Vegetable Gardening 101
If the thought of a ripe, juicy tomato makes your mouth water, or imagining snapping a crisp pea makes your fingers itch, then vegetable gardening is for you. Everyone knows that home grown veggies and fruits taste a million times better than the varieties purchased at the grocery store. So, go ahead and grow your own — it’s easy to do.
Planning Your Garden
Whether you are starting a new garden or improving an existing one, it’s best to start with a plan. A well-planned vegetable garden will not only be more successful, it will be better organized and easier to manage. Consider the following:
Make sure your garden site gets plenty of sun by situating it facing south. Six hours of sunlight is the minimum your garden will need. Also, be sure there aren’t any trees, hedges or other obstacles (like your house) shading your potential plot.
If the area you’d like to garden is full of weeds, be sure to get rid of them before you start preparing your garden site.
Tip: Fast Acting Weed & Grass Killer (shown here) uses natural herbicidal soaps to kill all plant tissue it contacts including weeds, grass, moss and algae. Best of all, it won’t persist in the soil so treated areas may be replanted five days after application.
Start Small — Or Don’t
Most experts recommend starting small so that you don’t become overwhelmed. On the other hand who wants to do more prep work each year enlarging their vegetable garden? If you feel pretty certain you’ll want a lot of beds one day, go ahead and go big right from the start.
Of course, you’ll need access to water.
Try to find a spot with 1.5% or less slope. Otherwise, plan to terrace your garden to prevent the soil from washing away with the rain.
There are countless ways to design your garden — from the practical to the fanciful. Consider the following to determine your design.
Row gardens are what most people picture when they think of a vegetable garden. Crops are planted in parallel lines, with space between each row. Easily organized, row gardens can have lower yield than bed gardens and can sprout more weeds.
Raised Bed Gardens
Raised beds are just what they sound like — plots that are higher than the surrounding land. In these gardens, all plants are grown together without rows. The bed must be small enough that you can reach into it to pull weeds and harvest your veggies.
- Require less weeding
- Produce higher yields
- Drain better than rows
- Are less susceptible to compaction
Learn how to build your own raised bed here.
A spot garden is perfect for those without a lot of space. Find a sunny spot in the yard and plant your favorite vegetable.
If there isn’t one large space in your yard, consider two or more plots for the garden. Grow organic vegetables in one plot and dedicate another to growing herbs, or grow theme gardens such as a salsa or butterfly garden.
Small Space Vegetable Gardening
1.) Container gardening allows plants to grow just about anywhere — on a patio, a deck or on the lawn. Plus, they are movable, which is a big bonus in areas with a short growing season; just move the containers inside when it gets too cold.
2.) Growing vertical is another way to save space. Many plants can be trained on trellises, teepees or fences.
3.) Choose small or dwarf varieties of the vegetables you love. Think cherry tomatoes rather than beefstake.
Deciding What to Plant
- Ask around to see what grows best in your neck of the woods. Master Gardeners, your neighbors and the Cooperative Extension Service are all good resources. It’s easier to grow things that are already adapted to your soil and climate than to try to adapt your site to a specific plant’s needs.
- Think about planting crops in succession. After one crop has grown and harvested, you can plant another in its place. This works better in places with a long growing season, but even with a shorter season, lettuce planted in spring is often done in time to plant another batch.
- Start plants that need the most time to grow (read the seed or plant label) first, then plant the late bloomers. Plants that take a while to fruit might be best started indoors.
- Take the mature plants’ height into consideration when deciding where to plant. You don’t want your corn overshadowing your carrots.
- Plan to rotate your crops every other year — switching one crop to another with different nutrient needs — to avoid depleting the soil.
- Compare the USDA plant hardiness zone chart to “days to maturity” section on your seed packets to determine when to sow your seeds.
Building the Soil
Before adding compost or fertilizer to the garden, it’s important to determine the state of your soil. Either send a sample off to a soil testing laboratory or buy a soil test kit and do it yourself. The soil lab will be able to tell you the composition of your soil (sandy, clay, loam etc.), as well as what you can do to improve it.
One aspect of the soil that is important to find out about is pH. If your soil is too alkaline (high pH) something acidic, such as elemental sulfur, is needed. If the soil is to acidic (low pH) add limestone to buffer it. (Read more about How to Change Your Soil’s pH here.)
Note: The Rapitest Soil Test Kit contains 40 tests (10 each for pH, Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium), so you can test different areas of your garden. Easy to use, you’ll appreciate the specially designed “color comparator” and capsule system that makes quick work of samples.
Once the pH of your soil is corrected, it is time to add organic material and aerate the soil. One way to do this is through double digging. Basically, you’ll dig a trench, mix in organic material then refill with soil from the next trench you dig.
If shoveling seems like too much work, or your garden is too big to dig by hand, consider renting or borrowing a Rototiller.
How much organic matter you will have to add depends on your soil’s composition, the size of your garden and your climate. For example, sandy soils in warmer climates may need as much as 2,300 to 4,600 pounds per 1,000 square feet, according to the University of Georgia. Heavier soils in cooler climates with less rainfall may need as little as 200 pounds per 1,000 square feet.
Use an all-purpose fertilizer before planting (to prepare the soil) and once in the middle of the growing season. Fertilizing during mid-season is easiest with a diluted organic fertilizer (such as fish emulsion or compost tea), or by side dressing — dig a narrow furrow one to three inches deep at the plant’s drip line or six inches from the plant base, whichever is greater. You then sprinkle the amendment into the furrow and cover it up with soil.
Note: The all-purpose fertilizer shown here includes natural microorganisms (mycorrhizae) that activate the soil, helping to deliver increased nutrition to plants. Use it for vegetable gardens, annual and perennial flower gardens, ornamental plantings and all types of container gardening.
Compost makes for super organic material, and if you make your own, you are reducing the amount of waste you put into the landfill — plus you’ll save money. Earthworms and other beneficial organisms are attracted to compost and will help enrich your soil, while the compost adds nutrients to the plants’ diet.
Almost all yard trimmings and food waste can be used to make compost (aka gardeners gold). That includes: fruit rinds, grass clippings, vegetable peels, peanut shells, coffee grounds and sawdust. Dairy products, meats and animal waste should not go in the compost heap (Learn more about making compost here).
You can apply finished compost to your garden pretty much year-round — it won’t burn plants and will improve the condition of your soil by allowing it to retain more water, nutrients and air. For best results:
- Add organic compost to your garden every year
- Mix compost 6-8 inches deep
- Try to get a soil to compost ratio of 50:50
- Mulch around existing plants
- Side dress fast growing plants in late spring
Not as gross as it sounds, green manure is a crop grown to enrich the soil. Green manure is often used as winter cover crop and then mixed into the soil before planting the main crop.
Popular green manures include:
- Winter rye
- Increase organic matter in the soil
- Protect against certain pests and nematodes
- Increase nutrients for plants
Starting plants from seeds is a bit more work than buying plants to put in the ground, but in the end you will…
- Save money
- Know where your plants came from and what quality they are
- Have more varieties to choose from
Starting Seeds Indoors
Plants started inside have a higher survival rate than those started outside.
- Use pots or containers that have adequate drainage. Egg cartons work great!
- Choose a sterile potting soil that is fast draining, yet holds moisture. Soilless mixes are preferred by some gardeners and include materials such as vermiculite, perlite or peat moss.
- Moisten the potting mix before filling the containers. The mix should be damp but not sopping wet.
- Fill the container but don’t pack it too tight.
- Place one or two seeds on top of the mix and cover lightly.
- Gently mist the soil and cover using clear plastic (remove once seeds have sprouted).
- Provide adequate light and warmth. Consider purchasing a seed starting kit to speed germination.
- When seedlings begin to develop leaves, fertilize with half strength solution — every two weeks.
- Transplant seedlings to larger containers as they grow.
- Gradually harden plants off before moving outdoors
Starting Seeds Outdoors
- Read the seed packet. You’ll find all sorts of useful information like when to plant, how deep the sow the seed, and how much space to leave between seeds.
- Make furrows as deep as the seed packet says to plant your seeds.
- Drop the seeds into the furrows, leaving as much space between them as is indicated on the packet (most things can be planted a bit closer together than the instructions indicate.)
- Cover the seeds with loose soil and lightly tamp the soil.
- Water thoroughly, but be gentle, you don’t want the seeds to wash away.
With healthy soil, you’ll be less likely to have garden pests in the first place, but should some unwanted diners appear in your garden, here are some ways to take care of them organically.
Aphid: Shoot them with a steady stream of water, spray with Safer Soap, release predatory insects such as ladybugs, prune off the most heavily infected leaves.
Cabbage Worm: Pick these guys off by hand and use a floating row cover to keep the adults from laying eggs on crops. Trichogramma wasps, a tiny parasitic insect, can be released to attack the eggs before hatching. While caterpillars are still small, spray Bt-kurstaki.
Corn Earworm: Tilling in the spring and fall will expose pupae to predators, weather and wind. When you first notice the moths, release trichogramma wasps right away. Apply Dipel Dust or spinosad, a relatively new insecticide, to kill caterpillars. Repeat once a week until tassels turn brown.
Cucumber Beetle: Handpick beetles frequently and add beneficial nematodes to the soil. Using a floating row cover before the beetles appear will help prevent the transmission of disease. Adults can be sprayed with a botanical insecticide (rotenone, pyrethrum). After harvest, remove garden debris to reduce sites for overwintering.
Cutworm: Use toilet paper rolls to make collars and place around the stems of seedlings (weight half above and half below the soil). Spread wheat bran mixed with Bt-kurstaki (Bt) and molasses over the surface of garden beds 5-7 days before putting out new plants. Beneficial nematodes can be added to the soil and handpick caterpillars after dark.
Flea Beetle: To avoid peak populations of flea beetles, avoid planting your crops until later in the season. Add beneficial nematodes to the soil and use floating row covers to keep pests off plants.
Slug & Snail: Edging garden beds with copper tape will deter slugs and snails. Shallow pans of beer placed in the garden will trap them, then collect and destroy daily. Growing clover, sod or placing stone mulch in the garden walkways will encourage predatory rove and ground beetles. A barrier of diatomaceous earth or wood ash will protect seedlings.
Tip: Sluggo is an organic bait that can be applied around vegetables, lawns and ornamentals to kill snails and slugs, yet is non-toxic to wildlife, people and pets. Contains iron phosphate, an organic compound that breaks down into fertilizer. Easy to use, just scatter 1 tsp per square yard wherever pests are a problem.
Squash Bug: Check the undersides of leaves, and hand pick squash bugs. Keep plants off the ground with trellises. Nectar producing plants will attract parasitic flies with their pollen. If the infestation gets too bad, use floating row covers and a botanical insecticide.
Tip: Researchers at Iowa State University found that mulching with newspaper, before putting tightly secured row covers on gardens, provided very effective control of squash bugs.
Tomato Hornworm: Check the leaves for large green caterpillars (3-4 inches long) and hand pick. Spray Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) or spinosad, a relatively new insecticide, while caterpillars are young. Roto-till gardens in the fall to destroys pupae in the soil.
Wet weather, inadequate air low and poor drainage often encourage plant disease. There are many ways in which plant diseases manifest themselves including:
- Moldy coatings
Better than fighting disease, is preventing it altogether.
- Choose plants that are disease resistant
- Properly water and fertilize plants
- Rotate crops
- Keep your growing area clean
- Use disease-free starter plants and seeds
Below is advice on diagnosing and treating several common vegetable diseases:
Anthracnose: Most prevalent in the eastern United States, anthracnose appears as small, sunken spots on stems, leaves or fruit. When conditions are warm and wet, pink spores may appear in the center of these spots. Beans, cucumbers, melons and tomatoes are most often affected by this disease. To control, apply lime-sulfur spray early in the growing season (just as leaf buds break) and continuing throughout the growing season. Severely infected plants should be destroyed.
Bacterial Leaf Spot: Infected foliage has small, dark brown or black water-soaked spots. As the disease progresses, these spots will dry up and crack, leaving holes. Leaves may drop prematurely. Cabbage-family crops, peppers and tomatoes are most often infected with bacterial spot. Apply copper-based fungicides every 7-days when symptoms first appear to prevent the disease from spreading. Control can be difficult, especially during wet weather.
Note: Liquid Copper Spray (shown here) controls a large variety of plant diseases, including powdery mildew, rusts, black spot and late blight. Use up to the day of harvest on vegetables, roses, fruits and turf.
Clubroot: Caused by a soil-inhabiting fungus, Clubroot infects cabbage-family plants (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage). Infected plants have swollen, misshapen roots and wilt during the heat of the day. Older leaves turn yellow or drop off. Plant disease-resistant varieties and rotate vegetable crops.
Common Rust: Rust diseases are found on a variety of vegetable crops including, corn, beans, asparagus and onions. Symptoms appear as reddish brown powdery spots on leaves that rub off when touched. Prune plants and remove weeds to provide good air circulation. Hand-pick infected leaves to reduce infection. Remove and destroy seriously affected plants. Apply sulfur fungicides to plants early to prevent infection or to keep light problems from spreading.
Late Blight: Arriving late in the growing season, late blight affects primarily tomato and potato plants. Look for water-soaked, gray-green spots on leaves. As the disease matures a white fungal growth may form on the undersides. Select resistant varieties when available and dispose of all infected plant parts. Water in the morning to give plants time to dry out during the day. Copper sprays can suppress some outbreaks.
Mosaic Virus: Infecting a wide variety of garden vegetables, this viral disease appears as mottled green or yellowish colored plant tissue. Plant growth is often stunted and leaves may curl. There is no cure for mosaic virus. Plant disease resistant crops and reduce the number of disease carrying insects (aphids, leaf hoppers) that can spread the virus. Destroy infected plants.
Powdery Mildew: Common throughout the United States, powdery mildew appears as a dusty white to gray coating over the surface of leaves, stems, flowers, or fruit of vegetables. Prune or stake plants to improve air circulation and remove fallen foliage from under plants. Mulching will reduce “splash back” of fungal spores from the ground back up onto the leaves. Organic fungicides or baking soda can be used to control the disease.
Wilts: Affecting many vegetables crops, fusarium and verticillium wilts cause wilting and yellow blotches on the lower leaves. Choose resistant varieties when available and control garden insects, such as cucumber beetles, which are known to spread the disease. Crop rotation does not prevent wilts because so many crops are susceptive. Soil solarization before planting may help.
Vegetable Garden Care
Too much water or too little water will both damage your plants. Consistent watering is the key. Soaker hoses and drip irrigation systems make it easier to water large areas and to water consistently without losing a lot of that precious liquid to evaporation.
If you can’t tell by looking whether your garden is getting enough water or not, consider purchasing a plant moisture meter to help identify if the roots are getting enough moisture.
Overwatering symptoms include:
- Soaked soil around plant stems
- Mold or moss growing on the soil
- Yellowing of leaves
- Dead leaf margins
Under-watering looks like:
- Brown leaves
- Dead leaves stunted growth
Mulching is simply applying materials such as grass clippings, straw, bark, or wood fibers, to help control erosion and protect exposed soil. The benefits of mulching include:
- Regulating soil temperature
- Improving moisture retention in the soil
- Preventing soil erosion
- Reducing weeds (must be 3-4 inches deep)
- Reducing plant disease
Apply mulch in the spring after the soil has warmed to 65 degrees at 4 inches.
If the summer growing season isn’t enough to keep you happy and full, there are many ways to extend it.
Row Covers run the gamut from plastic to blankets to any other insulating material. Some row covers can lay directly on the plants, but others — like plastic — should be elevated on wire to keep air circulating.
Tip: A single layer of row cover protects plants from cold as low as 29˚F; a double layer protects as low as 26˚F. Row covers are also one of the easiest ways to protect gardens from invading cabbage moths, root maggots and other pestiferous insects.
Cloches are individual greenhouses that cover each plant. Make your own from a milk jug, or buy one of the many on the market.
Cold Frames can allow year round gardening in moderate climates. Basically a plywood frame with a hinged storm window or shower door attached, these frames keep plants warm enough to substantially extend the growing season.
Hotbeds are cold frames with a heating cable to really warm things up.
Greenhouses are the season extenders everyone is familiar with. Purchase greenhouse kits or build your own.
When to Harvest
Knowing when to pick a tomato or eggplant seems obvious, but there are some tricks to harvesting at just the right time. (See Harvesting Vegetables.)
When you harvest your garden depends on what you are growing.
Leaves, stems or roots taste best when picked early. At this stage they are still tender.
When you are harvesting fruits (or vegetables that you eat the “fruit” or seed-bearing parts) wait as long as you can. Even though a tomato may be red and “ripe”, the longer you wait, the sweeter it will taste
There are always exceptions — a zucchini (a fruit) tastes better when it is young (however, they are more fun to leave on friends’ doorsteps when they are out-of-control-huge).
Some root crops (potatoes, carrots, onions) can be harvested whenever you have the spare time.
Veggies have the highest water content in the morning, so harvest as soon as the dew has dried. For the same reason, harvest when skies are cloudy or during a cool spell, if you can.
Different crops require different storage conditions, but here are a few ideas to help you get started.
Canning: Highly acidic fruits, such as tomatoes, respond well to canning. Or preserve in a syrup (relishes, chutneys, jams and jellies) or brine (pickles). Learn the Basics For Canning Vegetables (PDF) here.
Counter Storage: This one is pretty self-explanatory — some veggies do fine sitting on the counter to ripen. This includes fruits (such as plums and peaches) as well as peppers and tomatoes.
Drying: With a food dehydrator or a stove set very low, many vegetables, fruits and herbs can be dried and stored.
Freezing: Blanch fruits and vegetables in boiling water then freeze them quickly.
Refrigerator: Storing certain vegetables (such as broccoli, cauliflower, corn, lettuce, herbs, peas or summer squash) in the cold helps keeps them fresh. Use ventilated bags and add a damp towel to keep herbs and veggies moist, but not wet.
Root Cellar: A cool dark basement or cellar is a good place to store vegetables such as carrots, potatoes, beets, cabbage, and other root vegetables. Storing veggies underground in the garden works, too. Cover root crops with hay, straw, leaf mulch or wood shavings when the ground freezes.