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A vegetable garden takes a good foundation, some sunshine and a little TLC
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Tomato plants grow best from transplants rather than seeds. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

A summer planting guide

Based on advice from Stephanie Van Parys, executive director of the Oakhurst Community Garden Project in Decatur.

Tomatoes
When to plant it: April 15-June 1
How to plant it: Dig about an 8-inch hole, throw some compost in and secure your plant with a mixture of compost and soil. Plant each tomato about 15 to 18 inches apart. Stake or cage the plants so that the vines do not grow across the ground, inviting disease.
How to maintain it: Water regularly.

Basil, Peppers and Eggplant
When to plant it:
April 15-June 15
How to plant it: Dig a hole twice as wide but just as deep as the root ball. Throw in a cup of compost, place your plant inside and secure it with soil. Space plants 18 inches apart.
How to maintain it: Water weekly

Black-eyed peas
When to plant it:
May 1-July 1
How to plant it: Place the seed in about a half-inch hole, cover and water. Spread seeds four to six inches apart. Peas grow well on a pole or trellis. The pole also makes it easier to harvest the peas.
How to maintain it: When planting from seed, water daily until a sprout appears. After that water occasionally, but not often. Wet soil encourages mold growth, which is bad for black-eyed peas. Once they flower, harvest peas weekly.

Soybeans
When to plant it: May 1-July 1
How to plant it: Place the seed in about a half-inch hole, cover and water. Spread seeds four to six inches apart. 
How to maintain it: Water daily until a sprout appears. Water weekly. All beans on the plant will be ready to harvest at once.

What you can plant today

  • Sugar snap peas
  • Snow peas
  • English peas
  • Carrots
  • Lettuce
  • Swiss chard
  • Greens like kale, chard and collards
  • Spring onions

Basic vegetable garden requirements

Full sun for at least six hours: Adequate sunlight enhances vegetable production and lowers the chance of your plant becoming diseased
Well-drained soil: Standing water is a sign that the soil is not draining properly
Neutral soil pH: If you're unsure, have your soil tested; the Hall County Extension Office tests soil for $8 a
sample
Compost: Plants need nutrition, too, and Georgians should add compost to their gardens at least twice a year
Water: For stronger root systems, limit watering to once a week

ATLANTA - So you want to grow your own food.

Sure, backyard vegetable gardening seems easy enough during a stroll through your local garden supply or home improvement store, but what do you do when you bring your plants home?

Stephanie Van Parys, executive director of Decatur's Oakhurst Community Garden Project, recently shared tips on getting started in the garden at the Georgia Organics conference, held last weekend in Atlanta.

The garden, according to Van Parys, starts before the plants; the first step to homegrown goodies is to size up your planting area.

Find a spot that gets plenty of sun - at least six hours - and drains water well. If yesterday's rain still sits in a puddle on top of the garden spot today, then it may be best to consider another one or to create a drainage system, Van Parys said.

"You don't want to put your plants in a bog," she said.

Once you've found a home for your vegetables, it's time for the tough stuff - soil preparation.

Icing on the cake

Clear out the grass and weeds from the chosen gardening spot using a tiller, a hoe or just the two good hands God gave you. Even if you only plan to plant two tomato bushes, Van Parys advised clearing out all the surrounding area.

Keeping the weeds and grass out may require repeated maintenance in the first season, especially if stubborn vegetation like crab grass preceded your vegetables.

"You want to get all the weeds, all the competition, out of the way," Van Parys said.

When Van Parys started her first garden, she hand-pulled the grass and tilled the soil about 4 to 6 inches deep before covering it with a 1/2-inch-thick mixture of top soil and compost, she said.

"You just have to put it (the compost) on the top; it's like icing on the cake," Van Parys said.

Van Parys suggested creating raised beds for vegetables by either molding soil into a mound or building four walls and filling the box with soil.

The Oakhurst Community Garden features boarded raised beds, but an easier, less-expensive alternative is to shape the rows into mounds, leaving 18-inch pathways between each planting row.

The sloped beds in Van Parys' garden are about 36 inches tall, but you don't have to start with mounds that high, she said.

"The more soil you add over the years, the more you work them, the higher your soil will actually be," Van Parys said.

Remember to mulch

If compost is the icing on the cake, then mulch is certainly the sprinkles. Covering your bed with mulch not only makes it look good, but it protects the soil, keeps the roots of your plants cool and helps conserve water. Van Parys mulches with chipped leaves and straw.

"I like that it's local and I like that I didn't have to pay for it," Van Parys said.

Before mulching, Van Parys puts down newspaper in her garden about 12 pages thick to keep weeds away from her tomato and bean plants - except when she's planting from seed.

And now for the plants

Once your soil is prepared and mulched, it's finally time to decide what to grow and how you want to grow it.

Most summer vegetables grow best from seed. Corn, squash, beans, peas, okra, melons and cucumbers all do well straight from the seed, Van Parys said.

On the other hand, basil, tomatoes, peppers and eggplants do better when grown from transplants.

When deciding what to grow, consider your time restrictions. While some vegetables like tomatoes take lots of attention and water, other plants like squash, basil, peppers and eggplant are tougher and require less care.

"Sweet potatoes thrive on neglect," Van Parys said.

Ultimately, though, deciding which vegetables to plant depends on your personal taste.

"You have to like what you're growing," Van Parys said. "If you don't like it, you're probably not going to harvest it."

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