Edible Gardening

Here's why new gardeners should get 'training wheels' and skip the beefsteaks

Elinor Teague shares tips for growing your fall season garden.
Elinor Teague shares tips for growing your fall season garden. Bee file photo

Experience counts. So does location and soil.

The success (or failure) of a new vegetable garden depends on many factors beyond luck and weather, of which you have no control. What works in other parts of the country (or state) may not lead to the same results in the Central Valley.

This being the first weekend of spring, our green thumbs are itching for action. Before digging in, consider this advice from local experts who have toiled many summers in the Sacramento sun. They know from years of trial (and many errors) how to avoid pitfalls before planting.

Whether you’re planning your first garden or your 50th, these tips will help assure a more bountiful harvest.

Start with the right location.

Most summer vegetables need eight hours of sun a day to thrive.

“Most warm-season vegetables won’t produce well without lots of sun,” said Sacramento County master gardener Pam Bone. “The six-hour minimum often suggested may not be enough.”

If your longtime veggie beds have become shaded by mature trees (or if your garden is all shade), find a new spot to plant. That includes community gardens.

Sacramento continues to expand its community garden network, said Bill Maynard, Sacramento’s community garden coordinator. A new Pocket/Greenhaven garden is coming soon near the Robbie Waters Library. Another is planned for The Mill development project south of Broadway at Fifth Street. For this spring, openings or short wait lists are available at several existing gardens. (Contact Maynard at wmaynard@cityofsacramento.org for details.)

Gardens tend to get neglected if they’re out of sight, noted radio host and master gardener Farmer Fred Hoffman of Folsom.

“Situate the vegetable garden so it’s visible from the kitchen window,” Hoffman said. “If that’s not possible, put the garden where it can be seen from a high-traffic window, such as the dining room, family room or a glass patio door.”

Make sure your vegetable garden has a handy water source close by, he added. Keep garden tools handy, too.

“Smaller hand tools can be kept in a converted outdoor mail box adjacent to the garden,” Hoffman said. “For larger tools, perhaps try a small shed - or large dog house - nearby.”

A vegetable garden doesn’t have to look like a mini-farm.

“Diversify your veggie portfolio by planting in pots, hanging baskets, raised beds and in the ground,” said Angela Pratt of The Plant Foundry in Oak Park. “And if anything goes awry, ask us for help. It’s our business and our pleasure to guide you through the process and help you troubleshoot any issues that arise.”

Good plants need good soil.

“Spend the time to thoroughly prepare the soil,” Bone said. “To really do it right, double dig the entire planting area and thoroughly mix in lots of compost.”

“For container-grown veggies, use fresh bagged potting soil and mix in an organic starter fertilizer like EB Stone’s 4-6-2 Sure Start or Down to Earth’s 3-3-3 Starter Mix,” Pratt said. “Adding starter fertilizer at planting time makes a huge difference in the results later on … more flowers, improved fruiting, and lush green leaves for a longer period of time. Then, follow up later in the season with faster-acting organic liquid fertilizers.

“When you’re planting in the ground, mix in a 2- to 4-inch layer of planting mix or compost,” she continued. “Whether your soil tends toward clayiness or sandiness, organic matter will help. Organic matter or ‘OM’ breaks down rapidly in our climate, so it’s usually what’s missing when customers ask how they can prep their depleted beds. … Sacramento soils are mineral rich, but they are often crying out for compost.”

Plant at the right time.

“Heat-lovers need warm soil,” said Don Shor of Redwood Barn Nursery in Davis. “There’s no benefit to early planting.”

“Warm season crops like tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers prefer soil temperatures around 65 degrees or warmer,” explained El Dorado County master gardener Gail Fulbeck, a vegetable expert at the Sherwood Demonstration Garden in Placerville. “Cold season crops such as radishes will go to seed in hot weather before producing a crop. Consider buying a soil thermometer.”

The right time for transplanting summer vegetables in Sacramento may be a two or three weeks earlier than Placerville; at higher elevations, foothill communities take longer to warm up.

Pratt recommends getting a master gardener calendar, available from local nurseries or directly from local University of California Cooperative Extension master gardener offices. “This invaluable planting guide tells you what to plant, and when to plant it,” she said. “On a month-by-month basis, you’ll know whether or not you can plant seeds in place outside, or if it’s better to start them indoors, or if you should skip the seeds and go straight for starts. This calendar is a veggie newbie’s best friend.”

Read the labels.

Seed packets offer a lot of useful information, noted Maynard. “If planting seeds, be sure to read the back of the package for planting season, seed depth, and remember to water to keep the seeds moist during germination.”

Don’t overcrowd. Give plants the space they need, as noted on that seed packet.

“When planting seedlings, don’t plant them too close to each other,” Maynard said.

Hybrids are easier than heirlooms.

“The one thing I still tell every beginning gardener: Start with ‘training wheel’ vegetables for more success and satisfaction,” Hoffman said. “Choose hybrid varieties over heirlooms. Hybrid vegetables are bred to have more disease and pest resistance, as well as larger yields. Heirloom varieties have more unique shapes and flavors, but can be problematic for the first-time gardener.

“Sure, buy some heirlooms for the flavor; but for your first garden, plant mostly hybrids,” he said. “After that, you may prefer the flavor of the heirlooms and are willing to put up with the extra care needed. I still plant a mix of both. I like easy!”

Skip the beefsteaks.

“In Sacramento, tomatoes are a must,” Bone said. “For beginners, plant varieties you’ve heard do well here (such as Early Girl or Better Boy). Cherry tomatoes of all kinds are usually foolproof. Don’t plant beefsteak types; more gardeners fail at these in our area than any other tomato.

“For a bumper crop, give tomatoes lots of sun, a once-a-week thorough watering (once established), work a complete fertilizer into the soil a couple of times during the season (plus once at planting), and keep the tomato plants trained up - not on the ground.”

Bone uses concrete reinforcing wire, bent to form 5-foot tall cages.

New gardeners should “look for early (fast-maturing) veggies, dwarf veggies, and ask at the nursery about the most popular and dependable veggie varieties,” Pratt instructed. “It’s fun to try an obscure heirloom beefsteak tomato, but you may have better luck with a tried and true -- if not life-altering -- ‘Early Girl.’ Start with mostly safe bets, and throw in a few wild cards like Black Sesame Seeds or peanuts if you have room for them and you’re up for a little adventure.”

Be water smart.

“Probably the most common issues we see in early summer all have to do with watering too often, and not long enough,” Shor said.

“Put in a good irrigation system,” Bone said. “In-line drip tubing is great for vegetables. Be sure to add enough lines and run it long enough to thoroughly wet the root zone, but not so much that the soil stays wet. More gardens fail due to improper irrigation than any other factor.”

“A simple drip or soaker system makes a big difference when the weather gets hot and plants really start to need water,” added Shor. “It doesn’t have to be fancy and can just hook up to your hose. Just make it simple to get water to all the plants, really thoroughly, as easily as possible.”

Edible plants may be irrigated any day as needed, under Sacramento’s new water restrictions. Help your plants get the most out of their irrigation by watering early in the day before temperatures heat up.

“Once plants are established, water deeply to get water to the root zone,” Maynard said. “Mulch around plants with leaves, straw or compost to retain moisture.”

Use water to control pests, too.

“Wash your plants off periodically, really vigorously,” Shor said. “It’s the simplest way to manage whiteflies, spider mites and aphids. You won’t hurt (the plants) with a vigorous rinse.”

Don’t overfertilize.

Too much nitrogen leads to weak, pest-prone growth.

“With a few exceptions, most vegetables will do well with a good dose of compost to start off and small applications of nitrogen once or twice during the season,” Fulbeck said.

Protect your plantings.

“Any bird, mammal, slug or snail in the neighborhood is likely to wreak havoc in your garden,” Fulbeck said. “Stay ahead by placing row covers over freshly planted seeds until plants are several inches tall, then switch to bird netting.

Visit daily. Don’t plant and forget. Your garden is like a pet that needs daily care.

“Note any water, nutrition, overcrowding, or pest issues and take action immediately,” Fulbeck said. “Spending five minutes in the garden with your morning coffee or your favorite evening beverage every day will allow you to employ least toxic methods to manage any pests, before they become a problem.”