Growing your own vegetables is a great way to connect with nature and to gain a supply of good-quality food, and for those who prefer organic, growing your own veggies ensures control over what techniques (and chemicals) are used. There is great satisfaction in being able to grow some of your own food and I think that anyone (like me) who was raised on a farm can relate to the sense of security that comes with access to a bountiful vegetable garden.
Whether it is a small urban patch or a large farm garden, good planning and proper cultural practices are required. The first is to prepare the soil. I do this by adding a thick layer of compost to the garden each fall before I have it rototilled. If the compost is not completely composted, I sprinkle some high-nitrogen fertilizer on the garden before it is tilled to replace the nitrogen that the composting process will use. I have the garden tilled in the fall so it’s ready for early-spring planting and also so that volunteer plants will not be disturbed by spring tilling (self-seeded spinach and dill grow here and there in the garden).
Early planting results in early produce, so I use a cold frame made from old windows and erect it on the garden in early April, as soon as the snow is gone. I leave the cold frame closed for a few days to warm the soil and then plant lettuce, radish and multiplier onion sets in the frame. There is no heat in the cold frame except from the sun. I remove and replace the lid according to the weather and temperature but am always careful to have the lid open somewhat on sunny days so the plants will not be cooked.
Some vegetables can be planted in mid-May. Cold-tolerant peas, radish, lettuce, spinach and onions are planted early. Radish and lettuce seeds are sown thinly in a wide row, as is the spinach seed. Onions (I buy plants from the local greenhouse) are planted in rows only 15 cm apart to conserve space. By the third week of May the root vegetables can be seeded; the soil temperature will be high enough and the seedlings will not emerge before danger of frost is past. Carrots and beets are seeded thinly in wide rows so crowding does not become an issue. I use a piece of twine with a stake attached at both ends as a planting guide to ensure straight rows.
Garden rows are best oriented east-west so that taller plants do not shade shorter ones and all sides of the plants receive adequate sunshine. Because my garden is small I have to consider how to use the space efficiently. Leafy green vegetables can tolerate the most shade so they are planted in spots that receive the least sun, although all vegetables require lots of direct sun. Peas are planted near the carrots so that after they are finished producing and the plants cleared away the carrot tops will have sufficient space. Short-season crops like radish, lettuce and spinach are squeezed in here and there where they will have adequate space before the nearby plants get too large.
The last to be planted are the transplants — tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, zucchini, peppers, celery and parsley. Most are cold sensitive so I don’t plant them until the temperatures are reliably warm (early June where I live). Cucumber vines can be allowed to ramble under tomato plants to save space. Staking and tying up tomato plants as they grow reduces the amount of space they will occupy.
Any members of the brassica (cabbage) family — cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and kohlrabi — must be protected from flea beetles. I have given up growing all these as a result, except kohlrabi, which I start indoors in early May and do not transplant into the garden until after the canola in farmers’ fields has emerged and enticed the beetles out of my garden and into their fields. Even then, I apply a coating of vegetable dust on the transplants to keep them safe until they get established.
As I plant, I mark each row with a stake and label it. I also use vertical gardening to conserve space — peas on fences and cucumbers on bamboo towers. I also keep non-compatible plants separated — beets away from onions, kohlrabi and celery away from carrots, and peppers away from kohlrabi and tomatoes. Onions are best separated from beans and peas. Scattering plants throughout the garden rather than planting all the vegetables in blocks assists in warding off pests, such as planting a few marigolds and growing some dill plants here and there. Surrounding susceptible plants with Cuban oregano plants also helps.
The only chemical I use is vegetable dust to protect the kohlrabi from cabbage butterflies, so I locate them where they can be easily dusted without getting the dust on nearby plants. They are in a separate spot away from the other plants, (especially those that produce fruit above ground), beside the root vegetables. When the flea beetles invade the garden in the fall (after farmers’ canola is swathed), I harvest the kohlrabi and store it (I grow the storage variety “Kossack”). I make successive plantings of lettuce and radish all summer so I leave a patch for this purpose; the radish season comes to a halt when the flea beetles arrive.
Good luck with your vegetable garden this year.