With our deep soils, warm summers and mild winters,the San Joaquin Valley is the ideal location for vegetable gardens. And just about any vegetable can grow here: summer favorites like tomatoes, sweet corn, melons, squash, eggplants and okra, as well as cool season vegetables like leafy greens, carrots, broccoli, spinach and others.

Besides adding inexpensive food and new colors and flavors to your plate, vegetable gardening has many other benefits. Most varieties of vegetables at your local supermarket are limited to what grows well in mass production and ships and stores well. But with a backyard vegetable garden, a whole new world of wonderful edible plants opens up. The choice of vegetables is just about endless when going through a seed catalog or through the seed rack at the local nursery.

Gardening is also a healthy way to get exercise, teach kids where food comes from and allows you to share your garden's bounty with friends and neighbors. Vegetable gardening not only saves you money, it will help to improve environmental quality by growing more plants and improve the soil at a neighborhood level.

Getting started

Choose a site that has a water source nearby and receives at least six to eight hours of sunlight. Make sure that trees, tall fences or buildings will not block too much sunlight. Also try to place your garden in a level area with soil that drains well. Drainage can be improved by amending with organic matter and gypsum. Size of the garden will depend on your needs and available space. Keep in mind a vegetable garden will require some commitment in time to be successful, so plan accordingly.

Plot your vegetable garden on paper first, taking into account the need for space requirements of each crop, crop rotations, planting and harvest dates of each vegetable and overall size of the garden.

What to do with what you have

When planning for a small garden (15 feet by 15.5 feet or smaller), the goal is to produce the most vegetables in a given amount of space. Be clear about the needs of your family and what they enjoy eating and avoid the temptation to grow crops that require a lot of space such as corn, melons and pumpkins. In your written plot plan, include crops to be grown, space between plants, bed widths and approximate planting and harvest dates. This allows you to save space for later planting. Space-saving techniques such as trellising, intercropping and bush type varieties can be used to maximize the space you have.

A larger garden can include room for planting crops such as sweet potatoes, perennial crops like artichokes and asparagus and multiple varieties of melons, pumpkins and winter squash. With a large garden you can experiment more with different varieties of vegetables to find which ones grow best, taste best and add color. While it is not normally recommended that you plant something you don't like, it is a good idea to try new types of vegetables every now and then just to keep it interesting, another good reason to keep a record of what works best and which varieties you enjoyed the most.

The dirt on soil

If you feel your soil is too heavy (clay), or the thought of bending over tending a garden is too much, or (heaven forbid) think a vegetable garden is too unsightly for the backyard, then gardening in raised beds may be the answer for you.

If your soil is heavy and poorly drained, productivity can be severely limited. Raised beds are great for growing a garden in areas with heavy soil, poor water drainage, or soil that might contain undesirable contaminants. Raised beds can be made out of wood or concrete blocks. Raised beds allow gardeners to fill the box with good top soil and allow for frequent soil improvements.

Raised beds generally offer higher yields in less space and they are easier to keep weed free. Plus, you can move up the planting cycle because the soil warms up earlier in the spring. In the winter, beds can be covered with floating row covers to protect vegetables from a winter frost.

Raised beds also offer more comfort to people with mobility problems because extreme bending is not required and the beds can be easier to access. In order to get to the bed from both sides, the width of a raised bed should not be more than about 6 feet. If you have access from only one side, make the bed no wider than 3 feet; otherwise, it can be difficult to reach to the middle of the bed.

The University of California Cooperative Extension has some excellent programs for gardeners and homeowners. To learn more about vegetable gardening, visit the UCCE California Gardening website at groups.ucanr.org/cagardenweb. You will find detailed information on planting dates, gardening techniques, and individual vegetable information.

Information on pest management for the home and garden can found at the UC Integrated Pest Management website, www.ipm.ucdavis.edu.

Another great resource is the Master Gardener class at the local UC extension office. Enroll by calling 868-6200.

-- Joe Nunez is UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor with an emphasis on vegetable crops/plant pathology.