So you have decided that you are ready to start your very own vegetable garden! Congrats, that is the first step! So what do we do now? Today we will cover hardiness zones, types of garden beds and choosing your vegetables.
The first step to determining when and what to plant is to find out which USDA hardiness zone you reside in. The USDA planting/hardiness zone map is a tool used by gardeners to aid them in choosing what type or variety of plant will grow best in their microclimate. *If you live outside of the U.S. click here to locate your country and find your local hardiness zone map!
The hardiness map first came about in 1938 and was created by the U.S. National Arboretum and consisted of 8 zones, this map was used until 1960 when a man in the organization named Henry Skinner updated the map changing the correlating temperature variations to a set 10 degrees. This USDA version of the map was much more popular and by 1965 Florida was added to the hardiness map. This map was the industry standard until 1990.
Over the years the map, as most maps do, became less and less accurate due to things like climate change and colonization, in response the USDA added new zones such as Canada and Mexico and added additional levels of zone variation. Each zone stayed separated by a 10 degree variance but gained A and B sections of additional 5 degree variations within the zones making it more accurate than ever before.
Several more years passed and the map underwent different updates of varying significance, some of the most notable in 2006 when a study was released showing the zones were moving northward as climate change caused the earth to warm. In 2012 two more new zones were added to the map and in 2015 the Arbor Day Foundation released an even newer version of the map.
Today the zone map consists of a number system 11 through 0 and those numbers represent the minimum temperatures a plant can withstand within that zone so, for example, if a plant is labeled as hardy in zone 10 then the minimum temperatures it can withstand are -1 °C (30° F) and so on.
For U.S. residents to figure out which zone and sub-section of that zone you reside in click here.
So we've found your hardiness zone, now what? Picking out your plant and seed babies, of course! This is the fun part.
Hardy Vegetables (cool weather)
- Asian Greens
- Brussels sprouts
- Chinese Cabbage
- English peas
- Mustard greens
- Snow Peas
- Swiss Chard
Seeds, Seedlings and More
Semi-Hardy Vegetables (hot weather)
- Green Beans
- Lima Beans
- New Zeland Spinach
- Peppers of all kinds
- Southern peas
- Soy Beans
- Summer squash
- Sun Flowers
- Sweet potatoes
- Zucchini Squash
Alright, so you've picked out the kinds of vegetables you want to grow, now we need to pick the variety and type. When picking out seeds or seedlings you'll want to pay attention to things like days to harvest (TIP: get a few different varieties with different days to harvest to keep a steady supply of vegetables rolling in, alternatively you can plant seedlings a week or so apart), hardiness zone, hours of sunlight, seed type and temperature preferences. You can find all of this information and more on the back of your seed packet or if you are shopping online in the product description.
For the beginner gardener we would suggest starting out with hybrid varieties or GMO seeds verses no-gmo or heirloom type seeds. The benefits to using GMO varieties, especially for cold weather or cooler climate gardening, are that they are generally bred to be more resistant to pests, diseases and yes, even sudden shifts in temperature!
Hybrid seeds share a lot of these same protective traits with GMO type seeds and hybrids can produce some of the most interesting and beautiful plants of all! The downside? Because hybrid plants are created using cross-pollination you cannot harvest seeds from hybrid plants and get the same plant from those seeds. Therefore if you want to grow the same variety again the next year, you will have to purchase the seeds again.
This is great for big seed companies, not so much for home gardeners or small farms who want to save seeds for repeated use or sharing. Now you may be thinking, but “what if I DO save the seeds and grow them then what happens?” The answer is simple, your seeds will likely sprout and produce but the offspring will not be like the hybrid plant you harvest the seeds from, more likely it will be like one of the parent plants the hybrid was created from.
Example* you have a hybrid flower that is yellow with white stripes and has large dark green leafs. It produces seeds and you plant these seeds, when the plant flowers, the flower it produces is plain white and its leafs are more narrow and lighter in color. The plant may be weaker and less vigorous as well – now it is possible to stabilize hybrid seeds but the process is long arduous one and just in general isn't worth the supreme time and effort involved!
As you progress on your gardening journey you may want to experiment with heirloom seeds and that is always great fun! Some fun summer favorites are heirlooms and organic varieties like Black Krim tomatoes and Red Burgundy okra but there's a nearly endless variety! If you can think of a vegetable you want to grow, there is probably an heirloom version out there.
Some vegetables are sensitive and you will want to purchase seedlings rather than seeds or you may want to start them indoors in trays then transplant them into your garden when their root system is strong enough and they've started displaying true leaves. A few examples are..
- Broccoli (In zones 8 – 10 you can sow directly into soil)
- Cabbage (In zones 9 – 10 you can sow directly into soil)
- Cauliflower (In zones 8 – 10 you can sow directly into soil)
- Most Onions
- And so on…
There are many times when the problems you'll encounter in your garden are not the cause of pests but of different fungi sapping the life from your plants. Here are few of the most common plant diseases and some simple remedies.
BLOSSOM END ROT: This is a common disease most gardeners, especially busy gardeners, will encounter at least once. This generally occurs on tomatoes but can also affect peppers and other fruits in the nightshade family.
Blossom end rot is caused by a few different things; a lack of calcium, too much salt, lack of/over watering or rapid growth. This disease manifests itself on both ripe and unripe fruit, soggy spots will appear at the bottom of the fruit (where the blossom was) and will eventually turn brown and ruin the fruit by causing mold or attract pests.
This disease will not spread from plant to plant so focus on treating the affecting plants only. To treat and prevent this disease you can; till eggshells or bone meal into the soil before planting (you can purchase calcium sprays from your local garden center too), use chopped leafs, straw or undyed wood chips as mulch to prevent moisture from leaving the soil, and avoid over fertilizing with commercial brand fertilizers that are high in nitrogen.
RUST: Rust affects many different vegetation, flowers and trees. There are over 4,000 different varieties of rust, rust first appears on the underside of leafs and toward the lower parts of the plant. It is a raised bright golden or orange spots that appear very much like rust, as the fungi grows spores small fuzzy spots in red or black may appear and then will spread via wind to other nearby plants.
Rust likes warmth, humidity and darkness so making sure your plants get plenty of light and are pruned so air can flow freely is a big help to preventing this fungi. Water in the morning to prevent excess moisture retention and water only at the base of the plant, do not soak the leafs.
You should prune off and dispose of effected leafs and stems – DO NOT COMPOST THEM. You can also purchase organic sprays and powders if the disease has gone unchecked for too long.
POWDERY MILDEW: This is probably the most common fungi in North America, it affects almost all types of plants and is easily identified by powdery white areas on the top of young leafs. The fungi begins as tiny raised bumps near the edges of the leaf causing it to warp and curl before the white powder mildew appears. Prune and destroy effected leafs and plants and make sure plants have good ventilation and air flow to prevent further development. Keep excess yard and plant debris away from young susceptible plants and water in the morning before the heat of the day.
FUSARIUM WILT: We wanted to cover this disease because it is every gardeners worst fear. This disease generally will go unnoticed until it is too late for you to do anything and it can survive for years in the soil. Fusarium wilt is a soil borne pathogen that affects potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and other members of the nightshade family. It enters your plants through the roots and causes the plants leafs to yellow, wither and die. It then slowly works its way up your plant from larger mature leafs to younger leafs. This disease is spread by wind, water, pests and infected gardening tools – unlike some of the other diseases we covered today this one thrives in dry weather with hot temperatures.
When you notice this disease you should immediately prune effected areas away and sterilized your pruning sheers before using them again – throw the clipping away or destroy them. DO NOT COMPOST FOR ANY REASON. You can purchase sprays and compounds to combat the disease but if you are unable to destroy the disease you should replace the soil in your garden beds or solarize your garden soil.
VERTICILLIUM WILT: This disease is very similar to fusarium wilt in appearance but unlike fusarium wilt this disease is much more persistent and can survive cold weather and overwinter much more easily. Study has shown that crop rotation is very helpful in the prevention of this disease, since the pathogen develops in the soil it will grow in strength in the same unaltered environment so by rotating crops with more resistant varieties the disease cannot thrive.
Good Bugs and Bag Bugs
GRASSHOPPERS. Grasshoppers consume approximately one-half of their body weight per day so they can easily decimate an entire home gardeners crop in one evening. Both adults and nymphs cause damage by chewing on the leaves and stems of plants, and if infestations left untreated become severe, they may defoliate entire fields.
Adults (1-2 inch long) are brown to reddish to yellow to green in color with prominent jaws, fully developed wings and short antennae. They have enlarged hind legs and can jump great distances. Immature stages — nymphs — are similar in appearance to adults, but are smaller and have wing buds instead of wings.
Control: Row covers are the best defense against these pests, I found they only attacked my garden at nighttime and that was also the best time to find them chewing away. Garlic spray and garlic plants are also good deterrents to put in place to ward off grasshoppers. You can also dust the plants with all purpose flour, this gums up the grasshoppers mouths preventing them from eating.
FLEA BEETLES. These bugs cause damage to plants by chewing small holes in the leaves, which make them look as if they have been shot with a buckshot. They feed the most during hot sunny weather and will attack a wide variety of plants, most all plants actually.
Adults are small brown or black beetles with large hind legs that allow them to jump when disturbed much like the common house flea. Flea beetles transmit viral and bacterial diseases so wear gloves when tending to the pest and shake off clothing before entering your home.
Control: The best way to eliminate these pests is with food-grade diatomaceous earth, this is a nontoxic compound that scorches the body the beetle as it crawls through the fine powder – you can also use this on household fleas and most beetle type pests. Row covers and sticky traps are also very effective in protecting plants from this pest.
SQUASH VINE BORERS. If one day your squash is suddenly wilted and limp, you might have some of these pests in your garden. Larva overwinter in the soil and can work their way into your plants stems, alternatively the adult moth will lay eggs at the base of the plant. The adult is a moth about ½ inch long that looks a bit like a wasp with a black body, marked with orange-red. The hind wings are transparent and the front wings are metallic green.
If you slit open a stem lengthwise with a sharp knife, you will see the borer larva. It resembles a maggot with its fat, white, wrinkled body and brown head; it can grow to about an inch long. There is not much that can be done once these have taken up housing in your plants stems. Remove and destroy the plant.
Control: Start your squash outside of the garden and plant as a seedling once it's true leaves have emerged. This will ensure the plant is strong and healthy enough to withstand the pests. You should also rotate your crops since these pests overwinter in the soil. Row covers are excellent for keeping the moth from ever laying it's eggs on your plants. You can also wrap aluminum foil, nylon stockings or florist tape around the base of the plant below it's first set of leaves.
TOMATO HORNWORMS. Don't let their name fool you, these little jerks will destroy much more than your tomato plants – they also feed on peppers, eggplant and other soft leaf fruit bearing plants. Unfortunately most gardeners don't realize this pest has made its way into the garden until they find a large patch of damage the next day, these guys eat fast.
Tomato hornworms are the caterpillar stage of the Sphinx moth (also known as a hummingbird moth) so if you see these moths fluttering around your garden – take action immediately!
The caterpillars are 3-4 inches long, they are green with seven diagonal white strips and a black or red horn projecting from the rear. In their moth stage they are large (4-5 inch wingspan), heavy-bodied moths. They are gray or brown in color with white zigzags on the rear wings and orange or brownish spots on the body – they fly quickly and are able to hover like a hummingbird over flowers and plants.
Tip from PlanetNatural: To find the larvae hidden among plants, look for black droppings (frass) on the leaves and ground and spray the foliage with water. The caterpillars will thrash about and give away their hiding spots.
Control: The best method for removal of this pest is to simply pick it off your plants and either crush it by hand or toss the caterpillars into a bucket of soapy water. (If you have chickens, they love these as a treat!) A very effective caterpillar killer is bacillus thuringiensis (marketed as BT), this organic compound usually comes in powder form and you simply sprinkle it over the plant – however this kills ALL caterpillars and not just pests so if for example you have some lovely monarch caterpillars on your milkweed make sure to keep BT very far away.
My favorite method for dealing with this pest is Parasitoid wasps, we will go into more detail on these wasps in the benefinical section of this article. To use these for prevention you release them early in the the growing season.
The wasps lay their eggs on the hornworm which then feed on the insides of the hornworm until the wasp is ready to pupate, when the wasp bursts from inside the hornworm they will seek out other hornworms to infect and kill. So if you see a hornworm covered in little white bumps (photo right), do NOT kill or remove it from your garden – let the wasps do what they do best!
BEES. These little guys are easily the most important insect on the planet earth, without bees to pollinate we wouldn't have any of the fruits or vegetables we love so dearly. There are over 20,000 different species of bees in the world and each region has a host of different species native to their area. Bees live in colonies called hives and can fly as far as 2 miles (3 km) from their hive to collect pollen though some beekeepers have seen their bees as far as 4 miles from the hive foraging.
The honey bee is responsible for approximately 80% of the pollination of fruits, nut, grains, and vegetables in the United States today. Honey bees are not native to North America however; they were brought here by European settlers in the colonial days to pollinate their crops and for the products created or gathered by the honey bees; honey, propolis, royal jelly, pollen, and beeswax. Some plants to help attract bees to your garden are; lavender, sage, thyme, mint, sunflowers, rosemary, chives, beebalm, basil, catnip and any other herb or brightly color flowers.
LADYBUGS. These brightly colored insects are every gardeners favorite, instead of feeding on your crop ladybugs feed on aphids, mites, the eggs of pest insects and other various small soft-bodies creepy crawlies. You can buy live ladybugs at almost any organic gardening center or you can order live ladybugs offline for usually less than $20.00 – generally they come in a plastic container filled with cotton, hay, woodchips or straw. To release them into your garden gently shake them loose during a time of day when pest activity is high (usually early morning or early evening as the sun sets), if you are lucky they will thrive in your garden and lay eggs and continue to act as pest-control. Ladybug eggs are bright yellow balls clustered together on the bottom of a leaf or near the plants stem, their larva and pupa are brownish black with yellow spots – leave them be! Larvae will eat approximately 400 aphids prior to pupating. Adults will consume more than 5,000 aphids during their lifetime.
What is an Asian ladybug?
These are pest insects that are cousins of the common ladybug. It can be hard to tell the difference between the Asian ladybug and beneficial common ladybugs, they are very similar in color though Asian ladybugs have a wilder variety of color in all shades of yellow to orange to red, if you look closely, you will see the Asian lady beetle has a white marking behind its head in the openings of what looks like a black M. Some also have dark black spots like common ladybugs, but on many their spots are very light in color or they have none at all.
During the 1980-90's the USDA released a very large amount of these Asian ladybugs in Southern United States and they reproduced and spread like wildfire. Unlike common ladybugs these Asian beetles can and will occasionally bite humans. These pests also like to find their way into your home and hide in cracks, crevices, drawers and pretty much anywhere they can fit – it is important to avoid smashing them if possible, they release a gooey yellow substance that smells fowl and will attract more Asian ladybugs, some people also are allergic to this substance and can have mild to severe reactions from hives to asthma attacks. Always make sure whatever you plant or release is native to your area and will not overwhelm the local ecosystem.
NEMATODE. The question you're probably asking yourself right now is; what the heck is that photo of and what the heck is a nematode? These wonderful creatures are nematodes under a microscope. A nematode is a microscopic parasite closely related to roundworms and threadworms. These little guys are EVERYWHERE, from the lowest valley to the tops of the highest mountains. While some types of nematodes do cause sickness and diseases in humans and animals, the type we are discussing today do not.
Beneficial nematodes work by actively seeking out and attacking pests that harm plant life, nematodes destroy over 150 different types of insects that live in soil or mature in the ground. These include weevils, beetles including roaches, fleas, borers and gnats of all kinds. Beneficial nematodes do not attack earthworms or most other beneficial insects. They’re excellent for use in lawns, in gardens, your houseplants and around trees and shrubs. They need generally moist conditions to facilitate their movement.
PRAYING MANTIS. Large, green or tan praying mantis are most often sold as egg cases which can yield up to 200 and more small adults (some pet stores carry single mature adults for housing in terrariums and other enclosed environments). Two to three weeks of warm temperatures allow the eggs to hatch. The newly hatched insects squeeze through the egg sac, leaving it intact and disperse quickly without leaving behind a clue that hatching has occurred. It takes as much as five months for mantises to reach full size. These critters feed on pests such aphids, leafhoppers, mosquitoes, caterpillars and other soft-bodied insects when young. Later they will eat larger insects such as beetles, roaches, grasshoppers, crickets, moths and even locusts!
TIPS ON RELEASE FROM PLANETNATURAL:
Use 3 egg cases for small areas — under 5,000 sq ft — and increase the amount accordingly for larger areas.
Tie each egg case to twigs or branches about three feet above the ground. Birds and rodents will feed on egg cases.
Placing them in a container with holes large enough for the nymphs to escape — 1/4 to 1/2 inch diameter — will provide protection.
PARASITOID WASPS. Just like there are thousands of different types of bees, there are thousands of different types of wasps. When a gardner refers to parasitoid wasps they could be referring to several different kinds depending on what their pest problem is and their location. Generally speaking these tiny wasps, which are not harmful to humans at all and do not sting, reproduce or act in the same manner as other types of wasps. They infect the larva of immature stages of various pests with their own eggs and those eggs feed off the pest until they themselves mature then the adult wasps will seek out more pests to continue the cycle.
Garden Maintenance and Watering
Your garden needs your attention, just like your home and pets. Neglecting your garden will lead to lower yields, pest problems, weed problems or even the loss of an entire harvest. Many folks use plant apps, a calendar or planner to track garden maintenance. Here is a simple SPRING check-list you may print and utilize by clicking here.
Depending on your climate and what you're growing you may need to water certain plants more frequently than others (if you live in a very hot climate for example) but in general your plants will want about 1-2 inches of water per week. It is very important to water your plants regularly, preferably at the same time of day each day if possible.
If your plants don't get enough water they may not fill out properly and may be too thin or large on one end and small on the other. Tomatoes will crack if they receive a sudden influx of watering after a long period of neglect. You should also take note and only water at the base of the plant, avoid saturating the leafs or fruits with water as this came increase pest activity and also cause fungi or mold problems.
Other common maintenance is weeding your garden bed, this is important because weeds steal food and water from your plants inhibiting growth and sometimes fruit production. Mulching your plants is beneficial for a few reasons, it helps keep soil moist, slows down weed growth and keeps the plants roots from overheating or being exposed to pests.
You should mulch your plants seasonally with compost, shredded leafs or other organic mulches – NEVER use commercial wood chips to mulch your garden. Wood chips contain dyes, chemicals and often mushroom spores. Other garden maintenance you'll want to keep up with is checking for signs of pest activity, trimming dead limbs, fertilizing and harvesting.
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