May is here and slowly but surely the weather is turning warmer. Spring flowers are everywhere and trees have put out their buds and are showing their new spring coat of leaves. The grass has begun to grow once again (oh no, time to mow), and the wild spring onions have shot up, competing with the other unplanned growth as to who’s tallest. And when the ants appear on your kitchen windowsill, it’s a sure sign that all living things have come awake to take advantage of the warm and welcoming growing season. Deep within the gardener’s soul, the latent spark that has lain dormant during the cold winter months is also awakening. It’s time to get out into the garden and set out our plants and seeds.
In the first three articles in this series, we’ve discussed different stages of planning your vegetable garden: finding the right spot to plant, buying the right plants and/or seeds, and preparing the garden bed. If you haven’t been keeping up and are just getting started now, it’s still not too late to plan a vegetable garden for this year. But it’s time to get a move on, because the growing season only lasts until the next cold snap, when all our gardening plans must be put on hold, once again.
However, if you have been keeping up with the guidelines for planning a beautiful vegetable garden, now you are ready to actually plant outdoors and to take advantage of the lovely garden bed you’ve worked so hard to prepare. So here are some guidelines as to how to go about taking care of your garden business.
Planting Your Plants
Vegetable plants ready to go into the spring garden will come from one of two sources: 1) plants from seeds you planted into your own pots (in late March, before Pesach) and are home grown, or 2) plants from the gardening center that you bought already grown. In either case, early May is about the right time to set them out into your garden bed.
Plants you’ve home grown will most likely include many of the favorite coldweather varieties, including: broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kohlrabi, chard, spinach, lettuce, kale, and other greens and leafy vegetables. However, even if you didn’t grow these vegetables from seeds, they are most likely still available for purchase as plants at the garden store (Valley View Farms, Home Depot, etc.). Starting these plants from seeds now is not recommended (with the exception of lettuce); by the time your plants mature, the weather will be starting to get hot, and these plants just don’t do very well in the hot weather.
Of course, you might not be interested in growing any of these varieties, or perhaps your garden doesn’t have the space to accommodate them. In that case, let’s just move on to the more popular vegetables.
Plants that do well in the hot weather can also be set out into the garden now, even though the days and nights are still cool. Popular hot-weather plants that you should definitely buy from the garden store include tomato, pepper, and eggplant. Two tomato varieties to look for are Sungold (orange cherries) and Golden Rave (yellow plums). These varieties are disease resistant, produce fruit in abundance – and they taste great! Even if you plan to plant seeds of these “nightshade” varieties in pots on the porch, you should still buy them as plants now for an early crop (with the first fruits maturing in late June and July). (See below for planting seeds in May.)
Vegetable plants that you are going to transplant into your garden should be at least 3” tall, preferably 4” to 5”. This is because young vegetable plants are delicate and must be sturdy enough to hold their own in the big-garden world. Transplanting upsets the plant’s equilibrium for the first several days, and if your plants are too little, the roots may be undeveloped, and the plants can dry out in the constant sunlight. In addition, young plants standing alone in the expanse of your garden plot are sometimes a magnet for birds and other animals: I’ve seen robins mistake a small plant for a worm (“Whoops – heh, heh; guess it wasn’t a worm after all!”), while squirrels might trash a small plant simply because it’s in the way of their digging. However, larger plants are generally ignored. (Rabbits and deer are a different challenge altogether, and we’ll discuss this problem, iy”H, by and by.) Important note: The best time for transplanting from pots into the garden is on a cloudy day, when it’s not too windy or, even better, when the forecast calls for a gentle rain but not a downpour. This way, the transition period from pot to garden (which generally takes the good part of a week) will not be as stressful for the young transplants. No rain in sight? The next best time would be to plant late in the afternoon early in the week. Why early in the week? Because you never, ever want to transplant close to Shabbos or Yom Tov (unless it’s going to rain). If your transplants are in distress on Shabbos, there’s absolutely nothing you can do to help them survive.
Step by Step: Setting Out Your Plants
Setting out your vegetable plants is a fairly easy proposition: You dig a hole in the ground and put the plant into it! Well, that’s the CliffsNotes version. (Is there any anybody out there who knows what CliffNotes are?) However, there are a few details that we should probably take note of.
One tool that you should definitely have on hand for this job is a garden trowel; this small, hand-held, pointy shovel is perfect for digging a hole for your new plantings. (I’ve seen them on sale at Seven Mile Market for just $2; better ones are available at Home Depot.) Also very handy to have around for planting is a kneeling garden bench (Google it and check out Amazon.com). This little bench can be used for either kneeling or sitting, and it makes all the kneeling you have to do in the garden a much less arduous experience. Also, if you have trouble getting up from a kneeling position (ahem), the “arms” on either side of this bench are a mechaya, and will make this tool an essential one for you.
Remember that you must have first “made the garden bed” before setting out your plants therein. This means you have tilled or otherwise turned the soil, and the soil has been broken up to a depth of at least 6”. (See the third article in this series for specifics on how to do this.)
Take a minute to water your potted plants about a half-hour before transplanting; this will make the potting soil firm and will hopefully cause it to come out of the pot in one solid block (and not fall away from the delicate roots). Dig a hole in the loosened soil slightly larger than the soil holding your potted plant. Don’t hesitate to also use your hands to push the loosened soil to the sides so that it doesn’t slip back into the hole.
Gently nudge the plant, together with its potting soil, out of the pot (squeeze the sides of the pot and turn it upside down or to the side so that you don’t have to pull hard on the stem), and carefully place it into the hole in the ground; don’t push it down, and try not to disturb the roots. Once in the hole, the top layer of the potting soil should be slightly below the level of your ground soil. Now, pull the dug-up ground soil back into the hole and gently pat it down; all of the potting soil should be covered by the ground soil.
Mazal tov! You have now planted a plant!
After transplanting, give your plants lots of extra attention and water them often – for the first week, at least twice a day. Keep a close eye on them to make sure they are getting through the transition period; if they look dry, give them water. Tough love and/or neglect are never acceptable when it comes to vegetable garden care – especially when you are dealing with young transplants.
Use patio stones (8”x16”x1.5”, available at Home Depot) as designated “stepping areas” if your garden is so large that you have to walk into it to plant. There’s no sense in stamping down the soil you worked so hard to loosen up! This way, you’ll minimize the areas that will become compacted. At this stage of the game – just prior to transplanting – many vegetable gardeners cover the entire ground surface of their garden plot with black plastic mulch (available at all garden centers). This black plastic cover has many benefits: It prevents unwanted weeds from growing, it keeps the ground moist even during dry spells, and it heats up the earth, promoting plant growth (and that is the definition of “mulch”). The disadvantages are that you can no longer “cultivate between the rows” (next article); you are not able to sow other seed varieties directly into the soil (see below); and you must anchor down the plastic all along its perimeter and at various points within. I will discuss alternative methods of mulching in the next article, iy”H. If you do want to use this black plastic mulch, simply cut an X into the plastic cover at the place you want to plant (6” slits ought to do it) and plant right through this hole using the procedure described above.
Location, Location, Location
There is a certain chochma as to just where in your garden you should place your plants. First and foremost, you must make sure to place your plants far enough away from each other so that they can grow properly. This is critical, and many people make the mistake of crowding their plants together in order to “fit them all in” a limited garden space. Each plant in your garden must have enough room for the roots and leaves to spread out and to get enough sunlight, nutrients, and water – without having to fight its neighbor for it! Plants that are placed too close together will not be able to reach their full growth potential, are more susceptible to disease, and will produce less fruit. So, here’s a good rule of thumb to keep in mind when planning just how many plants to plant: Less is more.
If you have prepared the garden bed correctly and continue to take care of your plants conscientiously, your plants are going to take off and grow bigger and better than you may have imagined: my (indeterminate) tomato plants regularly grow to well over 6’ tall, with leaves reaching out to a span of 2’ to 3’ in all directions! This kind of growth must be anticipated and taken into consideration right now at the planting stage.
(Garden vocabulary note: Determinate tomato plants are those programmed to stop growing once they’ve reached a certain specified height (generally not more than 3’ to 4’ high). Indeterminate tomato plants will keep growing and growing, and may reach heights of 6’ to 8’, depending upon the soil and growing conditions.)
Here are my general recommendations for minimum spacing between plants:
◆ At least 18” between tomatoes, large peppers (bell), eggplant, broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage
◆ At least 8” between small peppers (hot), kohlrabi, and chard
◆ At least 4” between lettuce and spinach
When in doubt, read the directions on the seed packet, or go online to get recommendations from the internet, or call your local gardening center. If it helps, you can use a piece of graph paper to make a map of your garden and show the layout of all your plants.
It’s easiest and most economical to plant your crops in straight rows, and there is a certain beauty to seeing all the troops lined up in rows and ready for action. However, if you’re artistic and want to make a statement, go right ahead and make interesting designs (circles or arches anyone?) out of your plantings – so long as the rule of minimum-distancebetween-plants is not ignored. You can make your garden especially beautiful by planting low-lying flowers along the edges of your garden boundaries. (More on flower borders in a different article.)
One final note on garden layout: It’s a good idea to take note of just how the sun travels across the sky in relation to and over your garden. You will notice that the sun tilts towards the south as it moves inexorably from east to west. This means that you want to plant your tallest vegetables farthest away from the tilt of the sun, so that their leaves will not block the sunlight going to plants that are shorter and behind them. In other words: shortest plants towards the south, tallest plants towards the north. As a general rule, vines grow taller than tomatoes; tomatoes grow taller than peppers and eggplants; and shortest of all are the leafy and cold-weather vegetables.
Planting Your Seeds – Cold-Weather Crops
Cold-weather crops include all the root vegetables (radish, beets, turnip, and parsnip) as well as lettuce. Lettuce can be planted all summer long, but it does grow better in the cool weather. These seeds should be sown directly into the garden bed.
Here’s how to do it: Using a large stick or the tip of your garden trowel, trace a shallow furrow in the loose soil not more than 1/2” deep. In order to do this, the soil should be very well-tilled, with the earth chopped up into little pieces. And, in order to keep your furrow straight, lay down any straight stick or other garden implement onto the soil first, and trace your furrow right alongside this planting guide. Now, cut open the top of your seed packet, and gently and slowly sprinkle the seeds into your furrow. How many seeds go into a “sprinkle”? Hmmm – not too few and not too many! Sorry; it’s hard to describe this procedure exactly without seeing it done; perhaps you can find a video demonstration online. After sowing the seeds, cover the furrow with soil, and pat it down gently. Really, a piece of cake.
You can mark the line of your furrow with a stick or a rock at its head. Water your furrows every day (the marker will tell you where), and before you know it, you will see the little seedlings pushing up through the soil, all in a neat row! When the seedlings get to be a couple of inches tall, they will have to be thinned out, and we’ll talk about this next time. Peas are also sown directly into the garden soil, but since the seeds are so big (basically, dried out peas), the procedure for doing it is slightly different: Instead of tracing a furrow in the soil, simply lay out the pea-seeds on top of the loosened soil (next to your straight planting guide) about 3” apart from one another. Once this is done, use your finger to push the seeds into the ground to a depth of about 1”, and then cover the holes with soil. That’s it! When the peas come up and have grown to 2” tall, pull out every other plant, for a final spacing of about 6” between plants. (Note: Peas are strictly cold-weather vegetables; as soon as the weather turns summertime hot, the plants will shrivel up and die. So, if you want to plant peas – do it today; maybe even yesterday! Otherwise, wait until late summer and plant seeds then for a fall crop)
Planting Your Seeds – Hot-Weather Crops
Here’s a potpourri of vegetable offerings to consider growing: Beans are very easy to grow; they come up fast and usually produce in abundance. A row of a dozen plants may give you multiple harvests of a pound or more. Sow beans directly into the garden bed; follow the exact same procedure as described for peas. Bush beans grow into a – well, a bushy plant! Pole beans need a vertical support (a pole or a trellis).
Carrots, of course, are a root crop, and the soil must be tilled deep for their proper development. Follow the same procedure for planting as described for root vegetables, above.
Tomatoes, Peppers, Eggplant can be started from seed now for a late summer/fall crop. Grow in pots on your porch and transplant in August.
All of the following vegetable varieties can be started from seeds now – they are easy to grow and germinate relatively quickly as the weather gets warmer, or you can buy them as plants from the store; they cost more than seeds, but you will save some germination and growth time. Although these seeds can be sown directly into the garden, I recommend starting them in pots to be transplanted at a later date. However, you’ve got to leave a “parking space” for them in your garden, so plan ahead:
Cucumbers: What’s a summer garden without them? There are all kinds, from super-long to tiny picklers. Look for disease-resistant varieties. Cucumber vines will grow either up or out, so plan accordingly. Bush cucumber plants are also available.
Summer squash includes zucchini, yellow squash, and pattypan. The reason these squash varieties are called summer squash is because these fruits do not last long off the vine – not on the counter and not even in the refrigerator, i.e. they are good for the summer. Although these squash plants do not have runner-vines, they do have humongous leaves, creating plants that stretch out to six feet in every circumference, so plan accordingly.
Winter squash: In my family, we love winter squash. The more well-known varieties include butternut, buttercup, acorn, spaghetti and hubbard. As opposed to summer squash, these squashes will stay fresh a long time if stored in a cool environment, allowing you to enjoy the fruits of your labor throughout the fall and into early winter. See the Jung catalogue for some exotic varieties! Although some bush varieties exist, most of these squash plants grow into long, meandering vines and take up a lot of space. Plant them next to a fence or trellis to save on ground space.
Melons are close cousins to cucumbers, so plan for them to grow up or out, on long vines (or, look for bush varieties). Plant cantaloupe or honeydew varieties for a real summer treat. Watermelons need a sandy soil and lots of water and feeding; try them if you like, but don’t be too disappointed if they don’t do well.
Corn is not recommended for small backyard gardens; in order to grow them properly, you’ll need to plant many rows of many plants each to ensure cross-fertilization. In all my attempts to grow corn, I’ve always gotten very poor yields – from a plant that takes up a lot of space! If you want to, grow it for the fun of it, but don’t expect to harvest much corn.
Clearly, there is no lack of vegetables with which to populate your garden; the problem will be deciding which ones to plant! Wishing you much bracha and hatzlacha in organizing your garden space and in setting out your plants and seeds.◆