Planning , Planting And Maintaining A Vegetable Garden
Lately we've had quite a lot of new gardeners asking various questions about vegetable gardening, so I thought I'd say a few things about planning a vegetable garden. I hope others of you will add the things I forget, 'cause you know I won't think of everything.
1.) Do your research and make a plan. Understand that some plants which grow well in some other parts of the country simply cannot tolerate our heat and, depending on where you live in Oklahoma, our humidity (or lack of such).
I'll give just a couple of examples. Rhubard grows great in areas with milder summer weather...like Pennsylvania, where my DH grew up. Here, rhubard struggles to get through the July and August heat and often dies out in the heat of the summer, even though it is partially shaded and well-watered.
Apples are another challenge to grow here, but more because of their susceptibility to cedar apple rust....since our millions of cedar trees are host to this disease. Raspberries can be very challenging (though not necessarily impossible) to grow here but blackberries aren't hard at all.
Some crops that will grow here are "backwards" from how they grow in some other parts of the country. Brussels sprouts are one of those. You'll tend to have greater success with Brussels Sprouts if you plant them in mid- to late-summer and harvest them in the fall. When planted in the spring here, brussels sprouts often "burn up" in the heat before they can make much of a crop.
2.) Obtain your seed and draw out a garden plan based on the plant spacing recommended for each variety of plants. This will help you figure how large to make your garden plot OR it will show you that you need to cut back on your list of things you want to grow because you don't have room for them all.
3.) Select your garden site based on available sunlight. Most vegetables need at least 8 hours of sunlight a day, although a few can get by on 6. If you property is heavily shaded, a vegetable garden may not be possible.
4.) Prepare your soil properly. It all starts with the soil. You CANNOT grow bountiful crops without loose, fertile soil, and most of us start out with less than ideal soil. Ideal garden soil is going to be loose, fluffy, loamy soil that has a lot of organic material in it. Many of us start out with very sandy, very silty or very, very clayey soil and have to add a lot of soil amendements to create ideal garden soil. You should ideally add a minimum of 6 to 8 inches of organic material and till it into the soil or double-dig the beds (google to find instructions for that) and work in the amendments by hand.
You can add anything organic to enrich your soil: compost, chopped or shredded leaves or straw, animal manure, peat moss, small pine bark fines, greensand, lava sand, mushroom compost, used coffee grounds, composted cotton hulls, etc.
Just the act of adding several inches of organic material will raise the grade of the soil above the surrounding area. Raised beds are best for veggie gardens. (Think about last year's heavy rains and you can understand why.) You can use mounded soil as a raised bed. You can use stacked stone or lumber that has NOT been chemically treated to build raised beds. Avoid creosote-treated railroad ties and chemically-treated landscape timbers.
Raised beds offer improved drainage and they warm up faster in the spring. If properly mulched they do not erode.
If you go to all the trouble to build raised beds, walk only in the pathways so you don't compact the loose, fluffy soil in the raised beds.
5.) Select varieties recommended for Oklahoma. Many vegetable varieties recommended for the USA in general are really geared towards cooler climates and don't do as well in our heat as we would like. Be sure you select varieties proven to do well in Oklahoma.
6.) Understand that our long growing season is really several mini-seasons. You have to plant each crop in the proper mini-season for success.
Cool season crops include asparagus, beets, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celeriac, celery, Chinese cabbage, chives, collards, endive, horseradish, kale, kohlrabi, leeks, lettuce, mustard greens, onions, green peas, parsley (can plant in fall also), parsnip (can plant in spring or fall) potatoes, radishes, rhubarb, salsify, shallots, spinach, swiss chard (planted early is best, but it can produce all summer in our heat), and turnips/rutabagas. They need to be planted in mid-February (in more southern parts of the state) to mid-March (in more northern parts of the sate). If you plant them too late, they won't produce a crop, because once it heats up, their productivity seriously declines or stops. Most of them are harvested in late spring to early summer. Garlic is best planted in the fall, by the way, and harvested in mid- to late-spring.
Warm season crops include artichokes, beans, cantaloupe/muskmelons and other melons, cucumbers, eggplant, New Zealand spinach, okra, peppers, pumpkins, southern peas (including black-eyed peas, crowder peas and cream peas), summer and winter squash, sweet corn and popcorn, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, tomatilloes and watermelons. In general, most warm season crops are planted on or after your average last frost date. Some of them, like southern peas, sweet potatoes, and okra like REALLY warm soil and should be planted a month or more after the average last frost date once the soil is really, really warm.
These plants will produce for varying amounts of time. Keep in mind that many crops play out in the July heat, which brings us to the next mini-season, which is the fall vegetable garden. The fall veggie garden is actually planted in summer for a fall harvest. You can grow almost anything in the fall garden if it matures in about 100 days or less.
Tomatoes are popular for fall gardens because they often stop producing in the heat of the summer and have a hard time rebounding in the fall, so many gardeners set out fresh transplants in June or early July for a fall harvest.
I didn't list many herbs, but most of them grow well when planted in the spring. They are not, in general, as affected by the heat and often produce well into the fall, unless you let them go to flower and set seed. Cilantro is an exception. It likes to grow in cooler Spring weather.
Some fall crops that are very cold-hardy, like spinach and collard greens can be planted very late and will overwinter and give you a spring crop in most of the state.
7. If your garden is on the smallish size, choose dwarf size plants that take up less space. Many of the plants developed/advertised as being "great for containers" also grow well in the ground and take up less space.
8. Grow vertically to save space, create shade, and prevent disease. Tomatoes should be staged or caged. Tomato plants that sprawl on the ground tend to get more diseases, especially of the type that cause tomatoes to rot. Many vining type crops like pole beans, cucumbers, cantaloupe, muskmelons, winter squash and malabar spinach can be grown on fences, bamboo teepees, trellises, etc.
9. Create your own shade. Plant taller crops like corn, okra or trellised plants on the west and south sides of your garden and plants that benefit from some summer shade, like peppers, on the north side of the taller plants. The taller plants will shade the pepper plants part of the day and help keep the peppers from getting sunscald (sunburn).
10. Avoid bare soil. Newly tilled or turned-over soil looks lovely, doesn't it? Just wait a few weeks, though, and EVERY INCH of bare soil will have weeds and grass sprouting in it. So, plant your crops and, as soon as they have emerged from the ground and gotten a little height, add mulch, mulch, mulch, to keep the weeds from sprouting. For cool season crops, mulch heavily as soon as you can because it will help keep the soil cooler and the cool-season plants like that.
For warm season crops, though, I start out with a light layer of mulch as soon as possible in spring, and add to it as the season progresses. There is a reason for this. A very thick layer of mulch will keep the soil from warming up, and warm-season crops need warm soil. They DON'T need hot soil, though, so I add layer after layer of seed-free grass clippings throughout the summer to keep the soil cool, moist and weed-free.
11. Water efficiently. Soaker hoses and drip irrigation are best. They waste less water (a lot of the water from sprinklers evaporates before it reaches the ground) and keep water off the plant foliage. In general, water on the plant foliage increases the odds they'll have disease problems and you want to avoid that.
12. Feed the soil and the soil will feed the plants. It is not necessary to feed your plants with a chemical or synthetic fertilizer. If you enrich your soil with a variety of amendments as listed above, your soil will feed the plants. If you think plants need an extra boost, use natural and organic fertilizers like compost tea, liquid seaweed, animal manure, liquid fish or fish meal, blood or bone meal, or granular or liquid fertilizers made from safe, organic ingredients. Too much fertilizer (whether synthetic or organic) is actually harmful to the plants and plants that are over-fertilized have lots more disease and pest problems.
13. Please don't poison your soil, your groundwater and your food. Many pesticides are, in fact, nerve agents to which you should not expose yourself or your families. Many chemical fertilizers are made of hazardous materials. Go organic as much as possible. Use Integrated Pest Management. THINK before you act. I know someone who decided to put a popular chemical fire ant product in his garden. Clearly he didn't read the label as it was not labeled for use in a veggie garden. Once he realized he'd contaminated his soil, he found he should not eat crops from that soil, nor grow food crops in it again for several years. Don't let something like that happen to you.
14. Practice safe pest control. Understand that there ALWAYS will be insects and bugs in the garden. Some of them are good, some are bad, and some of them are necessary for pollination. You cannot use broad-spectrum measures to kill the bad bugs because they will kill the good bugs (the ones that prey upon bad bugs) and the pollinators. Without pollination, some crops will fail.
Safe pest controls include releasing good bugs like lady bugs, parasitic wasps and green lacewings to prey upon the bad bugs. Avoid releasing praying mantids as they will kill all the bugs--both the good ones and the bad ones--including one another. You can handpick slow-moving bugs like potato bugs and drop them into a bucket of water to drown them. You can remove many insect eggs from the back of leaves before they hatch. You don't have to panic and go into "wipeout" mode every time you see an insect. People in this world have grown crops for thousands of years withou chemical pesticides. Work with nature and not against it.
15. Fence in the garden. Keep in mind that EVERY living creature around will find your garden attractive, including your pets, children and wildlife. This is especially important in a rural area.
Even in our fenced-in rural garden we have lots of wild creatures who try to find their way over or under the fence (and sometimes succeed), including deer, bobcats, squirrels, moles, voles, gophers, skunks, possums, rabbits, birds of all types, mice, turtles, frogs, toads, lizards, snakes (including poisonous ones), etc. Our fence keeps out most of them, but every now and then one or two find their way in.
Make your life easier and fence in the garden to begin with. If you are in town, you still will need fencing to keep the pets (or neighbors' pets) and kids out of the garden. Even small pets can trample and dig up plants and even terrific kids can unintentionally wreck a garden.
16. Don't forget to feed the birds! Wild birds are a double-edged sword, but generally are beneficial to your garden and a delight to have around. I attract birds to the garden by keeping a water source there for them and by planting a border of flowers and herbs that produce seeds they like. I also have bird feeders around the yard and especially around the perimeter of the garden. Birds are VERY beneficial as they eat lots of insect pests. However, if they get hungry or thirsty, they will nibble at some veggies, especially tomatoes, and may eat tree fruits and berries. So, you kind of walk a fine line with them.
17. Weed early and often. Pull sprouting weeds as soon as they are large enough to pull up. If you let the weeds hang around a while, they will steal food and water from your garden plants AND they are a lot harder to pull up once their roots are big and well-developed. After you pull up the weeds, mulch the area to keep new weed seeds from sprouting. Weeds will even sprout in mulch, though not as much as they do in soil, so you will have to keep after them all season.
18. Keep bermuda grass out of the garden. Every time it sprouts there, dig it up and dispose of it. Bermuda is evil and will completely take over the garden if you let it. Don't let it.
19. Plant from seeds or transplants and follow all applicable directions. If you raise your own transplants indoors, be sure to harden them off gradually by giving them increasing amounts of sunlight over a period of a few days. If you take plants that have grown exclusively indoors and put them out in the sun for a full day without hardening them off, they likely will sunburn and possibly die. Windburn can kill tender vegetation too, so harden them off in a sheltered location out of the wind.
20. A garden is a journey and not a destination, so enjoy it every step of the way. When you harvest and eat something fresh and delicious and wonderful that you grew yourself, you will be so proud!
OK, hope this basic guide to growing a veggie garden helps. I hope the rest of you experienced gardeners add to this thread as I am sure there is so much that I did not think to mention. One of the wonderful things about gardening is that even long-time experienced gardeners are constantly learning, exploring and trying new things. I think that is part of the appeal of gardening--it isn't just the garden that grows, but the gardener as well.
Oh, and I barely touched on fruit at all. If someone wants to talk about growing fruit in detail in another thread, we can do that!