University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Spring News Article

IMPROVE YOUR VEGETABLE GARDEN
 
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
 
 
Ten tips provided by Dr. Lois Berg Stack, University of Maine Extension, will help you to improve your vegetable garden.  These range from choosing the right seeds and plants, to maximizing yields, to dealing with all the produce in the end. 

Tip one:  choose the right site.  Most vegetables need full sun.  If you don’t have this, consider those that will tolerate light shade (4 to 6 hours of direct sun daily)-- lettuce, spinach, arugula, and parsley.  The site also should have good loamy soil, or at least soil that is well-drained.  If you don’t have such soil, consider raised beds or adding soil in raised hills 6 to 12 inches high called berms.  Choose a site away from roads that get salted in winter, near your home so you visit them often and don’t forget and neglect them, and accessible to supplies and water.

Tip two: manage your soil properly.  Improving your soil over time will lead to higher yields.  Do a soil test (kits are available from state university Extension offices), adding lime and fertilizer according to the results.  There are synthetic and organic nutrient sources; add those that match your philosophy and budget.

 If you can plan ahead, it is good to prepare the garden space a year ahead and then use a “green manure” cover crop (legumes such as peas, annual grasses such as oats or wheat, or a mix) that can be tilled in, providing organic matter and some nutrients.  When a garden is not planted, or after the harvest, plan on a cover crop to help control weeds and erosion.
 
Tip three:  control weeds and pests appropriately.  This means checking your plants often, weekly if not every few days.  This way you’ll learn what is normal, and what is not, spotting pests and problems early.  They’re easier to control before they reach great numbers.  If just a few, perhaps you can tolerate these with no control needed.  If they reach a “threshold” in numbers where controls are needed, apply correctly and choose ones gentle on soil, pollinators, and the environment.

Tip four: select the right vegetables for your site, and your goals.  This will give you the most production that you can use.  Some, such as carrots and onions, for instance need a loose soil.  Some vegetables and varieties grow better in the shorter and cooler seasons in the north.  Check the days to harvest to make sure there is enough time between sowing and your first average fall frost.  Some crops such as tomatoes have varieties better suited for certain uses, such as canning or slicing or sauce.

Tip five: use good seeds and high-quality seedlings.  Poor quality seeds, perhaps left over ones, may germinate poorly.  Seedlings that are not vigorous will get off to a poor start and likely produce poorly.  Use clean tools, sowing and growing media, and pots; dirty ones may harbor disease which will kill your plants.  If you’ve started seedlings indoors, harden them off gradually to the outdoors—both full sun and temperatures.

Tip six: plant and space properly.  Spacing for seeds is often given on seed packets, and for transplants in catalogs and books (or check with your local plant nursery professionals).  Usually seeds are sown more thickly than needed to ensure enough plants, but then need thinning out to ensure good productive ones.  Allow enough space for plants to grow when mature, something that is easy to misjudge when you plant small seedlings.

Some, such as corn, are best planted in blocks (for pollination) while others, such as potatoes, are best planted in hills.  If you have limited space, interplant a cool crop such as lettuce with longer warm-season crop such as squash.  You’ll have harvested the lettuce before the squash takes over the space.

Tip seven:  experiment.  Try new tools.  Many newer ones are designed ergonomically to make gardening easier.  Try new plants.  Many newer ones have improved flavor and yields; some may grow well on your particular site, others may not.

Tip eight: extend the season.  One problem growing in cold climates is the shorter growing season, and often cooler one.  Some techniques can help, such as black plastic on the soil to warm it sooner prior to planting.  Many use thin white fabric row covers for frost protection, and to keep away some insects.  A coldframe can help you get a start on the season, as can individual “cloches” or protection around individual plants.  Winter mulching some vegetables can preserve them for a later harvest.

Tip nine: garden smart.  A good example is weed management.  If you eliminate annual weeds before they go to seed, or keep nearby natural areas mowed, you’ll have fewer weed seeds to cause future problems.  Newspaper layers in rows, covered with mulch or sawdust, will save lots of time and labor with weeding.  Staking plants shortly after planting will save having to deal with, possibly damaging, unwieldy plants when grown.

Tip ten:  harvest and process produce properly.  Harvest at the right stage, usually mature but not overripe.  Decide if you have the time and space for various storage methods, the main ones being canning or freezing.  You may try constructing a root cellar.  If still too much produce, and your friends and relatives have plenty, consider donating it to a local food shelf before it starts to spoil.

Even better, when starting your garden, plant an extra row just to such a donation.  Plant a Row for the Hungry-- a program of the Garden Writers Association (www.gardenwriters.org)-- promotes doing just this, and has more on their website on becoming involved.  Since 1995, over 14 million pounds of produce has been donated, providing over 50 million meals.  With one in eight American households living with food insecurity, according to USDA figures, and the demand for hunger assistance growing 70 percent in recent years, there is even more need now for you to plan for some extra produce in your garden when planting. 

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