Creating a vegetable garden

Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Gardening Columnist
Thursday, August 26, 2010; 12:00 PM

Washington Post gardening columnist Adrian Higgins was online Thursday, August 26, at Noon ET to talk about creating a functional, attractive vegetable garden.


State College, Pa.: Adrian, so glad to see your chat -- and tweets! I also love the "Groundworks" blogs you are writing...(obviously, I'm a fan!)

I'm intrigued by your article(s) today, and immediately I began thinking about how I could convert my non-raised bed, fenced- in garden (30x15?) to a garden such as your article discusses. But, I'm stumped on how even to begin. Where would one begin? As an aside, in my garden area I do have a cold frame as well as a raised bed that holds strawberries (they're taking over the garden-a great problem to have!).

Thanks for any insights! (And, any chance to see an actual photo of the garden mentioned in the article?) Keep up the great work!

Adrian Higgins: I'm honored. First let me try and get this link in. It's an archived story I did on the Moitrier's garden. Pierre is amazing at crafting structures.

Now, as for your own garden. I would first sit down with graph paper and figure out a layout for the garden, incorporating the points and elements I discuss in today's Local Living. Then you set about leveling the ground, skimming turf and weeds, and then building the frames that will be the raised beds between the paths. Once they are in place, you can start to work the soil, using a sturdy garden fork to break up what you have and add all that good stuff that will build the soil. My advice is not to set unrealistic deadlines (I speak from experience)but to work a little each weekend until it is done. You might order now some seeds of winter rye or red clover as a winter cover crop, which you would chop and dig in next February or March.


Berkeley, Calif.: Do you have a suggestion for a good beginner's resource for growing vegetables in the Bay Area of California? I have a little plot to work with, and don't really know where to start, when to start planting, etc. Thanks.

Adrian Higgins: Is this for real? I came from Berkeley yesterday. Does Chez Panisse and Alice Waters have demo gardens, I don't know. Another Bay Area resource is Ros Creasy. Her book, Edible Landscaping, is about to be republished by the Sierra Club.


Cleveland, Ohio: Is there a way to safely prevent spiders from forming their webs outside? My suburban tract house (i.e. not a cabin in the forest) has been covered with large, thick webs all summer on the front porch around the light, railing, corners, and the boxwoods near the door. I brush them away and they're back within a day or two. It only bothers me around the front door because I walk through it several times a day, so it's not like I'm trying to rid my whole property of spiders. Is there anything I can do to prevent them from forming these webs right where I want to walk? Thanks.

Adrian Higgins: Do you know how much work that spider has put into that? Enjoy it as one of nature's architectural/engineering wonders, not to mention mosquito trap without the chemicals.


Soil for vegetable gardening: I read the Post online from New England, so perhaps I missed something. But the articles on creating a vegetable garden did not address soil quality, and in particular the importance of testing your soil for lead and other contaminants. Contaminated soil will contaminate vegetables, reducing any health benefits from growing your own produce.

You can Google 'soil testing in (your state)' to find the office responsible, usually a state or county extension office. Then you collect soil and send it in for analysis. If there are problems you can either replace the soil or treat it to mitigate contaminants...the soil testing office can usually advice. The soil testing will also assess the PH level, and advice on what to add if it's off.

Note soil replacement can be the costliest part of creating a vegetable garden. And you will need to guard again future contamination, too. (Especially when painting your home, to avoid scraped lead paint from falling into your garden.)

This is an important aspect of gardening that is often overlooked. Thank you.

Adrian Higgins: Yes, if you are in a house that was built before 1978, you may have lead from lead paint. This is particularly so if your planned vegetable garden is near the house or outbuilding. City gardens also can contain lead from various sources. If that's the case, you should probably get soil tested for lead. The model I'm pushing involves raised beds in which you are bringing in a lot of fresh soil amendments. Lead is not really an issue in contemporary amendments. Soil can be expensive or not, depending on how instant you need it and whether you are composting material yourself. A light mulch of chopped leaves once or twice a year will soon build fabulous soil.


Eliminating lawns: I saw your last chat after it had ended, so wanted a chance to throw in my two cents on this. After years of living with a HUGE lawn (took an hour-plus to mow), we bought a house in a forest with NO lawn at all. The house was previously owned by a professor of horticulture, who had filled up the front with a berm, tons of plantings, and a brick patio. Our back yard is just forest. The whole thing is so easy--it's practically maintenance free and looks lovely. We were lucky in that we didn't have to create this ourselves, but I highly recommend going this route.

Adrian Higgins: A forest can be the most tranquil of all gardens, though it is not a place for raising vegetables.


Indianapolis, Ind.: Hello, Mr. Higgins! My family has lived on our property for 29 years and we have an old raised vegetable garden of 11 4' x 8' beds. The beds were constructed of old railroad ties, at least 15 years ago, some older than that. I have recently noticed that these old ties are now considered hazardous. Should we replace the ties or have they aged enough that they are no longer hazardous? Of course, we've eaten vegetables from these beds for a long time, so maybe the damage is already done! Would we have to replace the soil also if we replaced the ties? Thanks for your advice!

Adrian Higgins: I would replace them. The preservatives they used by force break down slowly, so there's still a risk I would think.


Brooklyn, N.Y.: What is your opinion on soaker hoses? My gardening mentor has been building and designing gardens for 25 years and he hates them. Said they were a waste of water and didn't work well. But I just read an article saying there are many benefits to them if used properly. What's your stance?

And thank you for doing these chats. Probably the most practical chat at the Post.

Adrian Higgins: Soaker hoses are sort of low tech drip irrigation. They can work ok if the hose doesn't have to travel far or uphill and doesn't get clogged with mulch and stuff. But all those things tend to happen. I have not had much luck with soaker hoses and abandoned them years ago.


WEEDS!!! So. Md.: I was so proud of myself -- spent all of last summer/fall digging beds and prepping the soil (tilled in garden soil/hummus/manure) so I could have beautiful gardens this year (veggies and flowers). The beds looked beautiful in the spring. Now it's a different story. In spite of my best efforts and weekend weeding extravaganzas, I simply cannot stay ahead of the weeds and grass coming up into the beds! Did I do something wrong in my prep work? I went on a two week vacation - the mess I returned to is just darn near unfixable. I'm quickly losing my desire to garden but I don't want that to happen. Can you offer some advice for both types of gardens and weed control? In particular, some of the perennials have grass coming up THROUGH them which makes it really hard to weed. I'd be eternally grateful (I'm sure neighbors feel same!) Best to you!

Adrian Higgins: Weeds are the test of the true gardener. The key is to be there on a regular basis and to remove weeds when they first sprout and definitely before they flower. There are two stages of weeding, the first being the initial annihilation of the weeds. Some people spray, some lay plastic for solarization, I have always simply dug them with a garden fork (tool theme emerging here). A site that hasn't been gardened for years will be full of weed seeds, and every time you disturb the soil, new weeds will sprout. It's imperative you stay on top of them. Rains will boost the weed production and work of the gardener. The second phase is maintenance, in which you regularly cultivate the soil and prevent weeds from growing or germinating. A light mulch will do wonders. For grass in perennials, you will have to lift the whole perennial and separate the grass from the clump. This is much easier and effective than trying to do it in situ.


State College, Pa.: ( Adrian Higgins says: "A forest can be the most tranquil of all gardens, though it is not a place for raising vegetables."

Indeed. I really miss my huge raspberry patch that I had in Illinois. We don't miss the mowing, though.

Adrian Higgins: All gardeners pine for other gardens. (Chinese proverb*)

* Actually Higgins


Richmond, Va.: Adrian, I bought some wonderful pea shoots at the farmers' market. Is that something I could grow in my back yard (or sprout in the kitchen window?)

Adrian Higgins: If they are actually English or garden peas, you could put them in pots now, build a little trellis and plant them out in a week or two for a fall crop. Worth a try.



My wife and I love Crepe Myrtles, particularly the Natchez variety (for its strength and size). Are there any comparable (size, etc) to Natchez that offer different colors besides white? We live in central Virginia. Many thanks!

Adrian Higgins: Crepe or crape myrtles come in different shapes and sizes. Natchez is the big tree type (much larger and shadier than most people realize) If you are looking for similarly sized trees in different colors there's Biloxi (pale pink) Basham's Party Pink (lavender) Muskogee (light lavender) Tuskegee (dark pink) Choctaw (bright pink) and Miami (coral pink).


Planter on a balcony: Good afternoon. My husband built me a 5-foot-by-2-foot planter for our balcony. He drilled holes in the base, and it is made of wood. Home Depot suggested we put plastic down on the inside, with gravel on top of that, plus soil. Does that sound like a good idea? The plastic would be to protect the wood from the moisture.

Also, what kind of soil should we use to fill the planter with?

Adrian Higgins: Use cedar. The plastic may help, but it must have enough holes to allow the container to drain. This is critical. I would use a potting mix containing perlite, not top soil, which will be too heavy and become poorly draining.


Alexandria, Va.: Getting lots of delicious tomatoes this year - but why do they all seem to split?

Adrian Higgins: They split because the plant is getting too much moisture at the ripening phase. Pick the fruit a little sooner and don't water unless it's dry.


McLean, Va.: Why is my tomato plant growing a small amount of tomatoes and why do the tomatoes that do grow have black spots?

Adrian Higgins: Tomato yield is linked to one or two things. First, fruit production will drop off where there is insufficient sunlight. Varietal selection is the other big thing. Beefsteaks, especially heirloom beefsteaks, take a long time to ripen and have few if any fruit cycles through the year. Smaller tomatoes are much more fruitful. Thus cherry and currant tomatoes fruit continually through the year.


Indoor: My husband uses fertilizer and weed killer on our lawn, and I'm not comfortable growing produce anywhere near to where these chemicals are used. Any suggestions for a successful indoor herb garden?

Adrian Higgins: There are organic fertilizers and herbicides, and the option of hand digging dandelions and things. Growing indoors is possible if you have enough light and humidity. I would consider asking your husband to reduce his chemical use, place an outdoor herb garden in a separate area, or in pots. Herbs love to grow in pots. Don't let him spray on a windy day.


Balcony gardening: Are there any vegetables that could still be started in containers this late in the season?

Adrian Higgins: Yes, you could grow lettuce and other salad greens and radishes. Try cilantro and arugula too. You may want to buy little plants to stick in, though arugula soon sprouts from seed.


Late plantings: Hi Adrian,

I was hoping to do some end-of-year planting, now that it has cooled off a bit. I recently bought some napa cabbage, bok choi, and swiss chard seeds that have a 40-day or so growing period. Could I realistically expect success if I plant them this weekend? Thanks!

Adrian Higgins: Yes, I started mine about three weeks ago. You may have to give them protection as they mature, but it's still worth a go. Another option is to buy cabbage etc transplants from local nurseries.


Chesapeake Beach, Md,: Can you create a vegetable garden if you have a primarily shaded lot?

Adrian Higgins: Alas not. You will be so disappointed with the results, especially after so much effort. You really need at least six hours of direct afternoon sunlight for the vast majority of vegetables to perform well.


Washington, D.C.: Mr. Higgins, Do you have any information on what a "Master Gardener" is? How do you become one?

I really enjoyed your article on vegetable gardens today and I love the chats!

Adrian Higgins: Master Gardeners are typically trained over several weeks in the winter and then must do volunteer work in helping people with their gardens. Master Gardener programs are affiliated with state land grant universities and county extension offices. That's UDC in Washington.


Fairfield, Conn. : On the weeds, a life saver this year for me was paper mulch. These are rolls of paper sold at garden stores which you put down around your seedlings and water. For good measure, I then covered these with salt hay (a favorite Barbara Damrosch mulch). Despite a lot of travel this year the weeds have been kept relatively at bay.

The paper degrades over the summer and the salt hay is good organic material - it all gets tilled into the soil in the fall or early spring.

Adrian Higgins: Excellent tip. It's hard to find salt marsh hay here, but pine needles or straw work as well. I know gardeners who save all their unsolicited mail order catalogues through the year and then use them as paving for their veggie gardens when they are tending to them in late winter. The paper is covered with a generous layer of mulch and breaks down in one season.


Anonymous: Cedar soil? what is that?

Adrian Higgins: Must have misspoken. Cedar wood and potting soil.


Arlington, Va.: I put in my first vegetable garden this year. Had great production of cucumbers and zucchini, until some kind of blight hit -- maybe botrytis. What do I need to do before I plant next spring's garden? I have limited space, so this garden bed is it.

Adrian Higgins: It sounds like bacterial wilt, which tends to get all cucumber vines sooner or later. I would make sure you are growing them upright on a trellis so that you can grow more plants. The more vines you have, the easier it is to say goodbye to an afflicted one.


Manassas, Va.: Where can I buy seeds locally in the Manassas/Woodbridge area for fall vegetables (specifically lettuces and spinach). I know I can get them through mail order, but I'm impatient, and I like to hold the pretty packets in my hand!

Adrian Higgins: Mail order takes a few days, not that long. If you are buying locally, look carefully at the date of production for the seeds. Seeds that have been sitting around for a year or two in a warm environment soon lose their potency. You want seeds that have been packaged for 2010. They're available at independent garden centers, hardware stores and supermarkets. I bought some supermarket seeds earlier this year that simply failed to germinate.


Richmond, Va.: Do you generally buy seedlings, or plant seeds yourself? Do you recommend any online sources for either seeds or seedlings? Thanks.

Adrian Higgins: Related question here. I tend to grow from seeds because I get the varieties I want and it's cheaper than buying transplants. I enjoy the process of preparing the pots and starting the seeds under lights. I generally get my seeds from Johnnys, Territorial, Southern Exposure, Renee's Garden, Kitchen Garden Seeds, Burpee, Seed Savers.


Richmond, Va.: Thanks for the informative articles on vegetable gardening. I hope you are able to take this question, which relates to trees (I missed the tree chat). Can you recommend a good book that describes their growth habits and root systems? I'm not averse to a textbook, if that the best option. I'm trying to incorporate new trees and shrubs in an existing landscape and I don't want to do anything that compromises the existing trees. Thank you.

Adrian Higgins: Perhaps not directly. The biggest mistake with tree planting is that folks don't think about how big a tree will get (above ground and below) and stick it six feet from the house. Having the foresight to plant a six foot high baby tree with no other tree within 15 to 20 feet is a great gift. Couple of books: Taylor's Guides, Trees; and How Trees Die by Jeff Gillman.


Old Blue in Exile: For the beginning gardener in Berkeley: Contact the University of California Agricultural Extension for brochures on raising home vegetables in the Bay Area (although as an organic gardener, I recommend ignoring their advice re pesticides).

Also, make it a point to walk/bike/skate/drive around different neighborhoods to see how other gardeners are raising vegetables, since space constraints in the East Bay force many to use front and side yard spaces as well, which are visible from the sidewalk and street. You might want to snap photos (with owner permission, whenever possible) for a dream album of ideas. Best of all, if you catch folks in the act of gardening, ask about their plot, what works best for them, methods they've abandoned as inappropriate, etc. I've yet to meet a home gardener who doesn't just LOVE to talk endlessly about his/her garden!

Adrian Higgins: Excellent advice, which transcends locale. Thank you.


Anonymous: Isn't cedar a bad choice for planter? They seem to warp and go ugly pretty fast. I just had to replace a bunch of them that looked terrible after just a few years and replaced them with a lightweight composite that will last much longer.

Adrian Higgins: Maybe. I think I'd prefer slightly warping cedar to plastic, though. Half whiskey barrels are pretty nifty too with proper drainage.


So good to "see" you: Great article today, but I have a non-veggie-garden question I'm hoping you can help with. I have a blue potato bush that has grown out of control since I replanted it into a different pot. Generally, this is good, but I live in an apartment with a balcony and need to trim it back. Problem is, last time I trimmed it back, it appeared very traumatic to the plant and when it started growing again, it's growing at weird angles off of the trimmed branches. Any suggestions on how and when to most successfully prune this beast? Thanks so much!

Adrian Higgins: Thanks. Is this a potato plant? You shouldn't have to prune it at all, and pruning it will set it back. You do hill up the base a few inches to encourage tubering (if there is such a word) You say it's non veggie, so I'm at a bit of a loss.


Squirrels be gone!: What is the best way to discourage squirrels from visiting my vegetable garden? Not only they are biting into my tomatoes one day before they are ready to be eaten, they dig holes right next to the roots even in my planters that are 3-4 feet above the ground. Thanks for your help.

Adrian Higgins: I don't know any effective way against squirrels. With tomatoes, the key is to grow lots and have them off the ground. The critters might take a bite from the lower fruit but should leave the upper ones alone. That's been my experience.


Chevy Chase, D.C.: Hi Adrian, I have been having bad luck growing zucchini for the last two years. Last year, I only got male flowers. This year, I have some tiny baby zucchinis, but they have all been turning yellow and withering before they get bigger than a few inches. Any idea what is going on?


Adrian Higgins: I think this has to be the last one. The vines will produce male flowers, more of them and earlier than the females. It sounds as if yours are not getting pollinated. I would do whatever you can to encourage bees. Don't use pesticides and plant bee friendly plants such as borage and black eyed susans and fennel (allowed to flower). Well, temperatures are getting bearable and we have all deserved a great fall in the garden this year after the beastly summer. Thanks for all your support and interest.


Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company