by Connie Oswald Stofko
Whether you’re a seasoned gardener or just beginning to grow vegetables, you’ll find great tips here from Jen Weber, vice president and manager of Mike Weber Greenhouses, 42 French Rd., West Seneca.
She covers the basics– vegetables need sun– to more random tricks– always plant very hot peppers in containers.
Browse through these tips to see how you can improve your vegetable garden this year.
Find a sunny space
Most vegetables need six straight hours of sun.
“That’s the bare minium to get vegetables from your plants,” Weber said. “More sun is better. And it’s six straight hours; it can’t be broken up.”
Getting sun from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. would be good.
Grow what you like to eat
Don’t be swayed by the description of the plant.
“So many people get excited about planting something, like Swiss chard because it comes in a rainbow variety,” Weber said. “Then they realize they don’t like Swiss chard.”
If, for whatever reason, you end up having extra vegetables, you can always share with neighbors, family, friends, soup kitchens and food pantries. FeedMore WNY and their partner agencies welcome donations of all varieties of fresh produce. They distribute food to hungry people throughout Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Erie and Niagara counties.
Plan what plants you’ll grow
“You really want to plan ahead and know what you want,” she said, “because vegetable plants get a lot bigger than they look when you buy them.”
Make sure you have enough room.
“Rein yourself in,” she said.
How big to make a vegetable garden
Weber suggests starting with a garden that’s 10 feet by 5 feet, or 50 square feet. That will give you enough room for one or two plants of roughly 5 kinds of vegetables.
“It’s small, but it’s a start, and you can expand from there,” she said.
You can plant vegetables in containers, too
There are a bazillion reasons to plant vegetables in containers. (I do most of my vegetable gardening in containers now.) See more in this previous article.
Always plant very hot peppers in containers
You can grow very hot peppers, such as ‘Carolina Reaper’ and ghost peppers, in Western New York. The trick is to plant them in containers.
They take a long time to mature; 110 to 160 days. They usually mature in October or even November, Weber said. That’s after the first frost, and peppers don’t like frost. In order to harvest the fruit, extend the peppers’ growing season by bringing the plants inside to a garage or basement. If they’re planted in containers, it’s easy to move them to a protected environment.
Place your vegetable garden near a water source
You will need to water your plants, so make sure your garden is close enough to a water source, whether it’s an irrigation system or a hose (or drip hose) hooked up to a spigot or to a water barrel.
Don’t use a sprinkler unless you’re trying to get mildew
Wet leaves encourage mildew, and mildew will kill cucumbers, squash, zucchini and pumpkins, Weber said.
Water only at the base of the plant.
What to do if you have a wet yard
Don’t locate your vegetable garden in the wettest part of your yard. If your whole yard stays wet for a long time, use containers instead, she said.
Start with good soil
The steps for turning a lawn into a vegetable garden are the same as the steps for a perennial garden. See this previous article how to turn a lawn into a garden.
Keep critters out
“Plan to put up a fence of some sort to keep animals out,” Weber said. “They’ll get in otherwise.”
I always wondered why people placed their vegetable garden in a separate spot and fenced it in. Now I understand. It’s bad enough when rabbits and deer chomp on your flowers, but it’s horrible when they ruin your food plants before you even get a taste.
In this previous article, see how Lindsay and Timothy Dzielski of the City of Tonawanda keep deer and other critters out of their vegetable gardens.
Place plants strategically within your vegetable garden
You don’t want to step on your plants, so use these guidelines from Weber to figure out which plants go in the front of the garden and which go in back.
Vegetables that are first to harvest go in front
The vegetables you harvest first should go in front. For example, plant these vegetables in this order, from front to back: lettuce, beans, peppers, tomatoes and corn.
Seeds in front, transplants in back
Plant transplants in back and seeds in front because, in general, you need to get into the garden more when you plant seeds. Many vegetable seeds, such as carrot seeds, are tiny. You just sprinkle the seeds on the soil and pull out the extra plants later. So plant seeds that need thinning later in front.
Some seeds, such as radish seeds, are larger. You don’t have to thin them out, so they don’t have to be in the front.
Tall plants create shade
Since vegetables need full sun, you don’t want to place your tall vegetables, such as corn, in a spot that will create shade for your other smaller vegetables, she said. Place your tall plants on the north or west side of the garden.
You can also pound a dowel or stick in your garden and note where its shadow is throughout the day. That will give you an accurate idea of where shadows will fall in your garden.
When to fertilize and when to stop
When you fertilize vegetables, fertilize only until the plant flowers, then stop, Weber said. Otherwise you will get great big plants with lots of leaves but no fruit.
She also said you should use a vegetable fertilizer that is 10-10-10 (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium). A fertilizer for flowers might be 10-30-20 or 20-20-20, which has too much phosphorus and potassium for vegetables.
If you’re not sure if you need to fertilize, test your soil. Find out more about testing your soil here.
Stake as needed
Some tomatoes need to be staked and others don’t. Weber remembers the difference this way: Determinate varieties are determined to grow up straight and don’t need to be staked while indeterminate varieties get floppy and need to be staked.
Weed barriers between rows
Place newspaper or straw as weed barriers between rows in your vegetable garden. If you don’t, you’ll be weeding constantly, Weber said, especially if you have a large garden.
Be sure to use straw and not hay– hay has too many seeds.