- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 30, 2006

With too much shade on his property, Montgomery County Master Gardener Joseph Ginther’s chance for vegetable gardening is at the demonstration garden in Derwood, where he and other trained gardeners illustrate gardening skills.

Mr. Ginther helps take care of the tomatoes, peppers, peas and other vegetables in one of the gardens, watering the plants as needed with a hand-watering wand attached to a hose or with a soaker hose that lets water seep slowly into the ground.

“You don’t want to use an overhead sprinkler, because on a hot day, a good amount of water evaporates,” Mr. Ginther says. “You want it at the roots of the plants.”

Proper watering and sunlight are key to growing a healthy vegetable garden, and in shade, vegetable

plants would grow but not produce, Mr. Ginther says.

Growing vegetables requires some know-how about preparing a garden bed and caring for the plants, according to professionals from metro-area garden centers, nurseries and extension offices.

The first step is selecting a variety of plants with culinary interest in mind, says David Devine, spokesman for W. Atlee Burpee & Co., a Warminster, Pa., company that helps provide the Burpee Gardens vegetable plant program at independent garden centers.

Tomatoes, for example, have hundreds of varieties, with the produce ranging in size and use. The smallest tomatoes are the grape and cherry tomatoes, followed by the oblong Roma tomatoes. The largest are slicing and thick-skin sauce tomatoes, used to make pasta sauce and salsa.

Though a fruit, the tomato is the most popular plant grown in vegetable gardens, with peppers a distant second, says Stephen Cockerham, president of Betty’s Azalea Ranch, a garden center in Fairfax.

The best time for planting tomatoes and vegetables in the metro area is after May 1, when the danger of frost has passed, gardeners say. Starting from seed requires an extra six weeks of growing time indoors, while growing transplanted plants takes about eight weeks.

Planting, however, can be done as late as July, because the first fall frost typically does not occur until October, Mr. Cockerham says.

“Most gardeners focus on warm-season vegetables,” Mr. Devine says, pointing out tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and squash as the top four. More advanced gardeners add cool-season vegetables to the mix, such as beets, cabbage and lettuce.

Whether growing warm- or cool-season vegetables, gardeners can choose to start from seed or from plants in various stages of growth. The smallest plants, or starter plants, come in 2-inch cells in packs of six or 12. Plants further along in growth come in 4- or 6-inch pots and are up to 6 inches tall, or in 1- or 2-gallon containers and are about 12 or 15 inches tall.

“The larger the plant, the larger the root system and the better the plant will do,” says Gary Mangum, co-owner of Bell Nursery, a wholesale nursery in Burtonsville.

Plants with dark green leaves and stems and stalky in shape are the best to choose, says Steve Dubik, horticulture consultant for the Montgomery County Cooperative Extension and professor of landscape technology at Montgomery College in Germantown. The plants should have roots that are white, not brown or tan, he says. If the roots are clumped together too tightly in the root ball, they should be separated to encourage growth, he adds.

Tomatoes and vegetables should be planted in soil turned over or tilled at a depth of six to 12 inches and spaced according to the recommendations for the particular plant, Mr. Dubik says.

Turning the soil allows for air and water movement and provides a larger area for the roots to grow, he says.

In addition, soil can be amended in a number of ways. Adding compost provides nutrients, as does fertilizer, and helps with moisture retention. Lime raises the pH or acid-alkalinity balance of the soil and provides the plant with calcium to support the weight of the fruit or vegetables it produces.

The pH level can be determined with a soil test picked up from the local extension office and should be close to neutral, gardeners say.

“You don’t grow vegetables. You grow the dirt, and the dirt grows vegetables,” Mr. Cockerham says.

As a general rule, tomatoes and vegetables should be planted slightly deeper than the root ball, he says.

Once they are planted, tomatoes and vegetables can be mulched with a variety of materials, such as straw or shredded hardwood, to help retain moisture, reduce weed growth and prevent disease-carrying fungal spores in the soil from reaching the plant, says Jonathan Kavalier, manager of Merrifield Garden Center in Merrifield, which has a second location in Fairfax.

With the bed prepared, plant care is the next requirement.

“You need evenness of moisture, sun and good soil,” Mr. Cockerham says.

Tomatoes and vegetables require five to seven hours of full sun and drying out between each watering, gardeners say. Exposure to full sun helps the plants ripen more quickly, they add.

In addition, the plants like a half-inch to an inch of moisture a week, Mr. Dubik says.

“You want to water slowly but long enough so it gets the first four inches of the soil moistened,” he says.

Tomatoes, in particular, need to be staked with a cage or tied to wooden stakes to keep the plants upright and to improve air circulation, Mr. Devine says.

The final step is harvesting the ripened produce.

Harvesting should be done when the produce is tender and on the small side, says Charlie Nardozzi, horticulturalist for the National Gardening Association in South Burlington, Vt.

“What it does is keep the plants producing,” Mr. Nardozzi says. “The more you harvest, the more fruit you will get.”

After the plant dies back in the fall, the dead plant material should be removed, Mr. Kavalier says, adding that a cover crop such as clover or winter rye will help replenish the soil’s nutrients during the winter.

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