Comfy plant places and new garden spaces for vegetables

Every time we plant a seed or baby plant in our vegetable garden we are hoping for the best outcome- a healthy crop and big harvest. Gardening success comes from learning about the needs of our crops and doing all we can to meet those needs. Climate change is causing us to think a little more deeply and holistically about those plant needs and our gardening practices.

In addition to making sure that plants have enough space, water, and healthy soil, we can alter how and where we plant our crops (“comfy places”) to help them adapt to increasing summer temperatures. We can also consider ways to expand or shift our food garden spots (“new spaces”) to better manage growing conditions and produce more food.

Throwing some shade

Within any garden there are sunnier and shadier spots. Many leafy crops can grow well in less than full sunlight while most other crops grow best with a minimum of 6-8 hours of direct sunlight. But high day and evening temperatures can interfere with pollination and fruit set of tomato, pepper, bean, and summer squash growing in full sunlight. Even areas that get about the same amount of sunlight may vary in day and evening temperature due to proximity to hard surfaces like roads or reflective surfaces like the side of a shed or house. Maybe this has been a problem for your beloved Poblano chile plants. In that case, try moving them to a spot that receives late afternoon shade.

Interplanting tall crops with shorter heat-sensitive crops is a good climate-resilient gardening strategy. Experiment with crop combinations. Spacing plants too closely can reduce growth and increase disease issues by reducing air circulation. Make supports strong enough to stand up to intense thunderstorms!

Mustard greens growing well in mid-summer in partial shade on the north side of staked tomato plants.
Curly parsley growing between caged eggplant plants.
Here’s a bed of spring lettuce at its peak. It may be possible to grow a second crop of leafy greens with protection from the pole bean plants starting to grow at the base of the trellis:

Diversify your outdoor garden space

Containers can help bring some of our most frequently harvested crops closer to the house. If they are portable, like this large salad box on casters, we can move plants to sunnier or shadier spots depending on the crop and time of year:

Tiered gardens can increase sunlight capture and plant growth per square foot of space:

You can create a new bed in a partial shade location just for leafy greens or a front yard bed to capture maximum sunlight:

Potential raised bed locations really open up if you include suitable hard surfaces. This raised bed is filled with 20-in.of growing media:

Diversify your indoor outdoor garden space

Grow baby greens under a fluorescent or LED fixture, anytime of year. In 30 days or so you’ll be ready to harvest them with a pair of scissors. Re-growth can be harvested a second, or even a third time.

Low-cost, low-risk transplants (“winter sowing”)

Planting baby plants (transplants) rather than seed can give our crops a head start and help us increase garden productivity. It allows us to tuck plants into open spaces without waiting for germination and then searching for and thinning the excess seedlings.

“Winter sowing” is a popular technique for growing flower and vegetable transplants, usually February through April, outdoors in gallon milk jugs and other food-grade containers. It’s a wonderful climate-resilient technique because we can harness the sun’s energy rather than relying on indoor grow lights and re-purpose plastic containers rather than buying plastic seed starting trays and cell-packs.

Red Russian kale plants sown in March 2021 and ready to transplant (or eat!)

Marlene Smith, a UME Master Gardener in Charles Co. (Zone 7a), shared these photos and stories of a few of her recent experiences with this plant propagation method:

Super snappy peas!

  • 2/2/22- winter sown in a gallon milk jug
  • 2/11/22- germinated in 9 days
  • 3/2/22- planted in the ground once 2 sets of true leaves appeared

And here’s Marlene’s 2021 tomato success story:

  • 3/3/2021- seeds winter sown in gallon milk jug
  • 3/20/2021- seeds germinated
  • 4/1/2021- container opened and I caught a whiff of the fresh, distinctive smell of the tomato foliage
  • 4/12/2021- seedlings planted into raised beds
Sown in gallon jug

Marlene reported that these low-cost transplants produced a healthy tomato crop. I think I’ll try growing tomato, squash, and cucumber plants this year using this technique.

Let me know about your experiences with these and other climate-resilient gardening techniques. Send photos and stories to jont@umd.edu.

By Jon Traunfeld, Extension Specialist, University of Maryland Extension, Home & Garden Information Center.

Read more posts by Jon.

Winter sowing webinars:

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