1. By: Jessie Keith

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    A well-planned, well-tended vegetable garden will give the best yields and most satisfaction.

    Vegetable gardening woes can be rectified with good planning and smart garden resolutions. Last year the weeds took over, you didn’t feed or water enough, you didn’t mulch that bed, or start that new raised bed you’ve been dreaming of for years. Never fear! It’s a New Year! Time to troubleshoot and plan to make this year’s veggie patch better than ever.

    When it comes to smart garden planning and success, experience is everything. Being a part of a large, bountiful community garden for the past 12 years has given me the opportunity to watch new and seasoned gardeners in motion. Not surprisingly, the seasoned gardeners always have well-planning, productive, weed-free plots, while new gardeners haphazardly start their plots in spring and end up with weed patches by midsummer.  In time, novices committed to success learn to turn their beds around through guidance from the old timers and pros. Here are a few of pro tricks to add to the resolution list. Commit to these, and you can’t go wrong!

    1) Plan

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    Good planning, spacing, and crop succession are essential for vegetable garden success.

    Truly productive beds are planned in advance with the seasons in mind. A good planning strategy starts with knowing when plants bloom and produce, and timing your garden to sequentially bloom and remain productive and pretty through the year, if possible.

    IMG_5948 (1)For vegetable growing, you must learn your cool season and warm season vegetables to correctly plan your beds. Knowing the window of productivity and days to harvest (number of days it takes for plants to be harvestable from seed) for a given plant is essential. Here are basic tables showing some of the most common cool season vegetables, warm season vegetables, and their average days to harvest. Use these when plotting spring, summer, and fall vegetable patches. Warm-season vegetable must be planted after the threat of spring frost has past. The Old Farmers Almanac frost dates are standard. (Keep in mind that many crops can be grown all season where summer temperatures are cooler. Fast-producing crops with few harvest days can be grown repeatedly throughout the growing season, if temperatures allow.)

    Click for table of Cool Season Crops for Spring and Fall and Warm Season Crops for Summer

    2) Design & Plot

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    Raised beds make planning and care easy.

    The best vegetable gardens are designed and planned each year to consider space, light, succession cropping, and rotation. Choose a full-sun location, decide what you want to grow, and plot your beds to allow enough space to meet your gardening goals. Investing in raised beds can make the process easier, otherwise, establish your bed lines and pathways and maintain these yearly.

    Next, determine where crops will be planted incrementally in spring, summer, and fall. Designing and planning your garden for the full growing season will help you stay in budget, time seeding and planting (Click here to view Johnny’s Seeds handy seed-starting date calculator.), and plan for harvest, preservation, and storage. When designing your beds, consider the space needed for crops, their overall heights, and include space to add cages and trellises, as needed.

    Crop succession is another essential practice. Some crops must be rotated yearly, so consider what crops will succeed the next. For example, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and potatoes are heavy feeders that commonly harbor soil-borne pests and diseases, so they must be succeeded by fortifying crops, such as peas or beans, the following year. Legumes, like peas and beans, replenish essential soil nitrogen.

    3) Feed Your Soil

    Garden Manure BlendHappy plants must have good soil. Organic matter is the number one addition sure to increase crop yields. Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost and nitrogen-rich Garden Manure Blend are two top-quality amendments to increase soil health and improve plant production. The addition of an OMRI Listed all-purpose fertilizer approved for organic gardening will also increase plant vigor, yields, and keep common nutrient deficiencies, such as leaf chlorosis or blossom end rot in peppers and tomatoes, from appearing.

    For raised beds, we recommend the addition of OMRI Listed Fafard Natural & Organic Potting Soil, which contains RESiLIENCE, an all-natural, water-soluble silicon additive for plants that encourages better root growth, earlier flowering, increased stem diameter, and longer time before wilting. Mix this soilless medium in with quality topsoil at a 1:2 ratio for reliable vegetable performance.

    4) Manage Weeds

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    Grass clippings are free and make excellent natural mulch for vegetables.

    Save yourself major weeding time by applying thick organic mulch for weed control. Compost is a great choice for vegetable garden mulch in addition to seed-free hay, grass clippings, and leaf mulch. Compost should be applied directly around plants while coarser organic mulches are better for walkways and melon and squash beds.

    Organic pre-emergents are also recommended to stop weed seeds from sprouting in the first place. Just be sure not to sprinkle them where you plan to direct sow seed. Corn gluten, the most common of the natural pre-emergents, works by inhibiting root growth in newly sprouted seeds.

    When calculating amendment needed for a particular area, use the following formula:

    Amendment Application Formula

    ([area to cover] ft2 x [depth in inches desired] x 0.0031 = ___ yd3).

    Example: If you wanted to cover a 20 square foot area with 2 inches of compost, the result would be: 20 ft2 x 2 inches of compost x 0.0031 = 2.48 yd3.

    Of course, nothing beats regular hoeing and hand weeding for effective weed control. Monitoring and scratching and digging weeds weekly is the best way to keep them in check, and good tools make the job easy.

    5) Invest in Good Tools

    Good tools are a must for all garden tasks, whether you are weeding, digging, or pruning. Quality tools may cost a bit more up front, but they will last much longer and perform better.

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    Garden knives are great all-around gardening tools. (image from Gardeners Supply Company)

    For hand weeding, nothing beats the classic ho-mi (hoe-mee), also called the Korean hand plow or cultivator. This sharp, downward-facing tool can get to the base of a dandelion root in seconds with a quick chop, chop, chop. It also pays to invest in a trusty garden knife (also called a soil knife or Japanese hori-hori). These can cut into the soil to deep roots below and saw through the bases of tough plants. They are even useful for harvesting greens and digging root crops. One side of the knife is sharp for slicing and the other is serrated for sawing. The classic Cobrahead hand weeder and cultivator it also a nice, effective, well-made weeding tool. It has a sharp, curved head for fast digging and hand hoeing.

    A heavy duty hoe is a necessity for larger weeding jobs. The Prohoes by Rogue are great tools that are so well made, they will last for years. And, for digging and planting, a good spade is a must. Of these, the sharp, all-steel King of Spades pro nursery spades is so tough it will last a lifetime.

    Most established gardens will tell you that Felco makes the best pruners and loppers on the market. Pruning and harvesting is fast and easy with these sharp, Swiss-made bypass pruners.

    Keep your tools clean and sharp for best performance. A 5-gallon shop bucket filled with moistened sand is recommended for dipping tools in for easy cleaning. Handy garden tool sharpeners are also on the market. At the end of the season, apply mineral oil to clean tools to prevent corrosion.

    6) Commit to a Time Schedule

    Gardens need committed care. Regular scheduling of tasks is required for gardening success. Plan to harvest, weed, and water at least twice weekly. (Click here for good watering tips!) During hot and dry periods and high-growth windows, plan to add more time to assess water and plant needs. In no time, your schedule will become habit, your garden will become your passion, and you find yourself there whenever time allows.

    One trick to making any garden a pleasurable oasis is to create a spot where you can sit, sip a drink between weeding. Pick up a cheap patio table and chairs, add a sun umbrella, and make space for them in your garden.

    Renewed hopes and fresh ideas for the New Year offer new chances to make your garden amazing. In most parts of the country, gardeners have a plenty of time to reshape their garden plans and set their resolutions in motion before the weather warms up. So grab your seed catalogs, and get planning.

    (Click here to get more garden planning tips!)

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    Place a table and chairs in your vegetable garden for a place to sit and rest between tasks.

    About Jessie Keith


    Plants are the lens Jessie views the world through because they’re all-sustaining. (“They feed, clothe, house and heal us. They produce the air we breathe and even make us smell pretty.”) She’s a garden writer and photographer with degrees in both horticulture and plant biology from Purdue and Michigan State Universities. Her degrees were bolstered by internships at Longwood Gardens and the American Horticultural Society. She has since worked for many horticultural institutions and companies and now manages communications for Sun Gro Horticulture, the parent company of Black Gold. Her joy is sharing all things green and lovely with her two daughters.

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