Choose between seeds and bedding plants. The far simpler option is bedding plants purchased from a local nursery or garden center. "There's no calendar counting, no figuring out last frosts," says Michael. Bedding plants also are far more forgiving of soil that hasn't been finely cultivated. If you're using containers or are otherwise tight on space, look for bush or compact varieties.
"Nurseries are perfectly fine, too, for buying seeds," he notes. "If you're buying an F1 hybrid and all the companies are selling it, it's exactly the same plant. If it's an open pollinated or heirloom plant, the seed quality could be variable so you want to buy from a reputable source. Then check to see that the packet provides essential information, that the seeds are disease resistant and that the package is easy to reseal if you don't use all the seeds."Make sure your climate and length of growing season will support the crops you choose. If your season is only two months long, it's pretty hard to grow a melon. If you live in the Southwest, you probably won't have good luck growing the same variety of tomato that people in the Northeast do. Ask your extension agent or an experienced gardener which varieties do best in your area.Prepare the soil. "If you don't take time to amend the soil, then you can't expect your garden to produce well or to look like the pretty picture you see in books and magazines," says Paul. "I encourage people to add as much organic matter as possible. It's next to impossible to get too much of it. And you do it only once per season." He suggests working leaves, plant waste or other coarse material into the soil in the fall to allow enough time for decomposition.
Depending on where you live, you may need to adjust the amount of pH to get it just right for your crops. Most vegetables require a pH of between 6.0 and 6.8. Your local extension office can help you with advice on testing and improving your soil.Try raised beds. "For a lot of the country, raised beds give you a two-week head start in spring," Paul says. "The soil warms up faster and stays warmer longer so you can extend your growing season another two weeks in the fall." Raised beds also improve drainage and virtually eliminate the soil compaction created by foot traffic: plant roots love fluffy, loose soil. A bed height of eight to 12 inches supported by landscape timbers is ideal.Schedule your plantings according to heat or chill requirements and days to maturity of each crop. What's frost tolerant? What requires intense heat? For best results, you'll need to know.
Some crops do fine in early spring before the last frost. These hardy veggies include beets, carrots, parsnips, peas, radishes and Swiss chard, as well as many salad greens. After the last frost, beans, corn, squash and many herbs can be planted by seed. The most tender of plants — cantaloupe, okra, lima beans, peppers, eggplant and tomatoes — prefer the warmest, sunniest and driest spot in the garden, and should be planted when soil has warmed to at least 60 degrees. Your fall garden can yield broccoli, kale, spinach and turnips well past frost.
Paul suggests staggering planting to make your harvest longer. He uses lettuce as an example. "Plant one row of lettuce, then another one the next week," he explains. "Keep going as long as your season allows so that you're not inundated with, say, four rows of lettuce ripening all at once. That works well with carrots and beans too." After an early crop is harvested, plant a summer one in its place.Lend a little elbow grease to your garden at least every few days. "A vegetable plant should never falter in its growth," says Michael. "A tree or shrub can go through drought or wintertime; it can experience natural dormancy or natural slow growth. But you never want a vegetable to stop growing. So provide the conditions for optimum growth all the time." That means feeding the plants at appropriate stages of growth, thoroughly watering the soil, weeding, and keeping on top of pests and disease. And, the best of all: picking the bounty when it's ready.