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Gardening 101

Gardening 101: Your guide to a fruitful season.

Spring is the time of year veteran and novice gardeners alike begin their vegetable gardens, with the hope of growing fresh produce all season long. For the beginner—or the green thumb who just wants some refreshers—here is an expert’s guide to kicking off a successful gardening season.

Set Your Sights

Begin with site selection and soil preparation by locating the part of the yard with the most amount of full sunlight. Vegetables require at least six hours of direct sunlight, but produce higher yields if they have eight or more hours. If the yard is too shady, consider planting in containers that can be moved around the deck or yard as the sun travels.

An average size garden for a family of four is about 25-by-15 feet. Situate the garden plot so the rows of vegetables run in a north/south direction. That way, the plants will receive the most amount of sunlight as the sun passes overhead from east to west through the day.

Have a Plan

Make a list of vegetables that you and your family enjoy eating. Map out the garden based on the spacing needs of each type of vegetable, bearing in mind that some plants, such as tomatoes, take up to six square feet per plant and may grow up to six feet tall, shading other plants.

Some plants, such as beans, are easily grown in rows. Others, like cucumbers, can be clustered in groups called “hills.” Lettuce, carrots and radishes can be grown in square patches where the seed is strewn evenly across a two- to four-foot area.

A method called companion planting combines several plants in a close area to protect each other from pests due to the repellant behavior of one to the other. For example, plant onions near eggplant to deter flee beetles.

Successive planting allows you to harvest several crops from the same special area throughout the growing season. For instance, spinach and peas are planted early, and after harvesting, can be followed in the same space with beans or Swiss chard, which will continue to grow through the rest of the growing season.

Temperature is another important factor to consider. Vegetables fall into two categories: cold-tolerant plants and warm season crops. Cold lovers can be planted in early spring and will survive a light frost, while warm season crops will not tolerate a frost and do not grow well if the soil temperatures are too cold. Warm season plants should not be planted before the latter part of May or until all danger of frost has passed. The average last frost date for our region is May 20.

Work it Out

Once you’ve carefully planned your garden, begin by “working”—or turning—the soil over either with a shovel or with a machine called a rototiller, which can be rented by the day at some home improvement stores. If the area designated for the garden is currently part of the lawn, rototilling will be much easier than trying to remove the grass by hand with a shovel.

To loosen the sod, rototill the length of the garden four inches deep. Repeat the process going side to side across the garden. Remove as many of the chunks of sod as possible or the grass will start to re-grow later. These can be added to a compost pile for use later in the season.

After the soil is loosened, spread a two- to four-inch layer of organic material over the entire area. Cotton burr compost, mushroom compost or composted cow manure are all wonderful sources of organic matter and are available from your local garden center. Do not apply manure to the garden in the spring unless it has been composted for at least four months because the high ammonia content will burn the plants.

Next, sprinkle a granular garden fertilizer on top of the compost. Rototill all of this together into the soil to a depth of eight inches, repeating until well blended. Rake smooth with a heavy-duty metal garden rake. Now you’re ready to plant your vegetables.

Care and Cultivation

Although starting plants from seed in the house is fun, the seedlings are often spindly and weak due to lack of proper growing conditions in the home. Starter plants are the recommended method and can be purchased from your local garden center will not only start you off with the best-quality plants, but the selection is much more extensive. Test out the new varieties of your favorite vegetables by purchasing individual plants of many different kinds, including the great-tasting heirloom varieties.

Water is essential to successful cultivation, so be sure to water each plant thoroughly once the garden is planted. If planting seeds, use a gentle spray nozzle so as not to wash the seed away. The garden should receive at least one inch of water per week, either in the form of rain or irrigation. Use a rain gauge to monitor this.

To avoid disease problems, water the garden in the morning rather than the evening hours of the day so the leaves are dry by dusk. High moisture levels and cooler night temperatures are the cause of many tomato blights and cucumber powdery mildew problems. Use soaker hoses or lay the hose near the plant on a slow trickle allowing the water to soak deep into the ground creating a deep and healthy root system that will tolerate drought conditions better.

Mulch is another component of the perfect garden. For best results, mulch with cotton burr compost by applying a two- to four-inch layer of mulch between the rows of plants and around the garden edge. This will help maintain even moisture content in the soil, lessening the water requirements of the garden, and will also inhibit weed growth, lessening the work requirement of the gardener.

Reap Your Harvest

The best part of gardening is the great taste, health benefits and cost savings of freshly picked vegetables. Many plants can be harvested before maturity, such a new baby potatoes, onions, baby string beans or green peppers. Some plant will go to seed, or “bolt,” if left too long before harvest.

Bolting takes many forms—spinach leaves take on an arrowhead shape just before bolting; broccoli heads will turn to yellow flowers if not harvested in time; lettuce plants will get very tall and bitter if left too long in the heat of summer.

Don’t be too hasty in pulling all the plants out of the garden in late summer. Several vegetables—such as brussels sprouts, collard greens and carrots—taste sweeter if left in the garden long enough to get hit with frost several times. Swiss chard and broccoli will continue to produce even after several freezes.

Space it Out

Here are the spacing requirements for popular vegetables:

  • Beans: In rows 12 to 15 inches apart; start a second crop in early August for fall harvest.
  • Onions: In rows one inch apart; thin to four inches apart by pulling every other one to use as green onions in salads
  • Broccoli: 15 to 18 inches apart; after harvesting the first main head, side shoots will continue to be harvested all season long
  • Carrots: Thin to two inches apart by harvesting baby carrots early
  • Cucumbers: Four to six feet per plant; vine varieties can be grown on trellises
  • Peppers: 12 to 18 inches apart in rows; tapered varieties produce more than bell types
  • Tomatoes: 3 feet apart; be sure to stake with extra tall, heavy duty cages for beefsteak varieties or grow more compact varieties in containers.

Warm or Cold?

COLD TOLERANT • Onions • Peas • Potato • Lettuce • Spinach • Carrots • Broccoli • Cabbage • Brussels sprouts • Beets • Cauliflower • Parsley • Strawberries • Chives

WARM SEASON • Tomatoes • Peppers • Eggplant • Squash • Pumpkins • Basil • Peppers • Cucumber • Melons • Beans • Rosemary

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