Summer school

How to raise the tastiest vegetables where temperatures soar
Lance Walheim

Growing vegetables in hot summer climates isn't easy, especially where weeds flourish and bugs are voracious. But at Bravo Lake Botanical Gardens, a 13-acre community garden in the Woodlake area of California's Central Valley, plots filled with flowers and vegetables are beautiful and productive.

Thanks to careful planning, planting, and tending by garden founder and University of California Cooperative Extension farm adviser Manuel Jimenez and his volunteer crew of 8- to 17-year-old kids ― and with support from local businesses ― plants not only thrive but deliver hefty crops. Here are the secrets to Jimenez's success.

Choose the right variety. Of the thousands of vegetables grown in the garden, the ones here are Jimenez's warm-weather favorites.

Control weeds. A couple of weeks before planting, sprinkle empty beds with water to germinate weed seeds, then lightly rake out any sprouts that emerge.

Amend the soil. Before planting, mix in a balanced (16-16-16) fertilizer.

Build raised beds. Form the soil into 4-inch-high by 20-inch-wide raised beds; leave 12 inches between rows.

Mulch with black plastic. Just before planting, lay drip lines or soaker hoses, then cover beds with black plastic mulch. Cut Xs through the plastic near each nozzle, then plant through the holes. Set smaller vegetable crops, such as bush beans, on both sides of a single drip line.

Group plants by water needs. Plant melons, cucumbers, and other frequent water-users along one drip line or soaker hose; irrigate regularly. Put tomatoes, which need deep, infrequent irrigation once fruit starts to ripen, on a separate line.

Trellis plants. Build trellises of 1- by 1-inch wood posts ― evenly spaced down the row and connected with string ― for vining vegetables such as cucumbers and pole beans. Trellises can also be used to support upright plants like tomatoes and eggplants.

Use row covers. To keep insects away from plants, cover insect-free seedlings with floating row covers. Secure each cover by burying its edges in soil. Once plants are mature, remove the cover to allow pollination and fruit set.

Fertilize. Six to eight weeks after planting, pull weeds, then apply another dose of fertilizer to give vegetables a boost so they can compete with ― and beat ― weeds.

Root out pests. Regularly inspect older leaves for signs of whitefly eggs or pupae. If you find damage, cut off, bag, and discard infested leaves. Immediately pull out and throw away any bean plants infested with spider mites.

COMMUNITY SPIRIT LIVES

"People feel as good as their surroundings," says garden founder Jimenez (far right). "Planting beautiful gardens makes everyone feel better." That's why Jimenez started planting flowers and vegetables around Woodlake 11 years ago. Bravo Lake Botanical Gardens is one of the newest.

During some years, 1,000 varieties of flowers and vegetables grow in up to five locations around town. The kids ― volunteers from Jimenez's neighborhood and through word of mouth ― raise transplants in greenhouses, care for the gardens, and sell vegetables to help pay for equipment and supplies. "The gardens are about more than making Woodlake look better," Jimenez says. "The kids get tremendous satisfaction and pride in growing plants and producing food."