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bucket of vegetables

A bountiful harvest is the dream of every vegetable gardener. And it all starts now.

Are you starting a vegetable garden for the first time?

Here are nine steps to success gleaned from the Iowa State University Extension and interviews with Quad-City area garden center employees.

1. Start small.

If you're successful and you like it, you can expand next year. You don't want to become overwhelmed and discouraged.

2. Find a sunny spot.

Your location should receive full sun (six hours or more a day for most vegetables), have well-drained soil (otherwise the roots will suffocate) and be fairly level to avoid erosion.

The size depends upon the kind and amount of vegetables you want. A manageable size is 100 square feet, or 10 by 10 feet.

At some point, you'll probably need to water your garden, so the closer to a water source the better.

3. Call ahead to check for buried utilities.

You don't want to roto-till into your gas line and furthermore, calling before digging is the law. The number is 811, whether you live in Iowa or Illinois.

4. Gather tools.

A spade and/or a garden fork, a garden rake (with rigid tines, not a flexible leaf rake), a hoe, a hand trowel and a sprinkling can are five good to-haves.

5. Prepare the bed.

If you are cutting into a lawn, you can turn over the sod or remove it entirely, stripping it away with a spade or a sod cutter, which can be rented.

Before stripping the sod, you may want to kill the grass first, either by spraying the area with Roundup, a contact herbicide that kills grass and other plants and then breaks down, or, if you have time to wait, by covering the ground with about a half-dozen layers of newspaper that eventually will kill the grass.

The horticulturists we talked to recommended removing the sod entirely.

Once the grass is removed or turned over, work the ground to loosen it up. This can be done by hand with a spade, but it is back-breaking work.

The first year, you might want to rent (or buy or borrow) a tiller or hire someone to till it for you.

Another option is to build what's called a raised bed.

6. Consider the timing.

But wait! Do not spade, dig or otherwise work your soil when it is too wet. If you do, the soil will become hard and form clods that you will not be able to handle well for the entire season.

To test for moisture, take a handful of soil, press it into a ball and drop it. If the soil breaks apart, it is ready to work. If it stays clumped, wait until it gets drier.

7. Buy seeds or transplants.

If this is your first year, select easy-to-grow vegetables such as lettuce, onions, peas, spinach, carrots, snap beans, beets and summer squash. Or you may want to focus on the big three: tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers.

8. Plant.

Depending upon what you're growing, a vegetable garden cannot, alas, be planted in one day.

Some vegetables are early-season, cool-weather crops that need to be planted “as soon as the ground can be worked” in the spring while others should not be planted until all danger of frost is past, usually mid-May in the Quad-City region.

The early-season vegetables include radishes, lettuce, onions and peas.

The warm-weather vegetables include tomatoes and peppers.

Seed packets and the plastic packs that hold bedding plants contain information on when and how to plant.

Avoid root disturbance as much as possible when transplanting. Try to transplant late in the afternoon or during a cloudy day. For best growth, give each plant one or two cups of liquid starter fertilizer immediately after setting it in the ground. Prepare a liquid starter fertilizer by adding two tablespoons of a complete fertilizer (such as 5-10-5 or 6-10-4) to each gallon of water.

9. Consider installing a fence.

Rabbits can nip your plants to the nub if you don't surround them first with a fence. Fencing can be purchased at hardware stores and at home and garden centers.

The fence should be at least 2 feet high, but 3 feet would be better, and it should be buried at least 2 inches into the ground.

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