According to an old Chinese proverb, life begins the day you start a garden. As we watch the spring unfold with budding trees and emerging perennials signaling the earth’s rebirth, the urge to garden grows strong. And if your garden is one that produces vegetables, you are in for an exciting, maybe even challenging summer. Take a few simple steps at planting time and after, and it will be a rewarding one.

Over the past couple summers as I drove to the grocery or to conduct some errands, my route often took me past a small vegetable garden at the side of a house. It soon became obvious the little garden was struggling. Although it was situated well with good sun exposure and even had been outlined carefully with timbers, it was easy for me to see why the tiny plot was doomed from the start. It was the soil, hard-packed clay. Plants would start out OK, but become spindly and die without producing any crop as the season progressed. Maybe you have experienced something similar.

I cannot tell you how many times I resisted stopping and offering some advice to its caretakers. It is tempting to succumb to seed-packet illustrations and seedling displays that promise robust and productive plants. However, there’s a bit more to a successful garden than just planting seeds and waiting for the crops to roll in. Here are five simple steps that can — with a bit of cooperation from the gods of weather — ensure your garden will be the best it can be through good garden management.

• Location, location, location — Most vegetables are annual plants that grow, produce and then die in one growing season. Most annual plants do best in full sun, that is at least six hours of direct sun. Even better is a location that receives early-morning sun with a bit of afternoon shade. During the nighttime, dew wets the plants’ foliage and foliage that stays wet can be more susceptible to disease. Early sun will dry that foliage which can mean healthier plants. That said, for growing success, locate your garden where it gets the best sun exposure.

• Feed your soil, not your plants — Here’s where many gardeners come up short. They do not consider the growing medium, the soil. Adding fertilizer simply does not make up for soil deficiencies. Indeed if your soil is not doing its job, plants will be unable to utilize nutrients that are added in the growing season. A good soil needs to contain at least five percent compost or well-rotted organic material which supports those microscopic elements — mycorrhizae — which enable the plants’ roots to absorb nutrients from the soil. Organic matter also provides a slow-release or constant supply of nutrients for plants. Besides that, homemade compost is free. Good soil provides drainage as well as moisture-holding capacities.

If your soil is heavy clay (like the soil that was so obvious in that hapless garden) it holds too much water and when dry can actually resist added moisture. Too much sand and although it drains well, it cannot hold enough moisture to successfully grow vegetables. In both those cases the absence of organic matter also ensures plant failure. A soil that is too acid prevents nutrient take up by plants, in which case an addition of lime would be called for. Examine and amend your soil before you plant. Plants will only be as good as the soil in which they are planted, and when you do plant, follow seed packet planting depth and spacing guidelines.

• A little care please — Another old proverb says, the best fertilizer is the gardener’s shadow. Proper location and amended soil are indeed necessary for success, but unless the gardener makes a regular appearance in the garden too many things can, and probably will, go wrong. Daily inspection of plants can detect and ward off insect invasions. A hungry tomato worm can strip a plant in a day. But early detection and hand picking can prevent disaster. If plant disease strikes, early identification and appropriate trimming or removal of infected plants can often save the remaining ones. Frequent monitoring will allow the gardener to water when necessary, or put the brakes on a weed infestation.

• Picky, picky, picky — Because most vegetable plants are annuals that grow, bloom and produce seeds and then die, it is important to prevent those plants from completing their life cycle. By picking regularly, you stall that seed-production process and encourage the plant to produce more beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, etc. On the other hand, crops such as beans, cucumbers, even lettuce, Chinese cabbage and others, can be allowed to go to seed at the end of the season to enable the gardener to harvest seeds for next year’s garden.

• One more thing — We do not want to rush this, but it is important to mention the end of the growing season. Once you’ve experienced the joys and benefits of a bountiful vegetable garden, you will no doubt want to repeat that again the following summer. There are a couple things you can do at the end of the season to help ensure the success of next year’s garden. When your plants have finished their production, remove them from the garden plot. Healthy plants, that is plants that show no signs of disease or insects, can be added to the compost bin. Discard diseased or insect-infested plants. Cultivate the soil to turn up and expose any insect eggs under the surface. Fall is a good time to apply a layer of seaweed or compost. To help prevent winter erosion, plant a cover crop which can be turned under the following spring to add even more organic content to the garden, while also discouraging weeds. The next spring you and your garden will be ready to plant once the soil warms up.

It isn't rocket science and it is something many of us can do with a little time and space. Speaking of space, do not let a lack of garden space deter you from achieving your garden dreams. New smaller vegetable varieties, even berry bushes, can be grown in containers. Vegetables can be integrated into ornamental borders (avoiding the use of toxic garden chemicals) to expand our gardening horizons. And while we cannot control the weather, we can help ensure gardening success and bountiful crops by good garden management. Delicious, nutritious and absolutely gorgeous — your garden harvest can be all that and more. So, what are you waiting for? Looks like it is time to get out and get those hands in the dirt.

Lynette L. Walther is the recipient of the Garden Writers Association’s Silver Award of Achievement, and she gardens in Camden. Got questions, or comments? Visit her blog, and join in the conversation at: or ”friend” her on Facebook to see what’s new in the garden day-by-day.