Maybe all the gardener grows is a vegetable garden, but this is undoubtedly the year to consider growing your own food if you haven’t been inclined to do so before. I have had a vegetable plot since I began gardening, and last year was probably the best, a year in which I recorded results and plotted for the ideal number of plants for my square footage. I’m fortunate to have enough ground to grow a large vegetable garden, but amazing things can be done in smaller spaces.
When I was still running the nursery, the job of the grower was to follow guidelines and notes of when to sow what seed and how to plant or transplant those seedlings. I required each grower to keep a journal of daily activity, and over time these greenhouse notes became a way to tweak a growing season as best we could despite the vagaries of weather and employee rotations. Laminated sheets were kept on vegetable and flower production, which began with seed sowing for the first week of January and continued until the last week of April.
Our earliest sowing of cool crops in the greenhouse was the first week of February, and even though lettuce might like it cool, we sowed seed into flats that sat on heat mats of 75 or 80 degrees, ensuring consistent results. Consistency is the objective when you are selling plants. Postemergence the lettuce was grown cool at 40 to 45 degrees, as were many other cool crops. When sowing directly in the garden, soil temperature can delay sprouting and therefore harvest. Various methods can be used to warm outside soil; black plastic, glass cloches, and water-filled cloches transfer heat to the ground.
Early in the season, the gardener can grow sugar snap peas, carrots, kale, mustard, lettuce, kohlrabi, beets, and Swiss chard. All of these can be sown directly in the ground. Onions and potatoes go out as bulbs and tubers, also better when temperatures are cold.
Corn is planted from seed in rows. Wind pollination is necessary, so there must be a minimum of 3 rows, but six rows are even better for guaranteed harvest. Tomatoes and peppers are either bought as starter plants, or seed is sown indoors (or in a greenhouse). Peppers are slow to germinate and love bottom heat; the hotter the pepper, the more they love heat, and the slower they grow. Seed sowing was early to late March in our greenhouse.
Tomatoes also love warmth but can tolerate cooler temperatures growing tighter and shorter with temperatures in the 50’s or 60’s. With initial sowing in market packs, the flats can be stacked on heat mats until they germinate. For the home gardener, it helps to sow seeds in a warm location and then move them outdoors on nice days to harden them off. Grow lights can be used to grow your vegetables indoors, but the light must stay just above the top of the plants to discourage spindly, weak stems. Tomato seed sowing stretched from late March to early April in our greenhouse; we were also inclined to run our hands over the seedlings to help strengthen the stems, a method that helps make more robust plants and roots.
Tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers are susceptible to tomato mosaic virus, which is spread from tobacco. If you are a smoker, it’s essential to wash hands thoroughly before handling the plants. This was one of the first questions I would ask a potential grower if they were applying for a job.
Late spring is also time to sow cucumber, squash, melon, and zucchini directly in the ground. They take up a large amount of real estate and can quickly fill ten square feet per vine. Growing them up support is a space saver and indeed works.
Container gardening is easy, with many vegetables. I love lettuce in pots with flowering plants, and few plants grow better in our hot summers than pepper plants. Tomatoes can be grown in containers – the bigger, the better. Consistent watering is essential, and a daily dose of fertilizer will be needed. Fertilizers like “Plant-Tone” and “Tomato-Tone” are organic, and a sprinkle on top of the soil will energize your plants for the summer.
If your ground is loaded with weed seeds, place a thick layer of compost down over your ground (newspaper can be put down first as a barrier below the compost), and sow directly in “weed-free” compost. As an additional precaution, I place newspaper around the base of my tomatoes and peppers and then mulch over that, so I’m not spending the summer weeding there. A weekly check to stake and tie up tomatoes is essential; fruit gets heavy and causes stems to snap.
For me, it’s boiled down to eleven varieties of tomatoes for the perfect season. I recommend you keep a journal or notebook on how your season progresses, with seasonal variances of rain and temperatures; it’s the best way to proceed.