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You can still plant vegetables (or flowers), here’s how

Building a raised garden is a good way to improve your soil for growing vegetables.
(Getty Images)

Spring plantings in May are not too late

April showers bring May vegetables? That’s not how the poem goes but this year, it sure seems to be what happened. Our late and very wet spring kept us out of the garden just at the time we’d normally be planting vegetables. But don’t worry; it’s not too late.

Stay-at-home means more time to garden. Gardens are wonderful places to spend time with children. In the garden, playing is learning. You can teach any subject in a garden, from history to art, science to English. Spend time with your children in the garden. It is time you both will treasure.

Now is the time to plant tomatoes, cucumbers, basil, squash, melons, pumpkins, and other delicious summer edibles.

1. If you are building your first vegetable garden, here are some tips for success:

  • Put the garden near your kitchen door. The more convenient the location, the more attention your garden will get.
  • Site the garden where it will get a minimum of six hours of full, direct sunlight every day.
  • Install a drip irrigation system. The goal is to wet the soil, not the leaves, and to wet all the soil evenly. That’s what in-line drip does. Hand watering is nice, but it gets old fast, and few of us have the patience to stand and water for as long as is needed.
  • Build raised beds. Our soils don’t have enough organic matter for vegetables. So instead, build a big “container” and fill it with the best soil possible. That’s a raised bed.
  • Do not line the bottom of your raised bed with weedcloth or landscape fabric. Solid linings like these stop plant roots from reaching deep into the soil.
  • Do line the bottom of your raised beds with welded metal mesh (aka “hardware cloth”). The wire keeps hungry gophers from eating the plants, but roots grow right through it.
  • Always build two or more raised beds so you can alternate crops each year. Put all the nightshade plants in one bed — tomato, pepper, eggplant and tomatillo. The next year, plant them in the other bed. In year three, they go back into the first bed, and so on. This is the best way to grow healthy, vigorous plants that produce lots of fruits.
  • In the alternate bed, plant squash, cucumbers, melons, okra, pumpkins, herbs, flowers, etc.

2. Don’t have room for a whole garden? Look for “compact” or “patio” varieties to grow in containers. They are bred to stay small and manageable.

  • A 15-gallon nursery can or a half whiskey barrel is big enough for one tomato plant, or two eggplants, or three basil plants, or three cucumber plants, or two pepper plants.
  • A 5-gallon nursery can is big enough for two eggplants, two basil plants or two pepper plants.
  • A 5-gallon bucket with holes drilled in the bottom can support one tomato or two eggplants or three basil, or two pepper plants.

3. Amend last year’s garden soil with compost, worm castings and organic vegetable fertilizer.

4. Extend your harvest method No. 1: Plant several varieties of the same vegetable; tomato, eggplant, pepper, etc. Choose a short-season variety, a midseason variety, and a late-season variety — those tell you how long it takes for each variety to ripen. Or look for the “days to maturity” or “days to harvest” on the label. Select a combination of varieties to include one with the fewest days to harvest, one with the most days to harvest and one in the middle.

5. Extend your harvest method No. 2: Be like a farmer and start your crops in succession. Rather than planting everything at once, stagger planting. Start another batch of seeds or starts every few weeks between now and the end of June. That way, you’ll have some veggies ripen sooner while others ripen later.

6. Did you know that what we call summer vegetables are actually summer fruits? A “fruit” is the part of a plant that has seeds. So cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, etc. are technically all fruits.

7. In the nursery, shop for the smallest, healthiest seedlings that haven’t yet formed flowers or fruits. Those plants will put down deep roots and grow lots of leaf-covered branches that power flowering and fruiting. Smaller plants grow larger and healthier and are much more productive.

8. Keep water off the leaves of your vegetables and ornamental plants. Wet leaves are susceptible to mold and mildew. Instead of watering overhead or by hand, irrigate with soaker hoses or in-line drip irrigation.

9. Remember that the goal of irrigating is to wet roots — roots pull water and nutrients from the soil, and move them up into the plants. So every time you water, water long enough to get water down to the root zone — with drip irrigation that could take 30 to 90 minutes. Stick your fingers down into the soil to be sure it is wet as deep as the roots go.

10. Brown spots on the bottoms of squash and tomatoes are blossom end rot — the result of uneven watering. Pick and compost those fruits; they won’t recover. Change the watering schedule so the soil in your garden beds is evenly damp at all times.

11. If you see holes in leaves, don’t remove the leaves and don’t spray your plant. First, figure out what is causing the holes and whether it’s bad enough to be a problem. Plants grow many, many leaves, so a few holes may be ugly but aren’t a problem for the plant.

12. If your plant is being eaten to the nubs, go out at night with a flashlight and look for snails or slugs, or look on the undersides of the leaves for green worms. Once you know who the culprit is, find the appropriate and least-toxic treatment.

13. Things NOT to use in the garden: salt, oil, gasoline, Epsom salts, dish soap. These products cause serious damage in the garden.

14. Since vegetables need much more water than ornamental plants, put them in separate irrigation zones. Otherwise, you’ll overwater the ornamentals.

15. Set up a strong trellis or other structure to support tomatoes, cucumbers and melons before you put those plants in the ground.

16. My favorite vegetable support system starts with a sheet of concrete reinforcing mesh (approximately 4 by 7 feet). Pull the short ends together to form a cylinder, then secure them with zip ties. The cylinders are strong and freestanding.

17. Since pumpkins and watermelon vines can grow 20 feet long or longer, plant them where there’s plenty of space to spread and grow. They need lots of water, too.

18. Plant zinnias, sunflowers, calendula, marigolds and other summer annuals with your vegetables.

Blanket flowers will attract bees and butterflies to your garden.
(Getty Images)

19. Red, yellow and orange flowering blanket flowers, Mexican sunflower and Mexican hat flowers grow with very little irrigation. They also support bees and butterflies.

20. Water and fertilize plums, apples and other deciduous fruit trees. They’ll need regular water through the growing season.

21. Thin the developing peaches, plums, apples, etc. when they are marble sized. The ideal spacing is a fruit every 2 to 4 inches.

22. Set out traps for rats and other critters that eat fruit. Pick up fallen fruit to avoid attracting green metallic fig beetles and other fruit-loving pests.

23. Prepare your irrigation system for summer:

  • Turn on each zone and check for leaks, breaks, etc.
  • Set your irrigation to run before 6 a.m., which is before peak weekday water demands.
  • Do not run overhead spray in the evening or overnight. Wet leaves in the cool hours are susceptible to molds and mildew.

24. Inland, stop planting drought-tolerant shrubs and trees now. Right along the coast, continue planting for another month or two.

25. Prepare for the warm, dry summer months by adding a 3- or 4-inch-thick layer of mulch to almost the entire garden. Use rock mulch for succulents, wood based mulch for non-succulent ornamental plants, straw (not hay) for the vegetable garden.

26. Deadhead spent flowers on roses and spring perennials to squeeze another round or two of blooms from them before summer’s heat arrives. Always cut at a branching point, even if that means shortening a branch. Never leave a stub.

27. Don’t give up on water conservation practices. We had plenty of rain this past winter, but we’ll be right back in drought before you know it. Use a bucket in your shower to collect water as it heats up and use the water in the garden. Install a gray-water system, use drip irrigation and look for other ways to limit your outdoor water use.

28. Enjoy the beautiful orchid cactus (Epiphyllum) in bloom now. If you see one you like, get a cutting or ask for the name and shop for it in the nursery.

29. Ready to get rid of your lawn? Metropolitan Water District (MWD) is offering its turf replacement rebates once again. Visit www.bewaterwise.com/turf-replacement-program.html for information.

Sterman is a garden designer and writer; www.waterwisegardener.com.


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