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Success in the Vegetable Patch

June 15, 2008

By Beth Botts, Chicago Tribune

Jun. 15–A lot of people seem to be trying their hands at vegetable gardening this year, according to George Ball, president of W. Atlee Burpee & Co., the big seed company in Warminster, Pa. He says sales of vegetable seeds are up 30 to 40 percent this season, double last year’s growth rate. A big factor, he says, probably is the number of retiring Baby Boomers entering “their prime gardening years.”

He also points to high gasoline prices keeping people at home, expensive food, economic uncertainty and fears about food safety. But his best reason to grow vegetables? “The taste is incomparable. You can’t buy it.”

Here are some tips for beginner vegetable gardeners, with help from Ball and Kirsten Akre, manager of the Kilbourn Park Organic Greenhouse in Chicago.

1Don’t get carried away. For many new vegetable gardeners, “it’s first love,” Ball says, and they plant more than they can handle. It’s best to start modestly with some of the easier vegetables: lettuce, radishes, beets, carrots, potatoes, summer squash. Though tomatoes are almost irresistible, they are not the easiest plant in the patch, so it’s wise not to take on too many.

2Weed and mulch. It’s better to remove weeds by the roots rather than chopping them up with a tiller or cultivator, Akre says; many can re-sprout from the chopped-up bits. Get ahead of weeds early in the season and keep them from returning in force with a layer of organic mulch, such as straw, dried leaves or partly decomposed compost. Don’t use wood chips, Akre says; as they break down they can compete with plants’ roots for nutrients. Get a compost pile started and be ready to collect leaves this fall so next year you’ll have plenty of free mulch.

3Water steadily. Swinging between wet and dry can lead to problems, such as cracking and blossom-end rot in tomatoes, so try to stick to a consistent schedule, ideally watering in the morning. But let soil dry out between waterings, so roots don’t rot and because stretching to get moisture makes them long and strong. Mulch will help keep soil moisture steady. Water more often in hot weather or when growing in containers, which dry out fast. Apply water low, at the soil level, rather than spraying leaves, Akre says; wet leaves attract disease. Don’t work the garden after rain so you don’t compact wet soil or spread disease between wet leaves.

4Go easy on the fertilizer. It’s tempting to try to push for big fruit or large yields by using lots of fertilizer, but that can burn the plants. Slow-release fertilizers, especially organic ones, are safest. If you dug plenty of organic matter, such as compost, into the soil when you planted, you rarely will need added fertilizer, Akre says.

For advice on making compost, or any other vegetable questions, gardeners are available to consult at the Kilbourn Park Organic Greenhouse, 3501 N. Kilbourn Ave., from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and 10 a.m. to noon Saturdays through August (773-685-3359). Other sources of information: the demonstration garden at the Garfield Park Conservatory, 300 N. Central Park Ave. (for times when volunteers are on hand, call 773-638-1766, ext. 24, or see garfield conservatory.org) or the Plant Information Service at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe (chicagobotanic.org or 847-835-0972).

5Seek support. Many vining vegetables, such as peas, pole beans, cucumbers and tomatoes, need support to get up in the sunlight and keep fruit off the ground as it ripens. Check the seed packet for directions and follow them. Make your supports sturdy; ripe beefsteak tomatoes or other large fruits can really drag a plant down.

ebotts@tribune.com

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