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Sustainable Vegetable Gardening

Summer brings with it ripe red, juicy tomatoes, crispy bell peppers and bright yellow squash - just to name a few of the many fresh fruits and veggies on display at Saturday-morning farmer’s markets. But if you're a sun (or dirt) lover with a green thumb, all these vegetables can just as easily be had by walking into your own back yard.

A woman makes compost in her sustainable vegetable gardenFor organic-minded growers, there are only a few considerations when planting a sustainable vegetable garden. Where are you going to plant it, how are you going to keep it fertilized and watered and how will you keep your plants pest-free? If you take a moment in the spring to plan your garden and to answer a few questions about how you want to use it, you'll reap plentiful benefits later in the summer.

Garden Site Selection

Start with picking the perfect spot for your garden and planning the ideal shape. The typical vegetable garden that comes to mind has evenly tilled, perfectly straight rows. But yours can take on a shape and personality of its own. Walk out to your yard, and look for a flat, sunny area with good drainage. Try establishing the shape by laying out a hose before you start to dig. Remember that your vegetables will want sun and water, so you're looking for a spot where rain water will have time to seep in, rather than running off and stripping the soil of its nutrients.

Once you find your perfect spot for your vegetable garden, it's time to check your local laws and ordinances. In most areas, it's the law to have all utility lines for natural gas, water mains and buried electrical cables in the area marked by the utility companies before you dig. Doing so could possibly save your life, and at the least, will help you avoid expensive repairs and fines.

Organic Garden Composting

Before you till your garden, remove all the grass and weeds, and fill the ground with compost-rich dirt. This is important for sustainable gardening. If you don't have a compost pile now, go ahead and start one - maybe in the back corner of your yard. Start saving kitchen scraps like coffee grounds, fruit and vegetable peels, table scraps like leftover pasta or uneaten bread, grass clippings and raked leaves. You'll be pleasantly surprised by the reduction in your garbage, and by next year, you'll have rich, black compost to till into your garden.

Companion Planting With Garden Flowers

When you're ready to plant your vegetable seed, consider companion planting, a concept that involves placing beneficial plants (the kind that attract helpful insects) in close proximity to your vegetables. Not only will you add color and fragrance to your garden, you'll help control pesky insects without using chemical pesticides.

One of the most common companion pairs is marigolds with tomatoes, but recent studies at NC State University have discovered there are even more effective pairings. For example, tansy, a vigorous spreading perennial, provides homes for the largest variety of insects. Yarrow is another beneficial that attracts lady beetles, parasitic wasps and bees.

Beating Garden Weeds

Now that your vegetable seeds or transplants are in the ground, it's time for a thin layer of finely chopped mulch. Mulch is inexpensive (found at almost all local garden shops) and goes a long way in saving water later in the summer. Rain water soaks gently into the mulch and is slowly distributed, keeping plants from quickly drying out on hot summer days. It also gives your plants a head start against weeds in your garden.

There are other sustainable strategies for keeping your garden weed-free. The first, perhaps geared more toward tidy Type-A gardeners, is to weed to your heart's content. The second strategy is even easier: For the first few weeks, keep the weeds at bay, giving little seedlings time to pop up and gain some ground. Once your little tomato and bean plants have established themselves as healthy growers, regular weeding isn't as important.

Your lawn mower can also help; before you plant your garden, be sure to mow around it and keep mowing regularly to prevent nearby weeds from spreading. Remember: According to specialists at NC State, mowing weedy areas for the first time after the crop emerges may encourage pest migration onto your vegetable plants. So if you've let the nearby grass get a little too high, it may be better to just let it grow freely until autumn when you've had your fill of garden veggies.

Efficient Garden Watering

Water is a primary issue for sustainable gardeners - one reason why mulching is so important. There are lots of other ways to conserve water in the summer. One is to collect rain water off your rooftop in rain barrels and use it to water your garden. Another source may be gathering water from your dehumidifiers, or even collecting shower water while you're waiting for the water to heat.

It's best to water your garden in the morning instead of the heat of the day. And water with the most direct method possible - using a drip hose or by hand. Sprinklers aren't as effective, as a significant percentage of the water evaporates before it ever makes it to your plants.

Sustainable Gardening: Season After Season

After you've harvested all your vegetables, it's an ideal time to prepare your bed for next summer's crop. Many successful sustainable gardeners grow cover crops over the fall and winter to protect and improve the soil. Cover crops control erosion and weeds, and their roots massage the earth, reducing compaction and increasing water filtration.

Gardeners have plenty of seeds from which to choose. Some of the more popular varieties are rye grain, crimson clover, alfalfa and oats. You can plant them individually or as a blend.

Do you have a sustainable vegetable garden? What sorts of vegetables have you planted? Share garden watering tips, composting, garden weeds advice in the our comments section below. And if you have questions, feel free to ask! Our garden experts or perhaps a fellow gardener may just have the answer!

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