In the many years that I’ve been giving talks to home gardeners and garden clubs, the same questions seem to crop up. They ask, for example, “How do you deal with our heavy clay soil?” and “What about the proliferation of deer in the Poconos?”
As February is an excellent time to begin planning, here are my answers to some common questions and concerns about starting a vegetable garden.
Question: Do I need to buy new seed every year?
Answer: Some vegetable seeds — asparagus, bean, carrot, and pea — remain feasible for two or three years. Others, specifically beet, pepper, pumpkin, and tomato, are good for four years. Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cucumber, eggplant, kale, lettuce, radish, spinach, squash, and turnip will sprout after five years. Leftover seeds of sweet corn, leek, onion, and parsnip, however, deteriorate within a year.
Keeping purchased seed fresh for the stated times depends upon the method of storage. They should be dry before placing them in a paper envelope to absorb any moisture. Label with the name and year. Store the envelopes in an airtight container, out of direct sunlight, in a cool, dry place.
Concern: I can’t grow vegetables because the deer eat everything.
Answer: While browsing deer may be charming to watch, they cause extensive damage, as any Pocono gardener knows. On average, a single deer can eat five to 10 pounds of plant material in a day. Where deer are established, it is difficult to move them out of the area.
Homemade repellents such as bar soap or bags of human hair are questionably effective. I use commercially available repellents, made of natural materials, that I spray directly onto plants. It is important to check that the product is safe for use on fruit and vegetables.
Some vegetables are more tempting than others, but deer rarely bother onions, leeks or garlic. They don’t like aromatic herbs such as thyme, dill and sage. Try growing onions along the perimeter of the garden. I install hoop tunnels to protect low-lying crops. Adequate fencing, however, is the most reliable way of controlling deer. Erect an 8-foot, woven wire fence around your vegetable garden.
Question: How can I grow vegetables in heavy clay soil?
Answer: The answer to heavy clay soil is organic matter in the form of decaying plant or animal material. When incorporated, organic matter helps clay soil drain water more easily, provides pore space that lets in air for good plant growth, moderates soil temperature, releases nitrogen for plant use and improves overall soil properties. Early spring is the best time to enrich the soil prior to planting your vegetable garden.
If you have never had your soil analyzed or if it has been a couple of years since your last test, contact your Extension office for a soil test kit. This simple test will tell you if your planting beds are lacking much-needed nutrients for healthy growth. For example, since much of the Pocono soil is acidic, Penn State may recommend you add lime and other trace nutrients.
Once you have added the suggested amendments, top dress your beds with an inch or two of compost. If you don’t have a compost pile, start one — you will find detailed instructions for this rewarding activity at the Extension office. Meanwhile, you can purchase compost by the truckload or bag. Your vegetable garden will benefit from fertilizer. I apply fish emulsion or seaweed extracts to my vegetable beds. Always read the label directions carefully.
Concern: I don’t have enough space for a garden.
Answer: In a small space try vertical gardening or grow your vegetables in a container. Install a trellis with wall planters so you can garden while standing up. You may buy a premade trellis or make one yourself. Another option is to stack pots on a riser. The height of your vertical garden should not extend beyond your arm’s reach. Many vegetables, such as cucumbers and beans, grow well on trellises and are easy to pick.
Container gardening is an attractive alternative to growing plants in the ground. You can have a garden on your patio, balcony, deck or porch by using pots, baskets, boxes or barrels to contain your vegetables. There are numerous benefits: you can control the soil composition and move the pots around to take advantage of the weather. You can grow most annual vegetables in containers with the exception of sweet corn because it needs numerous plants for adequate pollination. There are some new cultivars that are suitable for pots: bush-type squash, cucumbers and melons grow as compact bushes rather than as sprawling vines.
When choosing tomatoes, look for determinate cultivars that grow to a predetermined height. Indeterminate tomatoes grow tall and are difficult to support in a container. Plant two or three plants of herbs, lettuce, carrots, or radishes in a 1-gallon container. For 2-gallon containers, plant bush beans 2 to 3-inches apart or one bell pepper plant per container. Plant one eggplant, one summer squash, or one tomato in a 5-gallon container.
Question: I grow the same vegetables in the same spot every year. I’ve never had a problem so why should I rotate my crops?
Answer: You can minimize plant diseases by rotating your crops among plant families. Grouping vegetables into families and moving each family to a different location each year will help to limit diseases that overwinter in the soil. Closely related plants tend to be susceptible to the same insect, disease, and nematode problems. Here are examples of seven crop groupings by family and the diseases that you may reduce by rotating them:
1. Gourd family — Cantaloupe, cucumber, pumpkin, squash, watermelon. Some diseases reduced in this group are angular leaf spot, black rot, Microdochium blight, Fusarium wilt, Anthracnose, scab and nematodes.
2. Mustard family — Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale. Diseases reduced in this family are Phytophthora root rot, black leg, clubroot and black rot.
3. Nightshade family — Eggplant, potato, okra, pepper, tomato. Diseases reduced are bacterial canker, early blight, nematodes and potato scab.
4. Onion family — Chive, garlic, leek, shallot. Diseases reduced are Fusarium basal plate rot, purple blotch, neck rot and nematodes.
5. Pea family — Bean, pea. Diseases reduced are root/foot rot complex, Anthracnose, bacterial blight, Fusarium wilt, white mold and nematodes.
6. Parsley family — Carrot, celery, parsnip. Diseases reduced are Pythium root rot, bacterial leaf blight, black rot, Cercospora leaf blight, cavity spot, scab.
7. Amaranth family — Beet, Swiss chard. Diseases reduced are black root rot, black leg and scab.
Planning your vegetable garden now will save you time, work and money. Select a site that gets at least six hours of sun each day and has easy access to water. Choose the vegetables that you like to eat.
Now, put your plan on paper. The gardening season will soon be here.
Pamela T. Hubbard gardens in Effort and is a Penn State Master Gardener. Penn State Extension in Monroe County: extension.psu.edu/monroe and facebook.com/mastergardenerspa. For gardening questions, call the Master Gardener Horticulture Line, 570-421-6430, from 10 a.m. to noon Mondays. Walk-ins are welcome at 724 Phillips St., Suite 201, Stroudsburg.