Veggie garden lessons for the first-timer |

Veggie garden lessons for the first-timer

We learn by doing. A wealth of information exists to assist gardeners, but getting involved in your garden is possibly the best education.

This past spring, one of my landscape clients, Ruth Hochman, was so eager to start her first vegetable garden that by the time I arrived on the site to give some added instruction, many of the plants were already in place. We had spent time sitting in her kitchen in spring, planning the garden, and talking about soil amendments, but at that time the site was not ready and a late frost was still a strong possibility.

As I looked at what she had planted, I smiled with approval. The only potential problem was the squash, which would probably consume more space that she realized. And while I would have laid it out differently, I loved that she was so involved in this first garden.

The summer weeks passed, and when we next had contact about her landscape, she exclaimed, “I have learned so much about the vegetable garden!” And of course she had lots of questions for me. Notebook in hand, she led me through her lush garden of kohlrabi, beets, lettuce, tomatoes, broccoli, nasturtiums, sunflowers, watercress (going to seed), pumpkins, and squash.

My first impression was her amazement with the results. Plant the seed, reap the harvest. I have vegetable gardened for more than 50 years, and I still have the same wonder and joy with the process that Ruth was experiencing for the first time. And, like Ruth, I am a cook. To bring garden fresh vegetables into the kitchen at suppertime is a highlight of the summer.

I asked her to comment on what she had learned while the “lessons” were still fresh in her thoughts.

“Plant half the amount of squash that you think you’ll need. With that amount you’ll still feed the neighborhood. (Start looking for zucchini recipes now because you’ll use all of them.)” Good advice, especially for summer squash and pumpkins for Halloween.

Winter squash and small pumpkins I like to have in ample supply, but they do take up a lot of space. In Ruth’s small garden they need to be planted where they can climb on the sections of cattle fencing that will provide a strong support.

“When you plant take paper and pencil and write an exact outline of planting.”

This is just what I had planned to do with her in early summer! But it can be done now, too. This tool becomes part of the “lessons learned”, and assists with planning for next year.

“Write down the dates of harvest and plant accordingly.” Ruth was concerned about her pumpkins ripening long before October 31st. Planting of many crops may be delayed or staggered (succession planting), and harvest planned by noting the “days to maturity” information on the seed packet.

This year I planned my cucumber planting for an August harvest after my 2007 crop consumed most of July for pickle-making!

However, crops needing several weeks of heat to mature (tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, pumpkins and squash) should be planted in late May or early June. These crops need the stronger light and heat of the summer weeks. And on the Hochman’s site the growing season is short because it is the north slope and a higher elevation.

If pumpkins ripen early they may be stored carefully for Halloween and even for pumpkin pies at Thanksgiving.

Ruth’s final observations are the most important: “Good soil is the key to a good garden” and: “Most of all, have a sense of wonder and a sense of humor.”


Carolyn Singer has gardened in the foothills since 1977. She is the author of two books of deer-resistant plants: “Deer in My Garden, Vol. 1: Perennials & Subshrubs” and ” Vol. 2: Groundcovers & Edgers.” Gardening questions may be sent to


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