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For some, starting a vegetable garden happens like clockwork: every year at the same time in the same place with time-tested methods and well-worn tools. For others, it takes a pandemic.
Regardless of which camp you belong to, the time to start is now. And, frankly, there’s never been a better time to get started. Stay-at-home and social-distancing orders have provided an increase in spare time for many, and reduced shopping and often-bare shelves have left us feeling collectively frustrated and helpless. Gardening, long revered as a stress reliever as well as provider of fresh, nutritious produce, can address both of these new realities in one breath of fresh air.
Long before unripe tomatoes began being harvested, packed and shipped across the country from California or Florida to a grocer near you, families were growing their own — alongside beans, cucumbers, peppers, squash, greens, herbs and other mealtime staples. During World War II, Americans were encouraged to plant "victory gardens" to ease the burden on the national food supply, supplement food rations and empower people to feed their families.
And it's just as easy to do now as it was then. The requirements are few and simple: Sunlight, water, seeds or starter plants, and fertile, well-draining soil combined with a can-do attitude.
Most vegetables require a minimum of six hours of sunlight daily. Of course, the sun shines for longer than that, but consider whether transient shade is cast on your garden. As the sun moves across the sky, does it duck behind a tree, shed or your neighbor’s house? If so, pick another spot or consider growing in containers, which can be moved throughout the day to maximize exposure.
In general, fruiting plants like tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, squash, cucumbers and berries require more sunlight than such greens as lettuces, collards and kale, which can be successfully grown in somewhat shady conditions. And if you haven't got a plot for your garden, containers are well-suited for growing many edibles, such as salad greens, carrots, squash, potatoes, Swiss chard, cucumbers, eggplants, peppers, most herbs, and bush and pole beans. Be sure to consider plants' mature sizes when selecting containers, and insert a trellis or other vertical support for climbers.
Another consideration when choosing the best spot for your garden is access to supplemental water. Most plants require 1 to 2 inches of water per week; they will require more during hot, dry spells. Planting in a far-off corner of the yard — even if it’s the sunniest — could be a recipe for disaster if it’s far from a water source or inconvenient to reach. You'll have to balance these requirements, keeping in mind that a kitchen garden is best planted near the kitchen.
It’s important to water plants in the morning because those watered later in the day will remain moist overnight and become susceptible to fungal, mold and mildew diseases. For the same reason, avoid overhead watering, whether from a handheld hose, sprinkler or irrigation system. Instead, direct water to where it’s needed — the roots. This is best done with drip-irrigation or a soaker hose.
Plants growing in containers will need much more water than their in-ground counterparts, as the limited soil in pots can dry quickly. Ensure containers have drainage holes, and discard water from saucers after watering to prevent root rot. Check for moisture daily (twice daily during hot spells) by plunging your finger knuckle-deep into the pot. Aiming for moist-but-not-soggy soil, you should water when warranted.
It is always better to water deeply and less frequently, than to sprinkle daily. This will allow water to reach roots, which are then encouraged to grow down into the soil instead of remaining close to the surface.
Once you’ve selected the best spot for your garden, assess the soil. Is it clumpy and sticky when wet? You have clay. Sandy and gritty? You have sand. Does it feel like flour when it’s dry? Silt. There’s no such thing as perfect soil, but most plants prefer loam, a combination of clay, sand and silt. If you don’t have nice loamy soil, there’s an easy way to achieve it: Add compost.
Compost is made of decomposed organic matter. It improves the drainage of clay and silt soil and enhances the water-holding capacity of sand while adding nutrients to all types. Compost suppresses diseases, discourages harmful insects, allows moisture and air to reach roots and reduces the need for fertilizer. You can make your own from kitchen scraps, dried plant matter and other ingredients, but it takes time. If you’re not already making your own compost, you can buy by it the bag or cubic yard.
If you’re digging a new bed for your garden, use a sod cutter or grub hoe to remove grass, then till the soil 10 to 12 inches deep to soften it. This allows roots to extend and grow outward into the soil without roadblocks. Next, spread 2 to 3 inches of compost over the prepared area and work it into the top 4 to 6 inches of soil. If you’re planting in an established bed that has been amended with compost in the past, you only need mix in an additional inch of compost.
Soil pH is important, too. Each type of plant has its own pH requirement that allows it to absorb nutrients from the soil. If the soil’s pH is outside that range, the plant will not benefit from any nutrients — in soil or fertilizer. Performing a quick pH test, and amending the soil if indicated, will go a long way toward saving time and money.
Test kits, widely available from local nurseries and online retailers, are reasonably priced and easy to use. A reading of 7.0 is considered neutral, with higher pH readings indicating alkaline soil, and lower readings indicating acidic soil. Much of Long Island’s soil tends to be slightly acidic, which is ideal, as 6.0 to 6.5 is suitable for most edibles (blueberries are a notable exception, requiring a lower pH, between 4.0 and 5.0).
A pH that is too low can be raised by incorporating dolomitic lime into the soil. Too-high pH is a bit more difficult to address, requiring what may be costly repeat applications of elemental sulfur, aluminum sulfate or other acidifying compounds. The good news is this is seldom necessary in our region unless you're growing such acid-loving plants as azaleas or blueberries — or if you want to change the color of hydrangeas from pink to blue.
Garden soil or packaged topsoil should be avoided when planting in containers because its heavy, dense structure compacts easily, potentially inhibiting roots. In addition, garden soil may contain harmful insects and diseases. Instead, opt for a lightweight soil-less potting mix, and if the mix you buy doesn't already contain perlite, incorporate some at planting time (following recommended proportions on the package). Perlite improves water retention.
Plants require nutrients to survive and thrive. If your garden's soil pH is in the correct range and you have incorporated compost into the soil, your plants may get most of the nutrients they need. Still, supplemental fertilizer applications will likely be necessary.
Look for a slow-release product. Although often more expensive than quick-release fertilizers, slow-release products save money in the long run, as they deliver nutrients over a prolonged period (as opposed to all at once, with excess wasted, washed away and a potential threat to the ground water) and don’t need to be reapplied on a regular basis. They aren’t leached out of the soil by rain (or watering), and they don’t risk burning plants.
Nevertheless, there is a place for quick-release products, such as when swift action is required to save a plant from a nutrient deficiency. In those cases, the nearly overnight improvement imparted by these products can seem like a miracle.
Plants growing in containers do not have access to naturally occurring soil nutrients and are reliant on what gardener provides, so fertilizer is essential. Mix a slow-release, granular product, preferably organic, into your potting mix at planting time. Then apply water-soluble fertilizer once a week.
When shopping for a fertilizer, refer to the three-number nutrient ratio on the package; it will look something like 10-10-10, 5-10-5 or 8-4-8. The first number indicates the percentage of nitrogen, which supports green, leafy growth; the second number refers to phosphorus, which aids roots and fruit and flower production; and the third denotes potassium, which can boost the overall health of the plant.
Balanced fertilizers, those providing equal or near-equal amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, are generally suitable for most edibles, but they should be scaled back to a product with little or no nitrogen during the fruiting phase of plants. This will encourage plants to direct their energy into fruit production instead of stem and foliage growth. Likewise, if you're digging a new bed from a lawn that has been fertilized with a synthetic product in previous years, do not use fertilizer that contains nitrogen, as too much can adversely affect your harvests. Instead of a balanced fertilizer, which contains nitrogen, incorporate only phosphorus and potassium (look for a ratio with zero as the first number, such as 0-10-10).
Your first consideration when deciding what to plant is simple: What do you and your family like to eat?
Next, read plant tags and seed packets for spacing guidelines, and ensure you have enough room to grow them. Don’t skimp on spacing, as sufficient air circulation between plants is essential. If your garden area is small, or you plan to grow in containers, you may not be able to grow pumpkins. Conversely, cucumbers and other climbing plants that can grow vertically on trellises take up very little garden space.
If in doubt, the staff at your favorite local garden center should be able to offer guidance.
Proper timing is essential when purchasing starter plants. Buy them too early, and they may languish indoors awaiting planting day. A week’s lead time is ideal, however, for plants that are bought from a greenhouse or inside a store. This allows for a five- to seven-day hardening-off period.
Hardening off refers to the gradual acclimation of indoor plants to outdoor weather conditions to minimize the risk of stress, shock or scald. This is accomplished by incrementally increasing outdoor exposure in a location protected from wind and direct sunlight, by one hour each day for about a week. At the end of this period, the plants will have been outdoors for five to seven consecutive hours, and will be strong enough to transplant into the garden, or if potted, to leave outside for the season.
So, when to plant?
Crops that are more cold-hardy can be planted or placed outdoors earlier. Plant broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce and parsley in April; eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, summer squash and other herbs should wait until late May. Read plant tags for spacing and other guidelines specific to the crops you are planting.
Other edibles are best planted from seed, directly into the garden. Sow carrots, peas and early varieties of corn now; late corn, and bush and pole beans in mid-May. Observe planting depth and spacing recommendations on the seed pack.
Finally, apply a 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch around plants to suppress weeds and retain moisture.
Vegetable gardening can be a solitary activity that provides valuable time for quiet contemplation or a group endeavor that allows for family bonding. It’s a fun way to get fresh air, exercise and sunshine. And homegrown vegetables have been shown to be more nutritious than their store-bought counterparts largely because nutrients degrade over time, and supermarket produce typically travels many miles to its destinations.
In addition, home gardening will save you money. If that’s not a victory, I don’t know what is.
The Vegetable Gardener's Bible, by Edward C. Smith ($24.95/Storey Publishing). The author sums up his secret to a high-yield garden with an acronym: WORD (Wide rows, Organic methods, Raised beds, Deep soil). And his system has been revered for more than a decade. In this nicely illustrated book with step-by-step photos, readers will learn general information, such as the intricacies of soil nutrition, as well as specific growing advice for individual vegetables.
Cooking with Scraps: Turn your peels, cores, rinds, and stems into delicious meals, by Lindsay-Jean Hard (Workman Publishing). Wastefulness is out! Now, more than ever, it’s important to be frugal in the kitchen, and this book is the perfect guide to help you live more sustainably. Make no mistake — you won’t be prodded to embrace eating unsavory scraps, but rather you’ll learn creative uses for produce parts you might previously have discarded. Recipes include Pumpkin Guts-Butterscotch Scones and Aquafaba (canned bean water that’s been whipped into a sweet, vegan meringue).
Cocktails, mocktails, teas & infusions: Gardening tips and how-to techniques for making artisanal beverages at home, by Jodi Helmer ($18.99/CompanionHouse Books). Your favorite restaurant or bar stool may seem like a distant memory, but you can still enjoy creative cocktails at home — as long as you have the recipes and the ingredients. The author equips you with the former, and provides an overview for growing 64 fruits, vegetables, herbs and shrubs that comprise the latter. Included are nine garden design layouts and growing tips to expand your talents from gardener to mixologist.
Long Island’s Cornell Cooperative Extension offices are closed, but staff from the Suffolk County Horticulture Lab are offering diagnostic guidance from home via email. LI gardeners can send a photo of a pest or diseased plant to Alice Raimondo (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Sandra Vultaggio (email@example.com) for assistance. Nassau residents can leave a message for horticulturist Vincent Drzewucki on the county’s CCE helpline (516-565-5265, ext.11), which is being monitored remotely.
In addition, Cornell University in Ithaca has made the following resources available online:
- Cornell’s “Just Plant It, NY!” campaign, gardening.cals.cornell.edu.
- Cornell Growing Guides, gardening.cornell.edu/homegardening.
- Cornell Garden Troubleshooting, gardening.cals.cornell.edu/garden-guidance/troubleshooting.
Many local farm stands, nurseries and greenhouses have remained open and are selling fruit and vegetable plants, seeds and supplies. A plethora offer phone or online ordering with curbside pickup, contactless delivery and/or other services and accommodations in place to protect shoppers and workers. Call your favorite local retailer for information — and get planting!