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Vegetable Gardening 101

Growing vegetables and fruits is becoming a staple in the home landscape, providing people with their own fresh, quality produce. Vegetable gardening is very rewarding and it doesn’t require a large, traditional garden unless you want one. If having a large garden doesn’t fit your lifestyle, small plot gardening, raised bed gardening and container gardening are all great options. No matter what size garden you are planting, site selection is very important. Vegetables require full sun to produce well, which is eight hours of sun a day. If you don’t have adequate sun, produce won’t be productive. Don’t locate the garden too close to trees, particularly Black Walnut trees, which emit a chemical called juglone that can be toxic to some plants. Garden prep is just as important as site location. Prepare your bed by working your soil with a spade or tiller as soon as the soil can be worked in the spring, turning to at least a depth of eight inches. Don’t work soil when it’s wet. If your garden is brand new, a soil test is recommended to see if you need any soil amendments. If you choose to use raised beds or containers you don’t need to till. For raised beds, a common growing mixture is 1/3 horticultural vermiculite, 1/3 peat moss and 1/3 compost. It’s also good to work in a complete 10-10-10 fertilizer before planting. Follow ratios on the fertilizer product label. Plant selection is the fun part. According to the USDA map, Eastern Iowa is mostly Zone 5a with some areas Zone 4b. This doesn’t matter so much with annual vegetables but does play a role with perennial fruits. Choose fruits that are hardy to Zone 4. Plan your space on paper first or mark out plants with stakes in the garden and remember that a full grown tomato plant is much larger than the one planted in the spring. Make sure to plan for mature sizes when planting vegetables. Also pick vegetables that you and your family will enjoy eating. Choosing vegetable varieties can be difficult since there are endless choices. Iowa State Extension has a very complete guide which can help you pick varieties that are most successful in Iowa. You can download a free copy at:

There are a few ways you can save space and plant more vegetables. One way is to incorporate “Inter-planting” or growing two or more veggies in one area by planting a slower growing vegetable with a faster maturing one. The faster maturing vegetable is harvested before the slower one so plants won’t get crowded. An example of this is to plant radishes, which grow quickly, with carrots, which grow slower in the same area. Or grow a row of leaf lettuce between tomatoes. Then there’s “succession” planting. This technique incorporates growing a cool season crop like lettuce, spinach, radish, or peas, and replanting that area after harvest with a warm season crop like beans or melon. Incorporate vertical growing with a trellis, fences or arbor. Vine vegetables like beans, cucumbers, squash and gourds grow great vertically. So what is a cool season and warm season vegetable and when do you plant them? Cool season plants grow at cooler, earlier springtime temperatures, and some can handle frost. These include lettuce, spinach, peas, onions, and radish, cabbage and beets. Warm weather vegetables won’t tolerate cool temperatures. These plants do best well after the danger of all frost has passed. Our last frost date is usually about May 12th, but can be earlier or later depending on the year. Warm season vegetables include tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and squash. ISU Extension website has another useful guide for planting times which you can download free at: Seed packets will also have planting guidelines as well. Vegetables can either be planted as seed or transplants. If planting transplants, make sure you acclimate them to the outdoors for a few days in a shady area before placing directly into the garden. This is called “hardening off.” Always water new plants and seeds and water well in dry periods throughout the growing season. Watering from the bottom of plants close to the roots is preferable since wet foliage and hot summer temperatures can encourage plant disease. If your garden is in full sun, you routinely pull weeds, and mulch around plants you should have few pests. Although not recommended for vegetables, if you do use a pesticide always follow product labels. For all your vegetable gardening questions call the Linn County Master Gardener Hortline at 319.447.0647

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