AIKEN MASTER GARDENERS: Vegetable gardening is hard work but the reward is in the harvest | Features

To be honest, growing one’s own vegetables is hard work. The rows of beautiful produce that one sees in the markets conceal the effort to bring fresh vegetables to the grocery. Most of us want to eat healthy foods, and sometimes we can buy seasonal vegetables at farmers’ markets for a good price, but growing one’s own garden is an option if one plans for the work involved. Start small. Small-scale gardening is a good introduction to the process of a victory garden. A small weed-free garden can produce a lovely harvest with planning and consistent attention.

Success or failure of home vegetable production depends first and foremost on who will be doing the work. Will the garden be a group project? Will several work willingly through the season to harvest, or will one toil alone? Having a partner or a working group helps to spread out the work so that no one person has to be the sole tiller, sower, weeder, waterer, picker and general jack of all trades. However, a committed gardener can accomplish a great deal with regular time spent in the garden. My father always spent an hour or so almost each day tending his large garden. His nemesis was nutgrass, so he daily hoed long rows so that our family had plenty of summer produce, plenty to share and to freeze.

The work in my vegetable garden is definitely shared. My husband has knowledge and equipment to till, to plant, to set up irrigation and to monitor young plants for pests. I help to plant, weed and preserve our harvest. Our garden starts in early March with cleaning the asparagus bed and planting kale, onions and potato slips laid in trenches that my husband has dug.  When we harvest that kale, potatoes, onions and asparagus in mid-March to early April, the work becomes very worthwhile. By early April, corn and beans are seeded into rows. By late April, field peas are added. Tomatoes, squash and cucumbers started in a greenhouse are ready to set into raised beds. Timing is everything in early spring.

An effective vegetable garden starts with site location. Most vegetables need at least six hours of direct sun each day. While leafy vegetables can tolerate partial shade, most vegetables like peppers and tomatoes must be grown in full sun. Selecting a site that is close to the house is helpful. Do not depend on Mother Nature to provide a weekly inch of rain. Instead locate the garden close to an abundant water supply, preferably with drip irrigation on timers. Also, it’s easier to check daily for pests when the garden is close to the house.

If you do not have space for a traditional vegetable garden, consider growing a few plants in containers on a deck or patio. With sunlight, water, and attentiveness, container-grown vegetables can be productive when placed on sidewalks, patios, window boxes, porches or balconies. Raised beds offer several advantages over in-ground planting. They tend to warm up faster in the spring, so the growing season begins earlier. Raised beds are easier on the gardener because only a defined space within the bed needs weeding, irrigation, and mulch. Raised beds about 3 to 4 feet wide allow the gardener to reach into the center of the bed. Raised beds are capable of producing high quality vegetables, save space, and are a perfect choice for those with physical limitations.

Some of the most popular vegetables to grow in our area include kale, peas, squash, cucumbers, peppers, eggplant and green beans. Clemson’s Home and Garden Information Center has helpful guides as to when and how to plant. Generally, group plants by the length of the growing period. Plant spring crops together so that later crops can be planted in these areas after these early crops mature. Consider the length of harvest as well as time to maturity. Place perennial crops like asparagus to the side of the garden where they will not be disturbed by annual tillage. Importantly, practice crop rotation. Do not plant the same vegetable or a related vegetable in the same location year after year to avoid common pests.

Become familiar with the types of pests that you will encounter with particular types of vegetables, especially if you want to grow your own tomatoes. You will learn to look for hornworms if you plant tomatoes. Use Clemson’s HGIC Factsheets to inform yourself about cultural practices that can help you avoid — or deal with — types of pests that are common to each of your vegetable choices. The HGIC bulletins offer information about each vegetable including ideal planting times, insect and weed control, and most importantly, which varieties are resistant to common diseases and fungal infections. Selecting resistant varieties is always advisable, especially for tomatoes. Cherry tomatoes will do better than larger varieties. Unfortunately, most heirloom cultivars have little to no disease resistance. Fusarium wilt can destroy an entire tomato crop. Choose cultivars with resistance to wilt. HGIC factsheets for tomatoes can help you to select the best cultivars. The factsheets also demonstrate ways to trellis or support tomatoes to maintain and more easily harvest the fruits of your labor. Some growers use plastic pots or bags filled with growing medium to grow tomatoes.

One may want to establish a compost pile for amending garden beds. One may need a good cultivar, hoe, wheelbarrow, gloves, a kneeling bench, even a small greenhouse. No one should fool oneself about the work, but having the right tools will make a huge difference. Consider judicious use of pesticides. The bugs will come. If you put in squash, encountering squash vine borers is pretty much a given. Squash vine borers can cause total collapse of a plant. Plant early with more plants than you think are needed. If you happen to be spared, you’ll have plenty to share. If not, maybe you’ll have enough to make a few casseroles. If chemical sprays are required, read all labels carefully and apply according to direction’s legal application rates, cautions, and warnings about restrictions such as temperature. It’s possible to be completely organic, but that approach requires more time and attention. Vegetable gardening is hard work, but rewards can be found in both the process and the harvest.

Experimentation is part of the fun. If you enjoy problem-solving, plant some vegetables that you can harvest fresh for your family’s meals. There are few foods better than a vine-ripened tomato sandwich! For fun, add herbs and flowers to the list of plants included in your vegetable gardening, such as basil and marigolds. Each season will offer the opportunities to try something new, and as you gain experience over time, you will definitely get better at fine-tuning your methods to achieve a harvest of fresh, high-quality, home-grown produce. For those who welcome a challenge, try vegetable gardening!