tinyurl.com/plantraisedbeds.

6. Key things to consider when building raised beds: 1) Your water source. Think through your irrigation system before getting started. 2) Line the bottom of the beds with hardware cloth (not chicken wire) to keep gophers out. Push the hardware cloth into each bed from the top so the edges curve up the sides. 3) Fill the beds with a mixture of 60% "dirt" and 40% compost or other organic matter. 3) Use on-surface, in-line drip to irrigate the beds.

7. If possible, build two raised beds. Grow tomatoes and their allies (peppers, eggplants, potatoes, tomatillos) in one this year, then switch to the other next year and continue to alternate from year to year. That's the best way to avoid a buildup of the soil pathogens that attack the plants and shorten their lives.

8. Most people plant seedlings they purchase in the nursery, which is fine. To extend your harvest, though, plant seeds now too. They'll start producing later and continue into early fall or even winter.

9. Before you plant, amend the soil with compost, worm castings and organic vegetable fertilizer.

10. Keep water off the leaves of your vegetables and ornamental plants too. Wet leaves are susceptible to mold and mildew.

11. Are small squash and tomatoes developing brown spots at the tips? That's blossom end rot and it happens when watering is uneven. Keep planting soil damp (not wet) at all times. And wet all the soil evenly, which is easiest to do using in-line drip irrigation.

12. If growing tomatoes, cucumbers and melons, set up a strong trellis or other support structures before you put those plants in the ground.

13. My favorite vegetable support system starts with a sheet of concrete-reinforcing mesh (approximately 4 by 7 feet). Pull the short ends together to form a cylinder, then secure the ends together with a zip tie at the top, middle and bottom. The cylinder is the perfect dimension to support two tomatoes, four cucumbers or eight bean plants. It's strong and it's freestanding.

14. Since pumpkins and watermelon vines can grow 20 feet long or longer, plant them where there's plenty of space to spread and grow. And they need plenty of water too.

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15. Grow marigolds, calendula, zinnias, sunflowers and other summer annuals in the vegetable garden so they get plenty of water while the rest of your garden stays on the dry side.

16. Water and fertilize plums, apples and other deciduous fruit trees whose fruits are developing now.

17. Set out traps for rats and other critters that eat fruit and vegetables as they ripen. Pick up fallen fruits to avoid the green metallic fig beetles and other fruit-loving pests.

18. Pull weeds before they go to seed.

19. If you don't have room for a big vegetable garden, grow edibles in pots. A half whiskey barrel can support two tomato plants, four eggplants, four peppers or four cucumbers. A 20-inch pot will support half that much.

20. Plant a pollinator garden of plants including catmint, butterfly bush, tall verbena, sages and other flowering perennials.

21. Prepare your irrigation system for summer. Turn on each zone and check for leaks, breaks, etc. This past winter was so dry that many plants that typically survive summer with little irrigation might need it this year.

22. When you water, water deeply, before 6 a.m. to avoid peak weekday water demands. Make sure leaves are dry before nightfall. In the cool hours, wet leaves are susceptible to molds and mildew.

23. Inland, stop planting drought-tolerant shrubs and trees. Wait until the cool of fall. Right along the coast, continue planting for another month or two.

24. Prepare for the warmer summer months by adding a 3-inch-thick layer of mulch to the entire garden. Wood-based mulch or rock are fine for ornamentals. Use straw (not hay) for the vegetable garden.

25. Deadhead (i.e., cut off) spent flowers on roses and spring perennials to squeeze another round or two of blooms from them before summer's heat arrives. Always cut at a branching point, even if that means shortening a branch. Never, ever leave a stub when you prune.

26. Don't give up on water conservation practices. Water agencies stopped talking about drought because there's enough water stored to last the year. But rain gauges across the county show less than half the rainfall of normal this year, and that raises concerns for next year. Use that bucket in your shower to collect water as it heats up, then use the water in the garden. Install a gray water system, use drip irrigation, and look for other ways to limit your outdoor water use.

27. Enjoy the beautiful orchid cactuses (Epiphyllum) in bloom now. If you see one you like, get a cutting or ask for the name and shop for it in the nursery.

The author is the water-wise garden designer and writer behind plantsoup.com.

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