Vegetable Care Guide

Use these tips to ensure that the vegetables in your garden grow well and stay healthy.


Starting Seeds Indoors

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Most vegetables grow easily from seed. Some vegetables such as corn, beans, peas, radishes, and most other root crops don't transplant well so are best planted directly in the garden. Start others, such as artichokes, celery, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, indoors or purchase them as transplants if you live in a short-summer area.

Sow onion, broccoli, lettuce, squash, and cucumber seeds indoors or directly in the garden. Follow the planting instructions on the seed packet, whether you start seeds indoors to get a jump on the growing season or plant directly in the ground later in the season when conditions allow.

Test Garden Tip: Plant seeds two to four times as deep as the thickness of the seed.

For more on starting seeds indoors see our story on seed starting essentials.

When to Plant Seeds Outdoors

The best time to plant a particular vegetable depends on its cold tolerance and the average last frost date in your area. Cold-tolerant vegetables such as radishes, peas, and carrots can be planted up to a month before your average last frost date. Most vegetables, however, germinate better in warm soil, so it's better to wait until after the average last frost date to plant them. Some can be planted later in the season, too, so that the crop doesn't mature all at once.

For specifics on when to plant in both the spring and fall season, consult our Vegetable Planting Calendar.

Find your area's average last frost date.

Test Garden Tip: After you've harvested vegetables from an area, replant that spot with another crop to get the most production out of your garden. This technique is called succession planting.

Learn more about succession planting.

Transplanting Seedlings

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One week before you're ready to transplant vegetable seedlings into the garden, start hardening them (acclimating them to outdoor conditions before planting them in the garden). Find an outdoor location that's protected from wind and receives morning sun. Place the seedlings in this location for a few hours the first day, then bring them indoors. Gradually extend the amount of time they're left outdoors so that by the end of the week you can leave them outdoors overnight. If the weather is not right for transplanting, you can hold seedlings in a cold frame until you're ready to plant.

Learn how to grow a vegetable garden favorite, summer squash.

Watering

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Most vegetables require consistent moisture to produce well. The exact amount to apply depends on soil type, weather conditions, and what kind of vegetables you're growing. For example, if your vegetable garden has sandy soil, you'll need to water your plants more than if your vegetable garden has clay soil. Plants use more water during hot, windy conditions with low humidity than if the weather is cool, humid, and cloudy. One general rule is to apply enough water to moisten the root zone at least 6 inches deep. Soaker hoses or drip irrigation systems are efficient ways to apply water as they avoid wasting water by applying it directly to vegetable roots and they help prevent disease by keeping the plants' leaves dry.

Soil Testing

Vegetable plants pull nutrients from the soil to grow. The surest way of knowing which nutrients are already present in your garden soil is to have a soil test done. Most university cooperative extension services provide this service. Some commercial garden centers and professional soil testing laboratories do so as well.

Fertilizer Formulations

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Most fertilizers have three numbers on their labels. The first one indicates the percentage of nitrogen in the product, the second refers to phosphorus, and the third to potassium. These three nutrients are the major ones needed by vegetables. Some fertilizers also include micronutrients, which plants need in small amounts and are usually present in sufficient quantities in garden soils.

Fertilizers are available in dry form as powder or pellets and in liquid or water-soluble form. Apply dry fertilizer to the soil surface and water or till it into the soil. Some dry types of fertilizer are formulated to slowly release nutrients over several months, eliminating the need to feed more than once per growing season. Apply liquid forms of fertilizer several times during the growing season. Base the amount of fertilizer to apply on the results of your garden's soil test. Never exceed the recommended rates on the package. Applying too much is a waste of money and time, and may harm your vegetables by burning leaves and roots.

Organic Plant Foods

The difference between organic and inorganic fertilizer is the source of the nutrients. Inorganic fertilizers are manufactured; organic ones originate from living material. Organic matter is an important component of healthy soil, so organic fertilizer helps to condition the soil while feeding your vegetables. Organic fertilizers tend to be more expensive and bulky than inorganic ones, so you have to apply more of them to get the same nutrient value. The nutrients in organic matter are released slowly so it's difficult to overfertilize with organic products.

Test Garden Tip: Never use fresh manure on your vegetable garden. Compost it first to eliminate the possibility of spreading harmful bacteria onto your vegetable crops.

Pruning & Staking

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Vining vegetables such as peas and pole beans require a trellis, fence, or other support to grow on. Put the support system in place at or soon after seeding. Let cucumbers spread on the ground, or save space and make picking easier, by growing them on a trellis. Most other vegetables need no support system, with the notable exception of tomatoes. Compact, bush types of tomatoes grow well without caging, but indeterminate types (those that continue to grow, flower, and fruit all season) need some sort of support. Commercially available tomato cages slip over young transplants and provide support as the plant grows. You can also use stakes or spiral rods to support your tomatoes, but with these, you'll need to loosely tie the plants to the support.

For more ideas on ways to support vining vegetables read our story on supporting vegetables.

Frost Protection

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Frost-sensitive vegetables benefit from protection from cold weather early in the season. Most frost protection devices act like miniature greenhouses, trapping warm air during the day and holding it around the plant on frosty nights. Cold frames, cloches, and plastic tunnels are commonly used. Floating row cover is a fabric that offers several degrees of frost protection. As a bonus it also works to exclude insects.

Learn about the best cold-weather vegetables.

Protecting Vegetables from Wildlife

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Rabbits, deer, groundhogs, squirrels, and birds are all possible threats to vegetables. Keeping the animals away from the vegetables with fencing or netting is the surest form of protection. To keep rabbits out of the vegetable garden use 1-inch mesh or smaller chicken wire partially buried underground and extending at least 18 inches above ground. To deter deer, on the other hand, you'll need a fence at least 8 feet tall.

Numerous repellents are sold to keep animals away. If you use them in the vegetable garden, make certain that they're labeled for that purpose. (Many work as a taste repellent. They may impart an unpleasant flavor to the vegetables.)

Insects

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If you grow vegetables, you'll almost certainly find some insects attacking them at some point. However, you need not necessarily reach for pesticide sprays when you see the bugs. For example, beans may attract bean leaf beetles, but suffer no loss in yield even if they lose 25 percent of their leaves. Control aphids with hungry ladybug larvae and control tomato hornworms with parasitic wasps that kill them.

If a pesticide is necessary, use the least toxic alternative. Insecticidal soap is effective on most soft-bodied pests such as aphids and spider mites. A forceful spray of water from the hose may knock down the population of pests, too. Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) is a natural bacteria that controls the larvae of moths and butterflies, such as those of the white cabbage butterfly.

Diseases

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Keep diseases to a minimum by providing good air circulation throughout the garden so that plants dry quickly. Avoid splashing water on the foliage of your vegetables. Remove and destroy diseased plants as they develop. Some diseases spread by insects, so keep the insect population in check to prevent disease problems.

Weed Control

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Weeds steal moisture and nutrients from your vegetables. Keep the pests from overtaking the garden by getting rid of them as soon as they sprout. Hoeing or hand weeding works well in small spaces. For larger gardens a rototiller may prove to be a time saver.

You can kill many weed seeds that lie dormant in the soil by solarizing the garden before you do any planting. Lay clear plastic on freshly tilled soil, weight the edges with bricks or stones, and leave it for six weeks during the hottest part of the summer.

Few herbicides are labeled for use in vegetable gardens. Always follow label directions when using an herbicide, and make certain that the herbicide is safe to use on the crops you plan to grow.

Mulch

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Prevent weeds from starting by using mulch. Organic mulches such as sawdust or straw are good for vegetables that prefer cool soil. Mulch smothers weeds, prevents most weed seeds from germinating, and those that do grow are easier to pull. In addition, mulch conserves moisture, so you'll need to water less frequently.

Plastic mulch is effective for heat-loving crops. Black plastic mulch excludes light and prevents weeds from germinating. Colored plastic mulches may offer benefits for certain crops. For examples, red plastic mulch helps tomatoes produce more fruit; dark green mulch boosts melon yields; and dark blue enhances cucumber production.

Learn about the best mulch types for your garden.

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