25 Ways to Win the Garden Season
Get ready for a great big haul, thanks to these pro growing tips— on everything from which fruits and veggies to plant and how to water just enough, to natural ways to keep pests at bay. Plus, all new ways to cook your tomatoes, zucchini and more.
We can't think of a more grounding activity—literally and figuratively— than tending a garden. It allows you to plant fruits and veggies unavailable at your local market, shave bucks off the family budget, and to spend time outside with your hands in the dirt. And there's the sheer gratification of growing your own food. What's also grounding about gardening: no matter how much you know, there's always more to learn. EatingWell hit up gardening experts from all over the country to get their top seed-to-harvest secrets for success, so this can be your best growing season yet.
1. Plant what you love
Often people default to growing what they think they should grow, rather than the crops they most want to eat. If that means planting eggplant instead of zucchini? Fine. Release yourself from any pressure or expectation. All of the experts we consulted emphasize: you are much more likely to have success tending to a crop that you actually like. That said, don't be afraid to experiment with a fun or different veggie, says Mary Beth Shaddix, author of The Cooking Light Pick Fresh Cookbook, who co-owns Maple Valley Nursery near Birmingham, Alabama, with her husband. (She never used to grow hot peppers and now has more than 20 varieties!)
2. Know when to start from seed...
Root crops like beets, carrots and radishes resent being transplanted, so they're best to start straight in the ground, says Seattle-based Lorene Edwards Forkner, author of six gardening books. Cucurbits (squash family members), including cucumbers, melons, pumpkin and zucchini, also do best when direct-sown after the soil temperature reaches 60 degrees and the danger of frost is past. In cooler regions, you may need to sprout seeds indoors until the ground warms, or buy seedlings. Starting from seed can seem intimidating, but Edwards Forkner insists it's a cinch. Plunk them into the ground at a depth that's half as deep as the seed is wide and keep the soil moist until germination. You can do it—really.
3. ... And when to reach for seedlings
Unless you started your eggplants, peppers and tomatoes in late winter or early spring, forget about planting seeds—they'll take too long to grow. Grab seedlings from a nursery instead, suggests C.L. Fornari, a gardening consultant on Cape Cod who hosts the radio show GardenLine and co-hosts the Plantrama podcast. Also, look for containers with multiple plants in the same cell. (Just tease them apart by tugging gently on the stems and letting the roots untangle.) You'll double— sometimes triple—the number of plants you get to sink in the ground, not to mention the amount you'll be able to harvest later.
4. Know your region's strengths and weaknesses
You can have a fruit and vegetable garden almost anywhere in the world, but it's important to understand the pros and cons of your specific climate. For example, in cool, foggy coastal regions, you might struggle to grow hot-season crops like melons and pumpkins, but you can produce greens nearly year-round. The oppressive summer heat in the South and Southwest U.S. means tomatoes might need afternoon shade, notes certified master gardener Jodi Torpey, author of Blue Ribbon Vegetable Gardening. In arid climates, while your squash, melons and pumpkins may really thrive, you'll need to be extra vigilant about soil irrigation, as it can dry out in the blink of an eye.
5. Look for regionally adapted varieties
You'll have better luck if you pick varieties of plants that are meant for your region, says Torpey. Some cultivars are named after the locale in which they were bred, cluing you in that they'll succeed in your garden. For example, 'San Francisco Fog' is a tomato that's ideal for cool Bay Area summers (seeds available at tomatofest.com), 'King of the North' is a red bell pepper bred in Maine (seedsavers.org) and it grows well in cooler, shorter Northeast seasons; 'Missouri Gold' melon is an heirloom native to the region that's designed to withstand drought (southernexposure.com). Remember: seed catalogs are your friends—or you can pick up starter plants at your local farmers' market.
Pictured Recipe: Spring Vegetable Minestra with Mint & Basil Pistou
6. Opt for crops that are pricy at the store—or super-perishable
If you have to make decisions based on space, Edwards Forkner recommends leaving the agricultural commodities, like lettuce and onions, to the farmers. Devote your precious soil space to expensive heirloom tomatoes, which can cost $6 a pound, or raspberries that have a short shelf life. Some crops, like mulberries, are too delicate to even make it to the market—so you'd have to grow your own mulberry trees to experience their intense sweet-tart flavor.
7. Don't forget herbs
"In small-space gardening, you'll get the most flavor per square foot by growing herbs," says Torpey. Think: basil, oregano, cilantro, rosemary, thyme or mint (always put the latter in a pot as it will take over any bed). Or branch out and try some less-common herbs, like chervil, holy basil or lemon verbena. Check out our guide on growing fresh herbs for more.
8. Compost, compost, compost
Sure, you're after that juicy strawberry, spicy pepper or sweet corn. But to feed yourself, you first need to feed your soil, says Fornari. It actually has a complex microbiome—just like your gut—filled with beneficial bacteria, protozoa, fungi and worm-like nematodes. This soil microbiome helps to digest organic material (from things like decomposing leaves) and to make the nutrients it contains accessible to your crops. Where does that good bacteria come from? Compost. (Adding chemical fertilizers can have the opposite effect.) Buy bagged compost from an independent nursery; they often source from small, local producers, which can really make a difference in quality. Or better yet, make your own (we have a guide for starting your own compost here). On top of feeding your soil's microbiome, composting is an excellent way to divert waste from the landfill.
9. Give breathing room
We know you get excited about planting all the things—Purple carrots! Fennel! Celery root!—but resist the urge to cram as many plants as close as you possibly can. Believe it or not, there's actually as much root mass growing below as there is foliage above. And crowding plants leads to decreased growth and production, as well as all sorts of problems from lack of airflow between branches and leaves, says Edwards Forkner. Trust: you'll be much happier with one thriving 'Green Zebra' tomato plant than seven struggling ones. So follow those spacing instructions. They're there for a reason.
10. Get hip to the drip
Fruits and vegetables depend on water. They're made of water! Cucumbers and iceberg lettuce and bok choy are over 96% water by volume, and all the rest— broccoli, celery, blueberries, you name it—are around or more than 90% water. And nothing gives your plants exactly the hydration they need better than a drip system, says Shaddix. Using just a slow trickle at the root zone, drip systems save water, minimize disease problems caused by wet foliage, suppress weed growth, and allow for slow, deep waterings—best for plant health. Hooking up a system—tubes and emitters that can be connected to any spigot—is simpler than you think. Kind of like Legos for grown-ups.
11. Add a security blanket
Whether you use burlap sacks, straw, leaf litter, wood chips or a few inches of finished compost, mulching your garden helps retain moisture, suppress weeds and mitigate temperature swings, says Fornari. Organic types of mulch have the added benefit of releasing nutrients back into the soil as they slowly decompose.
12. Resist going nuclear on pests
It's tempting to go in with the big guns at the first sign of a problem. But start by turning to integrated pest management. Bornin the 1960s in response to the negative impacts of synthetic pesticides, this approach encourages taking time to diagnose the issue before taking action, especially reaching for a jug of chemicals. Once you know what you're up against, Shaddix recommends trying physical barriers whenever possible, like a fence for deer, or other chemical-free solutions, like blasting aphids with water or handpicking tomato hornworms. Other experts recommend copper tape for snails and slugs and netting for birds and squirrels. Save pesticide and herbicide interventions for a last resort, and look for organic varieties. Biological pesticides, such as Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt, a species of bacteria that lives in soil and is toxic to common pests, like mosquitoes and caterpillars, but not harmful to people or the planet), can be gentler alternatives to harsh chemicals.
13. And realize that nature is nature
You share the garden with critters of all sizes, from deer to aphids, squirrels to slugs. "We've got Bambi and Thumper, along with woodchucks, crows, mice, voles—the whole gamut," says Fornari. But rather than seeing gardening as a battle against these intruders, she views them as her dancing partners. "There's always something you're dancing with, and if you look at it as a dance, it makes handling issues a lot more entertaining and bearable." You might wind up with munched-on kale leaves or chard that has some holey leaves. Who cares? More often than not, it will still be perfectly delicious.
14. Plant an insurance policy
If you have the space, growing a few extra just in case can't hurt. Shaddix's motto: "Plant one for you, one that can be a goof up, and one for them." (Looking at you, squirrel.) If they're all successful and you have more than you know what to do with, well, congratulate yourself and donate the extra to your local food bank.
15. Add blooms
"Always, always have flowers," says Edwards Forkner. "They're beautiful, cheery and hugely important to a fruit and vegetable garden." Flowers help increase the pollination of your produce, support struggling bee populations and draw in other insects that keep pests out of your garden—like lacewings, ladybugs and parasitic wasps. They can even fend off pests on their own: marigolds repel aphids, mosquitoes and even rabbits, and nasturtiums deter whiteflies and squash bugs. Some of the best bloomers are cosmos, daisies, purple coneflowers and zinnias. Add them to your bed ends or tuck them into containers.
16. Get a support system
Let's talk about tomato cages. You want ones that are sturdy, affordable and easy to store. Shaddix's favorite, which meets all three criteria: a simple roll of hog wire and a few stakes of rebar. The resulting DIY cages are better than the ubiquitous conical ones. Cut a 6-foot section of hog wire and form a cylinder, intertwining the wire ends to hold it together. Place around a young tomato plant and stake it into the ground by weaving two stakes of rebar on either side of the cage. At the end of the season, open the cages and coil them tightly for easy storage.
17. Go vertical
That same hog wire and rebar can serve as trellising for other crops, too, notes Shaddix. As an A-frame, it's a great support for cucumbers and melons—plants that don't necessarily need to be trellised, but sure are easier to harvest from when their vines are supported. Or go big and make a walk-through arbor, fastened with T-posts, and grow a showstopper, like trumpet-shaped 'Trombetta di Albenga' squash (find seeds at reneesgarden.com) or 20-inch-long 'Gita' beans (johnnyseeds.com).
Pictured Recipe: Veggie-Packed Okonomiyaki (Japanese Pancake)
18. Don't shy away from containers
Whether you're looking to outsmart tunneling gophers or lack yard space but have room on a deck, basically anything you can grow in-ground can also be planted in a container, says Torpey. Ensure adequate space for root growth by matching the pot size to the eventual size of the plant that will grow on top. (Usually a container with both a height and diameter in the 18- to 24-inch range works well.) Make sure it has a drainage hole, and use fresh potting soil. Consider putting the pots on small stands with wheels so you can move them around to catch the sun.
19. Deal with weeds while they are small
Why? Because they come out easily at that stage—and can quickly grow larger than vegetable crops if ignored for a few weeks. By that point, strong taproots may make weeds a chore to unearth. Bite the bullet and get in there regularly to deal with them. Fornari's favorite tool for the job is a hula hoe (also known as a stirrup hoe or scuffle hoe). The sharp blade slices on both forward and backward strokes, cutting through weeds— while leaving soil in place—and dispatching them without even needing to bend down.
20. Harvest at the right moment
"Beginning gardeners often wait for that head of broccoli or eggplant to get as large as the ones at the market," says Fornari. "And homegrown ones simply might not get that big, so cut the broccoli before it ends up blooming." For many vegetables, the more you pick, the more you'll get. Don't wait for zucchini to get as big as a baseball bat. Harvest small ones (which will taste much better) and the plant will rush to make more. Pick beans and cucumbers as soon as you see ready ones.
21. Eat. It. All.
Take a cue from the nose-to-tail movement and find ways to enjoy every part of the plant. Shaddix loves plucking fava bean and snap pea leaves to add to salads. Braise beet greens after harvesting the roots or broccoli leaves after chopping the head. Take advantage of the various life-cycle stages—snag a few new potatoes before the rest mature or harvest coriander seeds once cilantro bolts in warmer temps. One caution is to avoid rhubarb leaves—they can make you pretty sick.
Pictured Recipe: Sautéed Bok Choy & Hakurei Turnips
22. Store seeds properly
Seed packets come with far more seeds than you often need for a given season. To best preserve their viability from year to year, store in an airtight container, like a mason jar or plastic tub, and keep them in a cool, dark place, like an unheated garage or shed. Fornari says to skip the freezer or refrigerator—the lack of humidity can sap the seeds.
23. Preserve your harvest
Few things are as wonderful as tapping into those summer flavors long after the season has passed. Beyond traditional canning, you've got a plethora of options when it comes to preservation, says Fornari. She roasts most of her vegetables, like eggplant and zucchini, without oil in a 375°F oven, cools them and then packs them into freezer bags—which she finds retains more flavor than the tried-and-true method of blanching and shocking them in cold water before packing and freezing. Dehydration (you can even use your oven!) and pickling (try the Jardiniere) are two other ways to go.
24. Get yourself a hori-hori
Yes, you'll need a few tools along your gardening journey, but Torpey recommends you promptly invest in a hori-hori (it means "to dig" in Japanese). This small, multipurpose tool has a steel blade that's serrated on one side and etched with measuring units so you can easily tell the depth of what you're planting. You'll find yourself using it for everything from making seed troughs and weeding to breaking through tough soil and harvesting root crops. Pick one up at your local nursery or at gardeners.com (from $59.95).
25. Find success in the small things
All four of our experts insist that to be a successful gardener, you have to fall in love with the process, not just the end product. You have to think creatively about all sorts of challenges. You have to embrace the fails and the windfalls. And whether the season goes for better or worse, you can always blame the weather.
EatingWell, April 2021