Getting the vegetable garden ready

Adrian Higgins
Gardening columnist March 23, 2011

Spring has arrived and with it the chance to crank up that wonderful element of the growing season ahead: the veggie garden. Growing vegetables is an easy but methodical pursuit where timing is everything. Early spring is the moment when the whole year is set into motion, the period when the garden is dug, weeded, seeded and prepared for the coming months. The next two or three weekends are important for putting in the cool-season garden that yields such treats in May and June as fresh salad greens, radishes and peas. Procrastinators, take heart. You have until May to ready your plot for the summer garden. In August, we told you how to lay out, build and decorate a vegetable garden. Today we offer a gentle nudge in getting it cranked up for the 2011 growing season. Remember, your garden needs at least six full hours of direct sunlight to be successful. The rest is up to you.

Adrian Higgins has been writing about the intersection of gardening and life for more than 25 years, and joined the Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the "Washington Post Garden Book" and "Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden." View Archive
Cleaning up

For the vegetable gardener, there is something deeply satisfying about clearing away last year’s detritus and creating a clean slate for the new season.

Growing beds should be separated from paths, and beds should be no more than four feet wide. This allows you to work the soil on either side of a bed without stepping into it. Human feet will quickly squeeze the vital air and moisture out of soil.

Small beds with good soil can be cultivated with a three-prong cultivator. This will loosen the top few inches of soil, which then can be raked smooth. Larger beds that have not been dug for a while probably will be compacted, depleted in organic matter and in need of soil fluffing and replenishment. Finished, screened compost or well-rotted manure (never fresh) can be added.


What to plant/transplant in the spring vegetable garden (Julie Notarianni for The Washington Post/JULIE NOTARIANNI FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

I like to add a few cups of wood ash and bone meal and a bag of powdered limestone. Spread the amendments evenly on the surface before you start to dig, so that you can turn them in. I prefer a high-quality, well-balanced garden fork for digging, though a shovel or spade will do the job too.

Work backward in rows to avoid stepping on newly dug soil. As you turn and break the soil, pull last year’s dead vegetation and, most important, any weeds. Use a hoe to finely chop soil clods, and rake or hoe the bed smooth.

Apart from bed preparation, weeding is the most important step in the spring cleanup. Annual winter weeds are now maturing and must be pulled before they flower and seed. The most common culprits are henbit, chickweed, annual bluegrass and hairy bittercress. The safest, most organic approach is to pull the weeds by hand or slice them with a sharp hoe. In beds that are being dug, simply break apart the soil and remove entire weeds by hand, roots and all, and throw them in a five-gallon bucket.

Weed paths before laying a seasonal mulch. I like to use a thick layer of wood chips; others in my community garden prefer straw. Reset any edging that has come loose during the winter. Now is also the best time to repair fences, gates and arbors.

A wheelbarrow is handy for both hauling bags of soil and mixing amendments, and for transporting mulch for paths. Make sure the tire is pumped up and the axle greased.

What to plant

Every vegetable goes through three basic phases in the gardener’s hands: starting, growing and harvesting.

Early spring is all about starting for many vegetables, particularly the cool-season varieties that grow until early summer.

Some of the varieties are started indoors in January and February and then set out in April as transplants. If you missed the boat, you can still buy them as young plants from garden centers, mass merchandisers and even through the mail. Look for healthy young plants that have not been allowed to wilt.

As transplants, consider members of the cabbage family: cabbages, broccoli, kale and kohlrabi. Members of the onion family should be planted now for spring and summer harvest, including bunching onions, onions sold as sets and usually by color, leeks and chives. I am also putting in seed-started transplants of globe artichokes and parsley.

Many seeds can be directly sown in the garden once beds are prepared. Lettuce, in all its forms, should be sown now. Keep some seed for a fall crop, when heading lettuce varieties do better in Washington.

In early spring, sow salad greens, including mesclun mixes, arugula and mustard greens. Peas grow to four feet or so and do best on trellis netting. Sow garden (or English) peas, snow peas and sugar peas for harvest in late May and June. Sow chard, beet, radish and collards.

I like to sow seeds in straight lines so that I can distinguish between seedlings and emerging weeds. I use a spool of string and stake to get the lines straight and correctly spaced, and then form a furrow with my finger or the sharp corner of a hoe. Seedlings have to be thinned to allow proper development. Follow the directions for thinning, and row spacing, on the seed packet.

How to sow

Warm-season plants such as eggplant, tomatoes, peppers and okra, as well as sweet basil, can still be started indoors from seed in late March, under lights. With proper care, they will be ready for transplanting in the garden in mid-May.

If you’re not into indoor seed-starting, you can buy young plants and set them in the garden later in the spring. Two caveats: Your selection will be more limited than seed-grown veggies, and many retailers make these warm-season plants available too early for their own good. They should not be planted out until early May.

Many summer and fall garden vegetables can be sown directly into the soil, but only after things have warmed up and frost is a memory. However, order them now and keep the seed packets in the fridge until you are ready to sow them. Do this for cucumbers, summer and winter squash, lima and asparagus beans, melons and sweet corn.

Beans, carrots and parsnips can take colder conditions, but I don’t like to sow them until May so they germinate quickly and the risk of the seeds rotting in cold, wet soil is diminished. Brussels sprouts are delicious in late fall, when they can be harvested alongside carrots and leeks. Start them indoors in early June and plant them out in late July.

Turnips and Asian greens, as well as heading lettuce, do best as a fall crop in our region.

A border of herbs

Herbs are an integral part of the well-rounded vegetable garden and provide beauty as well as utility.

My main herb border is about 16 feet long by 12 inches wide. Its narrowness will mean that some of the herbs will spill onto the path, but that is part of the charm. Herbs that can be killed in a severe winter, such as sweet bay, rosemary and Spanish lavender , are best planted in spring after they have been hardened off. A season of growth will stand them in better stead for their first winter than herbs planted later in the year.

These and other perennial herbs such as garden sage , oregano and thyme will take two or three years to fill out, so space them correctly and put in annuals such as basil and borage as short-term fillers around them.

Repeating strong forms in a herb border is important in establishing a pleasing visual rhythm. Lavender, rosemary, garden sage or rue perform this role. Rue is the least useful as a herb, but its blue-green foliage is highly attractive, and the plant attracts the caterpillars of the black swallowtail. Chives provide useful vertical wisps, and the lavender blue blooms are charming in mid-spring. Garlic chives , which are related, flower white in late summer.

I have tried the variegated and purple varieties of garden sage, but I have come round to the enduring beauty of the gray-green types.

Sweet basil is our reward for suffering hot, humid summers. You can start basil from seed indoors now, but there is no value in planting basil in the garden in April, even if plant retailers are selling it. It is killed by frost and hates cold nights, and shouldn’t be planted until early May.

Lavender looks half dead at this time of year, and the temptation is to cut it back hard as part of the spring cleanup. Don’t do this. If you cut lavender plants to the crown, they will likely die. Wait until new growth emerges in about a month before cutting back stems by one-third to a half. As much as I like the French hybrids, such as Provence and Grosso, they are too big for my narrow borders, and I use the smaller English lavender instead, variety Hidcote.

Flowers in the vegetable garden

Flowers brighten the vegetable garden, elevate its character and draw hummingbirds and other pollinators.

There are no rules about mingling flowering annuals with edible plants, other than not crowding or shading your veggies. Flowers can be incorporated into growing beds, given separate real estate or, in the case of vines, added to trellises supporting tomatoes, cucumbers, beans and other vertical plants.

Zinnias are unbeatable for flower production from July through October. I like the Benary’s Giant series, especially the white, orange and lime green varieties. They were bred for the vase but also make good garden plants, and are somewhat resistant to late-season powdery mildew. Sow seeds directly in beds in early to mid-May, once the soil has warmed.

Shirley poppies and California poppies are another easy annual. Of the latter, several varieties have been introduced beyond the usual (but charming) orange-flowered version. Sow seeds directly now, and again next fall.

Dahlias fit well with the exuberant nature of the garden, especially in late summer into fall. I think three- to four-foot flowered varieties are best suited to the vegetable garden, especially varieties with single or semi-double flowers. Some of my favorites are Fascination, H.S. Party, Red Riding Hood and the more frilly varieties of the Karma series. Tubers should be ordered now and can be started in pots until they go into the garden in May.

Sunflowers provide gargantuan ornament from midsummer on, and the seeds sustain finches and gardener alike. If the mammoth varieties are too big and tall, choose smaller versions such as Italian White, Chianti, Sunny Smile and Sonja.

The Mexican sunflower or tithonia is quite different, forming a bushy mound of small orange flowers. The seeds can be sown directly around Mother’s Day.

Marigolds are a bit trite, but they are reliable bloomers in the heat of high summer if the gardener removes the fading flowers. You could start from seed now indoors or buy transplants in May. Varieties in the Disco series are good performers and look as elegant as a marigold can get.

Annual vines are particularly charming on trellises, arbors and fences, and bloom right through the growing season. They can be grown alongside beans and vining tomatoes. Cardinal vines offer feathery foliage and delicate red blooms, though they will seed prodigiously. They are relatives of morning glories and moonvine flowers , both lovely additions to the vertical show.

I have become fond, over the years, of the black-eyed susan vine, which can be sown now indoors for a little jump on the season, or directly in the soil in May. If you want to see out the season with a bang, plant a vine named Spanish flag or firecracker vine. It displays a spray of tubular flowers opening red and fading to white. They are striking but late, sometimes not opening until October.

Moving plants outdoors

Even hardy plants will suffer if planted outdoors in the spring before proper acclimation. Seedlings and young transplants are especially vulnerable to cold winds, sun stress and overnight frosts. To “harden off” plants in their pots, place them in the day in a shady and sheltered location and bring them indoors at night. A cool garage or shed is ideal. Do this for a week and the plants will be ready for planting in the garden. Keep plants inside if daytime temperatures stay below the mid-40s or on windy days. During hardening off, young plants must not be allowed to dry out and wilt, nor should they be left in standing water. If squirrels are a problem, use a screened porch, if you have one. Hobby gardeners use cold frames for hardening off spring plants.

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