Learn how to plant your own garden to improve your health

Find out where plant, how to plant, and how to manage your garden to grow fresh, nutritious and delicious food all season long.

Tomatos on the vine.
Tomatos on the vine.

Improve your local food system and personal health by starting a well-planned garden that will provide you with exercise, fresh produce, excellent nutrition and enjoyment all season long. Nothing is fresher, more nutritious or more delicious than produce picked straight out of your home garden. If you don’t have an established garden, there are a few standard conditions needed for all vegetable garden locations in Michigan.

First and foremost, your site must receive at least 6-8 hours of full sun per day. Full sun means no shade. This is especially important for “fruiting crops,” the mature ovary of a plant with seeds, like tomatoes, peppers, squash and cucumbers. Root crops, such as beets and leafy crops like lettuce, can grow well in light shade.

Second, your site must have access to an adequate amount of clean, potable water. Vegetable gardens will typically need at least one inch of water per week. Rainfall can be measured with a rain gauge or an empty tuna can with marked measurements. Your best practice is to have an established system for measuring the rainfall – record in your garden journal the amount of water in the gauge at the end of the week and empty the gauge – and remember to do it every week on the same day. If your garden received less than one inch of water that week, you will need to provide supplemental watering. The Michigan State University Enviroweather website is a great resource for checking rainfall, as well as lots of other helpful information for gardeners.

Third, the site must have well-draining soil. Few vegetables or fruit – with the exception of blueberries and cranberries – will produce well if their roots are consistently wet, or have what gardeners call “wet feet.” Standing water or mushy soil are clues for poorly draining soil. You may want to do a percolation test to make sure your soil has adequate drainage. The MSU Extension news article, "Look before you plant landscape trees," has a good explanation of a percolation test. If your soil drains less than 1 inch per hour, you should look for another location to grow your vegetables or consider building raised beds.

Garden soil should also be tested for nutrient levels and pH. Soil testing is easy when you order a MSU Soil Test Kit Self Mailer. Testing your soil is the only way to know how much, if any, fertilizer you should use.

Vegetable garden soil must be clean and free of contamination. It is recommended that you test your soil for lead and any other suspected contaminants before planting. You can request a supplemental soil test for lead by contacting the MSU Soil & Plant Nutrient Lab at 517-355-0218. There is an additional charge for this supplemental test. Raised beds filled with tested soil are also a good strategy to avoid contaminated or unsuitable areas.

Garden sites also require good air circulation. Therefore, avoid low spots or sites at the bottom of a hill. Cold air tends to hang around these areas and take longer to warm up.  Crops in these locations have a higher likelihood of damage due to late or early frosts. Other things to avoid are slopes and black walnut trees.

A couple of other considerations are to start small and locate your garden close to your house, making monitoring and maintenance tasks easier. It is easier to maintain a smaller space, and you will probably be surprised at how much produce you can get out of a small garden. You can always expand the following year.

Once you have decided on a location that has all the above necessary characteristics, you will need to prepare the soil. It is crucial to wait until the soil is sufficiently dry before working in it. Soils can be easily compacted or damaged if you work in them when wet.  Compaction is very difficult to alleviate, so patience is a virtue when preparing soils in the spring. Garden soil should have the consistency of a wrung-out sponge, moist but not wet. When you make a fist around a handful of garden soil, there should not be any dripping water. When you release your fingers, the soil should remain in a ball with some slight crumbling on the outside edges of the ball.

You can outline the boundary of your garden with a hose or marking spray paint, and then remove all the existing vegetation and/or trash within the perimeter. Last but not least, you want to till in a 1 to 3-inch layer of compost and any additional amendments or fertilizers recommended by your soil test. 

Adding compost or decomposed organic matter will maintain the fertility of your garden soil. Your crops will deplete or use up the compost during the growing season. Therefore, you must incorporate compost to your garden soil every year. It is very important to make building your soil a pre-requisite to planting every spring if you want to maintain fertility and have a bountiful and tasty harvest.

In the article, "Choosing the right crops for your garden," we’ll discuss choosing which crops to grow and proper spacing.

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