University of Illinois Extension

Planning Your Vegetable Garden Around Your Family

A well-planned vegetable garden is easy to care for and harvest, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture specialist.

"Planned gardens are also more productive and, in the long run, less expensive than the unplanned attempts at food growing, especially for the first-time gardeners," said Richard Hentschel. "To be successful, only plan on what vegetables your family is willing to eat. That is not to say you should not try something different each year, just be sure you plant enough of what they will eat."

Once you have that list in mind, locate the sunny spot in your yard. That could be on the side of your home or even a couple spots catching morning or afternoon sun. A full day's worth of light is best, eight or more hours a day, yet leafy vegetables can grow just fine with a partial day's sun since you will be eating the leaves.

"Soil drainage is really critical for good vegetable plant production," he said. "Hopefully the sunny spot also drains well after a rain event. Gardeners can raise the bed by adding soil, organic matter and working that into the soil profile before you plant to increase water drainage."

Using the list of what the family will eat gives us a good idea of how big the garden needs to be. This, along with the time you and your family are willing to spend in the vegetable garden, should be taken into account.

"Make your garden big enough to provide the vegetables you need for fresh daily table use, but not so big that it becomes a burden on you and the family" Hentschel cautioned. "If one goal is to can or freeze vegetables, consider buying those vegetables at the farmers market and focus your garden on other vegetables. For example just two tomato plants will supply you with fresh tomatoes all summer, especially if one of those is a cherry tomato."

Even a small area can produce a spring, summer and fall garden full of vegetables if some basic planning is done ahead. Where the early spring lettuce was, you can have room for snap beans.

"If you sow the row with radish and carrots, an early-season crop and long-season crop you get two crops in the same space," he said. "Harvest the radishes when ready and let the carrots continue to grow."

You can also use the space between rows of long-season crops before they fill in. Examples of between the row crops include snap beans, radishes, green onions, and spinach. Every one of these will have produced well before the longer season crops of tomatoes or peppers or cabbage are developing and fill in the space between the rows.

"Another trick to having a continuous supply of the family favorites is to plant small short rows every seven to 10 days, ensuring you have lots of their favorites over a several-week period," he said. "This works well with leaf lettuce and radishes at seven days apart and 10 days apart for snap beans. This gives a good amount of fresh vegetables on a regular basis and lessens the worry about what to do with all the extra vegetables."

Consider using the Farmers Market as a source for those vegetables that are long-season or take up a lot of your limited space.

"Sweet corn is great, yet you only get one ear per plant after growing it for several weeks," Hentschel said. "Squash plants that vine out can take over part of the lawn. If you grow squash, consider the bush types or grow them in a separate garden area of their own. Thinking about cucumbers, then consider a trellis and grow them up not out.

"In the end, the vegetable garden should be a positive experience for everyone, and never a burden."