How to Take Care of a Vegetable Garden

Essential Steps for Tending a Garden

Watering plants in the garden
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Vegetables don't require any more care than ornamental plants, but they are less forgiving of neglect. Vegetable plants expend an enormous amount of energy blooming and producing fruit that never gets to mature as far as the plants are concerned. A plant sets fruit so it can produce seed, but we tend to harvest vegetables before the seeds are fully formed. This is stressful for vegetable plants, so it's important to give them what they need for the health and vigor to keep producing.

Neglect can also lead to lower yields and inferior vegetables due to more pest problems. Use the tips below to keep your plants healthy and growing steadily all season long for a high yielding vegetable garden.

Water Your Garden Regularly

Regular water is as important to growing vegetables as sunlight. This means an inch or two per week, every week, and more if it's extremely hot. Without regular water, vegetables will not fill out and some, like tomatoes, will crack open if suddenly plumped up with water after struggling without for awhile.

You can't always rely on rain, so if you have the means, a drip irrigation system is a plus for a vegetable garden. The new component systems are easy to install and affordable for even hobby gardeners. You'll save money on water too, because it goes directly to the plant's root, with less lost to evaporation.

If you don't want to opt for drip irrigation, locate your vegetable garden near a water spigot if you haven't decided upon a site yet. You'll be more likely to water when you don't have to drag the hose out.

Maintain Your Vegetable Plants

For plants that are direct-sown from seed, removing excess seedlings is an essential step for a healthy vegetable garden. This is called thinning. Some gardeners have a difficult time sacrificing seedlings, but leaving all the sprouted seedlings to grow too closely together will stunt the plants and reduce your overall yield.

Once true leaves appear, remove seedlings so the remaining plants are at the recommended spacing distances. If you can't remove the extras without disturbing the roots of the seedling that will remain, simply pinch the seedlings at the soil line. Keep the strongest, stockiest seedlings.

Another maintenance task to perform early in the gardening season is staking plants. Tall and climbing vegetables require some sort of staking or trellising. It's best to install the stakes at planting time. If you wait until the plant has grown before staking, you run the risk of injuring the plant roots.

Later in the season, suckers should be pruned from tomatoes. Pruning tomato suckers means removing the growth that appears between where the stem and a branch meet. If left to grow, they will become another main stem with branches, flowers, fruit, and more suckers of their own, competing for nutrients with the original plant.

Stay on Top of Weeds

Vegetables don't like to compete with weeds for food and water. Every gardening season starts with a blank slate after you prepare your garden beds, so it's important that once you plant your vegetables, you keep up with weeding so your crops stay in tip-top shape. If you remove weeds as you see them on an ongoing basis, they'll never get out of control.

In addition to manually removing weeds from your garden itself, it's important to remove weeds from surrounding pathways and grass as well; if they're allowed to go to seed, those seeds might end up in your garden.

If you keep weeds in check from the beginning of the gardening season, you shouldn't need to resort to herbicides later in the summer.

Add Mulch

Mulching is one of the best things you can do for your plants. It suppresses weeds, cools plant roots, and conserves water. Sometimes the plants themselves can serve as a living mulch if they grow dense enough.

The preferred mulch for vegetable gardens is seed-free straw. It makes a nice cover, it's easy enough to push aside for planting and it can be turned into the soil at the end of the season. An extra plus is that spiders love to hide in straw and feast on garden pests.

Enrich the Soil

Vegetables are heavy feeders. You should work some organic matter into the garden each year before planting and side-dress with more organic matter once or twice during the growing season. Different plants have different needs, of course, so it's important to take note of any fertilizing instructions that came with your seedlings or on the back of your seed packets.

Organic plant foods are slow releasing and will continue to feed your plants all season long. If you do opt for a water-soluble fertilizer, make sure your garden is well-watered before applying it. 

Since you've worked so hard to get great soil in your vegetable garden, it makes sense to try and keep it that way even after the season is over. One easy technique for protecting and enriching your soil in winter is to plant a crop of green manure in the fall and turn it into the soil in the spring. Green manures are cover crops like ryegrass, alfalfa, and clover that improve soil structure and provide food for beneficial microbes, resulting in healthier soil for your next gardening season.