Vegetable Garden Care
While it may not be the most glamorous aspect of gardening, maintenance is essential. Make gardening chores a little easier with our invaluable tips for weeding, watering, and everything else that makes your garden grow.
Mulching Vegetable Plants
Mulching between plants and rows suppresses weeds, retains soil moisture, and helps regulate soil temperature. Mulch comes in many forms: Composted leaves, grass clippings, shredded bark, pine needles, newspaper, and specifically designed reflective plastic can all be used, depending on the crop and the desired effect. Mulch at planting time and replenish if it grows thin. Wait to mulch warm-season crops such as tomatoes and eggplants until roughly two weeks after they've been planted to allow the soil to warm further.
Watering Your Vegetables
Vegetables, flowers, shrubs, and trees -- whether grown in containers or in the ground -- all need water. Seed germination, flower and fruit development, and seed production all require a steady supply of moisture in the soil. But improper watering can be harmful. Use your instincts and the five methods on the following pages for watering success.
For detailed instructions on watering specific vegetables, visit our Vegetable Growing Guide.
This handsome watering can was specially designed for seedlings: The fine holes in its removable nose produce a gentle stream that won't wash away seeds or drown fragile young plants. Seedlings are not only sensitive to overwatering, but they are also notoriously prone to drying out. With a full watering can, a refreshing drink can be had at a moment's notice. Also, a watering can that's balanced and easy to carry proves to be an ideal companion in the garden when temperatures are soaring and just a few plants need water.
One of the most important tools for efficient watering doesn't supply water but measures it. A rain gauge shows how much natural precipitation has fallen, so you can tell at a glance if you're in for a day of watering or relaxation. Place the rain gauge in an open area with no trees or structures overhead. These keep raindrops from entering the gauge, and any water dripping from them after a storm can further skew the reading. Be sure to empty the gauge after each rainfall.
Tired of waiting at home until the sprinkler has run long enough? Use an inexpensive watering timer to keep the lawn green on your own schedule. Set the dial for the necessary duration, turn on the spigot, and walk away. The timer cuts the flow automatically when the determined time has elapsed. There are quite a few options among watering timers. Some can be programmed to turn on and off multiple times during the course of a week; others are suited for single-day periodic watering.
Hanging Basket Wand
Watering your hanging baskets can be difficult, especially when they dangle just out of reach, as most do. Holding up the hose can be exhausting, and the stream of water can be hard to direct. Hanging-basket wands are just the thing for this task. Longer than standard wands and angled near the breaker end, they are lightweight and have a soft grip to help you position them properly.
This type of hose is made of porous rubber that lets water seep out of every inch. The slow, low-volume watering makes it ideal for establishing and maintaining plantings, particularly when used with a timer. Snake the hose around the outer root zones of annuals, perennials, and shrubs, linking additional lengths if necessary. Soaker hoses can be covered with mulch, which hides the rubber tubes and conserves water by minimizing surface evaporation.
If you prepared the planting beds properly -- incorporating plenty of organic matter such as compost and well-rotted manure -- most vegetables should require little additional fertilizer. If necessary, side-dress plants in midseason with well-rotted manure or compost, or feed them every few weeks with a liquid fertilizer such as fish emulsion, liquid kelp, or compost tea (find our recipe here). Avoid using high-nitrogen fertilizers, which promote leafy green growth at the expense of flowers and fruits.
Weeding is definitely an activity in which it is far easier to keep up than catch up. Attack the weeds with your hoe or cultivator just as they pop out of the ground, when their roots are still shallow, and you can scratch out a bed's worth in a few minutes. Let weeds go, though, and you'll be digging and pulling, and still leaving behind fragments of tenacious roots that will certainly resprout. If weeds have become well established, wait until after a good, soaking rain to pull them. Moist soil makes them much easier to remove.
Many vegetables can tolerate some pest damage, but watch for pests regularly, handpicking insects and their eggs and larvae before they become a problem. Start with low-impact controls such as hosing off bugs or protecting young plants from flying insects with a floating row cover, or from cutworms with protective cardboard collars, which should be removed as plants mature. Use broad-spectrum controls -- such as insecticidal soap or horticultural oil-insecticidal soap combinations specifically designed for edibles -- only when necessary.
See Our Pest Guide
Whenever possible, choose disease-resistant cultivars of your favorite vegetables. See our complete list of easy-to-grow vegetables.
Maintain crops by staking when necessary, feeding, and watering -- the basic things that plants need to produce a good harvest.
Use an organic approach to dealing with pests wherever possible. This means handpicking or hosing off pest insects. If you know when the pests in your area emerge and begin feeding, you can time planting, pruning, or other methods appropriately. Here, salt march hay has been mounded over a young potato plant in an effort to confuse hungy potato beetles just emerging from the ground.
Support Your Tomatoes
Because tomato plants are essentially vines, they need secure support. You can build tomato tripods out of eight-foot-long bamboo stakes -- attach one end of a length of heavy twine to the top and the other to a landscape pin, then push that into the base of the bamboo stake. Make sure it is taut, straight, and has enough tension to support the plant.