‘Sage’ Advice For Starting Or Improving Your Veggie Plot
Home gardening was crucial to Aunt Marjorie’s survival for much of her life and was ingrained in her soul over her 90 years on this Earth. I was more than fortunate to be able to absorb a small fraction of what she knew, and I’ll never be able to thank her enough for imparting a bit of her wisdom to me for the last decade or so of her life. I hope to pass on some of that wisdom in this article.
Producing your own food provides nutrition security in several ways:
- It prevents starvation.
- It reduces or eliminates dependency on outside sources.
- It avoids toxic chemicals applied to commercial food.
- It ends contamination in processing or preservation.
Produce grown in far-off places, especially those outside the United States, might have been raised using unsafe methods—possibly with hazardous fertilizers such as human waste. Every year, there are outbreaks of food-borne illnesses due to Escherichia coli (E. coli) contamination on leafy greens and other food items originating from sources both foreign and domestic. Chemicals applied to the crops in the form of pesticides can cause a vast array of diseases, including cancer and birth defects. Cross-contamination during handling and processing can cause life-threatening reactions in people with food allergies.
By growing your own food, you know exactly what’s in—and on—it.
At first look, growing plants to produce food seems simple; and, in fact it is, but there’s a lot that goes into a successful garden:
- Selection and preparation of the ground
- The timing of starting seeds and putting plants in the soil
- Nurturing tender, young plants
- Keeping weeds and pests at bay
- Harvesting the crops
- Preserving and/or storing the produce
From the first step, there are many wrong turns that can be made, and there’s often frustration and disappointment along the way. Unfortunately, many people, particularly first-time gardeners, give up before the first pepper is picked.
Where you situate your garden is very important. Most plants need six to eight hours of direct sunlight to grow well, but even shady areas can be productive for some plants. Even so, plants tolerant of shade might do well for a while, but tree roots could draw moisture away.
If you have space in your backyard or an adjacent plot of land, the typical surface-level garden could suit your needs well. But, in some situations, a raised bed might produce better results. And, many urban gardeners use large buckets or containers and grow remarkable amounts of varied crops right on their patio.
Soil conditions have a direct bearing on how well your plants will grow and produce. Soil that compacts easily, such as the red clay soil in my region, makes it difficult for plants to sink their roots into the ground, so rainwater is more apt to run off than soak in.
Corn seems to do quite well in these heavy soils, and the solid support keeps the stalk sturdy and upright in strong winds. Sandy soil doesn’t provide much of an anchor for top-heavy plants and lacks moisture retention. However, vining plants such as melons and squash don’t require much support and are happy to sprawl across the ground, sinking their roots deep to get to the moisture and nutrients to produce large, sweet fruit.
Regardless of what type of soil you have, there are ways to modify or amend it. By mixing a naturally fluffy material such as peat moss into the top several inches of dirt, you can loosen a hard clay or improve the moisture-holding characteristics of sand. However, depending on how much you need to add, peat purchased from garden centers can be expensive. In fact, collected grass clippings and leaf litter can be just as effective. Just try to minimize the weed content if you use these.
“Heirloom seeds will produce plants that are the same as the parents. Because of this, heirloom seeds are generally preferred.”
Besides physical condition, chemical makeup is also important. Soil pH can greatly affect your plants’ health. If you’re just establishing a garden, it’s a good idea to test the soil prior to planting.
Test kits and devices are available at most garden centers and online. While some plants will do well in soils of varying pH, they’ll be healthier and more productive in the right conditions. Soil pH can be raised or lowered to suit your crop’s need by adding the correct substance—in the appropriate proportions. In most cases, and with time, your garden soil will improve in texture and chemistry as organic materials build up and beneficial microorganisms move in. Eventually, amendments won’t be needed to have an extremely productive plot requiring very little maintenance. Nevertheless, the first year or two can be a struggle.
Converting a section of your lawn into a vegetable garden has several challenges:
- Grass and weeds must be cleared out to make room for edible plants.
- Soil must be turned, and roots from grasses and weeds need to be removed.
- Weed seeds that have been lying dormant in the soil will seize the opportunity to sprout.
- Reemerging weeds and grasses could come back stronger than ever.
- Harmful lawn insects, such as grub worms, will munch on the roots of your crops unless they’re removed or consumed by birds that flock to the freshly tilled soil.
“By growing your own food, you know exactly what’s in—and on—it.”
Perseverance will pay off. After a couple of growing seasons, productivity will increase, labor will decrease, and the bounty will be astonishing.
But then, trouble can start. Planting the same crop in the same location can cause problems, because nutrients in the soil can become depleted, and harmful organisms can dominate. To prevent these issues, crop rotation is necessary. Heavy-feeding plants such as corn and squash will consume nutrients at a high rate.
On the other hand, other plants can contribute more nutrients into the soil than they use. Beans are a good example. Most bean plants are known as “nitrogen fixers”; that is, they take nitrogen from the atmosphere and send it to their roots, where it stays long after the living plant is gone. Turning or tilling the remains of the plant into the soil adds even more nitrogen to the dirt, along with organic matter that’ll help build the soil.
“Fertilizer” is a term everyone’s heard but one that few truly understand.
A fertilizer is a compound that adds nutrients necessary for plants to flourish. They can be natural or synthetic. Many of the fertilizers sold today are anything but natural and, if they’re not applied properly, they can hinder or harm your garden. On the other hand, manure from cattle or horses can be used after aging or composting—but avoid pig manure, because it might carry pathogens that can infect humans. Often free for the taking, seasoned manure can be spread over the soil early in the spring or, if it’s fresh, in the fall for the next growing season.
“Storage depends on the vegetable. In the proper conditions, some can be stored for many months. however, others might only last a few days after they’re picked.”
Composting the unused parts of garden vegetables, along with adding grass clippings and other organic matter, will create an excellent soil additive that can “supercharge” your plants. Any discarded vegetables, peels, potato skins and corn husks can be added to the compost bin or pile. Some of my best melons have come from seeds that sprouted in my compost pile! However, never add meat scraps or cooking oils to your compost, because they’ll create a smelly heap and also attract “toothy troublemakers.”
Seed selection should include the fruits and vegetables your family prefers. Seeds can be ordered from online sources or purchased locally. Many seeds at garden centers and hardware stores are hybrid varieties; they produce a certain characteristic, such as super-sweet corn or seedless watermelon, as the progeny of cross-pollinating two different cultivars. Any seeds produced by the resulting hybrids will either be sterile or produce something more like one of the parents.
Heirloom seeds will produce plants that are the same as the parents. Because of this, heirloom seeds are generally preferred. However, plants of the same type but different cultivars can, and usually do, cross-pollinate if they’re planted in close enough proximity, creating something that might be a little different if their seeds are used for the next crop.
Seeds are usually marked for the year they’re intended to be sown—but don’t be afraid to buy more than you want to plant. Some seeds can remain viable for a decade or more from the date on the package, especially larger seeds such as peas, beans and corn. Tiny seeds, such as lettuce and tomato, won’t last as long, but they should still have a high chance of sprouting several years past that date if stored properly. Ours are kept in the original package and then vacuum-sealed and placed in our chest freezer.
Sowing your seeds is a matter of timing and is usually based on the date of the last predictable frost in your region. Seeds such as tomatoes, peppers, squash, melons and cabbages can be started indoors well before it’s time to put them in the ground. More-delicate plants such as beans should be sown directly in the garden once the soil is warm enough. Reading the instructions on the seed package will tell you how to best start the seeds, as well as how many days it’ll take for the plant to reach maturity.
Sometimes, it’s possible to have multiple harvests of the same vegetables by staggering the planting dates. This works well with corn and summer squash, which mature quickly; but slow-maturing plants, such as winter squash and melons, usually take the entire growing season to produce mature fruits. Some plants will continue to produce throughout the season. For example, a row of green beans can produce many pickings of fresh food all season long.
Harvest your bounty at the desired point of maturity.
As I already mentioned, green beans can provide a continuous harvest over an extended period because they’re consumed before they mature. Melons can be hard to judge and might require cutting one of them open to see if they’re ready. Sweet corn is ready when the kernels are full and the juice is still clear. Test this by puncturing a kernel with a fingernail. Milky juice means the plant is starting to turn sugars to starch in preparation for shutting down and drying out.
Acorn, butternut and other winter squash are ready when their skin is hard and not easily dented with a firm push with a fingernail. White potatoes can be dug up after the flowers have appeared but are mature when the vines die back. Sweet potato vines will stay green, and the tubers growing, until the first frost of fall. However, they won’t withstand being frostbitten and will quickly rot, ruining the potatoes.
Storage depends on the vegetable. In the proper conditions, some can be stored for many months. However, others might only last a few days after they’re picked.
Here are some examples:
- White potatoes can last several months in a cool, dry location, away from light. When harvesting, leave any tightly clinging soil on the potato and wash it off when preparing to eat it.
- Sweet potatoes need to be kept warm in storage, because temperatures below 50 degrees (F) will injure the root. Curing them immediately after harvest at 85 to 90 degrees for a couple of weeks will improve the flavor and prolong storage (which can be a year or more).
- Dried beans can be stored for several years at room temperature.
- Fresh green beans can be stored in a refrigerator for several days but must be frozen or canned for long-term storage after that.
- Leafy vegetables should be eaten fresh and might last only a couple of days in the refrigerator. Kale, spinach and other greens that are normally cooked can be frozen or canned.
- Sweet corn starts losing its flavor as soon as it’s picked, but it can last for several months frozen—or a year or more if the kernels are cut off the cob and canned.
- Cucumbers and yellow summer squash can be pickled.
- Winter squash can last for several months if kept cool and dry. Watch for wrinkling, soft spots or mold, and discard any that are showing deterioration.
Bees and Insect Pests
With honeybees on the decline, we are fortunate to still have the native mason bee. These nonaggressive bees are even better pollinators than the honeybee. They often stay inside a blossom all day and will even spend the night there. Because of this, there is no “safe” time to apply insecticides without endangering these insects that make much of the food in our garden possible.
“Plant it, and they will come”
You and your family aren’t the only ones that relish fresh produce. A myriad of insects will find your garden irresistible. The larva of several moth and beetle species can devastate crops in a very short time. While there are many chemical pesticides that can reduce the infestation, these toxic products often make their way onto our dinner plates. Besides that, they are not selective about what bugs they kill. Many of our flowering vegetables rely on pollinators like honeybees to produce their fruit, and dusting or spraying insecticides on your plants will harm the beneficial and destructive bugs alike.
Picking the destructive pests off by hand or blasting them off the plant with a water hose are very effective. Diatomaceous earth (fossilized remains of diatoms) can be used to kill insects as its sharp microscopic edges lacerates the exoskeleton or soft body of larvae. Some pests are difficult to see as they blend in with the host plant, or live inside it, but with a little practice they can be detected.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the March, 2021 print issue of American Survival Guide.