Why and How to Grow a Vegetable Garden
Everyone knows I’m a huge vegetable gardening addict. From the time I could walk I helped and played in my darling grandmother’s vegetable garden.
By Steffie Littlefield
(This article first appeared in The Gateway Gardener April 2016 issue.)
Everyone knows I’m a huge vegetable gardening addict. From the time I could walk I helped and played in my darling grandmother’s vegetable garden. It was a classic kitchen garden layout of low raised beds bordered by bricks, set at a slant, with crushed stone pathways. It was bordered by white ranch-style fencing with chicken wire attached at the bottom. The perimeter beds were filled with brambles at the back and cutting flowers along the front with a huge white bent wood arbor over the gate for some of her favorite heirloom roses. Strawberries lined the borders of some of the beds. That was my sister’s and my responsibility, to pick the juicy red berries. Some were too good to make it in the basket and were consumed on site. Along the east side of the garden were wooden raised beds with slanted tops of glass—cold frames for starting seedlings and cuttings for the vegetable garden and her many flower beds. Here we tended small marigold plants that we later helped plant along the walk to the kitchen. All summer we were to pinch the dead flowers off to keep the plants clean and tidy. Every weekend we visited we would “ooh and aah” over the colorful fresh vegetables we helped to harvest. On Sundays we went with her to visit her elderly friends and take them baskets and crates of asparagus, potatoes, tomatoes, squash, peppers, flowers and herbs. It brought so much joy to everyone’s life; who wouldn’t want to make this a lifetime hobby?
As I embarked on my quest to create vegetable and flower gardens big enough to share with friends and family I ran into the same challenges my grandmother might have, which are also those that my gardening friends and clients share. How do we make our gardens efficient and not so much work that we dread going into the garden. I have followed her example of doing raised beds but even to the next level of filling them with clean compost and worm castings. My aisles are also paved with crushed stone to eliminate mowing, and I have studied companion planting theories to make an environment to promote healthy plants and avoid common pests. Through trial and error I have discovered vegetables that are easy and reliable and have eliminated those that are only marginally successful. I have also managed to cultivate a lot of plants that are perennial and therefore do not need to be replanted every season.
Here is my list of ‘must haves’ in the vegetable garden:
Lettuces—several varieties planted in succession to harvest into late June/early July
Parsnips—which I let go to seed the first year and now they are perennial in my garden
Celery—‘Red Venture’ is my favorite, it is fairly winter hardy and easy to sow from seed, few pests
French Sorrel—perennial, producing wonderful lemony salad greens even in summer
Rhubarb—perennial if kept from blooming and makes great pies and jellies
Bok Choy—so easy to start in the garden and so versatile, also rather pest resistant
Sugar snap peas—planted on a fence with beets at the base , then plant cucumbers for summer
Okra—pretty flowers, love the young pods for soups, dried stalks for fall decorating
Tomatillos—they reseed in my garden and are prolific in the heat of the summer
Malbar spinach—they reseed on two towers adding height, a delicious summer green for salads
Yard long beans—a hearty reseeder that produces right through the heat of summer into fall
Asparagus—perennial, providing years of harvest over two months in spring
Sweet potatoes—plant the plants in May and harvest bushels of sweet potatoes to eat all winter
Bush beans—Direct sow in late April; green, yellow wax, purple, colorful and good for the soil
Tomatoes—plant many varieties since not all will do well every year, plant near asparagus
Peppers—Hot, sweet and mild, red yellow, green and orange, pest resistant, so versatile
Horseradish—perennial, prolific, harvest in November, pest control plant for potatoes
Patty Pan Squash—the most insect resistant of the summer squash, fast growing
Tiger melons—very heat tolerant and sweet and fragrant squash
Eggplant—loves the heat, loves to be grown near beans for the nitrogen fixing attributes.
Italian fennel—reseeds, love to cook the greens, sauté the base and the seeds for soups
Leeks—buy the plants, very pest resistant, plant early, harvest in the fall for Thanksgiving
Onions—plant the plants for large onions, cut flowers to keep them from producing seeds
Shallots/Egyptian onions—these have hearty bulbs on stalks that make them perennial and the greens are great for cut green onions all summer
Herbs—dill, basil, cilantro –reseed themselves
thyme, oregano, winter savory, sage, lavender—perennial
Those who tend even a small one-bed vegetable garden not only can harvest fresh, healthy food but also experience the satisfaction of a successful gardening project and the joy of sharing their plentiful crops.
Steffie Littlefield is a St. Louis area horticulturist and garden designer. She is part owner of Edg-Clif Winery, Potosi, MO. www.Edg-Clif.com.