Tips and Tricks

Learn how to plant heirloom vegetable gardens and why people choose heirloom.

The focus on vegetable and herb-gardening in the past 10 years has been on growing more flavorful, nutritious, and fresher produce than can be found in your local grocery store. Our mouths water for the fresh herbs, garden ripened tomatoes, spicy ethnic peppers, and veggies of all kinds that we see on television cooking shows.

Growing your own is easy and fun and produces a more flavorful harvest for your cooking. To get started, just go through these basic steps:

Choose a location:

Ideally, kitchen gardens should be planted with some areas in full sunshine (for tomatoes, peppers and other fruiting vegetables) and some areas that are shaded in the afternoon (for annual herbs such as basil and dill).

Lettuces and other greens thrive where mid-day heat is blocked by trees or large plants. Herbs love the drainage that raised beds provide.

Soil conditions do not have to be perfect, but areas with good drainage are best. Planting your garden near the kitchen encourages you to harvest as you cook.

Plan a layout

Plan your kitchen garden with your needs in mind–calculating what vegetables you will use the most. (Warning: Do not plan your garden when you are hungry. As with grocery shopping, there is a tendency to overdo when your stomach is growling.).

Grow just a few plants of each of the vegetables and herbs that you use most frequently. Avoid large items like watermelons and squashes at first; although they are easy to grow, your small garden can quickly be overrun by their size.

Organize the garden for working. Plan walkways, and design planting beds that are the appropriate size to make harvesting and pulling weeds easy. Plan to have taller plants toward the back and shorter plants toward the front. Avoid tree roots and other obstructions, and make sure your water hose can reach all areas of the garden.

Work the Soil

Hard, compacted ground not only stunts root growth, but also prevents growth above ground. Rototillers and digging forks are the best for breaking up hard, packed soil. Additionally, test your soil; you may need to add lime to correct the pH, especially if you live in an area with heavy rainfall.

Adding compost to the soil is the most important thing you can do for your garden. Composted manures or leaves add organic material to the garden, which breaks down and improves the texture and nutrient content of your soil.

Mulch provides a nice blanket that protects plants and keeps their roots moist and cool. For the best success, always add both compost and mulch to your garden, every season, and clean out debris to prevent bad insects from moving in to stay.

Containers Can Be Great Gardens:

If you are limited by space or mobility, use large containers and plant combinations of herbs, vegetables, and strawberries. Use deep containers for best results, and always add compost to whatever potting soil you buy. Keep in mind that regular potting soil is designed for commercial greenhouses that water daily; adding compost to the soil helps retain water and nutrients for the roots. Organic and slow-release fertilizers also help retain nutrients, thereby making it unnecessary to feed your containers weekly. Make sure you allow enough room for each plant to grow to about two-thirds of its normal size in your garden.

It is Most Important to Plant at the Correct Time of Year for Your Area

Use your last frost date as a guide for tender vegetables, such as tomatoes and peppers. Cool season plants, however, grow best while nights are still nippy and cool. Herbs can be planted early but most prefer the warmer soil of late spring. Basil, for example, is very sensitive to the cold and will not grow at all if night temperatures are below 42. Remember, for best results, it is essential that you choose healthy plants for your garden.

Do Not Over-Water or Over-Feed

If rainfall is regular (about every week or so), you may never need to water. If you are having a very dry season or your area does not get much rainfall, use a slow trickling hose or drip irrigation for about an hour to get the water down deep in the soil where you want the roots to grow. Moist soil a foot or so below ground level will maintain a good, strong root system in addition to keeping it cooler overall. The rule of thumb for feeding is “less is more”. When plants are stressed from extreme heat or drought, feeding will not help them. Bugs may attack plants that are stressed, but again, feeding does nothing to help. Do not use quick feeds such as Miracle Gro (unless the sole purpose of your garden is to grow a 20 pound tomato). Organic feed is best for your garden; it breaks down slowly and feeds the plant as required. A feeding schedule of once every 6 weeks is plenty.

Harvest Frequently and Spend Time in Your Garden Daily to See What is Happening to the Plants

It does them good, and it does good for you, too! Picking fruits and herbs often stimulates new growth and makes everyone happy.

Add a little more every year. Experiment with something new each season and try adding fruits or nuts, Asian or Italian types of produce, such as Lemon grass or Arugula, and spice up your kitchen garden for the best flavor possible.

Remember that no one is more of an expert than you are about the plants that you grow. Watching their progress will help you to understand their needs and the environment around them. Just because a bug is spotted in the garden, does not mean that a catastrophe has occurred. There is likely a larger bug around the corner that wants to eat him! Always spray food plants with caution, and make sure the product is approved for vegetables. Do not use Raid on something you are planning to eat. There are many organic types of pesticides that are very safe, not only for you, but for those good bugs, too.

Whether you plant a large kitchen garden or a small container garden, everyone can find room for a few vegetables, which add so much to our lives.

Starting From Seeds

Starting plants from seed is a great, inexpensive way to get exactly the plant varieties you want to grow. Indoor seed starting requires the same basic elements as growing plants outdoors: Light, Seeds, Soil, Water, and Food. Let’s take a look at what each involves and what to do once your seeds sprout.

Lighting

The hardest element to provide indoors is light. It is possible to start seeds on a windowsill or in a room that receives a full day (at least 8 hours) of bright light, but that’s hard to come by in winter.

 Most gardeners will need to supplement their seedling lighting with special plant or grow lights that simulate the full spectrum of the sun. Even then, the lights will need to be left on for 12 – 15 hours per day, for your seedlings to grow as strong and healthy as they would in true sunlight.

Seeds

Another difficult aspect of starting seeds is deciding what seeds to grow. There are so many choices, it’s tempting to want to try them all. But keep in mind that as your seedlings grow, they will need to be moved into larger pots that will take up even more space. So choose wisely. Buy seeds of plants you’re certain you can’t find at local garden centers or plants that you want to grow in large quantities inexpensively. You might want to join forces with other seed starters and arrange to grow and trade different varieties.

Potting Soil

We’re always cautioned to use a good potting soil, but what difference does it make, really? Well, potting soil very often has no soil at all in it. It’s a mix of peat, vermiculite and other fluffy matter that has the wonderful properties of being both water retentive and well-draining, because it doesn’t pack down like garden soil.

 It’s also free of diseases and insects that may be over-wintering in your garden soil. Of course, it also doesn’t have any nutrients, so you’ll need to add those.

When to Start Seeds

When to start seeds indoors is always a bit of a guess. First you’ll need to know when your last expected frost date is. Then check your seed packet to see how many weeks growth are required before setting outdoors. Count back that many weeks from your last expected frost date, to get an approximate date for starting those seeds. It’s approximate because weather does not always live up to predictions, but you’ll be in the ballpark. Different plants will require different timing, so use a calendar to make down when to start what.

How to Start Seeds & Cuttings

Planting the seeds is the easy and fun part. Starting seeds indoors is no different than starting seeds outdoors. Maintaining seedling indoors will take a bit more diligence though, since you can’t rely on rain and sun to do the work for you, and your seedlings will need the right nutrients to get off to a good start. But the effort is enjoyable, especially if you are snowbound or suffering from cabin fever.

 While you are starting plants from seed, you might want to consider starting some plants from cuttings. You could create more foliage plants from your existing houseplants. And if you brought cuttings of bedding plants indoors last fall, chances are good they have grown large enough to take even more cuttings.

Self-Seeding Plants and Saving Your Own Seeds

If you saved flower seeds last fall to toss directly in the garden this spring, it might be time to put them out now. Some plants’ seeds need a period of chilling or even freezing, before they will germinate. So when to seed outdoors depends on your growing zone. (And if you didn’t save seeds of your favorite varieties, make plans to harvest some seed pods this year.

It’s easy and helps guarantee your favorites will come back, no matter what surprises the winter weather brings.)

Pest & Problems

Finally, keep your new seedlings healthy and pest free by keeping a close watch for problems. Act quickly, since there are no natural predators indoors for pests like fungus gnats and aphids and a disease can spread quickly through tender young seedlings and even onto your houseplants, which are susceptible to many of the same problems.

What to Plant?

Fill your garden with the types of vegetables you like to eat. If you’re big on salads, plant head lettuce, a lettuce cutting mix, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers and carrots. If you love cooking, plant onions and peppers, leeks, potatoes and herbs. Try to include at least one vegetable that’s new to you.  Discovery is half the fun.

Gardening in a raised bed is all about maximizing productivity. The challenge is to grow as much food as possible while resisting the temptation to squeeze in too many plants. Overcrowded plants never reach their full potential because they’re stressed by poor air circulation and competition for water, nutrients and root space.

Optimum spacing will vary somewhat, depending on specific plant varieties as well as on your growing conditions. A bush watermelon, such as Sugar Baby, has 3 ft. to 4 ft. vines, while the vines of a full-size watermelon, such as Ruby, can be 15 feet long. Likewise, in Texas, tomato plants often get to be over 7 feet tall, yet in Vermont they usually top out at 4 feet. With experience, you’ll gradually get a sense for just how much space each type of plant requires.

It’s also important consider how each plant’s growth habit (bushy, climbing, trailing) will affect its neighbors in same the bed. Planting lettuce next to carrots is fine; planting lettuce next to a sprawling cucumber plant may be a problem. Stakes, ladders and cages will help keep unruly plants from competing with their neighbors. They will also keep the garden neater and more manageable.

Though most of the vegetables you’ll want to grow could be started directly in the garden from seed, in many cases it’s best to start out with a plant. Starting with a plant usually shortens the time to harvest by a month or more. In cold regions, where the growing season may be less than 100 days, a tomato or pepper plant that’s started in the garden from seed will not have time to mature before frost. When you’re putting in just one or two plants of a particular type of vegetable (such as broccoli or tomatoes), it sometimes makes more sense to purchase a couple plants rather than invest in an entire packet of seeds.

Vegetables that can be sown directly into the garden from seed include root crops such as carrots and beets, beans, peas, corn, cucumbers, squash and salad greens. In some cases, these crops are direct-sown because they do not transplant well and it’s best to sow the seeds right where they’re going to grow. In the case of salad greens, which germinate well and grow quickly, it is simply more economical to purchase a packet of seeds than to purchase multiple six-packs of lettuce seedlings.

Potatoes can be started from seed but almost nobody does so. It’s much faster and easier to grow a new potato plant from a tuber rather than from a seed. Onions can be put into the garden as seeds, but more often they go in as plants or as “sets”, which are simply tiny mature onions from the prior growing season. Garlic and shallots are usually planted from sets as well. Leeks go into the garden as young plants. Some herbs should be put in as plants, some (cilantro and dill) should be seeded right where they are to grow.

When to Plant?

There are several factors to consider when deciding when to plant your garden. First is the type of plant you’re putting in. Some plants, including lettuce and broccoli, can tolerate cool weather. Others, such as basil and tomatoes, are likely to be damaged or killed by temperatures lower than 40 degrees. Refer to our Vegetable Encyclopedia to determine the best time to plant each crop.

Other important considerations are frost dates and soil temperature. In planting zones 3 to 6, the primary gardening season falls between the first and last frost dates. Cold-sensitive plants must not go into the garden until all danger of frost has passed. This typically falls somewhere between March and May, depending on your growing zone. If you don’t know your growing zone, check the USDA zone map.

If you garden in zones 8-10, it may be heat — not frost — that determines your planting dates. Warm-climate gardeners often plant in the fall rather than the spring, to avoid midsummer heat. Others gear up for two planting periods each year: early fall and late winter.

Soil temperature is also an important planting-time consideration. Most plants thrive in a moderate soil temperature of 60 to 70 degrees F. Some, such as peas and spinach, will germinate well and grow just fine in cool (45 degrees F.) soil. Others, such as eggplant and melons, will not germinate, nor will they grow properly unless the soil is above 60 degrees F. The Vegetable Encyclopedia has planting recommendations for each crop.

Some vegetables, including tomatoes, peppers, squash and corn, are typically planted just once each growing season. Other crops, such as salad greens, roots crops, peas and beans, can be planted and harvested early, and then be planted again later in the season for a second harvest. 

Once the seeds have been planted, the area should be watered thoroughly, to a depth of several inches. The soil should be kept consistently moist until the seeds germinate and the young plants have established their first sets of true leaves. Most seeds have a hard coating that must be softened for a period of several days before the seedling inside can emerge. If the soil dries out during this time, the process will be interrupted and you may need to reseed. Covering newly planted areas with garden fabric (or shade netting in the summer) helps keep the top layer of soil consistently moist. This cover can be removed once the seedlings are up and the plants are established.

If possible, young seedlings should be transplanted into the garden when the weather is calm, cool and drizzly. Tender seedlings will suffer if they’re planted out on a sunny, hot or windy day. If the weather doesn’t cooperate, water your new seedlings thoroughly after planting and then cover them with garden fabric for several days. The plants need time to establish new roots before they are able to extract moisture and nutrients from the soil. If you do not cover them with garden fabric, you may want to find another way to shield them from the sun and drying wind. Be sure to water these new plants every day or two for the first couple weeks.

Knowing when to plant vegetables in your state is important. Most states have a few hardiness zones that can vary drastically in planting schedules. Most of the United States is covered in zones 3-9. If you know your zone then just select it below to see your vegetable planting calendar.

Tending Your Garden

Planting intensively keeps weeds to a minimum. In the early spring you may need to weed a little every week, but by midsummer your weeding chores should be over. When weeds do crop up, you’ll want to remove them quickly so your vegetable plants aren’t competing for moisture, nutrients and root space.

The soil in a raised bed doesn’t dry out as fast as it does in a regular garden. The sides of the bed help retain moisture and the plants shade the soil to reduce evaporation. Once plants are well-established, your watering chores should be minimal except in hot weather and periods of drought. See the following section on Watering for more information.

Crops that grow take three or four months to mature usually benefit from a second, midseason application of fertilizer. Almost all vegetables appreciate a monthly dose of water-soluble fertilizer, especially one that includes humic acid, seaweed and fish emulsion. These water-soluble nutrients are immediately absorbed by plants and help keep them healthy in periods of stress. This is an easy way to minimize pest and disease problems.

You can begin harvesting food from your garden just as soon as it looks ready to eat. Crops are usually tastiest and most nutritious at or just before their peak of ripeness. Remove any spent fruit or foliage, as well as any damaged or diseased plant material. Keep an eye out for pests and address any issues promptly.

Some plants, including pole beans and most tomatoes, need a cage, trellis or another type of support to grow properly and produce a good crop. Plant supports also save space, help keep the garden neat and make it easier to access plants for harvesting.

You will also need to fertilize your plants to keep them healthy and maximize productivity. We recommend using a granular, all-purpose organic fertilizer at planting time and again midseason. You may also want to have some garden fabric (row covers) for transplanting and frost protection, plant ties, and a watering wand or watering can. For more ideas, see all of our products for raised bed gardening.

Watering

IN a perfect world, Mother Nature would provide an inch of rain each week to keep our vegetables and flowers perfectly happy. Because that’s probably not going to happen, it’s up to us to make sure our plants get the water they need to thrive.

A rain gauge will help you keep track of how much rain has fallen, but that’s really only part of the story. Different types of soil have different abilities to hold water. A clay-based soil holds onto water because each little particle of clay has lots of surface area for the water to grab onto. Sandy soil, with its bigger particles, lets water pass through quickly. A good loamy soil retains some moisture, yet is also well-drained.

Adding compost to the soil improves its ability to supply your plants with just the right amount of water. Think of sandy soil like a wire basket full of golf balls: turn the hose on and the water runs right through. Adding compost is like adding sponges — water still runs through, but some is stored in the sponges. Compost also helps improve clay soils by aerating them and providing better drainage. Plants absorb oxygen through their roots and can drown if the soil stays soggy for weeks at a time. Raised beds and compost can help prevent this from happening.

The best way to monitor soil moisture is with your hands. When you stick a finger down into the soil, it should feel lightly damp – like a sponge that has been wrung out. Don’t just feel the surface; get your fingers down to the root zone (3″deep or so) at least once a week.

In hot weather, plants may wilt during the heat of the day. This isn’t always an indication that they’re moisture-deprived. In many cases it’s simply a way for the plant to reduce moisture loss through its leaves. Checking the soil tells the real story.

Planting intensively in a raised bed garden minimizes moisture loss. Plants shade the soil surface and help protect one another from the wind. Mulching around plants with 2″to 3″ layer of shredded leaves or straw is another effective way to retain moisture and add organic matter to the soil.

If you determine that your garden does need water, there are several options. A watering wand will deliver quite a bit of water quickly, and get it right where you want it. Too busy to water during the week? Going on vacation in August? Buy a water timer to automatically turn on a sprinkler or soaker hose. Soaker hoses and drip irrigation systems with emitters leak water slowly right at soil level, and are a very efficient way to water.

To keep your plants healthy and productive, don’t let the soil dry out completely. If delicate root hairs die back, the plant must direct its energy to re-growing them, rather than to producing fruit. Water-stressed plants can also become bitter and tough.

Plant Diseases 101

What to Do When Your Plant Looks Sick

Blight. Rust. Fusarium wilt. Botrytis. Smut. Scab. The names we give to plant diseases sound unpleasant and downright ominous. But then so are their consequences; they can appear suddenly and may severely weaken or kill a plant within days.

Plant diseases can be caused by fungi, bacteria, viruses or nematodes. These pathogens may be soil borne, waterborne, carried through the air, or transmitted by insects. In most cases, wet, humid weather encourages both the rate of infection and the spread of disease.

As with insect pests, your first task is to identify the problem. Here are some common symptoms of plant disease:

Leaf spots. Fungal diseases often first appear as leaf spots. You can often identify the particular pathogen by the shape, color, and margins of the spots, but this isn’t critical. The same general prevention and control measures apply for most fungal leaf diseases.

Vascular diseases. Some fungal diseases, such as fusarium and verticillium wilts, penetrate plant tissues and enter the plant’s vascular system. Once inside, they clog the veins, preventing water transport which, in turn, causes plants to wilt. If one section of a plant wilts dramatically and you don’t see any signs of external damage to the stem where the wilting begins, suspect one of the vascular diseases.

Powdery mildew. As the name implies, powdery mildew looks like a dusty or powdery coating on leaves. It’s one of the few diseases that can infect plants without the presence of moisture. In fact, plants are most vulnerable to infection in hot, dry weather. Different strains of mildew attack different plant species, so the powdery mildew on your beans probably won’t spread to your pumpkins. If mildew is a problem in your area, seek out mildew-resistant plant varieties and make sure to space plants generously to promote good air circulation.

Diseases on fruits. Many of the diseases that cause leaf spots also affect fruits — cucumbers and tomatoes, for example. Common symptoms include dark spots, corky areas, sunken patches, and discoloration. Often the problem is cosmetic — cut away the affected area and you can use the rest of the fruit. Blossom-end rot, which causes the blossom end (furthest from the stem) of tomatoes, peppers and squash-family plants to turn black and decay, looks like a disease but is actually caused by fluctuations in soil moisture and nutrient availability.

Root problems. “Root rot” is a collective term for diseases that attack plant roots. In some cases, the problem is caused by overwatering, which inhibits the availability of oxygen, causing roots to decay or die. If an entire plant wilts, yet soil moisture is adequate, suspect root rot.

The same good cultural practices that discourage insect infestations are the first line of defense against plant pathogens: Build healthy soil, use compost, keep your plants appropriately watered, rotate crops, don’t crowd plants, and keep the garden tidy.

Because most diseases can only infect plants when the foliage is moist, it’s important to keep their foliage as dry as possible.

Sometimes what looks like disease is actually a nutritional problem. Improper pH, nutrient deficiencies, an excess of certain micro- or macronutrients in the soil, or temperature extremes can cause plants to appear diseases. And in a sense they are. Nutritional problems can usually be addressed by adding lime, compost, fertilizer or specific soil amendments. Foliar feeding, especially with organics such as seaweed and fish emulsion, can be very helpful in boosting your plants’ general health and disease resistance.

As you learn more about how to keep your plants healthy, you’ll find that you have fewer and fewer pest and disease problems, and it will become easier every year to control them effectively without resorting to chemicals.