Perfect Vegetable Gardens
By Deborah Clark
NABBW’s Gardening Expert

The dead of winter is one of the best gardening months. In fact, each winter, I create the perfect vegetable garden with rows of lush lettuce greens, bountiful bean bushes, tomato branches heavy with shiny fruit. And because these gardens have no squash borers, cabbage worms or Japanese beetles, I’m able to bestow surplus produce on anyone who’ll receive it.

Although these gardens exist in my mind, they still require some effort and a good deal of planning. It starts with getting on the mailing lists for some good seed catalogs.

My favorites are Seeds of Change and Seed Savers Exchange, both of which specialize in heirloom seeds. In fact, these are the only ones I’ll mention here because I’m a bit peeved with some of the other, bigger seed suppliers. Last year I bought seeds in a local garden center that carries the big named seed companies. I suspect that some of what I got were sterile – one of the latest ploys of seed companies is to genetically modify (GMO) seed varieties so that  farmers around the world are unable to save seed from year to year and are beholden to the companies. In fact, I’m so angry about GMO seeds that I’ve decided to go for heirloom varieties that are being resurrected and kept alive by kindred spirits.

Stepping down from my soapbox  now, let me talk about considerations in vegetable growing. When I moved to this house more than 25 years ago, the American sycamore in the southwest corner of the yard was a fraction of its current size and I had a large sunny space where I could grow everything I wanted to. Although kids playing baseball, hungry bunnies and vicious bugs tried to thwart me at every turn, I still managed some good harvests for a few years. But that tree kept growing and left me with a space that’s much shadier and a wonderful respite in the summer heat, but not so great for vegetable growing. I do get full sun for maybe a few hours in the morning, but in the middle of a summer afternoon, the garden plot is in full to part shade.

I bet you’re wondering which vegetables grow in partial shade. And though it’s not for all, there are a few stalwarts.

Here’s my list from Seeds of Change, which you can visit on line if you want to save paper and can’t wait for the catalogs to arrive.

  • Italian sugar snap peas
  • Red Russian kale
  • Bloomsdale spinach
  • Pole beans
  • Salad mix

All of these have been quite productive in years past. I plant the spinach and kale directly in the soil toward the middle or end of March, depending on the weather.

This year I’m resurrecting an old practice I haven’t done in many years – starting seed indoors.

I  have cleaned out some old planting trays and will have to get a potting soil mixture because I neglected to dig up enough compost before the ground froze. When I was younger and eager to try anything, I experimented with grow lights and shelves and so on, but this year I’m keeping it simple.

One of the danger with growing tender seedlings is the fungus that attacks the young plants and kills them when they’re a couple inches tall. The best remedy for this is sterilized soil. Again, when I was younger and also a great deal more impecunious, I put soil on cookie sheets and baked it at low temperatures in the oven to kill any fungal or bacterial pests, but this time I’ll be buying bags of soil.

I\’ll be starting the following plants indoors:

  • Seeds of Change lists costoluto Genovese, and yellow pear tomatoes as shade-tolerant. I’ve had good success with the yellow pear tomato plants in the shade but have yet to try the costoluto gonovese.
  • I’m also ordering cayenne peppers which have performed well for me in shade.
  • I haven’t yet decided whether to get dark star, cocozelle or yellow crookneck squash and don’t think I have enough space to accommodate all three.

My most productive plants in part shade are the herbs. Basil (Genovese sweet) and cilantro like as much sun as possible but they do pretty well in my spot. I’ll start these indoors as well.

As the seedlings grow, you must thin them out. If you have a lot of indoor and outdoor growing space, you can try to save each and every seedling. However, I choose the strongest ones and transplant them to individual pots when they’re big enough. It’s important to nurture more than you can actually accommodate outside, because you never know what they still might succumb to as the months go by.

After all danger of frost has passed in your area, you must go through a process of “hardening off” which means to accustom the indoor seedlings to outdoor conditions. Sunlight through windows is never as strong as it is outside, so you need to start out by keeping them in the shade, then allow them only the early or late direct sun rays before allowing them to experience the direct midday sun.

Imagination is a wonderful thing.

In my mind I’m having great success with this garden – my indoor planting scheme is working wonderfully well, and once everything is in the ground it produces copiously.  I’ll know by June how well I’ve succeeded with the early crops, but won’t really know until September for the others.

That’s the thing about gardening. You really become part of the process of nature as you conform to the seasons. But a gardener adds the human dimension. The practice of gardening has taught me hope, faith, patience, forgiveness, and steadfastness – subjects for a future blog.

Deborah Clark says she might never have taken up gardening if she hadn’t had neighbors who shared their love of gardening with her – but moved away.

It all started in 1973, she says, when a departing neighbor invited her to take care of an already-planted community vegetable garden plot: all she had to do was weed and harvest. She was hooked.