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You can grow beautiful, healthy, delicious veggies and herbs right from the start—just follow the trustworthy advice found in The Beginner’s Guide to Growing Great Vegetables. Expert gardener Lorene Edwards Forkner shares all the information you need to create a thriving garden, from facts about soil and sun to tips on fertilizing, mulching, and watering. Regional planting charts show what to plant when, and a month-by-month planner takes you from January through December. Profiles of popular edibles explain exactly how to plant, care for, and harvest your bounty. Whether your garden grows in the ground, on a balcony, or in containers on a sunny patio, this is your guide to grow-your-own success. Your backyard bounty awaits!
With a little know-how, the sky’s the limit when it comes to growing your own great vegetables.
Welcome to Gardening in North America
North America is big, and I mean really big. But as a beginning gardener, all you really need to learn to be a success—think ripe tomatoes, fresh salads, and hearty greens—is how to read and work with the growing conditions in your own backyard. I’ll say it again and again, all good gardening is local.
Gardeners love to talk about the weather. But there’s weather, what’s happening right now, and then there’s climate, a region’s general weather conditions over a period of time. Where you live determines what you can grow and when.
In 1960, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) devised a map dividing the country into ten hardiness zones. Because they are based solely on minimum winter temperatures, however, USDA hardiness zones have drawbacks in those parts of the country, like the Southeast and Southwest, where soaring summer temperatures limit the growing season. Nevertheless, this map became the industry standard for most garden books and plant labels. The updated 2012 USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map has improved computing models that take into account elevation, slope, and the moderating influence of neighboring bodies of water. This highly detailed, interactive online map allows you to more accurately pinpoint where your garden falls within the system simply by entering your zip code ( ).
As a beginning gardener, the best thing you can do is to develop an understanding of the climate and a “feel” for the weather of your growing region. This takes time, experience, observation, and, yes, more than a few disappointing losses as you try to predict, gamble, complain, and cajole circumstances to get every last drop of goodness out of the growing season. But once you learn to work with conditions in your garden, you’re on your way to a bountiful harvest.
Fresh food awaits, and I know you can’t wait to dig in. But first, let’s look at the five primary growing regions spread across the United States and southern Canada. Although each region is filled with countless topographic variations and microclimates that influence local growing conditions, broadly speaking each has commonalities that distinguish it from conditions in other growing regions.
The Pacific Northwest (PNW) growing region encompasses coastal northern California, western Oregon, western Washington, southern British Columbia, and southeastern Alaska. The region’s proximity to mountain ranges and neighboring bodies of water influences weather patterns and accounts for local variations, producing a long, mostly frost-free growing season. Summers—while warm, pleasant, and generally dry—rarely get hot enough to hinder plants that don’t do well in heat. Pacific Northwest gardeners will sometimes struggle to ripen warm-season crops like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, but they’ll always have kale and other hardy crops that produce in fall and over winter.
■ Growing season 150 to 280 days
■ Hardiness zones 7 to 8
The arid Intermountain West (MTN) ranges from southern Alberta and Saskatchewan through Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah and extends into eastern Washington, eastern Oregon, and northern Nevada. This region’s weather varies from mild to wild. Each state and province has a multitude of diverse growing conditions, and elevation and precipitation are the two overriding factors for gardeners in this growing region. Cinematic mountain ranges with sometimes dramatic changes in elevation impact weather, funnel winds, and determine where precipitation falls—or doesn’t.
■ Growing season 120 to 180 days
■ Hardiness zones 3 to 7
The Midwest (MW) forms the geographic heart of the United States and comprises twelve states: North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio. Winters are typically cold, and summers are hot and humid. The Northeast (NE) includes Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, continuing north to encompass southern regions of Ontario and Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island. It is a diverse region affected by mountains, valleys, a long coastline, and numerous rivers and lakes. Winter may or may not be cold, but summer—the primary growing season—is always hot and humid. So, for our purposes here, we’re treating this expansive region collectively (MW/NE).
■ Growing season 123 to 190 days
■ Hardiness zones 3 to 7
The Southeast (SE) covers Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, south along the Atlantic including Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and northern Florida, and inland along the Gulf of Mexico including Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, East Texas, and Arkansas. Let’s add in Hawaii and Puerto Rico for good measure. This region is warm and wet, with long hot summers with high humidity and mild winters with sometimes quickly shifting temperature changes. Gardening is a year-round activity in this region, and abundant rainfall makes for verdant growth. In some areas, however, summer heat is as important a concern for gardeners as winter lows are for the rest of the country. Fortunately, the rest of the year is productive.
■ Growing season 130 to 300 days
■ Hardiness zones 5 to 9
The Southwest (SW) is a land of year-round sunshine and warm weather, right? Well, yes and no. While sunshine is nearly constant throughout the year, as in other regions, growing conditions in southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas are greatly influenced by elevation and precipitation. These factors account for dramatic variation in wintertime lows in the region, ranging from −25 to −20°F in mountainous areas of Arizona and Nevada to a relatively balmy mid-40s in coastal regions. But come summer, it’s all hot! While most parts of the SW enjoy a year-round growing season, especially in lower elevations and along the coast, desert regions get way too hot for gardening. Lack of rain is also a limiting factor in this predominantly dry region.
■ Growing season 100 to 365 days
■ Hardiness zones 4 to10
Knowing your area’s first and last frost dates, the seasonal bookends that determine the growing season, is a good starting point for getting acquainted with your growing region. However, frost dates are calculated by compiling and averaging several years of data collected at regional weather stations that often bear little resemblance to a garden—think airport tarmac not open soil. In addition, these days the meaning of average is elusive as we all adjust to a new normal affected by climate change factors.
Consider frost date data as flexible guidelines to work from when planning the growing season. You’ll find several online sites that list first and last frost dates by location, or you can ask an experienced local gardener or the good folks at your neighborhood nursery for their thoughts.
A microclimate is a localized pocket of unique weather modified by adjacent buildings, bodies of water, terrain, and wind patterns. Cold air flows like water down a slope and pools at the bottom, forming a frost pocket where winter may linger hours, days, or weeks longer than a garden plot upslope. Buildings, fences, and hills provide shelter from chilling winds. Paved and masonry surfaces serve as heat banks, absorbing the warmth of the sun during the day and releasing it at night, keeping adjacent garden beds a few degrees warmer. So, urban environments with closely placed houses and lots of pavement are generally warmer than exposed land in rural areas.
My garden is about half a block from Puget Sound and protected to the north by a small hill. This large body of saltwater and topography mean that my yard is one of the last places in the greater Seattle area to receive frost, snow, or freezing conditions. Many times I’ve set out in the rain only to discover snow a few blocks away.
Not only do microclimatic conditions vary from yard to yard, but they can even vary within a garden. Careful observation will reveal existing microclimates at play in your garden. Note where early weeds germinate to find which part of your garden warms up first. You can manipulate microclimatic conditions by installing a stone wall, hedge, fence, or other windbreak and by choosing building materials like concrete, stone, and brick to trap and retain heat or provide shade as needed.
Look for signs of spring in nature, like this American robin with a caterpillar for its young.
Phenology: Nature’s Calendar
Phenology is the observation of recurring stages of plant and animal life and their timing relative to weather and climate. Throughout history, farmers and gardeners have looked to the natural world for cues as to how the season is progressing. A caterpillar, for example, waits to emerge until the plant on which it feeds leafs out. Likewise, birds delay nesting until nature serves up a caterpillar meal to nurture their young. This elegant system is based on the appearance of a particular plant, which is mostly likely determined by rising soil temperature—that universal gardening gunshot that signals the start of each growing season.
Folklore and farm wives are full of gardening truisms like “plant spinach, lettuce, and peas when lilacs show their first leaves.” But like the USDA hardiness zone map, what works in Portland, Maine, doesn’t necessarily hold true in Portland, Oregon. Practice a little citizen science by keeping a garden journal to track what blooms when, what the weather was doing at that time, and the corresponding appearance or disappearance of backyard birds and insects. Over time, you’ll accumulate a picture of the very unique seasons found in your own backyard and a series of valuable reminders that when you see this happening in the natural world it’s time to do that.
Pea seedlings emerge in the spring garden.
Gardens have been around since nearly the dawn of time. And no matter how many fancy gadgets come on the market, the basics remain the same. Sun, water, soil, and a seed or plant comprise the building blocks for every garden. Whether rank newbie or seasoned green thumb, we all have to play by Mother Nature’s rules if we want our gardens to flourish.
The sun is the source of all life and fundamental to plant growth. Yet navigating the seemingly countless degrees of sun and shade referenced in garden books can be confusing. Here’s a quick cheat sheet.
■ Full sun Six hours or more of full-on direct sunlight per day. This doesn’t have to be continuous sun—your garden might get 3 hours in the morning before the sun goes behind a tree or building and then another 4 hours later in the afternoon.
■ Partial sun or partial shade Most references define partial sun as 4 to 6 hours of sun per day and partial shade as 2 to 4 hours per day. A location that receives partial sun may get less than the 6 hours a day necessary to be considered full sun, or it may get only broken light, dappled through a lacy tree canopy.
■ Full shade Less than 2 hours of sun per day. Few edible plants will produce under these light conditions.
Add to the mix where in the world you garden and the relative strength of the sun depending on the season, and you can begin to understand the complexity of light and its impact on the garden. In the northernmost regions of the United States, like where I live in Seattle, we get about 16 hours of daylight on the summer solstice in June, the longest day of the year. At the other end of the seasonal spectrum, the sun barely seems to rise in time to set again on the winter solstice in December, when our region receives just half the amount of daylight as it did in June. The seasonal swing in daylight hours fluctuates less the further south you go. In Florida, the longest day of the year is only about 3 hours longer than the shortest day.
Notice I said daylight, not sunshine. Actual light levels are impacted by a number of factors. Cloudy or partially cloudy conditions dampen the effect of long days in northern gardens, and persistent fog in early summer, known as June gloom, is common in coastal communities throughout the West. Southern days may not be as long, but throughout the year, light levels in the SW and SE are stronger than in northern regions. Semitropical edible plants native to equatorial parts of the world, such as tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, require high levels of light. Other plants like beans, beets, Swiss chard, and salad greens appreciate partial shade where the sun is most intense, whereas those same plants require full sun exposure in cloudy northern gardens to capture every last ray.
Bring on the heat
While cold temperatures influence plant growth and survival, heat plays a critical role in the success of warm-season crops. Scientists have devised a system of counting productive growing days, otherwise known as accumulated heat units, that you can use to estimate when your tomatoes will ripen. Bear with me through the math.
Heat units are the difference between the mean temperature of the day and a baseline of 50°F. The day’s mean temperature is calculated by adding the maximum and minimum temperatures and dividing by two. For instance, in a warm growing region, a daytime high of 93°F with an overnight low of 70°F yields 31.5 heat units. However, a typical July day in my PNW garden that reaches a high of 75°F with an overnight low of 57°F provides half as many heat units. This explains why I grow tomatoes that require fewer days to ripen. If the mean temperature is below 50°F, no heat units are accumulated.
A sunny exposure is critical to growing vegetables.
Warm-season crops, such as tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers, require a certain number of accumulated heat units to ripen, color up, and, most importantly, develop good flavor. That’s why regions with cool summers often produce paltry crops of pallid, relatively flavorless fruit. Most days-to-harvest estimations listed on seed packets assume an average growing season (whatever that is) with plenty of heat. Corn that ripens in 67 days in Ames, Iowa, may take 100 days in Portland, Oregon. Do yourself a favor and seek out local suppliers who offer seed varieties well suited to your growing region.
A Beginning Gardener’s Glossary
Amend To build soil structure and health by adding organic fertilizer and compost
Annual A plant that completes its life cycle and makes seed in one year; includes most vegetable crops, such as beans, corn, and tomatoes
Cold frame, cloche A structure built or placed to protect plants from cold; the frame is often built of wood topped with glass or plastic to allow light to reach plants
Compost A rich, dark, crumbly soil-like substance that remains after the decomposition of green and brown plant matter under aerobic conditions (with oxygen)
Cover crop Instead of being eaten, these plants are grown to be tilled into the soil to improve texture and add organic matter
Germination The process of a seed taking up water and initiating growth, as evidenced by tiny sprouts
Growing region Areas that share broad commonalities in climate and soil conditions that influence the primary growing season
Hardening off The process of acclimating seedlings raised indoors to outdoor conditions by gradually exposing them to greater light levels, wind, and variable temperatures
Hardiness A plant’s ability to tolerate cold, heat, drought, flooding, or wind; USDA hardiness zones reflect a region’s minimum winter temperatures and thus refer to cold tolerance
Heirloom An open-pollinated plant that has been continuously grown by gardeners for more than 50 years
Horticultural fleece or row cover A lightweight spun or woven fabric that lets in light and moisture while providing a few degrees of temperature protection and a physical barrier against pests
Humus The dark organic matter that forms in soil when dead plant and animal material decomposes under anaerobic conditions (without oxygen)
Intercropping Growing more than one crop side by side in the same bed
Mulch A layer of material placed on the surface of the soil to help control weeds and retain soil moisture
Organic matter Material from former living organisms that is in the process of breaking down or decaying
Overwinter Crops planted in fall that are intended for an early spring harvest
Perennial A plant that takes a year or so to establish but continues to produce year after year with relatively modest amounts of additional care
Phenology The observation of recurring stages of plant and animal life and their timing relative to weather and climate
Side-dress To feed by applying fertilizer to the surface of the soil adjacent to plants
Thinning Culling young plants to appropriate spacing to accommodate growth
Top-dress To apply an amendment, such as mulch or compost, without working it into the soil
Transplant A seedling raised indoors; the act of planting that seedling into garden beds
Variety A particular strain or collection of plants that share uniform characteristics such as color, size, hardiness, and taste
All plants require water to carry nutrients from the soil and deliver it to tissues. Even short periods of drought cause fine root hairs to die, cutting off nourishment and stunting growth. Some plants are severely affected by intermittent wet–dry cycles and, as a result, production suffers dramatically.
Approximately 40 to 55 percent of all household water is used outside of the home. Gardens play a small part in that percentage, but managing this precious resource just makes good sense. Gardeners who rely on well water must watch levels closely during dry spells. The rest of us on metered municipal systems are not only purchasing water but also paying for its post-use treatment, whether it’s going down a drain or soaking into the ground. Which is to say, watering the garden can get expensive.
Water has been referred to as the new gold in dry parts of the arid MTN and SW. In the PNW, when it rains, it pours—sometimes for months on end. That is, until the region’s annual dry summer coincides with plants’ most active growth phase, making it good for picnics, bad for gardens. In other parts of the country, a changing climate is serving up torrential rains and flooding. In an ideal world, nature provides enough rain and just when we gardeners need it the most. Realistically, gardeners should pay close attention and supplement rainfall with added water. But do so wisely.
Ways to water
To promote deep roots, water deeply but less often. More frequent, shallow watering encourages weak surface roots that quickly dry out, causing plant stress. The type of soil in your garden is also a significant factor in effective watering because water soaks into and drains through sandy soil twice as quickly as it does in clay soil. Ideally your garden soil falls somewhere between these two extremes with plenty of organic matter worked in and a nice layer of moisture-retaining mulch on top. The best rule of thumb, or should I say finger, is to stick your pointer into the soil to determine whether your plants are getting the water they require.
The next question is whether to use a hose, watering can, or sprinkler.
■ Hoses As a beginning gardener, I recommend you learn to love your hose. Time spent at the end of it is the best education and the most accurate barometer of your garden’s needs. Do yourself a favor and invest in quality hoses, because life’s too short for brittle vinyl and intractable kinking. Durable rubber hoses are easy to coil even in cold weather and come in fashion-forward colors that brighten this sometimes boring chore. Avoid schlepping a long heavy hose—a risk to plants and pots alike—by staging easier-to-manage and lightweight shorter lengths throughout the garden that can be joined together with quick-connect fittings.
■ Watering cans I’m never without several durable, lightweight watering cans that hold at least a gallon or two of water. It’s best to purchase—and to carry—watering cans in pairs; carting two full cans is easier on the body than awkwardly lugging a single sloshing container. Whether you choose a vintage galvanized watering can that will last you a generation (if you remember to protect it from freezing temperatures) or a brand new, brightly colored plastic model, make sure it comes with a fine rose on the spout to break the stream into a gentle sprinkle. This is especially important when watering newly planted seeds in order to avoid washing away your plant babies.
■ Drip systems and sprinklers When the dry season descends, irrigation becomes a necessity and watering by hand or hose can get tedious. This is when you’ll rely on a well-constructed drip system or portable sprinklers. You could hire an expert to install a permanent in-ground system, but most vegetable gardeners prefer to keep things flexible. Garden centers and hardware stores stock a variety of DIY irrigation systems at different price points. Soaker hoses, an easy and cost-effective option, slowly leak water into the soil directly to the root zone, which eliminates the wasteful runoff and evaporation caused by overhead sprinklers. If you decide to go the DIY route, make sure to pick up a timer—it remembers to turn off the water so you don’t have to.
A fine rose on the spout of a watering can provides a gentle sprinkling and protects newly planted seedbeds.
Harvest the rain
Capturing and storing the rain is hardly a new concept. But with increased environmental and economic concerns, this age-old practice is gaining renewed attention and becoming increasingly popular in dry regions. Technological advancements, coupled with educational support from local government, mean that anyone can save money and reduce the impact on overburdened municipal systems by harvesting this valuable resource. Learn how to install a rain barrel, cistern, or other water catchment system and you’ll literally be “banking” water for the next dry day.
“For new and novice gardeners who want a straightforward, unfussy guide to growing their own food.” —Library Journal
“Lorene Edwards Forkner offers a comprehensive guide for growing vegetables and herbs filled with hands on advice and time-tested techniques.” —The American Gardener
“A comprehensive guide to gardening that goes well beyond being appropriate for just beginners… a refreshing overview with an emphasis on nurturing vegetables and herbs in the ground or in containers.” —The Oregonian
- On Sale
- Mar 16, 2021
- Page Count
- 224 pages
- Timber Press