How to Grow Vegetables


A vegetable garden can be the perfect addition to your landscape. Growing your own vegetables organically ensures healthful produce and saves you the high prices of organically grown produce at the grocery store.
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When thinking about how to start growing vegetables, the first thing you'll want to look at is seeds and placement.

  • Situate your vegetable garden in a sunny place and start growing food early in the spring. Keep planting all summer long so something fresh and tasty is always ready to harvest.
  • Place the garden near your kitchen. It will be easy to run out and pick a few things you need, and you can spy on the garden from your window. Picking tomatoes after you see them blush crimson is a perfect way to get them at their best.

  • Soak seeds to get a jump on the season. Before germinating, seeds need to drink up moisture, just as if drenched by spring rains. Once they become plump and swollen, the little embryo inside will begin to grow.

Prep the Seeds

Seeds such as broccoli, cabbage, and arugula use moisture efficiently and germinate promptly without presoaking. But slower-starting parsley and parsnip seeds benefit from presoaking. Dunk the seeds in room-temperature water for several hours or even overnight, but don't forget them and leave them in too long. Drain and plant the seeds immediately.
  • Use water-filled tepees around early planted tender vegetables for protection from the cold. You can buy inexpensive plastic sheets of connected tubes that, when filled with water, form self-supporting walls around seedlings. The clear walls allow sun to penetrate to the plant inside while the solar-heated water stays warm into the night.

  • Rather than direct sowing, start with large seedlings grown on the windowsill or purchased at a nursery for quick results especially in cold climates. This strategy works well for tender vegetables such as beefsteak tomatoes and chili peppers, which take a long time to ripen but must squeeze in their performance before the last curtain (frost) does them in for the season.
Look for seedlings grown in large pots (check for a strong, well developed root system) with healthy green leaves and a sturdy constitution. Avoid neglected, spindly, or overgrown seedlings.

Cucumbers taste their best fresh from the vine.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
Cucumbers taste their best fresh
from the vine. See more
pictures of vegetable gardens.

Note that not every seedling transplants well when older. Cucumbers, squash, zucchini, pumpkins, and gourds are best started by direct sowing or from young seedlings planted carefully to minimize root disturbance.
  • Plant leggy vegetable seedlings deeper (up to the first set of leaves) to provide a stronger start outdoors. Seedlings started indoors or in crowded greenhouses (places without enough light) may develop lanky, barren stems that topple over in the garden. As long as they grow from a single stem (rather than a rosette of leaves) and go into well-drained soil, leggy seedlings can be submerged slightly deep for extra support.
For flexible-stemmed seedlings like tomatoes, a horizontal planting trench is better than a vertical one. It is warmer and better aerated than deeper soil, encouraging good root growth and fast development.
  • Keep cutworms away from seedlings with the cardboard centers of toilet paper rolls. Cutworms, which are moth caterpillars, creep along the soil surface, eating tender stem bases of young seedlings and cutting sprouts off at the roots.

After Planting

After planting, just set a 3-inch-long cardboard tube around the seedling. Push the tube down so half is submerged, thus preventing underground attacks. Then once the seedling has grown into a plant, you can remove the cardboard collar.
  • Tear the tops and bottoms off peat pots when setting out vegetables. Peat pots, which are supposed to decay when submerged in the soil, don't always break down the first year they are planted. This leaves plant roots captive inside. To complicate matters further, if the peat rim emerges above the soil surface, it can dry out and steal moisture from the surrounding soil and nearby roots. Peat pot problems are easily solved by tearing off the top and bottom of the pot before planting. This helps eliminate the danger of drying out and gives roots a way to escape if the peat pot persists.

  • Plant vertically to save space. Instead of letting beans, cucumbers, melons, and squash sprawl across the ground, you can let them climb a trellis or arbor.

  • Add height to a vegetable garden with a tepee covered with bean and pea vines. This space saver works similarly to a trellis but has a different look. Make the tepee of six or eight 6-foot-high poles tied together at the top. Plant pole beans, lima beans, or peas around each pole, and they will twine up to the top.

  • Side-dress long-growing crops, such as indeterminate tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers, with a balanced vegetable-garden fertilizer to keep them producing. After the first harvest, sprinkle some granular fertilizer around the perimeter of the plants, then work it lightly into the soil and water well. The extra nutrients can encourage blossoming of new flowers and development of fruits afterward.

  • Use newspaper covered with straw between garden rows to eliminate weeds and retain moisture. This dynamic duo works more efficiently together than either one alone. At the end of the growing season, rototill the paper and straw into the soil to decay.

  • Plant melons and cucumbers in the compost pile. (They might grow there anyway if you toss old fruits on the pile in the fall.) Warm, moist, nutrient-rich compost seems to bring out the best in melon and cucumber vines.

  • Extend the fall harvest season for crops such as cabbage, brussels sprouts, and broccoli with a warm coat of straw. Although it may never be fashionably chic, straw does trap heat effectively.
Put bales or piles of straw around the plants, leaving the south side open to the warm sun. Thusly treated, these naturally frost-tolerant plants may stay in good condition deep into fall or even into winter in warmer climates.

Find out the most successful methods of growing asparagus, beans, and cucumbers in the
next section.

Growing Asparagus, Beans, Cucumbers, and Eggplants

Whether you like to cook or just to eat, nothing tastes as good as something you've grown yourself. Growing asparagus, beans, cucumbers, and eggplants is fun and well-worth the effort.

Asparagus


Once planted, asparagus takes about four years to become established. It grows best in rich soil in full sun. The plants can last dozens of years, and a good asparagus bed is quite a treasure. The spears of established plants are harvested in spring, when they are under a foot tall. At least half of the spears are left to grow into fernlike, leafy stems about four feet tall to feed the plants and keep them healthy.
  • Mulch asparagus every spring with several inches of compost or decayed livestock manure. Asparagus, a greedy feeder, will use all the nutrients it can get its roots on and grow that much better for it. By mulching in the spring, you can fertilize, help keep the soil moist, and reduce weed seed germination all in one effort. The shoots that arise through the mulch will grow especially plump and succulent.

    Asparagus grows best in rich soil in full sunlight.
    ©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
    Asparagus grows best in rich soil in full sunlight.

  • Make fancy white asparagus spears with a simple blanching basket. This European connoisseur's vegetable is easy to grow at home. When the spears first emerge in spring, cover them with a bucket, basket, or mound of soil that will exclude all light. Harvest when the spears reach 8 to 10 inches tall and before the ferny leaves begin to emerge.

    Flavorful and Attractive
    Experiment with vegetables that are extra pretty or extra flavorful:

    Ruby- and pink-leaved lettuces

    Green, yellow, and purple snap beans; the purple ones turn green when cooked

    Crimson, white, gold, and red-striped beets

    Violet, neon pink, soft pink, and white eggplants

    Peppers ranging from sweet to mild spicy to super hot: something for everyone

    Red, orange, yellow, pink, or cream tomatoes; for exceptional flavor, try Brandywine and Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes

Beans

Beans do not tolerate frost. If you choose climbing types, you can train them upward on tepees and pergolas for nice garden accents.

Scarlet runner beans have great flowers and edible beans, and string beans and limas are favorites everywhere.

Cucumbers and Squash

You'll find vining or climbing types of these vegetables for trellises as well as dwarf forms that squeeze into containers and tight spaces.

Pumpkins take lots more space and a longer growing season, so they may not work as well for some gardeners. None of these plants tolerates frost.

Eggplants

With their purple flowers and colorful fruits, eggplants look good in any garden.

There are purple, white, streaked, or even red fruits with elongated or globular forms. Eggplants exhibit preferences similar to peppers, which we talk about in more detail in the next section.

Learn how to bring home the blue ribbon for your homegrown lettuce, peppers, and tomatoes on the next page.

Growing Lettuce, Peppers, and Tomatoes

Grow lettuce in the spring or fall for a delicious salad starter. Add to the salad in summer when you can harvest the delicious peppers and tomatoes straight from your vegetable garden.

Lettuce

Lettuce grows during cool weather in spring or fall. Even when crowded, it will produce usable leaves, but plants grow better when widely spaced. In flower beds, an edging or clump of lettuce does double duty. Leaves can be green or red, frilled or plain, depending on the cultivar.

Produce late fall, winter, and early spring lettuce by growing extra-hardy varieties such as Arctic King or North Pole and creating sheltered planting places for them:
  • Raised beds covered with heavy-duty floating row covers can provide protection from frosts and light freezes in early to mid-spring and mid- to late fall, or even winter in mild climates.

  • Cold frames, heated by the sun, make it possible to grow lettuce earlier in spring and later in fall or winter. Cold frames are translucent rectangular boxes, about 2 feet wide, 4 feet long, and 18 inches high. The top is hinged to open so you can tend plants inside or cool the cold frame on mild, sunny days. Plant seeds or seedlings of lettuce in the frame and close the lid to hold in the heat.

  • A hot bed, which is a souped-up cold frame, is a great place for winter lettuce. Lay a heating cable under the cold frame. Cover with wire mesh to prevent damage to the cable and top with a layer of sand mixed with compost.

  • For an extended lettuce harvest, pick the largest leaves from the outside of the plant and allow the younger inner leaves to continue growing. But when springtime weather begins to get warm, you need to take the opposite strategy. Cut off the entire plant before it begins to send up a flower stem (a condition called bolting) and turns bitter.

  • Get twice the harvest by planting a lettuce and tomato garden in an 18- or 24-inch-wide pot. You can pick the lettuce as it swells and leave extra growing room for the tomatoes. Here's how to proceed: Fill the pot with a premoistened blend of 1/3 compost and 2/3 peat-based potting mix. Plant several leaf lettuce seeds or small seedlings around the edge of the pot and a tomato seedling in the middle. Place the pot in a sunny, frost-free location. Water as needed to keep the soil moist, and fertilize once a month or as needed to encourage good growth.

    Peppers range from sweet to mildly spicy to super hot.
    ©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
    Peppers range from sweet to mildly spicy to super hot.

Peppers

Colorful ornamental peppers last longer than flowers and add festive color and texture to beds and borders. Plants range from six inches to several feet tall. Foliage may be green or purple. The glossy fruits grow from an inch or less in length to more than six inches and can be pointy, round, or blocky. They have bright colors and waxy coats and range from cream through yellow, orange, red, purple, and brownish-black. Grow peppers during warm weather in full sun, after the danger of frost has passed.

Tomatoes

There is nothing like a fresh, sun-warmed tomato, so they are on everyone's list. There are many kinds to consider, from beefsteak to cherry to heirloom varieties. There are also petite types bred specifically for hanging baskets. Tall and rangy cherry types can be trained up a trellis or over an arch.
  • Prune tomato plants to direct maximum energy into tomato production. Choose your pruning plan based on what you want from your tomatoes. For larger and earlier (but fewer) tomatoes, remove any shoots that emerge on or beside the main stem, and tie the stem to a stake. For more tomatoes later, let plants bush out and support them in tomato cages. Pinch off any flowers that open before July 4.

  • Choose between determinate and indeterminate tomatoes according to the way you prefer to harvest. Determinate tomatoes (such as Celebrity) tend to stay compact and produce most of their tomatoes at about the same time. This is convenient for freezing, canning, and sauce making. Indeterminate tomatoes (such as Big Beef) keep growing and developing new tomatoes as they go. They produce a greater yield but spread it over a longer harvest period.

  • Dozens of different cultivars are in each class; there are plenty to pick from. You might have to check seed catalogs to find out whether a particular tomato is determinate or not.

  • Stake your tomato cages so a bumper crop won't pull them over. Work a tall stake through the wire mesh near the perimeter of the cage, and stab or pound it to 8 inches deep in the ground. This will anchor the cage (and the plant inside) firmly despite the pull of strong winds and branchfuls of ripening tomatoes.

    Early, Midseason, and Late Tomatoes
    Early: Early Girl, Early Pick, First Lady, Glacier, Oregon Spring

    Midseason: Better Boy, Big Beef, Big Boy, Big Girl, Celebrity, Delicious, Floramerica, Heatwave

    Late: Homestead, Oxheart, Wonderboy, Supersteak, Beefmaster, Brandywine

When you grow your own vegetables, you're feeding your family with healthier and less-expensive foods that will give them the nutrients they need while giving you hours of enjoyable gardening.

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Publications International, Ltd.