As I’ve noted several times in the past year, there has been a dramatic resurgence of interest in homegrown vegetables. Initially, this new interest was not related to our current economic situation. Rather, it was fueled by a constant stream of news on the contamination of several commercial vegetable crops by toxins that were picked up in the growing, harvesting and processing avenues of the commercial vegetable industry. Many of us chose to deal with this situation by growing some of our vegetables in our backyards, on our balconies, porches and in planters that once sported only ornamentals.
Then came gasoline and diesel prices at over $4 a gallon. In a matter of months, a head of California lettuce cost as much to transport as it did to grow. Prices for tomatoes nearly doubled and because of the reallocation of corn growing resources from human and animal feed production to methanol production, just about everything in our food chain that is related to corn production and processing went through the ceiling as well.
At one point it seemed that my weekly grocery bill was up as much as 40 percent, exacerbated by two-thirds of my family being vegetarians.
At the same time, wholesale and retail seed suppliers were reporting sharp rises in sales of vegetable seeds. As a direct response to all of these pressures on the commodity markets, Americans reacted by rekindling home gardening and once again we began to grow our own.
Just one problem though. Many of us didn’t know how.
And just as quickly as the vegetable seeds were flying off the shelves, the questions began to flow into County Extension offices and garden writers all over the country were inundated with questions from readers on how to grow vegetables and how to solve the related issues that growing at home can bring up. It was clear that a whole generation of us were lost as we’d relied on the supermarket and green grocer for all our produce and simply forgot or lost the knowledge of how to grow a tomato, seed a row of carrots, be patient with peppers, harvest a perpetual salad and reap the cost savings and great tastes that you really can’t find when produce is harvested in California on Monday and arrives on the East End five to seven days later.
You can do soooo much better at home. And I’m here to help.
The very first thing I’d like you to do is to look at as many seed catalogs as you can. Virtually all of them are online, but the paper copies are great to have as references and they also tend to contain more reference information than some of the online sites. If you don’t know the names, here are is a selection that you can Google:
Burpee, Parks, Stokes, Cooksgarden, Thompson and Morgan, Harris, Jung, Territorial and Johnny’s Select.
Among these you’ll find a wide selection of vegetable seeds both traditional and organic. The temptation is to order too much seed and while most can be saved for a few years, try to restrain yourself and just peruse for the moment. Some varieties will sell out quickly and these tend to be the most popular heirlooms (now the rage) and new introductions. If something really catches your eye and you lose self control, go ahead and order. The seeds generally arrive quickly. Just store them in a cool, dry place, but keep track of what you’ve ordered and what you have.
Just about every garden center and plant shop will carry seeds as well, but the choices and vendors will be limited. You’re more likely to find Burpee seeds than any other, but the larger garden centers will also have some other vendors as well as some heirloom varieties. But if you’re looking for something special or you want to make sure you get exactly what you want, you need to order by mail (internet) and do it soon. Keep in mind that some vegetables are long season crops that will either need to be started indoors in as soon as three to four weeks or you’ll need to buy them as starts at the local garden center.
Step two is to plan. The more time you spend on your planning (without obsessing) the more you can grow in less space. While a plot in an open space with full sun for at least eight hours a day is perfect, you can compromise and you don’t need a formal garden plot. Many vegetables and herbs can be grown in containers and even small containers and pots can be used by just using vegetables adapted to pot and container culture and these are usually noted in the catalogs. I’ve grown crops of cherry tomatoes and peas on a 10th floor balcony much to the disdain of management. Vegetables can also be planted in beds and borders containing annuals and perennials, but this can be a little bit of a challenge from a design point of view.
So, where will your plot be? Ideally it’s in a section of your property that gets full sun for most of the day. This means away from trees and buildings that would cast a shadow on your garden. The vegetable garden should also be away from plants like roses and fruit trees that attract other insects and may need insecticides and fungicides that you don’t want near your vegetables. If you are one of the rare Hamptonites that has hills on your property, the garden should be on a hillside that faces any direction but north.
Lastly, keep your garden away from septic tanks and cesspools.
The size of your garden will be dictated by three factors. First, the space you have available. Second, by the quantity and types of vegetables you want to grow and third, by the amount of time you want to spend tending it. If you are an absolute neophyte at this it might be a good idea to limit the size to 100 to 200 square feet for the first year. If you plan on growing vine crops such as melons, squash or cucumbers, keep in mind that these can be space hogs and they need to ramble. As a compromise, there are bush type cucumbers that take up substantially less space than the free growing vine types. Corn is the biggest space hog as you need to plant large blocks of corn to accomplish the necessary pollination. Beans and peas can also be large space users, but you can reduce their space needs by growing them vertically on poles, cages and trellises that allow them to grow up instead of out.
You may also be tempted to grow many varieties of tomatoes for a number of reasons (to be discussed later), but as you choose your varieties, remember that each tomato plant can occupy 4 to 6 square feet and that can eat up a 100-square-foot garden pretty quickly.
And there’s the time element. Weekenders will want to keep things simple as tending time will be limited. The bulk of your time will be front loaded at the beginning of the season getting the plot and soil ready then taking care of the planting. Follow-up care includes weeding, feeding and watering, but remember, and this is critical, taking care of things correctly in the beginning will save you lots of time and frustration as the season progresses. If you don’t take steps to control the weeds in May they’ll control you in July. If you let the aphids proliferate in early June then by the end of the month they’ll be spreading diseases from plant to plant to plant.
Also keep in mind that the taller crops such as corn, pole beans and tall tomato plants that are staked or in cages will block the sun from shorter crops and vines. For this reason the taller crops are planted on the north side of the garden where they still get maximum light but won’t shade or cast a shadow on shorter plants.
Once your location is picked out, the size of your vegetable garden will be driven by what you want to grow. Beginners make a common mistake of not realizing that part of the planning stage is to remember that many vegetables are planted, mature and harvested in a succession. Radishes, for example, mature in just 30 to 45 days from seeding and since they don’t do well in the heat they are considered an early or cool crop. Planted in late March through April, they will occupy garden space only until late May or early June. That space then becomes available for another crop and while radishes don’t take up much space you’ll want to get as much return from your garden space as possible. The same is true for most lettuces and spinach which are cool season crops and leave usable space in the garden later in the season. Keep in mind also that there is a second season in the vegetable garden where crops maturing later in the season leave usable spaces for replanting cool season crops that will grow into the fall. This can include later sowings of greens, beets, carrots, cabbage, Brussel sprouts and others.
This process is called successional planting, but it also has another application. If you plant all of your radish seeds at one time or all of your carrots or beets at one time they’ll all mature at one time. That’s fine if you want to put up (can, jar or freeze) your produce, but if your goal is to have fresh produce for the table, five pounds of carrots or 10 pounds of beets could be a bit much over a few days. What you do to avoid this is to first figure how much space you can devote to a particular crop—let’s say carrots—then instead of sowing all of the seed on one date, do a series of sowings possibly five days apart. This extends your harvest for at least two weeks if you do three successional sowings.
So, find your plot location. Do some rough guesswork on how much space you want to work with remembering that while you can grow all your vegetables in rows, a row of lettuce takes a very different space layout than a row of tomatoes. Look at the catalogs and varieties to get a rough idea of what you want to grow. For a guide on vegetables that are known to do well in New York State take a look at www.gardening.cornell.edu/vegetables/vegvar.pdf. If you need the greatest reference book on vegetable gardening (and more) get a copy of Crockett’s Victory Garden. It was first published more than 30 years ago and you can still get copies on Amazon.com. There is simply no book like it and it’s ageless to say nothing of the fact that it’s a delight to read. If the soil is workable in your existing garden plot or where you want to start a new one, go out with a small spade and dig six inches down. Take a sample of about one cup of soil and put it in a plastic bag. If your plot is large (200 square feet or more) sample several spots and mix the 1-cup samples into one plastic bag. Keep the samples in a cool dry place and close the bag. Next week I’ll tell you how to get this soil tested and we’ll get on to your veggie garden plan. Keep growing!
Andrew Messinger has been a professional horticulturist for more than 30 years. He divides his time between homes and gardens in Southampton, Westchester and the Catskills. E-mail him at: Andrew@hamptongardener.com. The Hampton Gardener is a registered trademark.