Expert advice on growing vegetables and other edibles, from planting to watering, fertilizing, weeding, and care.
Ingredients for a salad don’t get much fresher than when they are pulled directly from the yard. When you “grow your own,” you can guarantee your produce is organic. And, it just tastes better! Most fruits and vegetables are never sweeter than when they first come out of your own garden.
Today’s edible garden isn’t your grandmother’s labor-intensive vegetable plot stuck in a corner of the backyard.
Instead, you’re more apt to find vegetables mixed in with ornamentals in a garden border, or grouped together in a raised bed that is not only a decorative garden element but also easier to take care of than a soil-level plot.
Techniques like over-planting and French intensive gardening allow you to grow a maximum number of vegetables in a minimum amount space, including container gardens.
Many fruit trees are also available in dwarf and semi-dwarf varieties, which are faster to set fruit, easier to prune and harvest, and ideal for smaller gardens.
Edibles also give your garden variety. Many of these plants are decorative in their own right. Artichokes, onions, and rhubarb have distinctive leaves. And your garden can be decorated with the range of colors, from the purple of cabbage and the bright yellow of squash to the deep red of tomatoes.
Some edibles, such as apples, melons, and citrus, also contribute fragrance to the garden.
While most edibles are spring and summer growers, cold-weather lovers like cabbage, kale, and spinach keep the garden alive in late fall and early winter.
For related information, also see How to Grow Melons.
If you’re new to vegetable gardening, growing just a few tried-and-true family favorites is a good way to start. Tomatoes are an excellent choice, as are chard and squash. If you have kids, consider radishes, carrots, and beans—they grow quickly and easily. Or try a “pizza” garden: Fill a large container with basil, parsley, oregano, and tomatoes to be earmarked for use in pizza sauce.
Start small—you don’t want to be overwhelmed by the amount of produce your garden produces. Also take the amount of space you have into consideration: Melons and squashes sprawl, while carrots, radishes, and beets are far more compact.
Also, try sowing plants in succession. That way you’ll have fresh vegetables over a longer period and are less apt to be overrun by one crop.
Vegetables are divided into two categories: cool season and warm season.
• Cool-season vegetables are those that do best in early spring or in fall or (in mild-climate areas) winter. These include broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, peas, and spinach. If you live in a cold climate, you may need to start seeds indoors or look for seedlings to plant in spring.
• Warm-season vegetables, which love the heat, are the traditional crops of summer. These include beans, corn, peppers, tomatoes, and squash. You’ll need to wait until the soil is warm for them to grow successfully, and they’re generally killed by frost.
If you find you have an excess of goodness, look for ways to save the excess or share with others. Many vegetables and fruits can be canned or preserved. If this seems too involved, check to see if they can be frozen. Make up serving-size containers of tomato sauce, or shred zucchini and freeze it in individual amounts that can be thawed and used for zucchini bread. You can also swap with neighbors. Check, too, to see if a local food bank or a Plant a Row for the Hungry program in your community can use donations.
The right spot and the right soil are the two basic requirements for successful vegetable gardening. In general, vegetables need a minimum of 6 to 8 hours of sunlight each day. They also like well-draining soil that is rich in organic matter.
The first requirement is to find a place in your garden with enough sunlight throughout the growing season.
The second requirement can be met with soil amendments or, if your soil is very difficult, by growing in raised beds. See Build a Raised Garden Bed.
Start by breaking up the soil in the area where you want to plant. Even if your soil conditions are ideal, add a generous amount of compost (3 to 4 inches the first year; 1 to 2 inches the following years) to the soil along with a fertilizer high in phosphorus and potassium.
Aged dry poultry manure or steer manure are also good choices, but use them sparingly. They tend to be high in salts, so work them into the soil about a month before you plan to plant to allow the excess salt some time to leach out of the planting area.
For clay soils, sawdust, bark, manure, leaf mold, compost and peat moss can help break up and lighten it. Check to see if nitrogen has been added to your amendment; if not, you’ll need to add nitrogen to the soil as well.
Use a spading fork to work the amendments into the soil. Once you’ve added the amendments, level the bed and break up any clods. Water thoroughly and let the soil settle before you plant.
Water, food, and protection from weeds, pests, and diseases are all essential to the proper care of a vegetable garden.
Watering. Enough water is of primary concern—vegetables need a steady supply throughout the growing season. You’ll need to water fairly often as the plants become established or if you have sandy soil or excessive heat, so the roots are never dry. Once plants are established, water them less often, but deeply.
You can water by hand, but more efficient methods include using watering basins around plants or furrows between rows, soaker hoses, or drip irrigation. Drip irrigation applies a steady stream of water directly to each plant’s roots, which helps inhibit weeds. Kits and supplies are available from nurseries, home centers, and online.
Fertilizing. Plants also need fertilizers, especially the three major nutrients of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.
You can use either natural or chemical fertilizers, which are available in dry and liquid formulas. Natural fertilizers are the choice for organic growing.
Add fertilizer when you plant. For long-season crops or heavy feeders, such as corn and tomatoes, fertilize again throughout the growing season, following package directions.
Weeding and mulching. Weeds will compete with your vegetables for water, nutrients, and sun. Hand-pulling weeds, while basic, is one of the most effective methods. Start early in the season, before weeds get out of hand. Often a short weeding session each day or every other day is enough to keep them under control.
If you must use a herbicide, consider herbicidal soap or undiluted white vinegar. Spray when the air is calm, and avoid getting it on nearby plants.
Mulching around your vegetables helps retard water evaporation and keeps down weeds. Organic mulches are the most popular for vegetables. Because mulch keeps the soil temperature cool, wait until the weather is warm to add it in. Apply it in a 2-to-3-inch layer, keeping it away from the crowns of the plants.
Plastic mulches are another choice. Unlike natural materials, plastic mulch helps warm the soil in addition to controlling weeds and moisture loss. Plastic mulch also helps ground fruits stay clean. Red plastic mulch may not do a good job of blocking weeds but results in larger plants when used around strawberries and plants in the tomato family, including eggplant.
The key to controlling pests is early detection and prevention. Start with healthy plants, which are less subject to pest invasion. Also, growing a mix of plants tends to limit the number of pests that are attracted to a single plant. Many flowers and other plants also attract beneficial insects, which prey on pests.
Dealing with insects. Check plants regularly. If you do have a problem, start with the easiest and gentlest approach. Physical controls include removing infested leaves and branches. You can also spray a strong jet of water to wash off aphids and mites. Other physical deterrents include barriers, such as floating row covers (thin garden fabrics). Plant collars can prevent cutworms from reaching seedlings, and yellow sticky cards attract whiteflies.
Biological controls rely on beneficial insects and other living organisms to deter pests.
Natural pesticides are low-toxic approaches, but because you’re growing food, you’ll want to limit even their use. Insecticidal soap combats various pests, as does neem oil and products with pyrethrins. Horticultural oils smother pests and their eggs as well as disease spores. Use these sparingly, though, as they can harm beneficial insects as well.
Rotating crops also helps prevent pests and diseases. Allowing at least two years between planting the same or related crops in a spot will help prevent a buildup of the same pests and diseases. See more about Pest Control.
Animals are just as attracted to fresh fruits and vegetables as humans and can do incredible damage. While birds help control insects, they also can eat tender plants. Use row covers, screening, or netting to protect plants, especially during the two to three weeks before the fruit ripens.
Gophers and moles destroy from beneath, gophers by feeding on the roots, moles by uprooting plants when they tunnel beneath them while searching for earthworms and grubs. If you live in an area prone to gophers and moles, protect plants by lining the sides and bottom of the planting holes with mesh hardware cloth, or plant in raised beds lined with hardware cloth.
Rabbits can wreck a garden in no time. A 2-foot-tall fence with mesh will help keep them at bay. Because they burrow, either set the mesh at least 6 inches below ground, or bend it and extend it a foot away from the bottom of the fence, staking it securely.
Deer, too, can eat their way through a garden. Though deer repellants may work, they need to be applied often, and many can’t be used on edible plants. The best option is a fence. Eight feet or higher is recommended, but you can use a 6-foot fence if your land is level or slopes away from the garden. Because deer can’t jump high and wide at once, adding a horizontal extension on top of the fence also can deter them. Another choice is two fences, 4 to 5 feet high and 4 to 5 feet apart. Plant low-growing vegetables in between the two fences.