Welcome to the ranks of Maryland food gardeners. We live in every zip code and grow food in buckets on rooftops, in community garden plots, in front and back yards, and in large rural gardens. Rest assured, you will sweat and toil, learn a ton, have fun, and put delicious, fresh food on the table. You probably have hopes and dreams for your new garden, and that is great. But you also need to adjust your expectations to realities, notably Mother Nature.
For a variety of reasons, your crops will not always resemble those pictured in seed catalogs (you may even come to believe you are growing an entirely different plant species). You will learn that “doing everything right” doesn’t guarantee success with every crop, every year. Insect pests, diseases, or a little neglect at the wrong time, will reduce productivity, create teachable moments, and increase your respect for farmers.
Are there “best beginner crops”?
Bush bean, tomato, cucumber, pepper, summer squash, and leafy greens (lettuce, arugula, Swiss chard, kale, mustard, etc.) are good starter crops, although they have their share of pest problems. (You will need to grow or buy tomato and pepper transplants; seeds of the other crops can be planted directly in garden soil.) Other crops may be more challenging. For example, they may require more room, such as winter squash and sweet potato, or a more permanent space, like asparagus and horseradish (perennials that live year-to-year).
It is always a safe bet to start small and plant what you like to eat and have the space and time to grow.
What to expect in terms of appearance and growth?
- First, learn about each crop you plan to grow- its appearance, mature size, growth habit, requirements for sunlight, water, and nutrients, and major pest problems. If you give your plants what they need you can match or exceed the per plant yields of nearby farmers!
- In general, be prepared to accept some level of injury and imperfection. You will see leaves with some spots, holes, or brown edges, on even on the healthiest plants. That’s ok- you probably don’t need to worry or take action, other than continue to monitor plants.
- Vegetable plant problems are often blamed on insects and diseases, but can more often be traced to weather extremes, compacted or infertile soil, weeds, human neglect, or lack of sunlight or room to grow. Improving the soil with 2-4 inches of compost will go a long way to ensuring healthy plants.
- Variable spring weather (high wind, wide temperature swings, periods of cool, wet weather) can beat up tender seedlings, especially transplants that led a pampered early life in a greenhouse or basement. Healthy plants will grow out of the injury.
- In March and April, you may also find that seeds don’t germinate or seedlings just “sit there” due to low soil temperature. Check the soil temperature requirements for your spring crops and enter your zip code in this app to see if your soil is warm enough.
- Find out when to expect the last frost and first frost.
- Unless you are very lucky (or live far away from other vegetable gardens and farms), expect to encounter an array of insect pests and disease problems. We have information and techniques to help you prevent problems, such as selecting disease-resistant cultivars, spacing plants for good air circulation, handpicking pest insects, planting to attract beneficial insects, and excluding pests with fences and floating row covers.
When do I start harvesting? When should I remove plants?
- Most vegetable crops are either annuals or biennials. With annuals, like bean, tomato, and cucumber, seeds germinate, and plants grow, flower, fruit, and die during one growing season. Biennials, like beet, kale, and carrot, have a two-year life cycle but are treated as annuals in most Maryland gardens. In either case, even well-grown crops do not live and produce forever!
- HGIC has information on harvesting 33 different vegetables. For fruiting crops, like bean, cucumber, and eggplant, pick fruits before they reach full-size to encourage continued flower and fruit development. Allowing seeds to mature inside fruits will signal the plant that it has accomplished its reproductive mission and can slow down and die.
- Some first-time gardeners are surprised and disappointed that their vegetable plants “play out” over time, declining in vigor, quality, and productivity over time. This is natural and varies by crop, cultivar, and growing conditions. For example, leaf lettuce from a single spring planting may be harvested for two weeks or so before it becomes bitter or starts to produce flower stalks.
- Root crops, like radish, beet, and onion, are usually harvested just a few times, since one planting will mature at roughly the same time. Summer squash and cucumber fruits are typically harvested for 3-6 weeks before insect and disease problems reduce plant vigor and fruit production.
- A 10 ft. row of bush beans will produce 4-8 lbs. of beans over a 2-3 week period. Pole beans require some type of support but can produce beans for many weeks, far out-yielding bush beans. Tomato, pepper, and eggplant produce fruits from mid-summer until the first frost, although fruit quality declines after September.
- Pull out plants when they are declining due to age or significant injury by insect pests, diseases, storms, wildlife, etc. and re-plant the area. The same holds true for undersize plants that languish for weeks without making much growth. There is really no such thing as emergency plant care. Pull them out and try to figure out what happened and learn from it so you can succeed the next time.
Good luck, new gardening friends. We are here to help and take care of each other and our planet.
By Jon Traunfeld, Extension Specialist. Read more by Jon.