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Tips for a Successful Vegetable Garden Lisa and Kathleen Putnam

Updated: Oct 4, 2022

The most important factor for successful gardening is living, healthy soil. Here's a review, in last week's post. The second most important factor for successful gardening is SUN. Most vegetables – and all fruiting vegetables (summer veggies are fruits) – need eight hours of direct sunlight. Ideally, they need it year-round but they, most importantly, need that much sun in the summer. Getting that much sun can be tricky in yards that have buildings, trees or tall bushes near the vegetable beds. It is important to be honest with yourself about how much sun your garden will really get. As cumbersome as it is, it is best to go out in your potential garden spot once per hour during the day and see if direct sunlight is hitting it. This is important, because it is the only way the plants will get food, and it will help the plants avoid many pests and diseases. The wonderful thing about living in the Bay Area is we can vegetable garden all year round. However, the difficult aspect of a vegetable garden can be having enough space for the overlapping crops. Your spring garden should be planted in February or March (kale, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, beets, chard, lettuce), but you need to save room for your summer vegetables, which should be planted in April or May (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, zucchini, cucumbers, beans, etc.). How do you do that with limited space? You can interplant some plants, which may mean sneaking your tomatoes into your broccoli patch. With some thought and planning, you can make it work in our tight spaces.

Seeds and Starts You can either plant your garden from seeds or from starts (baby plants are called seedlings or starts). We like to use seeds since there are a plethora of varieties available. When these seeds actually become seedlings they can then be transplanted into the garden at the correct time of the year (please see chart below).

Some crops must be started from seed, like root crops, because they do not transplant well. With your carrots, parsnips, radishes and beets (all examples of root crops), dig a shallow trench, sprinkle in your seeds, cover with soil and water. Some seeds need to be kept evenly moist for a long period of time. Carrot seeds, for example, need to be kept moist for 21 days. It's always best to seed root crops when rain is in the forecast. 

For many, buying starts/baby plants at a local nursery like Wegman's Nursery is much more convenient. You want to make sure the start is as wide as it is tall. Take one out of the six-pack to make sure it is not root bound (roots rotating around the circumference of the six-pack cell). 

Crop Rotation When planning your year in the garden, it is best to rotate your crops, and not plant crops from the same family back-to-back. In other words, you don’t want to plant broccoli where you just had kale, since they are part of the same family. This practice helps to reduce insect and disease load, as many pathogens feed only on particular families of plants. This is especially important with the Solanaceae family, also referred to as the nightshade family (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, potatoes). If you plant this family year after year in the same spot, your soil is at a greater risk of getting verticillium (a fungal disease that makes your plant wilt and eventually die). If this happens, you will not be able to plant any plants from the nightshade family in that spot for a long time, up to 20 years.

Planting Chart: The most important chart we use every day is the UC Master Gardeners Vegetable Planting Chart. Although written for Santa Clara County, the guide is perfect for San Mateo County as well. If you live outside of the Bay Area, you can find similar planting guides for your state by contacting your state cooperative extension or your state or county Master Gardeners group. You can also go to your local plant store and ask them for a reference guide. Please feel free to contact Lisa for additional advice.

How to use the planting chart

  • Transplanting means planting your seedlings (baby plants) directly in the garden. This is best done on a cloudy day, or during the late afternoon; then water them in well after transplanting. 

  • Direct seeding means planting the seed directly into your garden bed. This is always done with root vegetables and can also be done with arugula, chard, beans, peas, spinach, lettuce and a few other vegetables.

Below is a sample of the vegetable planting chart. Find the full chart here.

Irrigation We recommend using drip irrigation because it provides slow, deep watering, right where the plant needs it. It also allows for less water usage and results in fewer weeds and less water runoff. During the summer, vegetables should be watered every two to three days. The best time for watering is in the morning because this helps control some of the slugs and other pests that prefer moisture at night, but really anytime is fine. It is most important to water when the top one to two inches of soil are dry. Just dig your finger down into the soil a couple of inches to see it the soil has dried out. Plants generally need about one to two inches of water per week. If the weather is hot or windy, the summer plants may require up to three to four inches of water irrigation per week. Bugs and Weeds Whenever we have a problem with insects or disease, the first place we look for support is UC Davis Integrated Pest Management, link below. But, in general, we do nothing. For example, aphids move in on brassica crops as these crops go to seed (when the plants bud, flower and produce a seed pod). This is a perfectly normal part of the plant’s life cycle. The plant pushes out its last new growth with a lot of nitrogen, which signals to the insect world, “I am on my way out,” and the insects come in to help it expire.  With respect to weeds, we do a lot of weeding in February, before the weeds go to seed. If you do that regularly, and use a lot of mulch (wood chips on paths) in perennial garden beds, and grass clipping or straw in the vegetable beds, you can keep most weeds at bay.

Hedgerow If you have the room, it is also helpful to plant a hedgerow. Hedgerows are a grouping of shrubs, ground covers and perennials used to provide habitat and attract a variety of mammals, birds, reptiles, beneficial insects and pollinators. They are often drought-tolerant and beautiful.

Harvest Remember to harvest your crops! It takes a lot of time to harvest your bounty. Many vegetables, like beans and peas, need to be harvested on a continuous basis so they keep producing. The summer vegetables (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cucumbers and zucchini) also benefit from regular harvesting. With single-serve vegetables, such as beets, carrots and lettuce, we like to harvest and direct sow (planting new seeds in the garden) at the same time, which provides for a continuous supply of plants. Best Practices The most important aspect of a successful vegetable garden is healthy soil. As our previous post emphasized, keep your soil alive and fertile by keeping it covered with mulch (living mulch, like plants, or ground mulch, like straw), always have plants growing in the soil to feed the Soil Food Web, grow a cover crop every second or third crop and add one to two inches of high-quality compost in between crops.

Happy gardening!


Lisa and Kathleen Putnam

Lisa has a BS in Agricultural Economics from UC Davis. She also studied nutrition science there. She currently operates a small sustainable organic farm in Woodside and is a lifetime gardener, a UC Master Gardener (1999) and Master Composter (2010). Lisa’s passions are composting and the Soil Food Web. She teaches both summer and winter vegetable gardening at Lyngso, Common Ground and several local garden clubs.

Kathleen is a professional organic vegetable gardener and an ISA Certified Arborist serving the Mid-Peninsula region. She has a degree in Environmental Horticulture from City College of San Francisco and is a UC Master Gardener. She teaches classes about vegetable gardening and fruit tree pruning throughout the Bay Area, at Common Ground, Lyngso, San Francisco Community Gardens, Los Altos Garden Club, Portola Valley Garden Club, San Mateo Master Gardeners and the San Francisco Professional Gardeners Association.

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