Vegetable Growing Basics

Introduction to Vegetables

Choose a site that is:

  • Sunny. Receives at least 6 hours of direct sun daily.
  • Well-drained. No standing water after heavy rains.
  • Relatively level. Or build beds or terraces that run across the slope.
  • Away from trees. They can shade and compete with crops for water and nutrients.
  • Protected from high winds. Good air circulation, however, helps prevent disease. You may want to avoid low-lying frost pockets.
  • Close to a water source. You'll need water, and it's too heavy to haul.

Plan ahead:

  • Prepare your soil in the fall in anticipation of planting next spring. Consider growing vegetables in 3- to 4-foot-wide beds with paths in between instead of just creating one large area for your garden. Contact your local Extension office for information about testing your soil's pH and nutrient levels.
  • Think about what you and your family really like to eat before planning your garden. Vegetables will go to waste if what you grow doesn't match what you eat.
  • Start small. There is nothing more discouraging than planting more than you can take care of. Each year, plant more of what you didn't have enough of, and less of what was in surplus.
  • Make a map of your garden plan to help you visualize what it will look like and to make the best use of space. Avoid planting tall crops where they'll shade out shorter ones.
  • Group perennial crops -- ones that come back every year such as rhubarb and asparagus -- together along one side of the garden so they will be out of the way.
  • Order seeds early. Studying seed catalogs during winter is a good way to get acquainted with the possibilities. If you forget something, you can always purchase seed later locally.
If you start improving your soil the season before you establish your garden, you can have rich, plant-friendly earth in time for planting.

Plants and Planting

Annual vegetables can be divided into two general categories:

Cool-season crops
These include lettuce, peas, and most of the cabbage and onion families. They grow best when the weather is cool -- in spring and fall -- and most can take at least a light frost. In much of New York, you usually plant them through the spring for early summer harvests, then again in midsummer for fall harvests. The plants are usually compact, their root systems are relatively small, and they are more sensitive to nutrient deficiencies.

Warm-season crops
These include tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, beans, corn, and the family of vine crops that includes squash, cucumbers, melons, and pumpkins. Many are tropical plants, and they grow best when the weather is warm. They are often large, sprawling plants with extensive root systems. Those grown from seed need to be planted into warm soil, usually after the last frost date. Those transplanted into the garden (such as tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant) should not be transplanted until after the last frost.

With tomatoes, peppers, and other warm-season crops that need to be started inside, consider purchasing plants from a local garden center or other outlet -- especially if you are relatively new to gardening. Starting your own seed inside and growing vigorous transplants can be a challenge. Plants often fail to thrive inside due to lack of light (even in "sunny" windows) or improper humidity or temperature.

Whether homegrown or purchased, you need to gradually acclimate transplants to the rigors of outdoor life. Move them outside for a few hours each day as transplanting time approaches. Gradually increase their time outside, and decrease their water. When conditions are right for transplanting, remember that calm, overcast days are best for the plant. Transplant late in the day if possible. Immediately water thoroughly, and don't let the soil dry out while the transplants adjust.

Planting often
If you plant a lot of beans all at once, you'll harvest a lot of beans all at once -- probably more than you or your family can use at the time. To avoid harvest-time surplus and waste, spread out plantings of certain vegetables. If you plant a little bit every week or so, you can harvest crops over an extended period. With some salad crops, such as leaf lettuce, you can harvest in what's called "cut and come again" fashion. Simply cut the leaves off an inch or two above the ground. The plant will regrow (if conditions are right) and provide you with another harvest a few weeks later. See the Vegetable Growing Guides for more information about which plants you should seed in successive plantings.

When the weather gets too warm for cool-season crops, many of them (such as lettuce) "bolt" -- their leaves turn bitter and the plants elongate and start sending up flower stems. Others (such as peas) simply stop flowering and die. When you remove these plants from the garden, you may still be able to plant a warm-season crop (such as beans) in their place, or start another cool-season crop for fall harvest.

Planting in wide rows separated by permanent paths is a good way to reduce soil compaction in the garden.

Preventing Problems

See the sections on Managing Insect Pests and Minimizing Plant Diseases for specific ways to prevent these problems. Some things to keep in mind:

Water right.
During most of the growing season, your plants need about 1 inch of water per week. If you don't get that much rain, your plants will benefit from a thorough watering to make up the difference. If you use a sprinkler, water early in the day so that the plants dry quickly. This reduces the spread of disease. Plants benefit more from one deep watering than several light waterings that barely soak in. Soaker hoses or drip or trickle irrigation are better than sprinklers because they deliver water directly to the soil without wetting the foliage. Adding organic matter to the soil can help increase its ability to hold water for plants, especially in sandy soils. Mulch the soil to help it retain moisture.

Rotate crops.
Don't grow the same crop (or members of the same crop family) in the same place year after year. This can lead to a build up of pests and diseases. Plant winter cover crops such as rye in fall to protect and build soil overwinter. If you harvest an early crop and don't plant another one in its place, keep the soil covered with a summer cover crop, such as buckwheat.

Stay out of the garden when it's wet.
Weeds are easier to pull when the soil is moist, but let it dry out a bit after a rain before you work in the garden. Walking on wet soil can compact it. You can also inadvertently spread some diseases from plant to plant when they are wet.