Brookdale Philosophy Professor Bob Mellert is a Rutgers Master Gardener of Monmouth County, and recently shared his gardening wisdom with faculty and staff during his Scholar’s Day presentation, The ABCs of Vegetable Gardening. If you are pondering the rationality of vegetable gardening, or just simply want to try your hand at it, Professor Mellet offers some suggestions in the following article.
Why do I plant a vegetable garden? There are many reasons. The food is cheaper, fresher and tastier. More than that, it gives me time outdoors, away from the computer, telephone, and television. It provides me with a productive means of exercise and stress reduction. And most importantly, I find satisfaction in what I am doing. Sure, it involves work, but then, what we call “work” depends on our definition of it. I prefer to call it fun; it’s my hobby. If you want to try veggie gardening, here are a few suggestions.
If you are a beginner, you might want to start small. Just a few large clay or plastic pots with drainage holes can be your garden. Fill the pots with potting soil, add a little fertilizer (unless it’s already included in the soil), and plant a tomato in one, a pepper in another—or whatever you wish. Then make sure they get plenty of sun and plenty of moisture. You might have to stake the tomato or pepper, because some of them get quite large. And you’ll have to watch for bugs. And you might want to place them out of the reach of deer, groundhogs, rabbits, etc. Other than that, watch them grow and wait for them to fruit.
If the gardening itch infects you, the following year you will probably want to plant a larger garden directly into the soil. When you do that, here are a few important items to consider:
First, the garden has to be in the sun—the more the better—and near a source of water. (Hauling watering cans in the hot, dry days of July and August is not pleasant.) Be sure to protect it from the large critters with some kind of fence, because a lot of animals enjoy the same veggies that you do.
Second, check the soil. Ideally, it should be sandy loam. If it isn’t, adding compost is the best cure for lousy soil, either clay or pure sand. Get a pH test done to see how acidic your soil is. Most soil in New Jersey is suitable for vegetable growing, but it’s always best to check.
Third, start early. Some of the most successful crops, like lettuce and spinach and peas, are grown in the spring before the weather gets too hot, and these are typically grown from seed planted directly into the ground in late March or April. Then come the tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and squash, which may be started earlier from seed indoors, or started from plants bought at a local nursery. For those who just can’t stop, one can also try growing the spring veggies a second time in the fall, but this crop is always “iffy” because the weather gets colder and the days get shorter all too quickly.
Choose seeds or plants not only for their flavor and vigor, but also for their disease resistance. For example, some tomatoes are bred to resist fusarium and verticillium wilt, which can be major problems. If you grow winter squash, the butternut varieties are much less likely to get squash vine borer, a wicked larva that eats the main stem from the inside.
Speaking of Bugs
Monitoring the plants is always time-consuming and often frustrating. In addition to the large predators, you also have the small ones, such as cucumber beetles, tomato hornworms, cabbage loopers, flea beetles, to name only a few. How will you deal with these? The best method is to hand-pick them. Sometimes an insecticide is necessary. There are a number of organic pesticides available, if you are trying to grow an organic garden. Some are very effective; others less so. The letters OMRI on the label indicate that it has been approved for organic gardening. If you get desperate, there is more heavy-duty stuff available as a last resort.
Despite all your best efforts, questions will arise. Fortunately, you can get answers. The internet is an excellent source, especially those websites from a cooperative extension in your area. Here in Monmouth County, Rutgers maintains such a site at www.rce.rutgers.edu. At that site you can find fact sheets to download, and they will contain most of the information you will need. Or, you can call the Master Gardener Helpline here in Monmouth County, at 732-303-7614, and a friendly Master Gardener will attempt to answer your questions. Finally, the Master Gardeners, the County Park System, and the public libraries often offer talks on various aspects of gardening. Contact them for information on their educational programs.
By: Bob Mellert, Rutgers Master Gardener of Monmouth County