Nothing tastes better than food you have grown yourself. Juicy tomatoes that have ripened from the sunshine in your own backyard have more flavor than any variety sitting on grocery store shelves. Crisp peppers, whether bell-shaped or banana, sweet or hot, have a deeper, more robust flavor than any others. Salads tossed with spicy, mixed greens and cool cucumbers from your own vines have so much flavor on their own that dressing seems barely needed.
It is likely that if you were planning a vegetable garden this year, you have already planted just about everything you expect to grow for the season. But if you haven't, there are still some things you can put in the ground for a quick harvest, as well as preparation for next year's garden. And if you have, that doesn't mean you can't add a few more things to the garden once those beans and peas have been harvested.
If you look with envy on your neighbor's garden, don't despair. Here are some tips to get you started this season, and keep you going into next spring.
While it's true that a vegetable garden should be planned in advance of the growing season, placing a few lettuce seedlings or a tomato plant or two among the flowers, isn't unheard of. But if you are a serious vegetable gardener, the most important thing to consider when planning your garden is its location. Vegetables need at least 6 to 8 hours of sunlight each day to maintain healthy growth and high yields. If your area is too shady, consider trimming a few tree branches to allow extra sunlight to come through. A spot near the house is usually the best site for the cook's convenience, but if that isn't possible, the extra exercise you get by walking out to the back yard to harvest your rewards will be worth it.
Soil is the second consideration in planning a garden. If this advice sounds a lot like flower gardening, you aren't that far off the mark. All plants need viable soil where they can spread their roots, get access to water without sitting in mud and still remain upright. Depending on the size of your garden, you can order truckloads of organic compost or you can buy it by the 40-pound bag from any local garden center. In any case, soil should be fertile without rocks and large clumps of clay.
When choosing a site for your garden, consider your water source. Is it close enough for the hose to reach or will you carry buckets of water one at a time to your plants? If it is the latter, your early good intentions will likely fade away by mid-summer when plants need to be watered the most. Most vegetables can survive on one inch of water per week, watered in slowly so it seeps deep into the soil to the plants' roots.
Weed of the Week
It might seem strange that Maple tree seedlings can be called weeds, but in early spring when the trees are letting loose thousands of flying "whirlybirds," tiny seedlings later pop up everywhere in the garden. A weed, after all, is any plant that is growing where you don't want it. If you like the trees, simply dig them up when they are small and move them to a more acceptable location. Otherwise, don't wait too long because they grow fast and the larger they get, the more difficult it is to dig them out of your garden bed.
Placing soaker hoses, which have small holes throughout the length of the hose, in the garden is an easy way to water your plants. Soaker hoses also use less water. Water also isn't lost to evaporation as it is with sprinklers. Leave the soaker hose in the garden among the plants and simply attach your regular hose to the soaker when you are ready to garden. Leave it on for about an hour a week to thoroughly water your plants.
Chances are you have heard that testing the soil is important to growing healthy plants and while this is true, you can probably get away with putting that off until next spring. Adding organic matter, such as composted manure or mushroom compost will help neutralize the soil enough to start a few vegetables this season. But if you aren't expecting to plant anything this year and just want to get your garden plot ready for next season, you will want to purchase a soil test kit. Self-testing kits are generally difficult to read and are not accurate, nor do they offer the expert advice you can get from professional horticulturists. Purchasing a kit from the Trumbull County Ohio State University Extension office in Cortland and sending soil to a professional lab will give you accurate information on which and how much soil amendments should be added for optimal vegetable growth. In addition, a copy of the report also will be sent to the extension office for help in interpreting the results.
When you are ready to set out plants, remember that most of our long season vegetables should have been in the ground for nearly a month ago. But it isn't too late to put in a row of radishes as well as several rows of lettuce, spinach, kale, mesclun or peas. If you can find tomato plants that were left unsold at garden centers, but were transplanted into larger containers and well taken care of, you can transplant them into the garden now without losing too much growth. Determinate or bush tomatoes, unlike the vining indeterminate plants, will produce earlier and all at once. Closer to the end of the season, from late July to mid-August, you can plant spinach and garlic for next season and start peas for a fall crop. You will have spinach in early spring before anyone else and wintered-over garlic can be harvested in July.
You also can plant several varieties of herbs that will still do well this season, such as heat-loving basil, oregano, sage, marjoram and thyme. Don't forget to put in a few annual flowers to give your garden a bit of color. Marigolds, some old-time gardeners profess, can keep away many garden pests and are often planted with tomatoes, cucumbers and cabbage. You may as well sow a few seeds of taller flowers, such as zinnia and salvia for cutting later to take indoors. No one said flowers couldn't be planted in the vegetable garden.
Be sure to keep the weeds under control. Weeds will not only rob your plants of vital water and nutrients, but once a weed has bloomed and gone to seed, you can be assured of hundreds more weeds for years to come. Many weed seeds can remain viable in the soil for several years and are turned up with each subsequent tilling creating ideal conditions for germination. Mulch heavily between the rows of your plants with grass cuttings or straw to help retain moisture and keep the weeds from seeing the sun. Over winter, the grass and straw will decompose adding more organic matter to the soil.
There are few things as satisfying as bringing in your own harvest, whether you are simply mixing up a salad for lunch or filling up each available space in your kitchen with your own harvested vegetables.
For more information on vegetable gardening, as well as how to test your soil, contact The Ohio State University Extension Master Gardener hotline at 330-637-3908 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Evanoff is a Master Gardener with The Ohio State University of Trumbull County. She can be reached at email@example.com.