Vegetable Growing Tips

Whether you like to cook or just to eat, a vegetable garden can be the perfect addition to your yard. Situate it in a sunny place, raise the beds so you can start growing food early in spring, then keep planting all summer long so something fresh is always ready to harvest. The following tips will help you make the best of the seasonal changes that affect your vegetable garden.

  • Spring is a wonderful time for succulent, tender lettuces, spinach, and asparagus. In summer, you can pick juicy tomatoes and fruity ripe peppers. And in fall, salad gardening time returns with great radishes, carrots, and more lettuce.
  • 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 early 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 shut the lid to hold in the heat.

Lettuce in hot bed
Cold frames help grow lettuce in colder seasons.
See more pictures of vegetable gardens.

  • 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.
  • Use water-filled tepees around 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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. Thus treated, these naturally frost-tolerant plants may stay in good condition deep into fall, or even into winter in warmer climates.

In the next section, we'll give you some great tips for working with seeds and seedlings.

Want more gardening tips? Try:

  • Gardening Tips: Learn great helpful hints for all of your gardening needs.
  • Annuals: Plant these beauties in your garden.
  • Perennials: Choose great plants that will return year after year.
  • Gardening: Discover how to garden.

Care for Seeds and Seedlings

Every great vegetable garden begins with seeds and seedlings. The following tips will help care for these crucial garden starters.

  • 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.

  • 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 them 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.

Seedling transplant
It's important to minimize root disturbance
when working with seedlings.

  • Start with large seedlings for quick results in cold climates. This strategy works well for tender vegetables like beefsteak tomatoes and chili peppers that 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 (indicating a strong root system) with healthy green leaves and a sturdy constitution. Avoid neglected, overgrown seedlings.

  • Note that not every seedling transplants well when older. Cucumbers, squash, zucchini, pumpkins, and gourds are best started from young seedlings planted carefully to minimize root disturbance.

  • Plant leggy vegetable seedlings deeper 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.

  • Keep cutworms away from seedlings with the cardboard centers of toilet paper rolls -- recycling at its best! Cutworms, which are moth caterpillars, creep near the soil surface, eating tender stem bases of young seedlings and cutting sprouts off the roots. But it doesn't take barbed wire or an electric-shock fence to get cutworms to detour away from your seedlings. 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.

Keep reading to check tips for laying out your vegetable garden.

Want more gardening tips? Try:

  • Gardening Tips: Learn great helpful hints for all of your gardening needs.
  • Annuals: Plant these beauties in your garden.
  • Perennials: Choose great plants that will return year after year.
  • Gardening: Discover how to garden.

Garden Layout Ideas

A vegetable garden can be a useful and beautiful thing. The following garden layout ideas will help you design your own vegetable garden.

  • Add walks and arbors and interplant with beautiful flowers and herbs to make the vegetable garden both pretty and productive. Keep 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.

    Sunflower stem
    A sunflower stem looks
    lovely when
    by morning glories

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

  • Plant morning glory seeds around the stems of sunflowers. Lanky sunflowers can look quite barren once the flowers are done blooming. But when clad in morning glories, their beauty lasts for the rest of the growing season.

  • Side-dress long-growing crops, such as indeterminate tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers, with a balanced vegetable-garden fertilizer in order 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.

  • Plant potatoes in raised beds, covering them with a little compost-enriched soil. As the potato vines arise, surround them with straw until the layer reaches about 12 inches in thickness. New tubers will develop in the straw, which can be brushed away for a super-simple harvest.

  • 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.

  • 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.

In the next section, we'll give you some great tips for working with tomatoes.

Vegetables: Flavorful and Attractive

Experiment with vegetables that are extra pretty or extra flavorful, such as the following:
  • 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

Want more gardening tips? Try:

  • Gardening Tips: Learn great helpful hints for all of your gardening needs.
  • Annuals: Plant these beauties in your garden.
  • Perennials: Choose great plants that will return year after year.
  • Gardening: Discover how to garden.

Tips for Growing Tomatoes

Although they are officially fruits, tomatoes are a staple of home vegetable gardens. Follow these tips for growing tomatoes and you will always have plump, delicious tomatoes in your garden.

Tomatoes on the vine
There are dozens of tomato types to choose from when
planning your garden.

  • 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.
  • 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 it 4 to 6 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 Girl
    • Early Pick
    • First Lady
    • Glacier
    • Oregon Spring

    • Better Boy
    • Big Beef
    • Big Boy
    • Big Girl
    • Celebrity
    • Delicious
    • Floramerica
    • Heatwave

    • Homestead
    • Oxheart
    • Wonderboy
    • Supersteak
    • Beefmaster
    • Brandywine

  • 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 -- plenty to pick from. You might have to check seed catalogues to find out whether a particular tomato is determinate or not.

Want more gardening tips? Try:

  • Gardening Tips: Learn great helpful hints for all of your gardening needs.
  • Annuals: Plant these beauties in your garden.
  • Perennials: Choose great plants that will return year after year.
  • Gardening: Discover how to garden.