University of Illinois Extension

Vegetable Gardening Returns!

While Washington, D.C. talks about "shovel ready" projects, few projects are more "shovel ready" than that of vegetable gardening, said Greg Stack, University of Illinois Extension horticulturist.

"It is now fashionable to vegetable garden and it seems more home gardeners are once again becoming interested in growing produce at home," said Stack.

"The National Gardening Association projects that the number of homes growing vegetables will jump more than 40% compared to two years ago. A spike like this has not been seen in 30 years. Seed companies that offer vegetable seed to the home gardener have seen sales increase from 20 to 40 percent."

Getting big harvest from small gardens is not difficult. In fact, a well planned and managed small garden can often out yield a poorly managed large garden.

"To get the most from your garden, no matter how big or small, a number of intensive gardening techniques can be used," Stack explained. "The purpose of gardening intensively is to harvest the most produce from a given space.

"Traditional gardens consist of long, single rows spaced widely apart. Much of the garden is taken up by space between the rows. Intensively managed gardens minimize wasted space. This style of garden is not just for those with limited space but works well on large spaces also. Intensive gardening has as its main thrust to have something growing in every part of the garden at all times during the season."

An intensive garden requires some thought and planning and utilizes techniques such as wide row planting, succession planting, intercropping and vertical gardening.

Soil preparation is the key to any successful garden.

"While this is the unglamorous part of gardening, it is the most important," he said. "Incorporate ample organic matter. This will help improve soil aeration, structure and drainage. Choose varieties that are suited for your growing conditions and are resistant to common disease problems. Select compact varieties when available. In small spaces where space is at a premium, the more space you can save the more things you can grow."

Wide row planting is an effective way to increase yields. Instead of traditional spacing between rows, push the rows closer together.

For example, plant three rows of lettuce eight inches apart in a two-foot-wide row," Stack said. "When the lettuce comes up the rows grow together shading the soil, conserving moisture and reducing weed growth and results in a very high yield in a small space. Other crops that work well with this technique are carrots, beets, onions, radishes and other leafy greens."

Succession planting is based on the idea of planting something new in the area vacated by a spent crop. For example, lettuce can be planted as a spring crop. When it has finished producing the area can be planted to a snap bean crop for the summer. When it is finished producing the area is then planted back to lettuce or spinach for a cool fall crop. Another approach is to plant one type of vegetable at two-week intervals. This helps to spread out the harvest. Planting all of your lettuce or radish or bean seeds at the same time results in a lot of produce coming to maturity at once and often in amounts the average household can't use. By planting short rows or small blocks at two-week intervals, you can spread out the harvest over a longer period.

Using trellises, nets, strings, poles and cages to support growing plants is especially suited to small space gardens.

"Vining plants such as cucumbers, gourds, melons, tomatoes, pole beans and peas are candidates for vertical gardening techniques," he said. "Some plants may need a little direction to get them started climbing.

"Remember that plants growing on vertical supports will cast shadows so locate vertical supports on the north or east side of the garden to minimize shading. Plants grown vertically occupy much less space on the ground, resulting in a higher-than-average yield per square foot of garden space."

Intercropping or interplanting involves planting two different vegetables, one fast maturing and the other slow maturing, in the same row at the same time.

Radishes planted with carrots is an example. The radishes are harvested before they crowd the carrots, leaving room for the carrots to mature for harvest later in the season. Other combinations could include radishes and onions, radishes and beets, and onions and peppers. Shade-tolerant vegetables such as lettuce, spinach and celery can also be planted in the shadow of taller crops.

"There really is no secret to a productive garden," he said. "With a little thought and planning, your garden can produce something all through the season. The basic rule to intensive gardening is to maximize the use of the space you have and don't leave bare ground unplanted.

"As you join this new resurgence in vegetable gardening, always remember to be adventurous, experiment with new vegetables, and most of all have fun."