by April Lisante
A few weeks ago, I spoke with folks at Weavers Way Chestnut Hill about how to select the best produce, and what to look for right now as a bounty of local fruits and veggies start to make their way into local stores.
The column spurred some amazing reader feedback, with the number one comment being: “How can I grow my own veggies in my own backyard?”
So this week, I spoke with some local garden experts who offered some tips for making your own produce grow this summer in planters, boxes or even large-scale gardens. While it is too late to start veggies from seeds, June is the perfect time to plant to reap a mid-to-late summer bounty. At local nurseries and garden centers, you’ll find ready-to-plant pots of everything from cucumbers to squash, snap peas, zucchini, tomatoes and peppers.
But before you start loading the car with plants, the first thing to determine is how much space you have, according to Jamie Milden, owner of Sunshine Landscapes and Vegetable Gardens 4 U, a local full-service veggie garden design company.
“The number one mistake people make is they put a box in their backyard and they cram way too many plants in one area,” Milden said. “There is no air circulation or it gets overtaken by weeds and they give up.”
If plants are not well-spaced, it invites garden insects, mildew and disease. The plants need not only full sun, but adequate air circulation and drainage. This means planting veggies so that they aren’t entwining with one another, and also planting them in such a way that they can be harvested without having to walk on and compact the soil around them. Milden uses only organic soil when he plants.
There are basically three ways to start a veggie garden at home, depending upon how much time and effort you want to invest in the project.
The first option is the container garden. Patio pots are great for tomatoes, bush beans, bush cucumbers and even leafy salad greens. When you are shopping for the plants, make sure they say “patio” or “bush” variety on the label, meaning they will be the perfect size for pots.
But pots can only hold a few plants at a time. Milden suggests finding a whiskey barrel for larger items like tomatoes, which can reach three to six feet tall. The Australian company Vegepod.com offers a netted table in a variety of sizes that can sit on a patio and automatically mist salad greens, for those who want a low-maintenance growing experience. Beds range from $200 to $400.
“Those are great for people who love their green leafy veggies for smoothies,” Milden said. “There is nothing like picking a head of lettuce right before dinner. It is so succulent and hasn’t had a chance to wilt.”
If you want more of a variety of veggies, building or purchasing wooden two-by-four boxes, which can sit on the ground or be raised on stilts and surrounded by wire fencing, might be for you. Again, Milden emphasizes that plants should be spaced well, so why not invest in a few boxes at once?
Finally, if you are really jazzed with the idea of harvesting everything from salads to snap peas all summer, choose a large plot to build your garden. Milden designs veggie gardens for clients that are typically 14-by-20 feet and are fenced in. The most important aspect of his design is his flagstone walkway. If a large patch of ground is planted, it is imperative that the harvester can walk to each area without tromping through the soil.
So how do you plant items so that they coexist and thrive? There really is no science to that, other than assuring they are spaced adequately, according to Hannah Ward Anthony, assistant manager at Laurel Hill Gardens on Germantown Avenue in Chestnut Hill.
“Right now, we have squash, cucumbers and tomatoes, and they can all go together,” said Anthony. “Remember, though, that tomatoes grow to up to six feet tall and three feet wide, so plant those in the back. And don’t plant things ten feet across unless you have a way through it.”
Anthony suggests using shredded wood mulch that is not color dyed but natural, to maintain moisture around the plants. To keep weeds at bay, she suggests pulling them or using a vinegar spray. She does not use any chemicals. And to keep insects like aphids and white flies from feasting on the veggies, she has a secret weapon she sells to wouldbe gardeners.
“Ladybugs,” Anthony said. “They get a lot of the garden pests.”