Ten Tips for a Better Vegetable Garden

by Marissa L. Tomasic

Vegetable gardening seems to have had a resurgence in popularity.  Many of our customers have been visiting the Nursery recently with questions about their new gardening endeavors: a newly built raised bed, a recently reworked piece of land or a plan to raise vegetables in containers.  This is an exciting prospect!  Growing food contributes to our own health and to the health of our communities and the environment, not to mention the fact that fresh, garden grown vegetables are incredibly delicious and bear little resemblance to the ones available at the grocery store.  We have a few tips and pointers to help you have a beautiful, productive garden this season. 

  1. HEALTHY SOIL MEANS HEALTHY PLANTS:  Good soil is one of the most important factors when it comes to growing plants of any kind, but it is often overlooked.  Soil rich in compost with plenty of aeration helps provide roots with the nutrients, air, and water they need for healthy development.  Raised beds or garden beds should be amended with compost prior to planting.  Containers should be planted with bagged potting mixes or compost mixed with peat moss and perlite.  These special mixes allow for greater aeration and drainage when earthworms and other beneficial insects aren't present to do the job. 

  1. MULCH FOR WATER RETENTION AND WEED PREVENTION:  Mulching around plantings keeps weeds at bay, but it also helps keep moisture levels and soil temperatures even.  Consistent moisture levels are essential for tomatoes, squash and basil.  Mulching can be done with a variety of materials, either purchased or collected, such as chopped leaves & grass, landscaping fabric, salt marsh hay, or hay that's been specially heated to kill weed seeds.  (Regular field hay is filled with weed seeds and would create more problems than it would solve.)  Mulching should be done when seedlings are tall enough to allow for a few inches of mulch around them, and not before soil temperatures reach around 60 degrees (you don't want to trap cold temperatures beneath a layer of mulch). 

  1. DON'T OVERFERTILIZE:  Fertilizer is not food for plants.  Rather, it provides plants with the chemical building blocks they need to produce their own food.  Too much of any particular nutrient can cause a whole array of problems, from burnt foliage to reduced fruit production.  Plants benefit most from a light fertilizer application every 2-3 weeks rather than a heavy application less frequently.  Avoid traditional water soluble chemical fertilizers, as they wash away quickly and leave harmful mineral salts behind.   

  1. BOOST BEAN & PEA PRODUCTION WITH INNOCULANT:  Pea & Bean Innoculant is a packet of granules which contains strains of naturally occurring soil bacteria.  Adding this bacteria at planting time enables legumes to absorb nitrogen from the air.  Avoid giving legumes any nitrogen fertilizer if you innoculate, as it will cause foliage overgrowth and less bean yields. 

  1. BURY THOSE TOMATO SEEDLINGS:  When transplanting tomato seedlings, remove the lower 2 - 3 leaf stems and plant them so that only half the stem is above ground.  Better yet, place the root ball sideways in the hole and bend the top of the seedling so it stands up straight after planting.  Roots will grow all along the buried stem and the resulting root system will be strong and abundant. 

  1. STAKE EARLY:  Cucumbers, beans, peas, and tomatoes need support as they grow, but waiting to insert stakes and trellises into the ground can damage roots.  Put in your support stakes at the time of transplanting. 

  1. PLANT FLOWERS FOR ORGANIC PEST CONTROL:  Sunflowers draw aphids away from vegetable plants and are tough enough to withstand the infestation.  They also attract beneficial lady bugs.  Marigolds repel rabbits and root nematodes.  Cleome repels deer.  All flowers attract bees: major pollinators for most food crops. 

  1. YOUR BLACK TOP IS A HEAT MAT:  Tomatoes, pole & bush beans, peppers, eggplant and herbs like rosemary, bay and basil grow best when soil temperatures are warm.  Soil temperatures below 55 degrees fahrenheit can actually stunt the growth of tomatoes and other heat loving crops.  If you have these veggies growing in containers, move them to your driveway while the weather is still cool: the black top will help heat the pots and the soil inside. 

  1. START SMALL:  It is better to be proud of a small garden than frustrated by a large one. 

  1. RELAX: Gardening isn't rocket science.  Plants are far more forgiving than we sometimes perceive and many pest and disease problems simply go away with time.  Besides, the experience of gardening is enriched by learning from mistakes.  If your gardening goals are to learn something new, work in harmony with nature and enjoy the process then your success is practically guaranteed.