Healthy, vigorous vegetable plants produce the most flavorful and bountiful harvests. Give your garden plants the moisture and nutrients they need, and keep them weeded and harvested for tasty and nutritious crops.
Water. Provide adequate soil moisture throughout the growing season to help fast-growing plants establish strong roots and produce fruit. The most critical times are just after planting and as the desirable edible part is forming. Keep the top 6 inches of soil moist for seedlings and young plants. Once plants become established, encourage deep rooting by wetting the soil at least 6 inches deep when the top 3 to 4 inches feel dry.
Mulch. Add a 2- to 4-inch layer of organic mulch around your vegetable plants to suppress weeds, maintain soil moisture, reduce watering, moderate soil temperature, improve soil health, and keep vegetables cleaner. Pine needles, shredded leaves, straw, and grass clippings from untreated lawns work well. Avoid herbicide-treated lawn clippings, hay, and fresh sawdust and manure. Apply mulch after the soil has warmed in spring and replace as needed.
Weed and thin seedlings. Pull or hoe weeds as soon as they appear and while they are small. Never allow weeds to go to seed in your garden. Maintain mulch to suppress them. Remove crowded seedlings-especially carrots, radishes, onions, and beets-as soon as possible to give the remaining crop enough space to mature.
Fertilize. Each vegetable crop has unique nutrient needs throughout the growing season. Natural soil texture and fertility also play a role in when and how much additional fertilizer plants need. In general, you can fertilize transplanted vegetables (tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, head lettuce, and cole crops) and corn about 3 to 4 weeks after planting. Some crops may need additional fertilizer later in the season. Fertilize vine crops (melons, cucumbers, and squash) when the vines begin to spread and again when they bloom. Use 1 to 2 tablespoons of 5-10-10 per plant or 1 to 2 pounds per 25 feet of row. Sprinkle fertilizer 6 to 8 inches from stems and scratch into the soil.
Harvest. Pick vegetables when young and tender for the best flavor and to keep the plants producing. If seeds begin to mature inside beans, peas, cucumbers, and summer squash, the plants will stop making new fruits. Harvest leaf crops (lettuce, spinach, and chard) by cutting to within 2 inches of the ground to encourage young, new leaves to grow. Pull root crops as needed for meals as soon as they reach edible size.
To prevent the spread of disease, don't work in the garden when the plants are wet.
Nitrogen encourages leafy growth, often at the expense of flowers and fruit. Don't use high-nitrogen fertilizers on tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants prior to flowering.
Photography by National Gardening Association