economics

March 14, 2010

Attack of the Rotten Tomatoes Soil, Lighting Improvements Made Now Will Ensure a Hefty Harvest Through Fall

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Michele von Turkovich watered and weeded, but her Brussels sprouts barely sprouted. David Sekkes hoed and tilled, and was rewarded with baskets of rotten tomatoes.

So much for the salad days of home gardening.

Spurred by the recession and the trendiness of locally grown produce, many people planted vegetables for the first time this past year. But rookie mistakes, combined with a particularly cruel growing season that included late blight and heavy rainfall, have many now wanting to throw in the trowel. Experienced gardeners say early spring is the perfect time to correct last year’s mistakes.

A Cabbage Patch for City Hall

2:46Last year, Baltimore City Hall replaced its traditional flower gardens with vegetable beds to help serve a local soup kitchen. But not all went as planned. Anne Marie Chaker reports on lessons learned and plans for this year’s crop.

First-timers typically overlook fundamentals like light, good soil, planting time and proper spacing between plants. Also, “a lot of young people are kind of curious but don’t know the time commitment,” says Jon Traunfeld, a senior agent with the University of Maryland’s Extension service, which assists gardeners in communities statewide. Mr. Traunfeld, who specializes in fruits and vegetables, says the service was hammered with questions, logging in 1,963 phone calls and emails last year, up 47% from the year before.

The city of Baltimore replaced its flower beds in front of city hall with vegetables last year. The goal, says designer Angela Treadwell-Palmer, was to show that vegetable gardens could be attractive and to grow harvests to donate to a local soup kitchen. But the local charity reported that some crops—particularly beets, kohlrabi and eggplant—weren’t appetizing to people.

So this year, Ms. Treadwell-Palmer is redesigning the garden to grow bigger yields of fewer crops like cabbage, kale and collard greens. The garden will also have a less-fussy, more minimalist look. And in the spring, at least, not all the beds will be vegetable plots, leaving room for some tulips—and more time for gardeners to breathe. “It was hard work,” she says.

How to Start a Vegetable Garden

Map out a plot, season by season.

David Sekkes in West Chester, Pa., was thrilled last year to have his own plot for a vegetable garden at his cottage on 15 acres of farmland after years of growing herbs on his apartment patio. But the 29-year-old Mr. Sekkes, pronounced SEA-kiss, got carried away at the farmer’s market shopping for plants and bought more than he originally intended. He planted them a little too close together to fit them in. The peppers shaded each other out and didn’t fruit well. A powdery mildew developed on the leaves of the zucchini plants, likely caused by lack of air circulation. Four hot-pepper plants turned out to be way more than he needed. Then, Mr. Sekkes went away for a long weekend near the end of the summer. He came home to a mess. “It was sad having to throw away all those tomatoes,” he says. This year, he plans on growing fewer zucchinis and pole beans—and spacing them farther apart—but also dabbling in new varieties of tomatoes.

Planning a garden includes considering how much time it will take to maintain it. Start small, says Edward C. Smith, author of “The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible.” “It’s much better to have a small garden you succeed with than a large garden in August that is totally overrun with weeds.”

It helps to research each plant’s spacing needs and growing habits: Some vegetables grow upright, others trail along the ground and still others have a vining habit. For tomatoes, cucumbers, peas and beans, trellises encourage upward growth. Not only will keeping fruit off the ground mean less rot and prettier veggies, but growing vertically also helps save space.

Jonathan Hanson for The Wall Street JournalUrsula Scheffel and Al Degray, both master gardeners and volunteers at the Baltimore City Hall greenhouse, work with lettuce seedlings.

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gardenJ1

Light is probably the most important factor to consider. “You can always amend your soil, but you can’t change the light,” says Harold Taylor, a gardener at Longwood Gardens, featuring over 1,000 acres of blooms, woodlands and meadows in Kennett Square, Pa.

Last year, Michele von Turkovich’s tomato plants never produced much and her Brussels sprouts and broccoli rabe didn’t grow past a couple inches. Then, after realizing some trees were shading her yard, Ms. von Turkovich, of Burlington, Vt., saw the light.

Vegetables need lots of sunlight and grow best in an area that gets about six to eight hours a day of direct sun. That’s especially true for fruit-bearing crops, such as tomatoes, squash and peppers. Leafy greens, such as cabbage and kale, can get away with a little less, perhaps four to six hours of direct sunlight.

Another key to successful gardening lies in understanding which crops do best in particular seasons—and having other plants ready to take over as those start to wane.

Angela Treadwell-PalmerA corn crop outside Baltimore City Hall last year.

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gardenJ2

That concept tripped up 42-year-old Tamara Duarte, who signed up for a plot in a Sacramento, Calif., community garden last summer. When she planted her two tomato plants and yellow squash, she thought she was done. “I didn’t really have the whole game plan for a year,” she says. Cool-season crops include leafy greens (lettuce, kale, spinach) and many root vegetables (turnips, beets, parsnips), which can tolerate some frost and grow best when temperatures are between 60 and 70 degrees.

Just one trellis can offer three seasons of continual harvest. Peas get planted as soon as the soil can be worked in the early spring. After a few weeks, as the peas are climbing and producing, the pole beans go in beneath them. In early summer, once the pole beans are scampering up the trellis, runner beans are planted below, which produce delicious pods and beans in the fall.

Dyson Deaton, of Rocky Mount, Va., learned the importance of good soil the hard way. After having trouble digging beds in his yard’s tough clay material, he built raised beds that he could fill with his own soil mix. But he added too much peat moss, which didn’t combine well with the clay underneath and resulted in a mess that was too light and acidic.

“I didn’t get any kind of decent crop at all,” he says. The following season, when he moved to a house nearby, his new yard had much better soil, and his garden produced. “All the money I spent that year when I was trying to get things going, I spent a tenth of it here, all because of the soil,” he says.

The best way to check soil quality is to simply take a trowel and dig in. Does the dirt look dark and crumbly? Are there plenty of earthworms? If so, it’s probably excellent soil. Dirt that feels tough and rocky against the shovel can be balanced by incorporating organic materials such as shredded leaves, non-herbicide treated grass clippings or aged horse manure.

Mr. Smith, the author, asks, “How do I work the soil in such a way that I’m growing vegetables this year, but better vegetables next year,” he says. “I’m not just trying to get this year’s crop in, I’m trying to improve the soil.”

No need to spend money on fancy laboratory tests. A simple at-home soil test kit can be purchased at a hardware store or nursery. Most vegetables like slightly acid soil, with a pH between six and seven. For a more detailed analysis, many college extension services will test soil samples for a fee.

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