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Vegetable gardening 101

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It’s easy right? Just buy some seeds, plant, water, watch them grow, then harvest your bounty. 

Not so fast. If you want a successful first garden experience, there are three basic things every beginning gardener needs to know: what to plant, when to plant and how to plant.

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The secret is in the seeds — actually, the seed packet. The back or inside of the seed packet has all of the information you need to know to grow. If you’re shopping online or from a catalogue, the info should be listed under the vegetable  description. But for the novice, it may be difficult to decipher these instructions. So here are some tips to help understand what the seed packet info means, and how to use it.

First, you must know the frost dates for your area. There are many online sources of graphs and charts to help figure that out, but for the Carbondale area, the “average last frost” in spring is June 10. It’s a few weeks later upvalley and earlier downvalley, because of altitude differences. In our area, the “average first frost” in fall is Sept. 20. This is an average — either could come much earlier or later.

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Finally, every gardener must keep an eye out for frost warnings throughout the season. A “frost” occurs when the temperature dips below 32 degrees. Some plants can take a frost and others will die. If it’s Aug. 21 and there is a frost warning, you need to be prepared to cover your frost-sensitive plants or risk losing them. The seed packet will tell you which plants are frost-tolerant and which aren’t.

Here in the valley, the time between our last frost in spring and our first frost in fall is about 90-100 days. That’s not long enough for certain vegetables to mature. Watermelon, okra, and some tomato, corn and winter squash varieties are a few examples of vegetables that are difficult to grow here without some expertise. 

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Instead, choose fast-growing crops like lettuce and other greens, peas, beans, carrots, beets, summer squash, and cherry tomatoes. To find out if a vegetable variety is suitable for your growing season, look on the seed packet for “days to maturity.” If it’s over 100, don’t buy it. Chances are you will never get a single ear of corn or big ripe pumpkin, because a frost will kill the plant before maturity.  There are ways around that, but those are best left to experienced gardeners.

Some seeds can be planted directly in the garden. Some need to be planted indoors and then transplanted into the garden. Some seedlings hate being transplanted and will wilt and die. How do you know which are which? The seed packet will tell you.

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“Direct sow” means to plant the seed directly in the garden. It will also say when. For example; “two to four weeks before the last frost” or “after all chances of frost have passed.”  

“Start indoors” means you must plant the seeds in small pots or trays and keep them in a sunny window or under a grow lamp until the time is right to transplant into the garden.

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Do not ignore this directive. Peas, beans, corn, and sunflowers have a very low tolerance for root disturbance, so transplanting will likely result in loss of those seedlings you’ve spent weeks caring for in your house. 

Tomatoes, peppers and winter squash can be direct sown, but planting them indoors is best, because it gives them a head start on our short growing season.

Some plants don’t tolerate heat well, so they’re best sown in early spring or late summer. Lettuce and spinach will bolt, which means they will produce flowers and seeds trying to complete their life cycle before the heat kills them. This makes the leaves bitter and unpalatable, so plant them early. Same with peas, which should be planted outdoors in late April or early May for optimum yield before the heat.

A common rookie mistake when planting seeds is putting them too deep into the soil. The seed will sprout and grow, but it will never reach the surface of the soil and will rot and die. The seed packet will tell you how deep to plant the seed, but a good rule of thumb is to plant no deeper than twice the size of the seed.

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For example, lettuce seed about 1/8 inch in size, should be planted about 1/4 inch deep. Bean seeds may be as large as 1/2 inch and should be planted one inch deep. Some seeds, like carrots, just need a light dusting of soil over the top. 

Get a good book or go online for further information on how to care for and harvest your vegetables. Excellent sources are The Old Farmer’s Almanac and CSU Extension web pages on vegetable gardening. 

Sue Gray is a professional gardener specializing in organic vegetables, and the volunteer creator and caretaker of the Carbondale Historical Society Heritage Gardens.

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