Easy Vegetable Gardening
A better way to vegetable garden
Growing edibles doesn’t have to be a pain in the backyard
It’s a wonder anybody tries to grow vegetables these days, given the reputation this oldest form of gardening has.
Mention a vegetable garden, and many a mind conjures up a jumbled, weedy mess in the back corner that sucks up mass quantities of fertilizer and bug-killers and requires near-constant hose duty.
Makes you wonder how Cro-Magnon man ever survived without the aid of Mantis tillers and an arsenal of Ortho products on the cave shelf.
Maybe we’ve just got more bugs, diseases, bad weather and animal pests than before, but it also could be we’re just not going about this as shrewdly as our fore-gardeners did.
Sometimes, it seems, we’re outsmarting ourselves and actually making vegetable gardening more difficult by creating a new problem for every old one we solve.
We’ll get out there and fluff up the soil every spring with that fancy, work-saving tiller, only to slice up half of the earthworms that would’ve tilled and fertilized naturally.
Or we’ll spray the daylights out of the whole garden at the first sign of a bug, only to kill off the beneficial insects that would’ve kept the pest bugs in check.
Or we’ll skip the back-bending job of hauling manure and compost in favor of a sanitary Miracle-Gro feeding, which we overdo half the time and forget to do the rest of the time.
Like any other type of gardening, vegetable gardening boils down to doing a few basic things right. Figure those out, and you’ll have healthy plants. And with healthy plants, most everything else falls into place.
Start with healthy plants in good soil
"Healthy plants tend to have fewer problems,” says Steve Bogash, a vegetable specialist for Penn State Extension’s Capital Region. "Plants put out many of their own pesticides and chemical signatures. Healthy plants do less to encourage pests, while stressed-out plants tell every pest to pile on and finish the job.” It’s basically nature’s way of weeding out the weaklings.
Bogash says the first step to healthy plants is good soil. Plant your garden in the lousy clay or shale that passes for your "soil,” and you’re practically sentencing your veggies to a tortuous death. You might as well just plant them in the driveway.
Raised beds are best
Kenny Point, a hobby gardener with a productive and attractive vegetable garden in suburban Harrisburg, says the single best move any vegetable gardener can make is to build raised beds.
"Plants grow better in raised beds,” he says. "You don’t have soil compaction because you don’t walk on the beds. I don’t have to till my soil every year. All I do is use a digging fork to lightly work in a little compost every spring or fall.”
The loose, rich soil encourages deep root growth, which increases plant yield and produces healthier plants that are better able to fight off bugs and disease.
Point’s raised beds are about 4 inches high, 18 feet long and 5 feet across — just wide enough so he can reach in halfway from either side. That maximizes planting space in the garden and minimizes the space devoted to paths.
Raised beds can be edged with materials such as wall stone, brick, cinder blocks, rot-resistant lumber or recycled-plastic lumber or the soil can simply be raked into low mounds.
Point plants everything closely in a matrix or block pattern in his wide, raised beds.
"The goal is to plant just far enough apart so that when the plants mature, the leaves of neighboring plants will just barely touch,” he says. That not only maximizes yield but reduces openings for weeds.
"I seldom do weeding,” Point says. "First of all, I don’t till, which is what brings up a fresh crop of weed seeds from the subsoil. But when you plant closely, the tight canopy shades out weeds. Most weeds need light to germinate.”
Point lays down a 6- to 8-inch layer of straw in his paths each spring and then hand-pulls the few weeds that poke up in his beds before the vegetable plants take over the space.
His beds get an annual fall helping of compost, which Point makes himself from fallen leaves, spent plants and other yard waste. He also sprays the leaves of most of his plants every few weeks in season with a liquid kelp and fish emulsion, but he never uses the more common chemical fertilizers.
To be sure your plants are getting the right type and amount of fertilizer, Bogash suggests soil tests every year or so. Do-it-yourself Penn State kits are available for $9 at all county Extension offices and at most garden centers.
"Plants that are at the optimum nutrition levels often grow right through problems,” he says. With healthy, well-fed plants, Point finds he seldom has to spray pesticides. "I don’t have much of a problem with insects, not like I did before,” Point says. "I try to encourage the presence of beneficial insects by interplanting flowers and herbs that attract bugs and birds that prey on the pest insects. If I do have to take action, I’ll hand-pick first and then try a (horticultural) oil or (insecticidal) soap spray, or maybe Bt.” (Bt is a bacterium that targets caterpillars but is harmless to pets, people and birds.)
Some of his favorite good-bug-attracting flowers and herbs are tansy, borage, cosmos, zinnias and purple coneflowers.
"A bonus is that this makes the garden look better, too,” says Point. "That means you don’t have to put your vegetable garden in a corner because it looks like an eyesore.”
"Once I started using this system, it made so much sense, it worked so much better and it was a lot easier than the way I gardened before,” says Point, who has written an e-book on his system (available at http://mygardeningsecrets.com/). He also offers gardening tips via an online blog (http://veggiegardeningtips.com/).
Bogash says another widely overlooked "secret” to success is the particular variety of vegetable you decide to grow. A carrot is not just a carrot, and a tomato is not just a tomato. There are dozens if not hundreds of particular hybrids and varieties of each vegetable, and these seemingly slight variations can make a huge difference in the garden.
Bogash says seed catalogs are good resources for learning which vegetable varieties are most resistant to problems, whether it’s rust flies on the carrots or blight on the tomatoes.
"Even if you purchase all of your plants from a greenhouse,” he says, "the seed catalogs can still pay off as a reference.”
Veteran gardeners also can tell you their favorites, and you can learn more and more each year by trying and comparing varieties on your own. (See the sidebar for some of my favorites.)
Bogash adds that it also helps to rotate your crops — moving them around in the garden instead of planting the same thing in the same spot year after year.
Let them drink!
His last bit of advice is to keep your garden consistently damp. Especially if your veggie beds are raised, they’ll dry out quickly in the summer heat. Mulching with a light layer of chopped leaves or straw will help hold in moisture while holding down weeds. (Earthworms will like the organic topping, too.) But there’s no getting around having to water at least once or twice a week in hot, dry weather.
Bogash suggests drip irrigation or soaker hoses instead of watering overhead with a hose or sprinkler. "Wet leaves encourage many fungal diseases,” he says. "If you must water from the top through a sprinkler, do it in the morning so the leaves dry quickly.”
All of this may not prevent every last thing that could go wrong, but it should show that we’ve made at least a little progress since Mr. Cro-Magnon’s day.
George Weigel’s favorite vegetable varieties for Pennsylvania gardens
Broccoli: ‘Green Goliath,’ ‘Packman’
Cabbage: ‘OS Cross,’ ‘Stonehead,’ ‘Salad Delight’ (red), ‘Savoy Ace’ (savoy)
Carrots: ‘Mokum,’ ‘Healthmaster’
Cauliflower: ‘Snow Crown,’ ‘Early Snowball’
Cucumbers: ‘Sweet Success,’ ‘Straight Eight,’ ‘Sweet Slice,’ ‘County Fair’ (pickling)
Eggplant: ‘Dusky,’ ‘Fairy Tale’
Green beans: ‘Nomad,’ ‘Derby,’ ‘Jade’
Lettuce: ‘Green Ice’ (leaf), ‘Red Sails’ (red leaf), ‘Summertime’ (crisphead), ‘Outredgeous’ (red romaine)
Melons: ‘Fastbreak’ (small muskmelon), ‘Crème de la Crème’
Onions: ‘Walla Walla Sweet,’ ‘Stuttgarter’
Peas: ‘Oregon Sugar Pod II’ (snow pea), ‘Sugar Ann’ (snap pea)
Peppers: ‘Colossal,’ ‘Big Bertha,’ ‘Hungarian Hot Wax’ (hot), ‘Gypsy’ (banana type)
Potatoes: ‘Yukon Gold,’ ‘Red Pontiac’
Radishes: ‘Champion,’ ‘Cherry Belle’
Red beets: ‘Bull’s Blood,’ ‘Red Ace’
Spinach: ‘Melody,’ ‘Tyee’
Squash: ‘Papaya Pear’ (summer) ‘Spineless Beauty’ (zucchini)
Sweet potatoes: ‘Vardaman,’ ‘Georgia Jet,’ ‘Centennial’
Tomatoes: ‘Brandy Boy,’ ‘Big Beef,’ ‘Park’s Whopper Improved,’ ‘Brandywine’ (heirloom), ‘Mortgage Lifter’ (heirloom), ‘Supersweet 100’ (cherry), ‘Christmas Grapes’ (grape type)