Did you know that you can grow a vegetable garden with 4-6 hours of sunlight? Leafy greens like lettuce, chard and spinach and other vegetables like broccoli, peas, beets, radishes, and cauliflower can do well in partial shade if they receive several hours of sunlight. Warm season vegetables like corn, peppers, tomatoes and eggplant need at least 6-8 hours of sunlight.
Preparing the Soil
The secret to a successful vegetable garden is to prepare the soil. Read Soil Preparation (Gardening 101) to learn more about your soil. Then, when soil is moist but not wet, add 3-4 inches of compost and mix in well with a shovel, hoe or tiller.
Note: If your soil drains too slowly or is very sandy, you may want to use raised beds. Raised beds or planters are also great for people with limited mobility. Sunset Magazine has a helpful article on how to make raised beds. However, it’s not necessary to use raised beds to grow vegetables.
Here are some tips to help save money when growing a vegetable garden.
- Save seeds you don’t use for the following year. Many last for several years.
- Plant leafy greens, corn and root crops like carrots and beets directly from seed instead of purchasing expensive 6 packs or 4” containers.
- When thinning leafy greens, add the thinned plants to a salad.
- Buy perennial vegetables like artichoke, asparagus, and horseradish in winter during bare-root season. Bare-root plants are dormant but begin growing in spring.
Many vegetables are annual plants that grow during either warm or cool season climates, unless you live in a tropical area. Warm season annuals include beans, corn, cucumber, eggplant, melon, okra, pepper, pumpkin, squash, sweet potato and tomato. Cool season annuals include leafy greens, root crops, and potatoes.
Perennial vegetable plants live for many years and include asparagus, artichoke, rhubarb and horseradish. The nice thing about perennial vegetables is that they use less water once they are established (less than 2 years).
Seeds vs. Transplants
You can grow your own warm season vegetable transplants from seed for spring indoors 4-6 weeks before your last frost date. In late summer, you can plant most fall crops directly into the soil from seed. Review the back of the seed packet before planting. It should read, “Plant in spring/once soil has warmed,” or “Plant in fall/during cool weather.” If you have a short growing season, choose a variety that takes less time to mature. For example, the broccoli variety ‘Packman’ takes 50 days while ‘Marathon’ takes 75 days.
Some vegetable plants are harder to germinate than others, like tomatoes, eggplant and peppers. Often gardeners bury the seeds too deeply, so try setting them on the surface and then water gently. Plant 5-6 seeds per cell instead of just a few. You can separate them later if all of them sprout.
Two to three weeks after your seeds sprout, thin plants so they are spaced according to the seed packet directions. If you do not thin your plants, the seedlings will compete with each other for space, water and light and become stunted. To thin, snip with scissors or gently pull out seedlings. Add leafy greens to salads, and compost inedible seedlings like carrots.
Watering and Watering During Drought
To have a successful vegetable garden, you’ll need a nearby water source. If you are concerned about saving water, make sure to mulch the soil well around vegetable plants. Vegetables need regular moisture during establishment, and a little less once established. Vegetables will not produce crops with good flavor unless they are given adequate water.
Starting a vegetable gardening during drought may or may not be possible depending on the watering restrictions in your area. If you can only water once or twice weekly, you won’t be able to start and establish a vegetable garden. If you already have a perennial vegetable garden, most plants will survive with deep water once weekly during the dry season. Many plants can even go longer between watering. If you can’t have a vegetable garden, consider supporting a local farmer by purchasing directly from a farmer’s market.
Water vegetables deeply and pull weeds that compete for water and nutrients. Monitor crops for pest problems. Use nontoxic control methods like spraying plants with a gentle stream of water or hand-picking/knocking pests into warm soapy jars of water.
Can I Garden in Containers?
Many vegetables can be grown in containers as long as their needs are met. Look for varieties on seed packets that mention container gardening, or ask a nurseryperson. Small vegetable plants like eggplant, pepper and cherry tomatoes grow easily in a medium size container, while regular tomato plants need at least 5 gallons of soil to hold their roots. Leafy greens, peas and bulbs like onion and garlic do fine in shallow (about 6” deep) containers. Corn is a difficult vegetable to grow in containers because in order for pollination to happen it needs to be planted in rows. Some vegetables need a trellis, so simply place one near your pot to allow cucumbers, peas, and squash, etc. to grow.)
Interestingly, some vegetables are harvested when ripe, others are harvested when immature. Winter squash like butternut or acorn squash can be harvested ripe or immature. If you want the squash to “keep,” wait until the tendril growing near the base of the fruit has dried. Summer squash like zucchini are best harvested when small and immature.
Tomatoes can be picked when green and will turn a ripe red color when fully mature. Eggplant, summer squash and pepper can be picked at any size. Leafy greens are best harvested when young. Beans and peas are ready when the pods have filled out. Underground plants like potatoes and sweet potatoes are ready when the above ground plant flowers.
Vegetables like eggplant, artichoke, okra and squash may have spiny or prickly plants, so use gloves and pruners to harvest them. Also, never tug a vegetable off a plant, as you may accidentally pull out the plant or harm it.
The best tasting vegetables are harvested just before you use them. If you can’t, learn which types should be kept on a shelf and which should stay in the refrigerator. See this list from UC Davis PostHarvest Technology about how best to store vegetables after harvest.