Master Gardeners: Vegetable Gardening Basics, Part 2 | Explore Yakima
This is the second in a two-part series on vegetable garden basics. This article goes into more detail on how to get the most out of your gardening experience. To read Part 1, pick up the May 29 edition of the Yakima Herald-Republic or go to bit.ly/YHR-GardenBasics1.
It is the most important ingredient of a good vegetable garden – good soil is essential! Here’s how to get it:
• Evaluate the type of native soil you have; is it clay, silt or sand? You need to know where to start in order to know how to get the best soil for your vegetables.
• Assess acid to alkaline pH; The pH is best between 6.2 and 6.8. The Maître Jardinier clinic can perform a soil analysis for you.
• Use amendments to adjust the original soil using things like aged steer manure and limestone for alkaline soils (many soils in eastern Washington are alkaline).
• There is a definite need for plenty of organic matter to improve garden soil, as it holds nutrients better and makes the soil more porous.
• You can buy commercial compost, steer manure or topsoil by truck. Or you can make your own compost; it’s a great way to recycle garden and yard waste.
• The key is to balance food, water, and air to promote the growth of thermophilic microorganisms that will break down the ingredients into rich soil.
The basics of compost
• Have your compost area near the garden. The container should be a 3-sided structure of wood, straw bales, fencing, or can even be an open pile.
• Make the pile using a 1:2 ratio of green and brown materials. Green equals nitrogen or energy sources needed for rapid microbial growth, such as grass clippings, chicken or cow manure, yard waste, and coffee grounds. Brown equates to carbon sources or bulking agents needed to aerate the compost pile, such as straw, sawdust, wood chips, and corn stalks.
• Use balanced agents, which have both energy and bulking agent properties, including deciduous leaves, horse manure, and shrub trimmings (a chipper to reduce size is best).
• Layer the above items, adding a shovel full of soil between the layers, which adds the microbes needed for decomposition.
• The compost pile should be 3 feet high by 3 feet wide by 3 feet deep when complete.
• Keep the pile moist but not soggy.
• For quick compost, turn the pile twice a week with a pitchfork, as it needs oxygen. The pile heats up in the center to 120 to 150 degrees and will shrink and turn brown and crumbly in four to six weeks.
• If you want slower composting, don’t turn it as often and it can take three to four months.
• When finished, sift the soil 1/2 inch to remove large chunks.
• Apply as a side dressing to plants or work into the top 3-4 inches of soil.
Plant the garden
• It’s a no-brainer, but it’s important to only select seeds and plants that you or your family like to eat.
• Start indoors from seed in early spring if you want to kick off the season.
• You can also choose to use season extenders such as cold frames, a water wall, cloches, or gallon cut milk jugs with caps to cover the plants.
• Plant cool weather crops outdoors after the last frost date (May 1-15). You can pre-germinate larger seeds by using a damp paper towel in a plastic bag and picking out seeds that germinate.
• Plant warm weather crops when the soil temperature warms up.
• For many plants, it is easier to use bedding plants (tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers, melons, etc.). The Master Gardener Plant Sale always takes place around the first weekend in May, and we have an amazing selection of plants at reasonable prices.
• Decide how much to plant of each so you know production quantities; Decide how you will use excess products if there are more products than you need.
• Plant tall or trellis plants on the north side so they don’t shade shorter plants.
• Know the planting depth, planting distance and time to maturity for each plant. It is very important to read the information on the back of the seed packet.
• Plant perennial vegetables (for example, rhubarb and asparagus) in a separate spot where they won’t be disturbed and they’ll grow back year after year.
• Allow space for sprawling vegetables or place a trellis near the base of the plant.
• Label all rows and plants, especially varieties, or create a map of the garden with plant names.
• The water must be constant but adjusted to the weather conditions (the higher the temperature, the more water is needed). More water is needed after planting when they flower and when they fruit.
• Basic tenants of watering include a slow, deep watering of 4 to 6 inches, and watering first thing in the morning so the leaves have time to dry.
• There are many ways to water which often depend on the style of garden chosen. Row type is best with furrow irrigation or overhead sprinklers. Hand watering is best for containers. Drip irrigation is best for raised beds, but it is expensive and needs to be implemented. Use a soaker hose only if house water is used, as irrigation water clogs the lines.
• Keep the microbes happy: “Feed the soil, not the plant” is a good rule of thumb.
• There are three important components: Nitrogen (N) is needed for photosynthesis and the growth of stems and leaves; phosphorus (P) is needed for strong roots and crop maturation; and potassium (K) aids in the production of carbohydrates and aids in disease resistance.
• Micronutrients include calcium, sulfur, magnesium and iron.
• Fertilize every two to three weeks as needed; use a weaker solution more often as opposed to a stronger solution less often.
• There are several types of fertilizer; read labels for NPK ratio (eg, 20:5:5). Chemical fertilizers are water soluble. Use nitrogen-rich fertilizers for growth and phosphorus-rich fertilizers for flowering.
• Organic options include fish emulsion, dried kelp, and bone or blood meal.
• Compost tea is aged horse manure that is put in a burlap sack and soaked in water, then dresses the plants.
• Pull or hoe weeds when the soil is moist and when the weeds are young as they are easier to pull. Older weeds can go to seed, and then you get even more weeds.
• The “magic of mulching” has many benefits: it conserves soil water lost through evaporation, it insulates plant roots from extreme cold and hot temperatures, it reduces the need for weeding and the garden looks cleaner. .
• Types of mulch include shredded bark, straw, grass clippings, and plastic sheeting.
• Place mulch around the plants, but not covering the plant stem, about 4 to 6 inches thick.
• Find out or check out references when foods are ready to pick or try tasting them until they’re right for you.
• Harvesting early in the morning is always better.
• The more you pick, the more you will produce.
Learn from your mistakes and make changes accordingly for next year’s garden. Keeping a garden journal makes this process easier. And remember, the WSU Master Gardener program is here to help if you have any questions. You can also attend our free Saturday class each month in our Heritage Garden at the Greenhouse location.