Most gardeners who have planted a summer squash in their vegetable garden can attest to the prolific growth of healthy squash vines.  And in good years, many can also recount the bountiful harvest, with fruits ripening faster than you can pick them at times.  I think we’ve all found those enormous zucchinis that seemed to grow overnight like something out of jack and the beanstalk.

Our sun has special significance in the gardening world.  It offers sunlight, which plants use to generate energy and directly influences plant lifecycles in a variety of ways. 

Vegetable Gardening with Raised Beds

The spring-like weather this past week has been phenomenal.  Although we may see a return to cooler weather since March is known to “come in like a lion”, it was certainly a sign of things to come.  I’m really looking forward to March’s exit as it “goes out like a lamb” and the 2022 gardening season takes shape.

Garlic is typically planted in fall by separating bulbs into individual cloves for planting.

As the vegetable growing season quickly approaches fall frosts when production screeches to a halt, there is actually one crop that can be planted now in anticipation of next year’s growing season.  Garlic (Allium sativum) is an easy-to-grow bulb crop that does best when planted now for a summer harvest next year. 

August is a great time to start a fall garden including cool-season crops, like this lettuce, that will thrive in the milder temperatures of the late growing season.

In the heat of July, it seems out of place to consider fall frost, but it is an important detail for vegetable gardeners planning a fall garden.  There are a variety of garden crops that can be planted in July and August for fall production, many of which are cool-season crops that actually perform better as temperatures drop in the late growing season.  However, planning now is required to ensure plants have adequate time to reach maturity prior to the season-ending frosts that are inevitable. 

In order to sprout, stored seeds must maintain viability which is dependent on a variety of factors.

Anyone who has gardened long enough likely has a pile of seed packets squirrelled away with intentions of using those seeds someday.  Many times, I keep seed packets in my collection because I just can’t stand to throw things away, especially seeds that may have some viability.  However, it can be tricky to figure out exactly how viable my old seeds remain in storage.  With all the time that carefully goes into preparing a garden bed, I rarely have the guts to sow many of the seeds from years’ past for fear that my efforts will go to waste.  So many times, I wind

Delicious and sweet ‘Sungold’ tomatoes were hard to find in 2020 since an unusually large number of homebound gardeners bought up seeds and plants at unprecedented numbers.

What will your 2021 vegetable garden look like?  Where will you source seeds or plants?  What new crops are you interested in planting this year?  All these questions are on the minds of many gardeners this time of year. In 2020, there was an unprecedented interest in all types of gardening since most of us had a lot of time at home.  All signs indicate this trend will continues in 2021. So, whether you are ready for the gardening season or not, now is the time to start planning.

This bumble bee dangles from a flower of crimson clover, which is an attractive and valuable soil-building cover crop that can be easily hand-seeded into vegetable garden beds.

Cover cropping is a practice we often associated with larger scale farming, but they have the same great benefits in our home vegetable gardens.  A cover crop is a crop that is grown for protection and enrichment of the soil rather than for harvest.  Since they are not harvested for use as food, growers plant them for other valuable qualities they provide while in the ground.

Domestication of the tomato was long believed to have happened from plants with cherry-sized fruits, but recent genetic research indicates otherwise.

Tomatoes are the most commonly planted garden crop in the United States, as evidenced by the wide range of tomato plants available every year in garden centers.  Beyond home production of tomatoes, the U.S. has historically led global commercial production, with California being our top producing state. So, it is safe to say that Americans grow a lot of tomatoes each year.

New Vegetable Garden Maintenance

Vegetable gardening takes some forethought and planning to ensure your garden space is ready, select the best crops, and get everything planted while working around spring rains.  Our enthusiasm and planning in early spring typically culminates in the planted garden and often wanes as the work and heat of the growing season sets in. 

I am as guilty as the next gardener for not thinking enough about garden maintenance later in the year during the excitement of spring planting.  However, there are some things we can think about now to setup of the rest of the season for success.

Beets are a cool-season vegetable that can be direct seeded into the garden now.

Although this past week’s weather trended toward more winter-like conditions, we all know that warmer spring weather is just right around the corner and next week looks quite promising.  One of the key factors in knowing when to plant your vegetable garden relates back to weather since some plants are very sensitive to colder temperatures.

As the local food movement has grown in popularity, an interesting subset of “foodies” have emerged that forage in nature for their dinner.  Many native, wild plants are edible and these folks seek them out in our forests, prairies, and sometimes even our yards. 

Starting a New Vegetable Garden

With an increased amount of time at home these days, there is an increased interest in gardening.  It is such a great way to get outdoors and get some exercise while growing some neat and interesting plants. 

Fall annuals can breathe life into waning gardens late in the growing season, filling in among fading flowers to add beauty and interest.  Mums seem to be the quintessential fall annual, although perennial in our area if established early enough in the season, packing the garden centers with blooms ranging from yellow or orange to deep red and purple. 

beet growing with title "it's hard to beat a good beet"

Mentioning the ripe beets coming out of the ground this time of year doesn't get much excitement out of my kids, but they are certainly a favorite of mine. I have such fond memories of fresh beets from my grandmother's garden. She served them pretty regularly as a side, fresh when possible, and canned the rest of the year, and I actually enjoyed them quite a bit when I was a kid. The hearty root crops are edible top to bottom, relatively easy to cultivate, and quite productive for the garden space they occupy.

Tomatoes are one of the most planted garden crops in the US, with several common problems here in central Illinois that can be managed through fairly simple cultural practices.

Nothing beats a homegrown tomato!  Even when in season, the store bought varieties just cannot compare to a fully ripe tomato harvested at its peak from your own garden.  So many gardeners across American choose tomato plants for their garden each year for this reason, making it the most planted garden crop in the US. 

Now that March has went out like a lamb, these warmer days we are really motivating me to get out into the garden and set things in motion for the 2019 growing season.  Right now is a perfect time to direct seed many of our cool-season vegetable crops, but don’t go too wild with planting or you may wind up with more to harvest than your family and some lucky friends can consume.  One great way I have found to spread out the harvest, creating a continual supply for at least part of the growing season, is through succession planting. 

Winter is an excellent time for reflection on the past year’s growing season and any gardening successes or failures to account for next year.  In this season of multitudes of seed catalog mailings, I have found it to be an ideal time to set gardening goals for the coming year during the down time associated with the shortest and coldest days of the year.

I have always found it motivational to first focus on what I can accomplish prior to leaf out and the coming growing season.   One of the primarily activities that can be done in the dead of winter is pruning. 

One of the single best things you can do to improve your garden soil is to add organic matter.  By adding significant amounts of organic matter, you are putting fuel back into the nutrient cycle which naturally adds plant nutrients to our soil and lessens (or eliminates) the need for fertilizer.  Soil structure is improved by boosting organic matter content, making soils better able to retain water and nutrients.

This week marks the half way point for the 2018 Illinois Ginseng Harvesting Season, which runs from the first Saturday in September through Nov 1.  Did you even know that ginseng grows in Illinois, let alone the fact that there is a regulated harvest of this valuable native plant? 

Garlic is a long-season, over-winter crop that does best when planted in the fall.  It can then be harvested in the early summer, which allows space for another summer crop.  This is rather unusual timing in the gardening world and it has always interested me for that reason.  Planting garlic is a great way to end the gardening season by caching away a crop for early harvest next year. 

Recently, my wife, Amanda, noticed that something was chewing on the nice stand of kale she planted in our vegetable garden.  Initially, I brushed it off to the usual, acceptable amount of insect damage kale can withstand and still produce a harvestable crop.  Typically, kale has some insect visitors that prematurely harvest some of the foliage, but we’re always OK with a little damage as long as they leave enough foliage for us to harvest throughout the season.  

With last week’s Easter snow, it is hard to believe that the frost-free dates for our area are fast approaching.  Hopefully April will follow a more March-like tradition of “in like lion and out like a lamb”. 

The “frost-free” date for the Champaign area is around April 15th, which is the spring median date for overnight lows above 32⁰, meaning we still have about a 50/50 chance for frost on that date.   By April 30th, the chance for frost in our area drops to about 10%, with the latest recorded date for temps below 32⁰ being May 21st. 

Potatoes are a cool season vegetable that are among the world’s food staples, ranking number four in the list behind rice, wheat and corn.  This native to the South American Andes was domesticated around 7,000 years ago.  Sixteenth-century Spanish explorers observed indigenous use of the potato during their travels and brought the first specimens to Europe in the late 1500’s. 

In recent years, I have become more interested in landscape plants that provide some type of culinary use while also providing aesthetic value to my yard.  Herbs are a hearty group of plants that can fit into most any landscaping, adding beauty from flowers or foliage, while providing an easy to access fresh supply for recipes.  One such herb that has recently piqued my interest is thyme.

At this point in fall, most of our vegetable gardens are completely done for the season, with the exception of some kale or a few other cold hardy crops.  Wouldn’t it be great to have a way to extend the growing season for a few months and keep enjoying fresh produce?  Many small farmers have very successfully done this with the use of high tunnels.  In fact, many high tunnels in our area are productive nearly year round.

In 1863, Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a National Holiday and in that move, solidified our national memory of this plant-based holiday.  The original Thanksgiving occurred several hundred years earlier in 1621.  It was a celebration of the plants produced through successful cultivation of crops in the New World by a group of pilgrims that had suffered severe losses the previous winter but triumphantly learned to farm locally adapted crops in the Massachusetts soils with help from the indigenous Wampanoag Tribe.

It’s beginning to be that time of year again, when our vegetables gardens become less productive and most of the season’s bounty has been realized.  Before you begin to look toward next year’s plans, why not consider planting something for the winter season?  A hard-working cover crop is the perfect selection to fill in your garden and improve soil for next year.

This time of year, when most vegetable gardens are teeming with fresh produce, it is hard to think about starting additional plants.  However, right now is the perfect time to start a fall garden and extend the growing season until the first frosts of the year, or possibly beyond with certain hardy plants.