Let's turn this garden up to eleven!
January 5, 2014 8:35 AM   Subscribe

Last year, we finally were able to plant a vegetable garden. I think we were pretty successful, but it was all very haphazard and I want to improve our game this year. I'm looking for some quality resources and general tips and tricks to get more out of our space.

We have a few raised beds and some pots in our back yard, and we grew a variety of vegetables and herbs last year. For the most part we were happy just to have anything grow (compared to previous years at our last residence), and so we simply kept the garden watered, weeded when it looked bad, and picked the fruit. Yields were good but not great for most things, but some of our veggies didn't produce at all (the winter squash and zucchini gave us nothing).

I'd like to find some resources (books, online, whatever) that can help us improve our game a bit. Maybe even in-person classes if you know of any in the Boston area. Basically, I want to plant a bunch of stuff this spring and end up with more veggies than we know what to do with.

What we planted last year (if you know of any specific tricks for these):
-Cherry tomatoes (starters); we got a ton and were very happy with them. However, we don't know how to prune them and they went a little wild.
-Roma tomatoes (starters); suffered from blight which the garden shop helped us solve. Only got about three or four pounds from half a dozen plants.
-Bush beans (seed); so many beans. So. Many. Beans. Way more beans than I was expecting. I want more of this, but for everything.
-Carrots (seed); they grew well from the top but the fruit was pretty small.
-Kale (seed); grew well but aphids or spiders or something started laying eggs on the undersides of the leaves so we didn't eat them because it was a huge pain to wash the eggs off.
-Eggplant (starters); got exactly two fruit from half a dozen plants. Most of them got shaded out by other plants, so I'm not surprised they didn't produce.
-Pickling cukes (seed); the vines grew nicely but we didn't get nearly as much fruit as I was hoping for. Most of the flowers fell off without producing, and then the vines turned woody and brown later in the season.
-Lemon cukes (seed); kind of the same thing happened as with the other cucumbers.
-Winter squash (seed); plants grew about a foot high and then gave up.
-Zucchini (seed); the plants grew really well, produced a ton of flowers... and then nothing.
-Cheyenne pepper (starters); did not grow very much fruit, and the plants didn't grow very tall so most of the fruit that did grow sat in the dirt and rotted quickly.
-Banana peppers (starters); these grew super well. The plants fell over because they got a lot taller than I expected and had no support.
-Arugula (seed); grew like a weed until it got hot and it all died.
-Head lettuce (seed); this was some weird heat-hardy variety that had a thick central stalk that grew really tall. Wilted pretty quickly, though, so we didn't eat most of it.
-A variety of herbs that all seemed to go bad pretty quickly. Our basil in particular always seems to look gorgeous in the spring but then turns woody and gross by mid-summer.
posted by backseatpilot to Home & Garden (13 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
The Backyard Homestead has some good info on this front-- lots of helpful diagrams showing how to maximize the efficiency of your garden layout.
posted by Bardolph at 8:52 AM on January 5, 2014

Look into:

Square Foot Gardening
Companion planting
Programs offered through your nearest cooperative extension
posted by MonkeyToes at 8:56 AM on January 5, 2014

About the specific plants I can diagnose:

Cherry tomatoes will spread given the chance, and yield heavily. They're worth caging, and, unless you really want scads and scads of cherry tomatoes, pruning when they creep outside of their cages.

Romas not producing well is a bit odd. Maybe the blight affected their long-term potential? I've generally gotten good yields from romas (get a disease- and fungus-resistant strain, if you can).

I've never heard of a lettuce variety that was any good to eat after it acquired significant height. Height usually means it's bolted and that the leaves have gone bitter. Many strains can stand summer heat, in the sense of not dying, but most of them bolt and their productive life is over unless you're harvesting seed.

You might be planting your basil too early. I usually don't even put it down 'til May. Theoretically you can put it down whenever danger of frost is over -- around here that does end up being mid-to-late April due to the occasional surprise frost. If you want it to keep productive and tasty, you must pinch off the flowering bits as soon as they appear. In the midsummer heat,t his is, like, every day. Basil that has flowered fully will no longer produce tasty aromatics in the leaves. At the end of the season you can let the flowers go and then, when they dry, harvest them for seed.

A similar warning stands for cilantro, although if you let it go to seed, you can get coriander seed, as well as the delicious short-lived green coriander (which tastes a lot like dried coriander, but with an oddly herbal and almost citric undertone).
posted by jackbishop at 9:06 AM on January 5, 2014

Your problem with yields sounds like imbalanced soil fertility, specifically too much nitrogen. Go to your local library and ask the reference librarian for books on regional vegetable gardening. Read up on soil, and what is required for various crops. Then get some soil test kits and see how you might need to amend your soil for better yields.
Your local county extension agent (associated with the land grant college in your area) may also be able to recommend a more comprehensive soil-testing service.
While you're at the library ask if there are local community garden groups that offer classes or demonstration gardens; in Seattle, we have Seattle Tilth, and I would hope other regions have similar resources.
posted by dbmcd at 9:09 AM on January 5, 2014

Best answer: Your squash problem, and cukes are in that same family, can be not enough water, not enough heat and sun, and with the zucchini, what my dad told me is to go around with a feather and stick it in the tip of each flower and go back and forth. You might see a knob with a flower and that's a female, and it needs to be pollinated from a male flower. You can use a Q-tip if you don't have a feather handy. But think about how much water is in a cucumber or zucchini you buy at the store: they need a lot, and they need a lot of sun. Never plant them in cool soil. More tips here at almanac.com.

Another thing to do is test your soil for nutrients and PH. Usually garden stores will have a kit or you can buy them online.

Floating row covers work well to protect plants from pests. I used to get earwigs and sometimes the dreaded white moths in my broccoli and soaking them in cold water, or salted cold water would bring the baddies to the top of the water and then they can be cooked and eaten.

Things like lettuce and arugula like cool temps; grow them in the spring and replant in the fall. They will not do well in hot weather and will bolt and taste bitter. Try growing them in the shade of other plants.

I've built pretty decent supports for plants out of PVC, as long as you put it on top of a stick or pipe that's driving deep enough, you can make a cheap frame and string some netting in between for things like tomatoes or beans.

For weeds control, I like the black landscape cloth, which allows water to flow through, heats up the soil, and you can easily cut an X in it to plant your seedlings. It's held down with rocks or even pins made out of the ends of wire coat hangers (the U shape, cut off).

I definitely recommend getting in touch with the county extension office. I took the Master Gardener program one year, and it may be too late this year (ours had the sign-up in Oct and ran from Jan-March). But they are always very helpful and can help you pinpoint why the squashes in your area might not have done well. Maybe you're in a dip in the road and cold air settles there at night, etc. Or you need to add something specific to amend your soil.

Carrots are hard to grow unless you plant them in sand or have extremely well dug sandy soil. That's just my opinion. I stick with easy stuff like Swiss Chard or tomatoes. Tomatoes, I just strip off the bottom leaves, plant them deep (those hairs will become roots) and then pinch off the suckers that grow between the main stem and the branches. Support them somehow, keep them off the ground to avoid rot. Feed them well with whatever tomato plant food you prefer, organic or otherwise. Little bit of Epsom salts in the dirt when I plant them. But yeah, the cherries can get out of hand and that's one thing the PVC frame came in handy for, because they loved that! You can always top them off if they get too high.

Anyway, the links above are good starts. Anything by Rodale publishing, Organic Gardening magazine is good as well. But get in with a group of gardeners in your area and you will have tons of tips! Gardeners are a friendly species!
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 9:16 AM on January 5, 2014

Best answer: Find the one great book* for your local region (I find that almost all of the best ones are written by current or retired garden writers from a newspaper in the region) and augment with your local extension's guides for planting times.

Some of the results you got are just luck (like the tomato blight, though the variety of tomato you grow may make a difference), and some sound like plants gonna be plants. Basil bolts and gets woody when it gets too hot, which for basil is "fairly hot", and many lettuces do the same thing, except too hot = warm at all.

I try lemon cucumbers every year and have not eaten a lemon cucumber in 6 years. Some plants are just assholes. I'm not going to try again - my next door neighbors grow bushels of delicious Burpee burpless every year, I will grow something less temperamental myself.

And different plants want different soil situations. The fact that your beans did so well may mean something - beans want a different balance than tomatoes and eggplants.

I use growveg.com to help me sort out my space and companion issues, and it has a planner view based on planting times. But I just did a search and there's a crapload of new apps that do similar so you may have to compare. But in a climate like yours it's fairly important that you plant on time and understand when harvest window is going to be.

*I have learned more from experience, particularly the failures, than I ever have in a book. I bought half a dozen books for beginning gardeners that appear to exist simply to separate new gardeners from their money and show them pretty pictures and offer some random trivia. There's no really good garden forums anymore (there's Gardenweb, but it's like gardening on Craigslist, the UI blows and you have to search for an hour to find that one amazing pearl of wisdom). Check your local garden shop and your county extension office for classes taught by local master gardeners, which is where the best information is.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:24 AM on January 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: re: the basil...when it starts to go woody mid summer, chop it back to the ground (seriously, just leave a little stalk). You'll get a fresh growth of tender basil.

Lettuce and arugala: these will both bolt in heat, not much you can do about it. Start them earlier so that you can get more harvest in. You can extend the harvest somewhat by planting them in the shade, or planting them next to taller plants.

Peppers: support. More water and manure. I add a full bag of composted steer manure to every 3x6 bed, and also mix in several handfuls of bone meal for calcium (peppers and tomatoes crave calcium).

Squash, cucumbers: More water and manure (also bone meal or other calcium source). These are extremely greedy plants.

Eggplants: prima donnas of the nightshade world. Maybe try to get your tomato/pepper game down first.

Kale: yeah, they get aphids. The healthier the plant, the better it is at fighting off insect infestations. Try a quick blast from the hose to knock the bugs off, or just plant lots of kale and eat it young, before the bugs really take hold.

Carrots: need loose/sandy soil to do well.

Tomatoes: sometimes you get a bad year. Also, they're just picky plants in general. Too much rain? Rot! Inconsistent water? Blossom end rot! Too little water? No fruit! Try again, more manure, more calcium. Cherries do well no matter what. I also recommend trying a 6 pack of Early Girl tomatoes, they are bullet proof.
posted by Wavelet at 10:05 AM on January 5, 2014

Another thing that helps is to grow annual flowers in the same area as your veggies. This helps your flowering/fruiting plants get pollinators.
posted by Wavelet at 10:12 AM on January 5, 2014

Best answer: First, look up your first and last freeze and frost dates, as well as your USDA growing zone. This will help you calculate what to plant and when.

Cherry tomatoes: There's a lot of debate on pruning/not pruning, but I'd recommend pruning the suckers -- the tiny new branches that grow between the large main branches. They produce minimal fruit and maximal foliage, so you can get rid of them without sacrificing any yield, and the plant will redirect its energy to making more fruit.
Roma tomatoes: Blight stays in the soil, so don't plant tomatoes or anything else that can get blight in this spot for at least a year or two. Hybrid cultivars are much more blight-resistant than heirlooms.
All tomatoes: Bury 2/3 of your seedlings -- no need to remove anything, just dig deep and stick it in there. This will help create a very healthy root system; roots sprout from a tomato's main stem. Crush up some eggshells and put them in the bottom of each planting hole before planting. Calcium prevents blossom end rot.
Carrots: Small fruit and big tops mean there is too much nitrogen and not enough phosphate or potassium. Loosen the soil down to 6-8" depth before seeding so the roots can grow downward more easily. Seed tape is helpful for spacing, just lay it down and loosely sprinkle over the top with soil. Use a soaker hose or drip tape for watering, if you can. Tuck some mulch around the carrot tops as they grow to retain moisture and prevent the top of the carrot from being exposed to the sun.
Kale: I know it's gross, but you can totally eat the aphids. It's OK! If that doesn't work for you, lacinato/dinosaur kale is much easier to clean than curly scotch kale. A quick soak in salted water helps, too.
Eggplants: Need a ton of sun and warmth (but not too much), a ton of nitrogen (but not too much). Super fickle. No one I know has been able to grow them very successfully. I'd skip it, but if you must, follow the same basic rules as tomatoes and peppers.
Cucumbers, squash, and zucchini: One squash or zucchini plant can sprawl out to cover 25 square feet, so I buy this stuff in the store because the plants are too prone to powdery mildew to justify giving them so much space in my small backyard. Make sure to space them out and hand-pollinate the flowers. It's really easy. And even if you only get blossoms, you can still harvest and eat them!
Peppers: Mulch around the roots with black plastic and/or plant them in five-gallon buckets. Peppers like it HOT and they are heavy feeders so fertilize well with an accent on nitrogen. Stake each seedling as soon as you plant it and keep tying it up as it grows.
Arugula and lettuce: These will only grow in cool weather, but you can easily plant and harvest two crops each growing season. The tall, thick, central stalk is a seed stalk; when it comes up in summer, let it dry, shake it off, and save the seeds for your fall planting. You can also succession plant -- throw a few more seeds down every couple of days so not everything comes up at once.

Spring: Plant out cilantro, parsley, kale, and lettuce seeds a week or two before your last frost. Start your vine crop seeds inside on a sunny windowsill. They don't like to be transplanted, but growing them from seed outdoors in this climate is a non-starter.
Summer: Plant out basil, rosemary, sage, eggplant, cucumber, squash, pepper, and tomato seedlings on or after Memorial Day weekend.
Fall: Plant a second round of spring crops. Toward the end of the season, cover the plants with low hoop tunnels or row covers (or bedsheets) to extend the tail end of your season.
Winter: If you keep your rosemary in a pot, you can overwinter it indefinitely. Kale and parsley will last through several frosts and 1-2 freezes uncovered, and you can harvest through most of the winter if you mulch them heavily. You could also invest in a cold frame (or build one out of salvaged wood and windows) for four-season gardening.

- Don't plant tomatoes, peppers, or beans in the same exact spot multiple years in a row, and don't plant them together in one bed -- they require the same nutrients, so you'll run into deficiencies faster if they're all in a clump.
- Rotate your crops. I like to rotate beans with tomatoes and peppers because the former traps nitrogen in the soil with its roots and the latter will nom up the extra nitrogen.
- Fertilizers will have their nutrient content indicated by a number like 5-5-5, 2-10-0, 20-0-0, etc. This shows the N-P-K content. This is my go-to all-purpose fertilizer.
- To encourage foliage growth, add nitrogen (N). Blood meal is a good source of nitrogen.
- To encourage fruit growth, add phosphate (P) and potassium/potash (K). Greensand is a good source of potassium; bone meal is a good source of phosphate.
- Plant marigolds, nasturtium, and dill throughout. Good natural pest repellents!
- Tuck a few cloves of garlic (planted root side down) or onions between the rest of your plants. They take up barely any space and are very "set it and forget it." Plant in late fall, harvest the next summer.
- The closer your soil is to loam, the better. I add a bag of composted manure, a bag of top soil, and a brick of coconut coir to each of my beds every year and my yields are consistently phenomenal.
- Compost your scraps [PDF] if it is remotely feasible.
- Gardening is an art and a science, so feel free to ignore all of this and learn as you go!

Boston-specific resources:
- Plant Something MA
- Massachusetts Horticultural Society (classes)
- Boston-Area Master Urban Gardeners
- Green City Growers
- UMass Amherst Vegetable Program

I've been gardening since I was old enough to walk, but still reference these websites all the time:
- Folia (all zone 6b gardens)
- Dave's Garden
- UW-Extension Horticulture

Good luck, and enjoy your harvest!
posted by divined by radio at 10:57 AM on January 5, 2014 [10 favorites]

Best answer: Mr./Mrs. radio has some great advice, favorite that comment!. I have grown a small garden in the Boston-area for the last 5 or 6 years and in Vermont prior to that so here are some "regional" tips:
  • Cherry tomatoes. You can prune if you feel like it, but honestly it's a lot of work. All tomatoes are either determinate or indeterminate. Determinate tomatoes will stop growing at a certain point, indeterminate will go nuts if you let them. One trick for containing indeterminate vines is to create a trellis. My CSA actually goes the extra step and uses what I will call a "trellis sandwich": essentially this is *two* parallel trellis' separated by about 2 feet. You plant your seedlings between them and this allows the plants to be contained on both sides.
  • Roma tomato blight. Yeah hopefully last year was an aberration. Blight happens here maybe an average of once every 5 years. Not much you can do about it unless you dedicate serious amounts of time, and even then it's a crapshoot. You do want to avoid planting tomatoes in the same spot where blight occurred though. One way to avoid blight in the first place is to be very careful where you buy your plants. Avoid "big box" stores, they are more likely to be transferring infected plants. Ideally you would grow your own from seed.
  • Planting carrots in the ground takes up a lot of space. You can grow about 30-35 carrots in stand-alone container! That's what I do now and save my precious garden space for other things. (You can do this with hot peppers too.)
  • Potatoes. You mentioned that you are looking for high yield. Can't think of any better way to get this than with potatoes in a raised bed. The planting itself is easy, the trick is getting good soil, but if you have that then you're all set. With about 90 minutes of prep and planting you will have more potatoes than you know what to do with.
Here is what I consider perhaps my best advice: invest a few bucks in drip irrigation. This is the #1 thing that changed the way I garden and particularly the amount of yield. For about $100 plus a reliable timer you can automate the watering of your entire garden and as a bonus you cut down dramatically your weeding. I will never, ever go back to "old school" watering by hose, it's a crazy inefficient way to do it (and a waste of water). Cannot recommend doing this strongly enough.

Lastly, lots of good references for books and guides above, I can also recommend the "Woodchuck's Guide to Gardening", woodchuck here refers to a native Vermonter: Lots of good advice here for planting in colder climates.
posted by jeremias at 12:52 PM on January 5, 2014

The best thing you can do to turn your garden up to eleven is to get a proper soil test from a lab- your local extension office should have information. It's pointless to add things to your soil if you don't know what's actually missing or available, and there's no way to tell. Adding manures and compost and eggshells often don't do what people think they do, and can sometimes do more harm than good. For example: manure from feedlots is often full of salt, for example. Eggshells at planting time don't deliver any calcium to tomatoes when they need it- it takes a minimum of three months for eggshells to be broken down by soil organisms and made into a plant-available form. Tomatoes need calcium when the tomatoes are smaller than a thumbnail, because that's the time in their life cycle that calcium enters the fruiting body. Excess nitrogen attracts pests and pathogens, and is also a contributing factor to blossom end rot. pH affects nutrient uptake- you may have plenty of nutrients in your soil already, but too low or high pH prevents them from being taken up by plants. Adding fertilizer in this case would be a waste of resources and money because plants can't use them. Organic fertilizer is great, but needs active soil organisms to break it down into usable forms, so those often need to be added before you plant any plants.

A soil test from a lab will tell you about all these things, and they usually tell you exactly how much of what stuff to add for your soil to have optimal texture, nutrients, and pH. This is the most useful thing you can do to take away much of the guesswork about what is going on with your garden in regards to costly amendments. Other than that, get a soil thermometer so that you are not planting your crops too early- a situation that can contribute to early blight or poor production, especially in solanaceous plants. Water consistently to avoid problems with blossom end rot (water uptake and transpiration moves calcium through plants), and be extremely cautious about adding any nitrogen when plants are young (too much top growth at the expense of roots also causes problems with other types of nutrient uptake).
posted by oneirodynia at 1:05 PM on January 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm not really an experienced gardener, but after four years in my current place trying to grow things every year I have come to the conclusion that our soil and sun are awesome for a few select things, and crap for many others. Originally I planted based on what I like to eat, and some plants did spectacularly, and some did okay, and some just wouldn't fruit at all, or only when babied like crazy (special fertilisers, constant bug treatments, mixing additives into the soil, shading them on hot days, watering daily, etc).

This year I have gone for a new approach, ripped out all the stuff that hasn't done well in the past, and focussed on the stuff that I know does well in my conditions, and does so without much work. I am getting ridiculously high berry harvests, lots of silverbeet, coriander, basil, oregano, parsley and lettuces. I've given up on citrus, grapes, beans, peas, spinach, and most other herbs. Instead I seek out friends and colleagues who grow these things successfully and trade them my over-supply of berries for their produce. If you build up a little network like that, it's much more efficient than trying to grow everything yourself.
posted by lollusc at 6:49 PM on January 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: This is all great advice, thanks so much. I'm going to look into that master urban gardener program for next winter. The previous owners also left us a rain barrel, so I'm going to figure out how to set that back up and connect a drip system to it.

I am also realizing now that I misspoke; the tomatoes suffered from blossom end rot, not blight. Got a calcium spray from the garden shop and that seemed to help, but I guess that means we really should do a soil test if the nutrients are that off.
posted by backseatpilot at 4:28 PM on January 12, 2014

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