University of Illinois Extension

Vegetable Gardening 101

If you are a beginning vegetable gardener, the best advice to take is to start small.

“A small garden is often a wise choice, especially if you may not have a lot of time to devote to planting and maintenance,” recommends Greg Stack, U of I Extension horticulturist. “A small garden is often a friendlier and less intimidating place for the new gardener. It will also allow you to become more comfortable with your gardening skills.

“Large gardens may make you look like you are the gardening guru, but if it becomes overwhelming and too much work you soon lose your enthusiasm for gardening, resulting in your finding a different hobby.”

Start out small, Stack added, and make your small space work for you. A well-planned and planted small space garden can be planted in such a way as to produce yields that can sometimes be better than a large, poorly managed garden.

“In order to achieve bumper crops in small spaces, here are the keys to success: wide rows; intercropping; succession planting; vertical gardening,” he said.

Intercropping is a technique where two crops are planted in the same row at the same time. The difference between the crops is that one matures before the other and when harvested leaves room for the second crop to grow to maturity.

“Intercropping techniques help you take advantage of the ‘vacant space’ between crops and puts it to use,” Stack said. “Some intercropping suggestions include planting beans, radish, green onions, spinach or lettuce in the space between things like tomato, pepper or cabbage plants. The earlier maturing crops will be harvested before the latter ones start to grow together.

“Another intercropping technique is to plant seed of two different crops in the same row at the same time. An example would be to plant both radish and carrot seed in the same row at the same time. The radish will germinate and be harvested in about 20-25 days, leaving room behind for the later-maturing carrots.”

Wide-row planting is a departure from single-row planting. Single-row planting leaves a lot of unused space in the garden that has the potential to produce a crop.

“Establish a wide row planting by using two lengths of string to mark off a row that is about 15-18 inches wide,” he said. “Prepare the area between the strings by raking smooth. Using lettuce, carrots, beets, spinach, or radish seed, sprinkle the bed with the seed much as you would seeding a lawn. Spread the seed a little thinner though.

“After sowing the seed, rake it in lightly to cover and water. Seed will germinate randomly over the bed. You may want to drag a rake lightly through the bed to thin out the planting or just harvest some of the crop as ‘baby vegetables.’ This will open up the planting and the remaining vegetables will have a bit more space to grow to maturity. Wide row planting increases the production per square foot dramatically.”

Succession planting is a good way to ensure you will have a continuous supply of certain vegetables longer through the season. It is also a way to make use of space vacated by an earlier maturing crop.

“Two or three small plantings of leaf lettuce or radishes made a week to 10 days apart and again in the fall spread out the harvest over a longer time,” he said. “Onion sets for green onions can be planted every two weeks until the sets are gone. This technique allows you to plant what you will be using in short intervals and avoids having a lot of any one thing coming into production and not being able to be used in a timely fashion. This avoids wasting a lot of potentially good produce.”

Certain crops can be planted in the same location where earlier ones have been harvested. Any early harvested crops such as leaf lettuce, radishes, onion sets, spinach or peas can be followed with beans, beets, carrots, cabbage, or turnips for late summer and fall harvest.

Vertical gardening helps you put “air space” to work for you. Using some type of wire fencing material on either the north or east side of the garden will allow you to grow vine crops even in small space gardens. Fencing should be strong enough to support plants and should be about 4 feet high. At the base of the fence sow vegetables such as cucumber, pole beans or melons. They will attach themselves to the fence and grow up and off the ground. The space in front that might have been taken up by the vine can now be planted to other crops.