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Expert tips for starting your own vegetable garden

Starting an vegetable garden can be a simple and easy way to save money, get outside and connect with nature. But where do you begin?

For those that have never planted and cultivated a veggie garden, the thought of starting one may seem daunting. That’s why Riverhead LOCAL sat down with Robin Simmen, a community horticulture specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension, who provided some simple tips for starting a veggie garden.

What to grow?

The best place to start, Simmen said, is to decide what you’d like to plant in your veggie garden.

“You have to ask yourself – what is the purpose to your garden?” said Simmen. “Is it for fun or are you are doing it to save some money?”

If you are looking to save money, Simmen recommends using your garden spaces to plant herbs, which are typically expensive in the supermarket. Great herbs to plant, she said, include basil, mint, cilantro, thyme and sage — all of which can be hung to dry out for use in winter, when it’s too cold to grow.

To save even more money, Simmen said you may also want to think about planting things that come back year after year, including asparagus, rhubarb and oregano, all of which, Simmen said are fun and easy to grow.

If you’re looking to plant a garden for fun with your children, Simmen highly recommends planting beans — and any kind of beans.

“Beans are something that kids can grow themselves. They can plant a seed and watch what happens. A child can see a whole life-cycle of a plant in just one season,” said Simmen.

“Beans are also very easy to grow,” she said, adding that beans are especially special since they start out so small and then grow into something amazing, just like a child.

Other veggies that are easy to grow include tomatoes, lettuce, spinach, peppers, cucumbers, carrots, pumpkins and even watermelon — just remember that watermelon requires rich soil.

There is one item that Simmen recommends to not plant — corn.

While this crop might be a fun thing to tackle when you’ve got some experience under your belt, it’s not ideal for newbies. According to Simmen, corn is a difficult veggie to grow mainly because to get it to fruit, it requires cross-pollination, which means you would need to plant a lot of it to reap the fruits of your labor.

“Corn would not be on the top of my list to plant,” said Simmen, adding, “plus we have plenty of it to buy at our local farm stands.”

Preparing the Bed

Once you decided the purpose of your garden and made a list of veggies that you plan to plant, Simmen said to think about size and mark out a spot for your garden. If you don’t have a lot of space, she suggested considering building raised garden beds.

“Raised garden beds are wonderful. They make access to the garden really clear and easy for kids, as well as for those that have accessibility issues,” she said. Raised garden beds also help keep your garden soil at a high quality.

Simmen also recommended mixing your garden up by adding trellises to grow some of your vegetables vertically.

With your garden mapped out, Simmen said to next prepare your soil and then begin planting either seeds or pre-started veggies plants that are available at many area nurseries.

Nurturing your garden

The most important part of caring for your vegetable garden is watering it, said Simmen.

To ensure that your garden is watered properly, she recommended installing a drip system. If that is not feasible, Simmen said to either hand-water with a watering can or a hose.

“You don’t want to use a sprinkler system,” said Simmen. “Sprinkler systems tend to drench.” It’s important to remember that it is very possible to over-water your plants; make sure you research what the right amount of water is for your particular patch of vegetables.

Time is also important when watering.

Simmen said it is best to water your veggies between midnight and before noon, but the optimal time is 5:30 a.m.

“You want to encourage growth and not bacteria and fungus, which can build up if water sits on your plants too long,” said Simmen.

Protecting your Veggies

Everyone knows that Riverhead and the North Fork are highly populated by deer, which will help themselves to backyard vegetable gardens. While there are many deterrents on the market, Simmen said the best thing to do is erect a fence, and a high one at that. She recommends your fence be at least 8-feet high to prevent hungry deer from wandering into your yard.

“You can try other methods, but it will break your heart in the end. A fence is the best way to go,” she said.

Check back next week to read tips on patio gardening.

Courtney Blasl
Courtney is a freelance photographer, videographer, web designer and writer. She is a lifelong Riverhead resident.