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2012 - Spring Issue
Casas Bonitas
Outdoor Living
Article: Jasmine Evaristo
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Amidst a crippled economy, inflating grocery prices and dietary consciousness, a home-grown vegetable garden can help save money, and make high-quality, nutritious produce readily accessible, assuring that you know exactly what you're eating and where it's coming from. Having a thoughtful cognizance to home vegetable gardening will yield a successful harvest of your own.


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The types of vegetables that can cultivate in a home garden in the Southwest are determined by the length of the growing season. In New Mexico, there are three major growing zones based on the average number of frost-free days – north, central and south. Growing periods for gardens vary due to microenvironments – variations in elevation, site exposure, soil type and air drainage. For example, gardens with a southern exposure tend to get warmer sooner in the spring than those with a northern exposure.

A garden's location is essential to reaping a profuse harvest. Most vegetables need six to eight hours of direct sun daily for optimal results. Vegetable gardens should be positioned away from trees that can obstruct the sun, and whose roots may rival for water and nutrients. However, windbreaks – such as trees, fences and walls – at a safe distance southwest of the garden are encouraged to help protect seedlings from prevailing winds in the spring. For best sun exposure, orient the garden so the rows run east to west, with the tallest plants on the north end.

The garden should be accessible to water and tools used to work the soil. The size of the garden will depend on land availability, needs and water requirements. Compose a litany of vegetables you fancy to grow. Consider if your lifestyle allows for garden maintenance, and that you've got adequate space to raise the vegetables. Prior to ordering seed, map out your garden to scale to determine crop placement and crop rotation.

Upon site selection, ensure the soil is deep and well-drained. The ideal soil should be friable, fertile; abundant in organic matter and retain moisture well. Garden soil should be tested for pH. Vegetables thrive in soil with low acid pH levels. Test readings less than 7.0 indicate high-acid, while higher readings mark high alkaline. The dry Southwest is symptomatic of high alkaline soil. A soil acidifier will neutralize alkaline soil, and lime can correct high-acid dirt.

Incorporating organic matter to Southwestern soil will improve its structure. Most soils in New Mexico are low in organic matter. Gardening organically is a good way to grow natural, chemical-free vegetables. Good soil fertility is synonymous with good crop yields. Address the soil's long-term needs by supplying plant nutrients with natural fertilizers and compost.

The easiest method of adding organic matter into garden soil is the addition of composts and manures. Both contain a variety of nutrients; tend to be more stable in the soil and more available for plant uptake. Optimum soil fertility can be achieved by creating equilibrium between organic matter and commercial fertilizers. Most fertilizers contain one or more of the three major plant nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.

As a guideline, a 20- by 20-foot garden provides room to grow an array of crops. A 12- by 16-foot plot is sufficient for a garden sampler. By growing plants in succession and using three-foot-wide beds with 18-inch paths, you should have plenty of luscious vegetables. Once you have an outline of your vegetable garden, prepare to stake. Following your plan, drive a stake in each of the four corners of the garden, turn the garden by hand and remove existing weeds.

Plants can be established in gardens by direct seeding or transplanting. Direct seeding is the most basic, time and cost efficient method of growing your own vegetable garden. Using a shovel and rake to level the top of the bed can form raised beds. A good rule of (green) thumb is to plant seeds at a depth equivalent to four times the diameter of the seed, using twice as many seeds as necessary to ensure a good stand. Cover the seeds with the soil and firm. Keep the seed bed moist until germination. The hill method is another direct seeding technique, supporting vegetables that should be planted deeper in the soil.

Transplants can be purchased from nurseries and garden centers. While more expensive, transplants are also more convenient. Home gardeners have the option of starting their own transplants indoors in flats or other containers; and outdoors in cold frames or hotbeds. Transplants take six to eight weeks before setting them in the garden. Watering plants just before transplanting will help keep roots from drying out and will facilitate easy plant removal. Transplanting during the cooler times of the day gives plants time to acclimate to a new environment before sun exposure. It's imperative that the soil be moist, and to irrigate immediately.

The average frost date in spring is the key date to reference in garden planning. The Southwest's average last frost ranges from April 1-10. Vegetables, namely asparagus, eggplant and artichoke are excellent crops to harvest in the spring after the last frost. In the Southwest's dry climate, gardeners must irrigate their gardens, but avoid overwatering. After planting the garden, irrigate moderately every two to three days until seeds germinate. Furrow irrigation is a technique often used in New Mexico to concentrate salts in the water and soil into the middle of the beds away from the plants. Drip irrigation is the most effective way to water, which allocates the water evenly away from the base of the plants.

For the novice, gardening works like a finely tuned process – once you go through the process a few times, you'll make refinements. Finally, don't neglect the abundance of advice available. For enriching insight into planning your own vegetable garden, contact your local experts, gardening neighbors, nurseries and garden centers. ///
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