My friend Sheila is an absolute, starting from square one, beginner gardener. In earlier articles, I helped her plan and plant a small vegetable garden with a few of the easiest crops. Now I need to give that beginner some basic instructions as her peas, lettuce, cukes, squash and tomatos brave the heat of summer.
It's been over three months since we last talked, and you were getting the first seeds planted in your new garden. Time sure flies and plants can really grow fast! Like kids, they seem the same day after day but suddenly you notice they're a foot taller (like my 14 yr old). Now, I understand you have no experience with veggie plants and I bet you have some questions for me. With the kids get out of school. we somehow seem busier than ever. I want to give you a minimum of simple maintenance guidelines to help your first summer of vegetable growng be a good one. There's so much more to learn but I fear overwhelming you. Let's get right to the topic at hand.
Basic vegetable garden care in simple terms...
Water- Summer storms are notoriously hit or miss. When they do pass over us, even a seemingly strong but brief storm may not give enough water to the garden. The goal is an inch of water a week. An easy way to check for "an inch of water" is to put a tuna or cat food can in the garden, and water the area. When the can is full, you're done. Keeping the garden watered means your lettuce will be leafier, your cucumbers crisper, your tomatoes juicier... everything in the garden is happier with enough water.
Watch- Watch out for bugs, or evidence of tiny diners munching in the garden. Holes in the leaves are usually caused by insects, whole leaves eaten is a sign of 4 footed critters at work. In your modest, kid-friendly garden, "hand picking" is one way to control bugs seen chomping on your veggies. Pick and drop in, or knock the offenders into, a cup of soapy water. Your kids may enjoy this more than you! Look for links at the end of the article where you can see pictures of the commonest nasty bugs. Too squeamish for hand picking? Buy a spray bottle of "safe," less toxic, bug spray, and see if that's enough to keep your bugs at bay.
Prop- If things are growing very well they just might overgrow your planned stakes or area. For peas, cucumbers or tomatoes, buy longer stakes if needed. Peas and cukes will latch on by themselves. Tomatos will need to be loosely tied to the stakes, or cages, if they have flopped out sideways..
Pick- After flowers come the pickable parts (except on lettuce.) Pick them as soon as they look good and ready. Most crops produce less if fruits stay on too long. These crops are all perfectly edible on the young side, and you'll be disappointed to find too many things gone overripe or tough. Make a habit, or kid chore, of checking daily on the vegetables for tasty treats ready to pick. As for that lettuce, individual leaves of lettuce can be eaten whenever they look big enough to you, let ting the smaller leaves grow to harvest a few days later.
...and some notes about those easy "starter" crops
Peas grew fast in cool, moist spring weather. I trust your kids were out there watching for the flowers, then the pods, so they could pick and eat right from the vine. If they complained that the peas were tough and not tasty, they found some pods left too long on the vines. Peas are pretty trouble free, as long as the bunnies don't use the vines for salad. One downside to peas is their short lifespan. They die in summer heat. That's to be expected, and we experienced gardeners just pull out those dying vines.
Lettuce loves spring weather, too. Lettuce leaves can be eaten one by one as soon as they are big enough, or left to make a loose clump and cut all at once. Either way, lettuce hates hot weather and long sunny days. It reacts by stretching up its stem, preparing to flower. This is called bolting. It's a sign that the leaves are bitter or soon will be. When you see this, pull out the plants.
Green beans were a possibility in our garden plan. You might have planted some green beans if your lettuce or peas came out early enough. I will confess though that I didn't allow many inches of extra space in that plan, and the squash plants may have partially overtaken that area. Well, dear Sheila, flexibility in planning can be and advantage in the garden. Keep bush beans in mind though. If some other plant fails by mid July (my own yellow squash looks doomed) you can plant bush beans in that place.
Green beans like warm weather. Look over the plants every few days for pickable beans, slim and smooth. While picking, keep an eye out for any bugs clinging to the leaves. They're probably bean beetles. You'll have beans to pick every couple of days, for a couple of weeks.
Cucumbers grow on a viny plant like peas. Have they reached the top of the tomato cage? You can add some taller stakes to give them more room to climb. Look for small, bright yellow flowers followed by tiny spiky baby cucumbers. I know two bugs that love cucumber plants: striped cucumber beetles and squash bugs. They can be bad news, but hopefully you're about sick of picking cucumbers before the plant sucumbs. If the leaves all become whitish, yellowed, or crispy, this plant is finished for the year.
Remember that little "hill" where we planted the squash seeds? Bet you can't see it now, for the mound of big fuzzy leaves. Squash (and cukes) have some flowers without baby fruit and that's normal. Soon enough the "girl" flowers grow and you see baby fruits right behind them. With three plants going, you might pick a tender tasty squash almost every day. Given their name, it's not surprising that squash bugs are an enemy here, too. So are those bean beetles, and a hidden one called squash vine borer. If the plant suddenly wilts completely you have a bad case of borers. Recovery is unlikely and only with massive TLC. Pull the plant out. (If you've pulled it in July you might plant some bush beans in its place.)
Ah, tomatoes-- the star of many a home garden! They shoot up from a tiny plant in May to shoulder high bush by July. If you have the time and inclination to " fuss" in the garden, here's your chance. The beefy, slicing type, tomatoes I suggested for you want to make many branches, but you should only allow it a few. As those branches fill the tomato cage, tuck them inside the rings, or tie them loosely to the wires. When clusters of green tomatoes appear, you'll want to keep the bush from getting way too bushy. Do this by removing "suckers" to stop new branches. A sucker is a sprouting extra stem that appears just above a leaf. Flower clusters that make fruit always stick out of a stem, not from the leaf joint. Learn to recognize them, (see picture,) and break or cut them off. The plant will live and give you tomatoes to eat without the extra fussing. If you can do this tying and pruning, your plants will give you better tomatoes. Now pick and enjoy those home grown tomatoes in July and August. There's a flavor you can't get from the grocery store! At the end of summer, you should stop the plant from adding any new baby fruits. Do this in late September here in Maryland. Cut the tip end off all branches and cut off any new flowers that grow. (I plan tasks like this one for my birthday, as "uninterrupted, guilt-free garden time" is one of the best presents my family can give me.)
OK, dear, I think you've got the basics now; this should be just enough information to tide you over through the summer. I think it best to give you this much, and then wait for your report. What grew well and what didn't? What did you and your family like most? What other questions came up for you? And remember you can find more advice whenever you want it, on the internet, even right here at Dave's Garden.
I grew up playing in the Maryland woods, and would still do it often if life allowed! Graduate of University of Maryland, my degree is in Agriculture. Gardens and natural areas give me endless opportunity for learning and wonder. Naturally (pun intended) my garden style leans towards the casual, and my cultural methods towards organic. I like to try new plants, and have "some of everything" in my indoor and outdoor gardens. Thanks go to my parents for passing along their love of gardening and nature, and my husband and kids for being patient when I get lost in the garden.