Ideas & Inspiration

How to Grow, Harvest and Enjoy Your Vegetable Garden

A gardener's hand sprinkles fertilizer on a vegetable seedling.

Be sure to fertilize your plants regularly. If you’re growing from seed, once the second set of leaves, or “true leaves,” appear, you can begin a plant food regimen. Use an organic, all-purpose plant fertilizer mixed at half-strength once a week for the first few weeks, gradually increasing to full strength.

Most organic fertilizers are made up of living organisms, like blood meal, bone meal, cottonseed meal and fish emulsion. Organic fertilizers slowly releasing nutrients can improve soil structure and enrich the soil. Look for general or “complete” fertilizers meant to meet most plants’ requirements throughout the season, because they contain each type of nutrient. An example of a complete or general fertilizer would be a 5-10-5 fertilizer which contains 5 percent nitrogen, 10 percent phosphate and 5 percent potash.

A watering can sprinkles water on a vegetable garden.

In hot weather, it’s important to water vegetables early in the day. Most edibles need about an inch of water weekly and more when temperatures soar.

Keep at least a couple inches of mulch on your garden beds to retain water and keep roots cool. Regularly dig about an inch into the soil; if it’s dry, your plants need water. If you aren’t home in the morning to water, set a timer to run soaker hoses for 30 to 45 minutes each morning.

Make soaker hoses more efficient by covering them with mulch. If you wait until afternoon to water, most of the moisture will evaporate from the soil so rapidly that it doesn’t reach the roots. And water applied in the evening sticks to plant leaves and fosters diseases.

Thin Seedlings
A gardener's hand thins bean seedlings.

That’s right, puttering in the garden is good practice. Early in the season, take time to thin root vegetables and greens that are sown directly in the soil. Once the second set of leaves appear, evaluate the plants and (gently) pull out the weakest-looking seedlings and toss them in the compost pile.

As plants mature, vining plants will need to be staked or trellised. Indeterminate tomatoes will produce all season long, but once they take off, they flop over, bringing the fruit in contact with the earth. Take the time to tie up vines, either to stakes or cages, so that the plants will get the most sunshine and air circulation through their lower branches. Cucumbers are another vegetable that benefits from support; they need a trellis system for the tendrils to wrap around and keep the fruit off the ground.

Support Network
Cucumber plants on a trellis

Cucumbers, tomatoes, beans and other trailing vegetables benefit from the support of a trellis for tendrils to wrap around to keep fruit off the ground. Learn how to build a DIY vegetable trellis.

Compost in the garden.

A top dressing of compost, or better yet, a cup of compost tea, will give veggies what they need to grow. Vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, even bits of unbleached paper, can all be tossed into the compost pile. Eggshells, too, but crush them up first. On their own, they take a long time to decompose. Learn more about soil.

Tip: To make compost tea: Infuse water with compost, filter out the solids, then give the plants a drink.

Red and green peppers in a gardener's hands.

The harvest makes all the work worthwhile. Knowing when to harvest vegetables and herbs can be tricky. For example, the rich color that signifies a ripe tomato comes from warmth, not light. If temps are too cool, go ahead and pick fruit that’s red-orange and bring them inside to ripen.

The time-honored tradition of lining up your garden’s best fruit along a sunny windowsill isn’t the speediest way to ripen it. Putting unripened tomatoes in a loosely closed paper bag is a better solution.

Preserve and Can
Green beans in a glass jar.

Keep the goodness of the garden after the harvest. There’s no great mystery to canning, it’s simply the process of applying heat to food in a closed space such as a jar. Air is removed from the jar, creating a seal and stopping the natural spoilage process.

Follow the proper procedures, and your jars of food will be shelf-stable for up to a year. The latest trend in preserving food is the innovation in small-batch canning. These days you can make small batch jars of jam or salsa after work or in a weekend afternoon. Get instructions for canning your home-grown tomatoes.

A vegetable garden will give you seasons of lessons and edible goodness. Don't be discouraged if your first crops don't turn out as abundantly as you hoped. "There's always next season" applies to gardeners as well as baseball fans.