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Gardening 101

Growing UP

Add excitement with a vertical vegetable garden.

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Balcony Gardening

Get the most reward from your small-space garden.

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Care & Maintenance

Before You Plant
What makes great gardens? Here are a few tips for easy success…

The right light: It's important that every plant be put into the right light to meet its needs. Be sure to check the plastic label in the plants you bring home. Full Sun means 6 hours a day. Part Sun means less than 4 hours of sun each day, with morning sun being best. Full Shade means filtered light only.

Start small: Think about how much time you want to spend in the garden. A garden bed about 6 ft. by 8 ft., or several large containers, will hold enough plants for a small garden.

Have water handy: You'll have to water your plants regularly. The closer you can get to a water spigot, the better. Watch for more info from me about watering your garden beds and containers after they are planted.

Plant warm-season crops after your "Frost-Free Date": Cool-season crops can go into the ground as soon as it's warm enough to work the soil. They like the cool temps and can even take a little frost. However, you should plant your warm-season crops after danger of frost is past.

No yard? No problem! Many plants are right at home in containers on your patio, so you can still grow luscious veggies and gorgeous flowers.
When You Plant
Enough planning…let's get planting!

Fertilize: Top dress your garden bed or container with granular fertilizer. Just spread a few handfuls over your planting area and use a rake or hand trowel to work it into the soil. Be sure to check the package for specific instructions.

Planting: Locate tall plants and staked plants like grasses, tomatoes, cucumbers and pole beans on the north side of your garden so they won't shade shorter plants.

Plant your tomatoes deep...but nothing else! Tomatoes grow stronger and sturdier when planted deep. Dig a hole or trench and leave just the top 2 inches exposed, unless stated otherwise on its tag. (It's always a good idea to check the plant tags for special planting instructions!) NOTE: Every other flower, vegetable and herb should be planted so that the root ball is level with the surrounding soil.

Water in: Give your new garden a gentle but thorough watering as soon as possible after planting so your plants won't wilt. Remember to try to water the soil and not the leaves.
Without water, your plants will die!

Your garden will be pretty forgiving, but watering is the one duty you can't ignore.

How much water & how often: The rule of thumb is to water your entire garden thoroughly about once a week. The optimum is 1 inch of water per week. You can measure the water your garden receives by using a purchased rain gauge, or make one of your own. Simply place a shallow container in an open area in your garden or near your containers, and measure how much water accumulates when you water or after a rainfall.

Drenching doesn't help. Don't try to save time tomorrow by soaking today. If you over-saturate the soil, there's no room for air to circulate around the roots and help your plants thrive. On the other hand, a quick sprinkle here and there only encourages the roots to grow close to the surface, leading to heat and drought stress.

When to water: It's best to water in the morning – this ensures that the plant's root zone has plenty of moisture for the heat of the day. But remember, even watering at the wrong time of day is better than not watering at all.

What to water: Always try to water the roots, not the leaves.
Water – Containers
If you planted your flowers, veggies and herbs in containers, it's really important that you keep a watchful eye as the season heats up. Remember, the soil in your containers dries out faster than a garden bed and needs watering more often.

As temperatures rise and the roots grow, soil can dry out in a day. I like to check every morning with a quick "finger test." If I feel that the top inch or so is dry, I'll give my planters a thorough soaking. Always water the roots, not the leaves. That's the best way to keep plants thriving and prevent diseases from striking.

Tip: If your container is large enough, a low-cost watering option is to poke holes in the bottom and sides of milk jugs or two liter soft drink bottles, bury them in the soil near the plants, and fill them with water. They'll slowly leak moisture into the root zone and you can refill them as needed.
A good dose of plant food helps your vegetables and herbs grow big and flavor-filled, your flowers beautiful and bright!

Any good commercial granular or liquid plant food provides the nutrients needed for proper plant health.
  • Granular fertilizer will wash away in a few weeks, so you need to apply it at planting and again every few weeks through the growing season.
  • Liquid fertilizer should be applied at every other watering, as it doesn’t last in the soil.
  • Remember to always check the package label for specific application information, and follow the directions and rates for whatever fertilizer you choose to use. Overapplying fertilizer can cause your plants to grow abundant foliage but no vegetables. Too much feed can also burn leaves and roots.
  • Try to feed your plants early morning, early evening or on a cloudy day. These are times when water is absorbed more slowy so your crop receives more nutrients.
Weeds will compete with your plants for sun, water and soil nutrients. In your veggie garden, they'll actually reduce the amount of produce you'll harvest later in the season.

Turn this chore into fun! Every morning, bring your cup of coffee and a bucket to the garden and pull weeds for just a few minutes. It's cooler, quiet, therapeutic...and much easier than pulling them when they have deep root systems.

Simply hold the weed near its roots and pull gently upward so you don't break it off at the surface of the soil, because then it will be back in a few days. You can also use a narrow trowel or dandelion fork to loosen the weed.

The best time to weed is after you've watered or it has rained. This is another reason that dewy mornings make such nice times to deal with weeds. The weeds should pull right out and there is less chance of disturbing the soil or lifting up the plant.
Mulch is your friend! Mulch is any material that you put down on top of the soil around your plants to hold in water, keep out the weeds, control the soil temperature and prevent insects from attacking.

The best time to mulch is when your plants are still fairly small, so you can get up close and personal to put mulch down without harming them.

You have many choices:

Organic mulches break down during the growing season – these include compost, shredded leaves, cocoa hulls, grass clippings, and shredded or chipped wood. The rule of thumb is just that – spread your mulch to about the depth of about one thumb length (about 2 inches). A bonus: You can mix organic mulch right into the garden at the end of the season to improve your soil.

Inorganic mulches include plastic and fabric weed barriers, which can last for several years. Check out your local garden center for a variety of choices. I recommend lighter color materials as they tend to keep the soil cooler than black. You simply roll out the fabric and cut slits to fit around your plants. (If you're reading this before you get around to planting, it's actually easier to roll out the weed barrier before you plant, cut slits and transplant your plants.)
The hard work in your garden is finally paying off! Grab a sharp pruning shear and follow the guidelines below to have a successful harvest.

Beans Harvest when pods are almost full size, but before the seeds inside begin to bulge. Beans should be crisp and snap easily. Harvest often to encourage more flowering.

Eggplant Harvest when skin is shiny and dark purple (may differ on special varieties). Fruits are over-mature when dull in color, soft and seedy. Use caution when harvesting, as stems may have small thorns. Use a sharp blade or pruners – don’t pull.

Cucumber Pick when firm and bright, dark green. Length depends of use: Sweet Pickles 1 1/2 to 2 inches (3 to 5 cm); Dills 3 to 4 inches (7 to 10 cm); Slicers 7 to 9 inches (17 to 22 cm). Over-mature fruits are dull in color or yellow and less crisp. Leave a short piece of stem on each fruit. Do not raise vines when harvesting to avoid damaging the plant.

Leaf Lettuce Harvest when leaves are at desired size. Taking the largest first will help thin the row and encourage new growth. However, younger leaves are usually less bitter.

Pepper Harvest when fruits are firm, shiny green and baseball size for green bells. If left on the plant for an additional 2-3 weeks, colored cultivars will change from green to the desired yellows and reds. Hot peppers should be harvested when at the ripest color stage with caution to avoid skin and eye irrigation.

Tomato For canning and juice, pick fruits when firm at full color. When temperatures reach 90 degrees, pick at pink stage and allow to ripen indoors to avoid fruit cracking. Cherry-sized red tomatoes should be picked if heavy rain is forecasted to avoid burst skins. Before first frost, pick all green tomatoes and store to ripen indoors.

Zucchini & Summer Squash Harvest when fruit is young and tender. Squash should be 6 to 8 inches (15 to 20 cm) long; zucchini 4 to 8 inches (10 to 20 cm) long. Rind should be tender enough to puncture with fingernail.
5 Late-Season Gardening Tips
Water well. I'll say it again…keep up with this all-important task and you'll be rewarded with a bounty of produce and flowers! In a nutshell: morning…root zone…deep and thorough…containers more often.

Feed regularly. Use an all-purpose fertilizer (granular or liquid, it's up to you) every 3 to 4 weeks to grow big and flavorful veggies and herbs, as well as beautiful flowers.

Clean up. Keep those weeds under control; remove and dispose of any dead leaves, stems, blooms and fruit; and have an eye open for pesky pests.

Grow fall salads. Now is the perfect time to fill in any open garden spaces or planters with more lettuce – this short-season crop loves it cool!

Plan next season. Jot down your notes about this season and start making a list of how you want to finetune your garden next year! Remember, it's never too late to start your "My Garden" online journal!
Wrapping Up
Whether you grew a flower-filled garden bed or a single tomato in a patio planter, I tip my hat to you for getting out in the garden and digging into this awesome and fulfilling hobby!

As the season winds down, all that's left is a little TLC:

Keep it neat: Make sure you keep your garden clean during the late season. Continue to weed, remove faded flowers and harvest ripe veggies.

Dig it up: Remove old and dried plants to really help the other plants grow in a better way.

Recycle: Prepare your own compost by collecting dried leaves and other cuttings in a compost bin and turn it over regularly in winter months.

Dream: About next year, of course! You'll want to look back through your "My Garden" online journal and start planning for next year. And on those chilly days of Autumn and Winter, remember that your online resource at is just a click away!

Pest & Disease

Keeping Plants Healthy
A few preventative measures will keep "pests" away and keep your garden thriving!

All gardens are home to plant pests (slugs, insects, nematodes, fungi, bacteria and viruses), but having them there doesn't necessarily mean a threat to your plants. Like healthy people, healthy plants can usually ward off stress or illness, and continue to perform well.

Here are a few simple steps to keeping your garden healthy:

Discourage excess moisture on the foliage. Most fungal and bacterial diseases can infect plant surfaces only if there is moisture present. Try to stay out of the garden when it's wet so you don't spread disease organisms. And if you live in an area where the growing season is humid, provide adequate space among your plants so that air circulates freely.

Clean up your garden. Disease and pests can remain on infected and dead plant material, making it easy for them to attach to other plants. Keep weeds to a minimum and remove infected plant leaves as soon as you see them.

Welcome beneficial organisms. Make your garden inviting to pest predators like ladybugs, wasps and birds. Flowers and herbs provide nectar to predatory insects, and a water source, such as a fountain or bath, will attract birds.
Dealing with Birds
Scarecrows really do work!

Farmers have used scarecrows for years to keep birds out of their fields. They're easy (and fun!) to make, so get creative!

You'll need a long stake or pole, bright-colored old clothing, a staple gun, twine or thin rope, straw or fiberfill, gloves and a funny hat. Once you've dressed and stuffed your scarecrow and attached it to the pole, mount it securely in your garden.

Tip: Move your scarecrow every couple days to keep the birds guessing!
Low-Impact Pest Control
Despite your best efforts, pests and diseases may strike. Here's how to win the battle with pests...the eco-friendly way!

Handpicking. Inspect your plants and soil regularly for pests in all stages, from egg to adult. Pick and crush, or collect pests in a can of soapy water.

Barriers. You can purchase floating row covers to place over plants to protect them from insects and some small animals. A collar of newspaper or boxboard circling your plants and extending 2 inches above and below ground can prevent cutworm damage. Fences are often the only way to keep large, persistent creatures out. Use netting to protect strawberries and other fruit crops from hungry birds.

A clean plant is a healthy plant! Check your garden regularly and remove old vines, leaves and fruit to keep diseases and pests to a minimum.

An important note: If you do choose to use chemical sprays or dusts on your veggies and herbs (even those labeled organic or low toxicity), be sure to follow application, storage and disposal directions on the label. A rule of thumb is to stop using sprays and dusts at least 2 weeks before your first harvest.
Dealing with Powdery Mildew
Powdery mildew is one of the most common and easy-to-recognize plant diseases –  you'll see powdery white or gray spots on the leaves and stems. Although it is unattractive, this fungus will rarely kill your plant. However, it does stress and weaken the plant: infected leaves can fall prematurely, buds may not open, the flavor of edibles can be diminished. Almost no plant is immune, but some of the more commonly affected are squash, cucumbers, phlox, monarda, roses and lilacs.
What Causes Powdery Mildew? Powdery mildew spores are carried to your plants by wind, insects and splashing water. Conditions that encourage powdery mildew include:
  • Dampness or high humidity
  • Crowded plantings
  • Poor air circulation
How Can You Control Powdery Mildew?
  • Choose healthy plants and keep them growing healthy.
  • Try and find a powdery mildew resistant cultivar, if your area is susceptible.
  • Don't plant non-resistant varieties in the shade
Once Your Plants are Infected:
  • Remove and destroy all infected plant parts.
  • Improve air circulation by thinning and pruning.
  • Don’t fertilize until the problem is corrected – powdery mildew favors young, succulent growth.
  • Don’t water plants from above.
  • Apply a fungicide. Your local garden center can help you choose the most effective and safest type for your plants.
When Good Plants Go Bad
As Summer heats up, you'll find that weeds really take off, insects show up more often and your Spring-planted crops start to fade.
Here's a quick checklist:
  • Continue to water well and regularly.
  • Keep an eye on bugs.
  • Weed as needed.
  • Mulch any exposed soil.
  • Harvest any ripe vegetables.
  • Stake any plants that are starting to topple over.
  • Remove old plants as soon as you see them.
  • Feed your plants if you haven't fertilized in the last few weeks.