Preparing the garden before planting is the key to a successful and fruitful vegetable season. To grow healthy vegetable plants you need healthy soil. Home gardeners shouldn't just plunk vegetable plants into the ground without knowing something about the garden's soil content and organic matter.
Testing The Soilcolor>
You should test your soil before planting to determine the pH and organic matter. It will give you a better idea how to improve the soil. There are a number of ways to do this.
The most complete analysis is available through your county cooperative extension system, usually part of the state university laboratories. They charge a nominal fee (about $5 for a basic test to $15 for a more complete test). Gather a soil sample when the soil is moist, not wet. Dig down four to five inches with a trowel. Remove a scoop of dirt and place it in a clean bucket. Repeat in several places in the garden. Mix all the soil samples in the bucket and put a cupful in a plastic bag that seals. Mail the sample to the cooperative extension service.
Commercial home test kits are available at local garden centers and mail order supplies. Follow the directions on the kit.
You can purchase a pH meter to determine the acid/alkaline composition of the soil in just a minute. Most vegetables prefer slightly acidic soil (or slightly lower pH) with an ideal pH between 6.0 and 6.8. Soil that is too alkaline (or high pH) does not attract the nutrients vegetables need to grow. This is especially important for blueberries, which prefer more acidic soil with a pH between 4.0 and 5.5.
If the soil pH is too low, add lime to the soil. If the pH is too high, add aluminum (or ammonium) sulfate to the soil. Both lime and aluminum sulfate can be obtained at your local garden center and be sure to follow the direction on the bag carefully.
Preparing The Soilcolor>
If soil is the consistency of fudge or sticks to your shoes, let it dry out a bit or it will form clumps and be inhospitable to root growth. When it is ready, the soil should crumble like chocolate cake and you should be able to pick up a handful and make a loose ball with it.
The single most important step you can take to improve the soil is to increase its organic matter. Working in generous amounts of finished compost will improve soil structure, help compensate for mineral deficiencies and regulate the pH level.
Most town sanitation departments offer free compost throughout the growing season. Call your local sanitation department and ask.
Peat moss mixed in with the soil helps the garden to retain water. The more water the soil retans the better your garden will fare in those dry, hot months of summer.
Always plant a vegetable garden in full sunlight. Vegetables need at least seven hours of full sun to grow.
Parts of the country including the Northeast can have unseasonably cool weather even when summer is upon us. A 40-degree night won't kill your plants but it can retard growth. It is generally better to wait until the ground temperature reaches 50 degrees before putting in your warm weather plants. Vegetables planted a little later will yield earlier and more abundantly.
Warm the soil before planting by spreading clear, not black, plastic over the planting bed for 10 days. Once the soil temperature has reached 60 degrees for tomatoes and cucumbers and 70 degrees for peppers, you can start planting. If your plants are already in the ground you can still protect them on cold nights. Cut off the bottoms of plastic milk jugs and place them over the plants in the evening.
Mulching is critical for a healthy garden. It will help preserve moisture especially during the dryness of late summer. Mulching also helps prevent soil-splash blight on the leaves. Mulch only after the soil has warmed up to 55 to 60 degrees. Don't put too mulch too close to the stems of the plants or it may rot them. Give stems three to five inches of space to allow them to breathe. Salt hay or straw make great mulch.
Plants that are best grown on stakes, like tomatoes, need to be tied up as they grow. Be careful not to tie them so tight you strangle the plants. Hold on to your old pantyhose and old bed sheeting. They make excellent ties.
As a general rule use a fertilizer labeled as 5-10-5 for a typical vegetable garden. When it's dry and hot it is better to use a water-soluble fertilizer instead of a granular fertilizer. The water-based fertilizer can be poured on to soil, or for fast absorption it can be sprayed directly onto the leaves. Be careful; in a drought it is better to skip fertilize because it can stress the plants too much.
Determinate vs. Indeterminate Varietiescolor>
Determinate varieties are bush type plants that grow to a certain size and then stop growing with most of the fruit ripening over the same period of time. Most modern hybrids fall into this category. Indeterminate varieties are vine type plants and will continue to flower and grow throughout the season until killed by the first frost. Indeterminate varieties produce less fruit at one time. Most heirloom type plant fall into this category.
Indeterminate Short Internode varieties have been developed which combine the controlled growth habit of a determinate with the unlimited production of the indeterminate.
- To boost tomato yield and increase fruit size, sprinkle a teaspoon of Epsom salt into your planting hole. Tomato plants love the magnesium in the salts.
- Make sure the holes are big enough to accommodate all the roots without crowding. Plants should be set deeper in the holes then they originally were in the container. Plant them down to the first leaves. If the plants are leggy (long stems) dig out furrows and lay in the plant bearing excessively tall stems.
- Researchers have suggested planting your tomato seedlings in the mid-afternoon. Setting the seedlings out on a cold morning makes them more susceptible to a chilling injury.
- Nasturtiums attract aphids. Plant them close by to tomatoes as a trap crop for nasty pests.
It is best to water lettuce on sunny morning so water doesn't collect inside leaves and cause rot and disease.
Lettuce is always more crisp when picked in the morning.
Grow cucumbers next to a hill or on a trellis. This can save garden space and the supports produce healthier fruit that will green on all sides.
Sustained temperatures above 85 degrees may cause the blossoms to drop without setting fruit. Plant peppers next to taller plants like tomatoes that will help shade the pepper during the hottest part of the day.
For more on summer gardening, click on our Gardening page in the Summer section.