Caring for your vegetables

Important guidelines for watering, fertilizing, controlling pests, and more

For the best possible harvest, keep your vegetables growing steadily ― without setbacks ― throughout the season.

Those started from seed sown directly in the ground usually require thinning, so that each plant will have enough space to develop properly. Thin plants when they're a few inches tall, spacing them as indicated in the descriptions here or on the seed packet.

Watering

Provide a steady supply of water from planting until harvest. Transplants need frequent watering until they're growing well; keep the soil moist but not soggy.

Rows or beds of seeds and young seedlings likewise need steady moisture, sometimes requiring sprinkling as often as two or three times a day if weather is very hot.

As transplants and seedlings grow and their roots reach deeper, you can water less often - but when you do water, be sure to moisten the entire root zone. To water your vegetable garden, you can use sprinklers, furrows, or a drip system.

Mulching

Mulching the garden conserves moisture and suppresses weed growth. An organic mulch such as straw or compost will also improve the soil's structure as it decomposes, making the top few inches looser and more crumbly.

However, because organic mulches keep the soil beneath them cool, it's best not to apply them until warm weather arrives.

A mulch of black plastic sheeting, on the other hand, helps warm the soil quickly in spring. After preparing the soil for planting, cover it with black plastic; then cut small holes where you want to sow seeds or set out plants. This tactic is especially useful for growing heat-loving crops such as melons and eggplant in regions with cool or short summers.

Next: fertilizing

 

Fertilizing

For many vegetables, the fertilizer applied at planting time will be sufficient for the entire season.

But heavy feeders (such as corn) or those requiring a long growing season, including broccoli, cabbage, and tomatoes, may need one or two follow-up feedings.

Lightly scratch dry granular fertilizer into the soil (keep it off plant leaves), then water it in thoroughly; or use a water-soluble fertilizer according to label directions.

Weeding

Removing weeds is important, since they'll compete with vegetables for water, food, and light. As noted above, a mulch will help prevent weeds from getting started in the first place; those that do appear can usually be eliminated through hand-pulling, hoeing, or cultivating.

Whichever approach you choose, be sure to get rid of weeds before they set seed. 

Controlling pests and disease

Various pests and diseases may occasionally afflict some of your vegetables. To avert or at least minimize the damage, take the following basic steps. If you encounter a problem not discussed here, contact your Cooperative Extension Office or knowledgeable nursery personnel for help.

1. Keep the garden healthy. Plants growing in the best possible conditions are better able to resist pests and diseases.

2. Keep the garden clean. Composting or discarding spent plants and tilling the soil (especially in fall) can help you avoid trouble, since a number of insects and diseases overwinter or spend some stage of their lives on plant debris.

3. Plant resistant varieties if they're available. Many tomato hybrids, for example, are resistant both to verticillium wilt and to fusarium wilt, another disease caused by a soil-dwelling fungus. (Fusarium wilt enters plants through their roots. Lower leaves may turn yellow or appear scorched; severely infected plants wilt and die.)

4. Mix different kinds of plants. Large expanses of just one sort can encourage equally large populations of pests fond of that plant. Mixed plantings favor more kinds of insects, including those that prey on the troublemakers.

5. Rotate the location of crops from year to year to prevent the buildup of diseases and insects specific to certain plants in any one part of the garden.

6. Encourage natural controls such as toads, lizards, many birds, and beneficial insects. Avoid chemical sprays, if possible; they wipe out helpful creatures along with pests, leaving the garden vulnerable to new attack.

Next: Where to grow your vegetables