Here are some tips for new vegetable gardeners.
It’s all about timing:
Over the last few days many questions have arisen about when to plant vegetable seeds and plants. That depends on the plant. If it’s a cool season plant you can safely continue to plant successively up until the end of June. So keep planting peas, broccoli, kale, cauliflower and salad greens. Space your plantings by two weeks so not all your harvest is ready at the same time.
Warm weather crops such as beans, corn, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and basil can safely be planted now. Tomatoes do best when our night-time low is consistently 10C but basil likes it to be 15C at night. Basil is the last crop I plant with it often going out in the garden in the first week of June.
Just remember it’s not a race to get your plants in the garden. Here on the lower mainland of BC we have quite a wide planting window. For example, you can continue to plant beans until late July. If you have some bare soil, be sure to plant it up. Remember, some crops will bolt and go to seed as it warms up and you will have the opportunity to plant something new in its place. What is bolting? Bolting is a normal reaction to warmer temperatures and the plant sends up a tall center stalk, produces a flower and goes to seed. It’s at this point the flavour of these plants change so they are not as palatable as they were. Often the leaves will take on a peppery taste. Above is a spinach plant in flower getting ready to produce seed. Before removing bolting plants from the garden, harvest what you can and compost the rest.
It’s very important to harden off your plants before you plant them in the garden. Even if they come from the garden centre, be aware of where your new purchases were growing. Were they growing under a large greenhouse roof or were they outside? If still under the greenhouse roof they will need time to adjust to bright sunlight. It’s best to place your new plants in the shade for a few days and gradually expose them to more sunlight. If you don’t harden them off your plant leaves will turn white with sunburn. If your plants have sunburn damage they will often recover if shaded for a few days and given proper watering.
Cold damage happens on our plants when they go in the garden too early. Leaves will often change colour when it’s too cold. On tomatoes the leaves often go a dark shade of greenish-black, basil will go black and die. Tomato plants are pretty tough and usually recover. You can always cover your plants with a floating row cover at night to keep them warm. Basil is a different story, it’s very fragile and won’t survive the cold. When plants go in the ground at the right time, they are not stressed out and grow well. Each year I remind myself that our kitchen garden was planted in the first week of June and we had the best harvest ever.
Learning about your plants:
Many vegetable plants have interesting leaves and its good to get familiar with them. Peas often have white streaking which is normal for the plant. Zucchini leaves also have white markings on the leaves. Don’t mix this up with a disease as its completely normal for the plant to look like this.
Powdery mildew is very common on squash plants and looks like the photo of zucchini above. The photo of zucchini above this one is how a normal plant looks. If the white stuff on the leaf can’t be rubbed off its not powdery mildew. Powdery mildew can cover the whole leaf surface and leaves can die off. Avoiding overhead irrigation can often help prevent this fungal disease.
Plants also have some unusual habits. For example, onion stems will usually flop over just before the bulb is ready to harvest. Potato plants produce their flowers and all of a sudden the foliage dies back to the ground. Is the plant dead? No, its ready to harvest.
Watering is probably the most tedious task in the garden and your new plants may need daily watering when first planted. If planting in raised beds or in the ground be sure to start weaning them off frequent watering so your plants stretch their roots deep into the soil to look for moisture. Mulch your garden with straw or leaf mold if you can’t be home to water. If you are growing in containers, you will need to water every day, sometimes twice a day depending on the size of your container and the weather. I always recommend using large containers as who wants to be a slave to watering? Not me.
Start slow and learn as you grow:
Remember that gardening is a learning experience. Start by growing easy crops like potatoes, garlic, peas, beans and lettuce. Most of the problems we see in the vegetable garden are environmental and beyond our control. Insects will come and chew on your plants. They have to eat too, we just don’t like to share. Increase your planting of flowers to attract beneficial insects to the garden. Add some flowers to your vegetable garden as attract plants. For example, it’s said that planting Nasturtiums in the vegetable garden attracts aphids but keeps them away from your most precious vegetable plants.
Learn about pests:
Keep an eye on insect activity and determine your tolerance level for some damage. After all sometimes a few leaves chewed doesn’t mean the end of the world.
Use floating row covers over pest susceptible plants such as spinach, chard and the Brassica family of plants. This will prevent issues with cabbage moth larva and leaf miner damage. Row covers allow you to water and fertilize through the fabric but keep the pests from laying eggs near your plants. Keep the fabric loose so it goes up as the plant grows.
Get to know your insects. Aphids are the most common insect in the garden but can be easily knocked off garden plants with a good strong hit of water from the hose. Be sure to not let these guys get out of control or you will lose your plant. They reproduce every three days so be proactive when you see them. If you are not sure what’s eating your plants, take a sample of the damage to a master gardener clinic or garden centre for identification.
Most of all have fun learning how to grow vegetables. The more you grow the more experience you get. The best part about vegetable gardening is the harvest. After all, we wouldn’t be growing vegetables if we didn’t love to eat.