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Are you ready to really go local? As we become increasingly aware of our collective carbon footprints and its environmental impact, it makes more sense than ever to consider growing some of our own vegetables. In addition to show-stopping quality and flavor, gardeners have the opportunity to grow 100 percent organic produce, as well as unique or heirloom varieties—without having to pay more for specialty produce at the market. And really, whether you have an acre in the country or a patio in the city, there’s nothing better than enjoying the fruits (or veggies) of your labor!

1. Choose a Site

While it’s always tempting to start off big if you have the space, edible gardens take a good deal of attention, so it’s smart to start small and expand slowly. Prioritize what you grow, and plant the crops you like best—think quality, not quantity. Keep in mind some crops, such as corn, melons or pumpkins, require a lot of space to spread out, so be aware of the amount of room you have and look for spacing information on seed packets or plant cards.

2. Exposure

For the best crops, most edibles, with few exceptions, require at least six to eight hours of direct sunlight daily. Ensure your garden’s sunlight isn’t blocked by mature trees or structures, such as your home or a shed, that will cast shade on your plot.

3. Healthy Soil

The best soils, known as loams, contain some sand, some silt and a little clay. Loams better hold nutrients, provide adequate drainage, and are workable, easily letting roots penetrate. Adding organic matter, such as compost, is the easiest way to improve your soil. When preparing your garden beds, use it as a soil amendment or as a top-dressing layer, working it in around the plants.

For containers: The best potting mixes contain organic matter such as compost, rice hulls and/or wood chips to provide nutrients, as well as perlite, vermiculite, and/or sand to prevent compaction and increase drainage, and coir or peat to absorb water. Make sure your container has drainage holes in the bottom. If it doesn’t, place a layer of stones or crumpled newspaper at the bottom of your pot.

For garden beds: Aerate and amend the soil with plenty of organic matter to a depth of 12 inches. This can be done manually with a spade or a fork to turn over the existing soil, break up clumps and add organic matter.

Make your own compost: In your compost bin, layer wet and dry ingredients, taking care to never leave wet materials exposed. Ensure your compost contains a balance of carbon-rich brown material, such as dead leaves, and nitrogen-heavy food scraps and grass clippings. Always keep a bag of dried leaves near your compost bin—that way you have a ready source of dry material to blanket your organic waste!

4. Care for Your Crops

Fertilize: While adding organic matter to your soil provides nutrients, you can also purchase organic fertilizers, which are easy to apply. Individual crops sometime require special formulas of fertilizer. Look on the package for N-P-K (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) ratio.

Water: How often you water really depends on the plants, location (sun or shade; windy or enclosed) and the soil. Water early in the morning, so the leaves dry in the warmth of the sun. Watering later in the day, when leaves might remain wet, promotes disease and fungus. Soak the soil—sprinklers lose too much water in evaporation and often the water won’t make its way deep into the soil. The best option for veggie gardens is a drip irrigation system (also known as trickle irrigation or micro irrigation), which allows water to soak in slowly.

Mulch: Mulch prevents weeds from growing, maintains consistent soil temperatures, helps retain moisture and can add beneficial nutrients to the soil. Effective mulches include shredded bark, wood chips, crushed shells, cocoa bean hulls (not good if you have dogs) and straw.

5. Have You Considered a Community Garden?

Community gardens have surged in popularity over the last decade, with friends and neighbors sharing knowledge, experience, common areas, tools, labor and produce. Don’t let your produce go to waste either! Share with family, friends and co-workers. Or, throw a produce exchange with fellow gardeners.

Image Source: elizaIO/Flickr

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