Tips for planning a successful garden: Creating a healthy garden is all about maintaining good habits

Watering wands get lots of water where you want it.

Watering wands get lots of water where you want it. PHOTO BY HENRY HOMEYER

Raised beds are easier to weed and harvest.

Raised beds are easier to weed and harvest. PHOTO BY HENRY HOMEYER

This potato beetle will lay orange eggs under potato leaves. Remove them all!

This potato beetle will lay orange eggs under potato leaves. Remove them all! PHOTO BY HENRY HOMEYER


For the Recorder

Published: 04-29-2024 2:23 PM

Despite late snowstorms that dumped deep snow over much of New England, spring is finally here. Let’s take a look at some keys to a successful year in the vegetable garden.

Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Yes, I grow about 40 tomato plants each year, but most folks don’t want to can or to put up many pounds in the freezer. A well-tended small garden is better than a huge weedy one. Select plants that you love, and just plant a few. Don’t crowd them. You don’t have to start everything from seed — most garden centers have plants for sale in six-packs, and a good selection of varieties.

Don’t use any chemicals in the garden. Mother Nature doesn’t, and you shouldn’t either. A chemical fertilizer is largely made of salts of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. Too much of these salts can kill the microorganisms that work with the roots of your plants to feed them. A bag of 10-10-10 is 70% filler, and the content of this portion is not specified — it’s a trade secret.

Compost is your best friend in the garden. Unlike chemical fertilizers, it provides most or all of the micronutrients needed by plants, things like magnesium, calcium and sulfur. And it contains living organisms, the bacteria and fungi that work with your plant roots to provide nutrients to your plants. Mycorrhizal fungi coat the roots of plants. They produce acids that dissolve minerals and share them with your plants. The plants pay the fungi with excess sugars they produce on sunny days.

Build up mounds of soil and compost to create raised beds, or build wood-sided ones. You can hoe soil from the walkways into your raised beds, and maybe buy a pick-up truck load of compost to mix in and enrich your soil. Most landscapers will deliver compost. Raised beds provide nice loose soil and discourage kids and dogs from walking through them. And in a rainy summer like the last one, raised beds drain well,

Enrich your soil with organic fertilizers like Pro-Gro and Plant Tone. They are made from things like ground peanut hulls, soybean meal, seaweed and oyster shells, with a few natural-occurring minerals. They are broken down in the soil and released slowly — just a small amount is water-soluble. They are a big help in poor soils, but don’t overdo these either.

Make a habit of walking through your garden every day. Look for problems: are your newly transplanted tomatoes looking limp? If so, they probably need water. Are there potato beetles? The Colorado potato bug can be a real problem. But if you watch for orange egg masses under the leaves and scrape them off, and pick larvae and beetles every day, you can control the problem in a home garden. One adult lays many eggs that can produce new adults in 30 days or so.

Don’t let weeds blossom and produce seeds. Ever. Make 10 minutes of weeding every day a part of your daily ritual, just like you brush your teeth every day. Use a good weeding tool — I really like the CobraHead Weeder because it easily gets under weeds, and can be used to tease out long roots. Some weeds spread by root, so getting out entire roots is important. A scrap of root from many grasses will survive and produce new plants.

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Water judiciously. Those flip-flop overhead watering devices may be good for a newly planted lawn, but waste a lot of water in your vegetable garden. Water with watering can, or attach a watering wand to your hose. A good watering wand allows you to water around your plants, but not your walkways or empty places. Too busy to water, or off to the beach? Use a water timer and soaker hoses. They can do the job for you.

Why weed your walkways and around your tomatoes many times in a season if you can prevent it? I put down 4 to 6 layers of newspaper, then a layer of straw or mulch hay to keep it in place and help hold in moisture. Most weeds won’t grow though the newspaper, and earthworms will eat it up by the end of the season. Inks in newspapers now are soy-based, but I avoid the colored sections.

Don’t get discouraged, no matter what. Last summer we had lots of rain and not so much sunshine, and many vegetables did not perform well for me — or anybody. Your garden will do better in times of drought or persistent rain if the soil is rich in organic matter and biologically active. Regularly re-plant some things you know how to grow, perhaps lettuce, and rejoice in fresh salads. And remember, there is never a good reason to spray chemicals on your plants — after all, if it kills the Japanese beetles, it can’t be good for you. Good luck!

Henry eats something from his garden every day of the year by storing and freezing things from his not-so-small garden. Send him questions or comments by e-mail at