University of Illinois Extension

Starting a "Stimulus" Garden

During World War II, Victory Gardens were started all over the United States because labor and transportation shortages made it hard to get fresh vegetables to market, said Ron Wolford, Extension horticulture educator.

"The government encouraged citizens to grow their own gardens," said Wolford. "One theme was 'Plant a Garden: Make Your Rations Go Further.'

"Today in these bad economic times the theme might be, 'Plant a Vegetable Garden: Make Your Dollar Go Further.'"

Wolford offered a few points to consider when starting a "Stimulus Garden."

"As in real estate, a successful vegetable garden is all about location, location, location," he said. "Choose a spot that gets at least 6-8 hours of full sun. Tomatoes, peppers and all vining crops need full sun. Stay away from trees and shrubs. Trees have shallow root systems and will rob your garden of needed nutrients and water.

"Your garden should be close as possible to your water source."

Start small if you are a first time gardener, he recommended. A 10 X 10 foot plot is good for a beginner. Starting with a very large plot may cause you to become overwhelmed as the heat, bugs and diseases of the summer arrive.

"Prepare your soil before planting," he said. "Dig the soil to a depth of eight to 12 inches. Do not dig your soil when it's wet. Digging the soil when it is wet will turn your garden into large concrete-like clods.

"Grab a handful of soil before digging and squeeze. If the soil breaks up easily through your fingers, it is ready to be dug. If the soil stays in a ball, wait a couple of days to allow it to dry. Spread two to three inches of organic matter over the top of the soil and dig it in. The organic matter will improve the soil structure and will add nutrients to the soil."

Don't rush the growing season. The frost-free date for the Chicago is around April 25 near the lake and May 15 away from the lake. The term frost-free means that there is still a 50-50 chance of frost on the frost-free date.

"Be prepared for late spring frosts," he said. "Cover tender plants with row covers, cardboard, blankets, hot caps, or newspaper. Do not use metal or plastic for protection; they can conduct cold to plants. We have had frost as late as Memorial Day."

Don't go crazy with your seed orders after viewing all the colorful garden catalogs with their beautiful pictures of veggies or you may be the gardener in your neighborhood trying to give away zucchini, he warned. Grow what your family likes to eat.

"As a first time gardener, stay away from 'exotic' veggies like kohlrabi or hard to grow veggies like cauliflower or head lettuce," he said. "Grow hybrid vegetables. Hybrid vegetables are usually stronger and healthier than other vegetables. They often have higher yields. Many have a built-in disease resistance."

Draw a plan of your garden. It doesn't have to be a fancy diagram. Remember the tallest plants in your garden such as sweet corn should be at the north end of the garden and permanent vegetables like asparagus should be along the side of the garden.

"After digging your soil to a depth of eight to 12 inches, break up any large clods with a rake," he said. "Use the rake to prepare a smooth seedbed. Spread 1 1/2 pounds of a vegetable garden fertilizer over every 100 square feet of your vegetable garden. A one pound coffee can hold 1 1/2 pounds of fertilizer. Rake the fertilizer into the top two to four inches of soil."

Before seeding, be sure you have created a smooth seedbed. To avoid compacting the soil, try to avoid walking over areas you will be seeding and planting.

Be sure to follow the directions on the seed packet for planting depth of seeds. As a general rule seeds should be planted to a depth two to four times their diameter or largest width. Cover the seed with soil and tamp it down with the back of your hoe. Water lightly and keep moist until germination occurs.

"Buy healthy vegetable transplants" said Wolford. "Leaves and stems should be green and healthy without any signs of yellowing or browning. Yellowing or browning leaves may indicate an insect or disease problem.

"Gently remove transplants from their tray and check the root system. Roots should be white with visible soil. Transplants with brown dead roots should not be purchased. Check for insects such as whiteflies or aphids. Be sure to gradually introduce your transplants to the outdoor environment over a period of days, especially plants grown and purchased in a greenhouse. When you do plant, water your transplants in with a starter fertilizer that is high in phosphorus which helps to promote root development."

Vegetable plants on average will need about one inch of water per week. Place a few straight-sided cans, for example a tuna fish can in the garden when watering with an overhead sprinkler. An inch of water in the cans is an indication your garden has received the inch of water it needs.

"Try soaker hoses in the vegetable garden," he said. "These have numerous tiny holes on one side of the hose. They are efficient, reducing run off and evaporation.

"Do not water during the hottest part of the day or else you will lose 50% of water applied through evaporation. Water early enough in the day, so plants will have time to dry off. Watering plants late in the day will provide conditions for diseases to develop. Water deeply, at least 6-8 inches deep. Watering deeply promotes deep root development which helps the plant tap moisture during dry spells."

Insect populations vary from year to year. Last year for example, we saw a larger number of tomato hornworms than usual. Spraying insecticides should be a last resort. Never spray without identifying the insect first. Try non-chemical methods of control first such as hand-picking, insecticidal soaps and microbial insecticides.

"Time plantings to avoid insect problems," he suggested. "For instance, to avoid the worst time for squash vine borer, plant squash so it can be harvested by July.

"Use floating row covers to protect plants such as cabbage and cauliflower from insects. Crops like squash and cucumbers require bees for pollination. Remove the row covers once flowers form."

The best way to prevent diseases in the vegetable garden is to buy disease resistant varieties. Space plants properly to provide good air circulation to help control disease. Stake or cage plants and allow proper spacing.

"Rotating crops in the garden from year to year can also reduce disease problems," he said.

Harvest vegetables when ripe. Avoid bruising vegetables when harvesting. Tomatoes may have to be harvested before they are fully ripe to keep them from becoming squirrel food. To avoid the squirrels, pick tomatoes when they have a pink color and let them ripen indoors.