Vegetable gardening is a wonderful hobby with many rewards that include fresh produce, exercise, interactions with nature and a sense of mental/emotional wellbeing. When it becomes a lot of work or when the bounty is sparse, our interest can wane, resulting in us missing out on gardening’s wonderful perks.
Here are some tips to avoid unnecessary labor and, at the same time, to maximize the productivity of your garden.
Increase bounty: There is no single secret to a productive garden but rather a mix of ingredients in the recipe for success. Sunlight, soil condition, variety selection, timing your plantings, pest control, beneficial-insect support and increasing crop cycles are part of the not-so-secret sauce.
Select a sunny location: Sun + plant leaves = carbohydrate production. Leaves are the food factories, and the sun is the power source that makes growth and productivity possible. The less sun your plants receive, the less productive they can be. This is especially true for vegetables that produce roots or fruit for us to harvest.
If your garden area ranges from a lot of sun to partial shade, put your fruit crops (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cucumbers, squash, melons) and your root/tuber crops (carrots, beets, turnips, sweet potatoes, Irish/new potatoes) in the sunniest areas. At least six hours of sunlight are best.
Leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables need solar energy for growth and health, but not to create carbohydrate-loaded roots or fruit. These plants can tolerate less than full exposure to sunlight. While they don’t need shade, they can tolerate less direct sun-exposure when sunny space is limited.
Prepare soil: The single, most important task for gardening success is to prepare the soil well. Clay soil holds water and nutrients well but often has poor aeration and internal drainage. Sandy soils drain well but don’t hold either water or nutrients well. Composted organic matter helps the shortcomings of both soil types.
Very few plants tolerate or thrive in waterlogged conditions. Raised beds are the key to good surface drainage. Raised beds can be made of many materials, but my latest favorites are modular beds made of galvanized, corrugated metal that has been coated to provide an attractive color, prevent rusting and reflect heat. Vego Garden is an excellent example of a Texas company that offers such beds in easy-to-assemble kits. My last garden was constructed with treated lumber, but my next will be made with these new modular beds.
Choose adapted cultivars: Not all species and cultivars perform equally well in our challenging Texas conditions. There are some old favorites that are dependable, but many new ones are superior to some of the older tried-and-true options.
A few years ago, I conducted a yellow-squash trial and discovered that one variety produced twice the yields of the other eight cultivars tested. The cultivar was ‘Superpik’. While not included in the trial, ‘Multipik’ is also very productive. As a result, I now plant a little over half the amount of yellow squash, which saves space in the garden.
University-based trials and well-designed home-garden trials can be a great way to improve your productivity as well as to avoid disease issues when a resistant new cultivar is available. Talk to your County Extension Agent about how to design a good evaluation planting.
Plant at the right time: Texas gardeners have a short season between the last frost and the arrival of temperatures that inhibit fruit setting on crops (such as tomatoes and cucumbers). To get the most out of your harvest, select cultivars that reach harvest quickly and plant them as early as you can to maximize the period of milder temperatures.
Likewise, in the fall the window between blazing hot and first frost can be shorter than we’d like. Coupled with the fact that plant growth and development slow considerably as days shorten and temperatures cool off, proper planting times and fast-maturing cultivars are important. Planting-date lists and charts are available from many county AgriLife Extension offices to guide you, and veteran gardeners are a good source of such advice as well.
Manage pests and diseases: I don’t have to tell you that pests and diseases can spoil the best laid plans of the gardener. The earlier you catch a problem, the more options you have to manage it and the less toxic those options tend to be. Many organic controls work best when pests are very young. Also, the earlier you act, the less the damage will be and the greater your harvest bounty. The early bird may get the worm, but the early-responding gardener gets more produce.
Feed beneficial insects: It’s not just us versus the pests. Beneficial insects do a great deal to prevent or at least lessen pest outbreaks. Create a garden with blooming plants that provide pollen and nectar for syrphid flies, parasitoid wasps and other “good guys.” Learn to tolerate a few aphids, for example, that will provide a food source to keep other beneficial insects around, which in turn can help reduce outbreaks.
Plan for more crop cycles per year: We have two traffic jams per year in the vegetable garden. One is in spring, when cool-season crops are still producing and (at the same time) warm-season crops need to be planted. A similar situation occurs in the fall.
Begin with transplants to get a head start on a planting. This allows you to plant a bit later without delaying the harvest dates as much. Use season extensions (such as clear-plastic tunnels) to carry the warm season farther in the fall or begin the warm season earlier in the spring. Row-cover fabric over the rows can also help protect from frosts.
Interplanting is the practice of beginning one crop while the previous crop is completing its harvest season. This method also helps lessen the traffic jam. All these and other measures can help get more crop cycles per bed area over the course of a year.
Limit work load: Remember the first time you woke up in the morning sore and could not figure out what you did to bring that on? A little exercise is great, but no one wants to labor needlessly. Soil preparation, weeding, hand-watering, repeated stooping and bending, and getting up and down multiple times can become a lot of work.
Prepare beds with less effort: Eradicate perennial weeds before you plant the garden. After the crops are in, these weeds are much more difficult to remove, requiring a lot of extra effort.
Rototillers are the traditional way to prepare soil, but minimal tillage techniques are quickly growing in popularity. I remove past plantings by cutting them off at the soil line and only disturb the soil to add supplemental nutrients as prescribed by soil-test results or to mix in some compost occasionally.
A broad fork is an easy “no-stooping” tool for loosening and aerating soil; a spading fork can be handily used to turn it. Take care not to walk on your garden beds, as this compacts the soil. This also can minimize the need for frequent soil turning or mixing.
Grow in raised boxed beds: Raised beds that are no more than about four-feet wide are easy to reach halfway across from either side. While higher beds are not necessary, they can minimize the need for stooping or working on your hands and knees.
Fill the beds with a quality bed-mix from a soil yard. I’ve found it helpful to add a little extra nitrogen if the mix is recent. This addition offsets the initial “tie up” as microbes continue to break down the woody components of the mix.
Select large containers: Container gardening can save a lot of work compared to growing in the soil. Our Texas summers are blistering hot and long, so if you choose larger containers, you’ll have to water less. Even a brief drought in a container can reduce yields considerably. Large containers can be easily transported around the patio or into a protected location by using a dolly and a strap to go around the container and hold it in place.
Choose EZ weed control: Mulch is the secret weapon in the war against weeds. Mulch minimizes soil temps, erosion, crusting and evaporative moisture loss. Weed seeds are significantly suppressed when sunlight cannot reach the soil surface.
Many types of organic matter (including shredded wood wastes, compost, leaves, pine needles and dried grass clippings) make a great mulch. I like to start with four-to-six sheets of newsprint, overlapped and sprayed with a little water as it is put down. Then cover it with the organic matter of your choosing.
Find a good hoe: I grew up with one kind of garden hoe, the type designed for moving soil around. Hoes have improved a lot since then. Quality, well-designed (such as swan-neck, colinear and diamond) hoes are designed to slice just below the surface to remove small weeds in a “sweeping” motion that takes minimal effort. This tool should be one you use often, so purchasing a good one will save you time and effort.
Take the work out of watering: Hand-watering may be therapeutic for some, but it takes time and usually doesn’t wet the soil deeply. Money spent on a good drip-irrigation system and timer takes almost all the work out of watering and ensures that the forgetfulness of the gardener is no threat to the plants’ survival.
Minimize stooping and bending: My favorite new tool is a kneeling bench. Not only is it a portable place to sit, but it also makes kneeling less painful and getting back up much, much easier. Likewise, tools with ergonomic handles or a “D” handle attached to a long-handled rake, hoe or shovel can prevent significant back, arm and shoulder strain.
Sprawling vegetable vines take up significant space and make weeding more of a chore. Take that same crop and grow it on a trellis and you have a very narrow “footprint” that minimizes weeding and increases air movement, which can reduce disease issues. Plus, you’re harvesting cucumbers, pole beans, melons and other vining crops without stooping.
By Robert ”Skip” Richter
Brazos County Horticulturist
Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service