It’s not too late.
You may be one of those perpetual procrastinators who says every year that this is the year I’m going to get that vegetable garden in. But you don’t. Or you’re a weekender who wants nothing more than to have fresh, home-grown vegetables but just never take those few easy steps to get the plants into the ground, and then it’s too late. But it’s not. Get off your derrière, get the plants, get them into the ground and take the plunge. NOW is the time!
No, you probably won’t be able to get a crop of peas in, and no, you won’t be able to get those tomato plants started from seed. But all of our wonderful local garden centers are filled to the brim with just about every vegetable you need, ready to plant and started weeks ago by someone else. And while you won’t find radishes in cell packs you may still find some peas in packs that will give you pods in four to six weeks. You can find tomato plants in cell packs and pots of all sizes but a good healthy small plant can easily catch up to that potted plant and yield delicious slicers and dicers come mid to late July.
The soil has warmed, the sun has become a bit more reliable and this whole thing about growing vegetables can be done in pots, planters, hanging baskets, plastic bags and yes, even right in the soil in the yard. You’re out of excuses. No magic is involved, though there are a few tricks and it’s all very, very logical. In fact, the first year most new veggie gardeners do really, really well if the weather cooperates. Subsequent years, well, another story for another time.
So, pick a sunny spot for your veggies and know how they grow. If you don’t know the difference between an indeterminate tomato and a determinate one and you’re short on space, you’ll be in for a surprise. But read on. Again, if you’re short on space or growing in containers, you won’t want to grow the long vine type of summer squash, aka zucchinis, but the shorter bush types that can be very productive in very small spaces.
Watermelons? If you have the time and lots of space then go for the old traditional Charleston gray, but if you want watermelons that are just as sweet, can be grown in a tiny spot and in about half the time, then look for a variety like Sugar Baby or one that’s similar.
There are all kinds of possibilities and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. We all do and we all learn from them. Read as much as you can but don’t feel that you have to be an expert to get delicious veggies. A few tips? I thought you’d never ask.
Once you have your plants, they need to go into the ground. Once in the ground they need lots of sun, adequate water, fertilizer and an eye that’s always open to spotting an insect or two that needs to be caught early before he or she invites the friends over. You may hear that you can cover vine crops like cucumbers, melons and squashes to keep the dreaded vine borers away. And yes, you can, and they work great. But put these covers on at the wrong time, when the plants are blooming and in need of a busy bee to pollinate them and guess what: No borers, but no fruits either as you’ve kept the pollinators out.
Timing can be everything. So, when do you cover and when don’t you? Being simplistically simple, don’t cover when these plants are blooming but before and once fruit is set.
And so many pea plants struggle just because they’re not given anything to climb on. Most pea plants have these little stringy tendrils that occur along the stems. These tendrils need to cling to a string or structure so the pea plant can continue to grow upward. But the tendrils also send a message to the plant and if the tendrils don’t have anything to attach to the flower (and pod) production of the plant can be reduced by up to 75 percent. So, while you may hate a clingy friend or loved one … give your peas something to cling to.
Don’t fertilize your veggies the minute you plant them unless you are using a time-release plant food like Osmocote. This product isn’t organic but it does allow you to mix the fertilizer into the soil or pot just once then forget about feeding for the rest of the summer. Easy. For organic gardeners, granular fertilizer can be worked in a row along the plants or in circles around the plants. Organic fertilizers are naturally time released over weeks, whereas chemical fertilizers often give a fast shot that lasts only days. But organics need the microbial action of the soil to break them down. So once you add your organic fertilizer gently work it into the top inch or so of the soil. Long-season crops like melons, peppers and eggplants may need two or three feedings a season, while faster crops like salad greens may need only one feeding. I think beginners should stay away from liquid fertilizers at least for the first year or two. They can be a little more complicated in spite of what you may see on television.
And water. Better to under water than over water, as you can always add more—but it’s a bit difficult to take it away once you’ve drowned everything. How much? As a general rule, water deeply then hold off until the soil dries again. Watch the soil and watch the plants as both will give you clues. Keep in mind also that some plants will wilt on a sunny and hot day. With plants like tomatoes this is a temporary wilting and no amount of extra water will stop it. If the ground is moist the wilting is natural and the plant will recover as the sun sets.
Then there are the bugs. And yes, they will come. Know what an aphid looks like. Know what a whitefly looks like. And while not bugs, also know what slugs look like. There is an organic treatment for just about all of these critters and here the trick is to find them early and get them under control. Sprays of water will knock down aphids, sticky yellow traps will get the early whiteflies, row covers will protect from borers. Just be vigilant and persistent. Know what a potato beetle looks like and by all means know what a Japanese beetle looks like.
Diseases are a bit trickier to deal with but you can start with disease- and virus-resistant varieties of vegetables. The plant tags should give you an idea of how resistant they are. Or ask. Most diseases can be controlled by not watering your veggies from above. Try to keep the foliage dry as much as possible because diseases love water droplets and splashes. Never water at night.
Lastly, know when a vegetable is ripe. It’s a feel, a look and it’s a length of time. Each vegetable has a time from planting to “maturity” and the tag should give you an idea or guide. Overripe peas taste awful. Overripe zucchinis turn into baseball bats. Overripe tomatoes rot, split and drop. Melons have telltale ripe spots or slip easily off the vine. Brussels sprouts taste much better when grown into the fall (planted in mid-June) and are exposed to cold, or even frosty, nights.
Do it, try it and get the kids involved. Dig in and find out what really, really fresh food tastes like. Oh, and if you are short on space, absolutely pick the determinate tomatoes. Keep growing.
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One fine body…