Ken's Gardening Tips

Back to Ken's Home & Garden
All creatures great and small
Am I going to save money?
Making your bed and lying in it
Organic vs chemicals
Plants or seeds?
Soil toil
Specific plants
Water, water everywhere
When to plant what?
Weed eater
The Veggie Table

Asparagus
Beans
Carrots
Cucumbers
Lettuce
Garlic
Herbs
Onions
Peas
Peppers
Shallots
Spinach
Squash
Tomatoes

I've been growing vegetables for over 15 years. I've learned a lot and I'm still learning--about getting good veggies and about the summer/winter, growth/dormancy, life/death cycle that all gardeners are part of. Here's hoping that you'll find some of the information you're looking for on this page, and that you'll find some of the peace and meaning that you crave in your garden.

Organic vs. chemicals

My veggies are grown completely organically. (At least, they are once they reach me. I can't vouch for how my seeds or seedlings are produced.) "Organic gardening" means that only natural fertilizers are used. (If I used pesticides, I would only use "natural" ones also, although the distinction here gets tricky: everything is a "chemical" after all, and if it can kill bugs or weeds, then it's a pretty powerful and potentially harmful chemical, whether it came from Dow or your kitchen.) Natural fertilizers include manure, compost, grass clippings, and soil additives such as lime, sulfur, and peat moss.

I didn't make this decision out of concern for the environment. Not that I'm not concerned, but my little 25 x 25 plot is not going to produce significant chemical runoff. No, I went organic because organically-grown vegetables taste better! Tomatoes are richer and sweeter. Green beans are nuttier. Onions have more tang and garlic more punch. Everything is more intense with organic fertilizers. Chemically-fertilized vegetables are bland and textureless in comparison. I've gotten to the point where I refuse even to eat store-bought tomatoes.

If you want to talk saving the earth, though, this may be the best way to sell it. The average American never eats anything but chemically-fertilized veggies. Give them the real thing, and they'll never want to go back. Create demand for natural vegetables, and production will go up, bringing the price down. We'll drive the chemical growers out of business!

Am I going to save money by growing my own food?

No. At least, not if you do it right. Soil amendments, fertilizer, tools, seeds, and seedlings for an average-sized garden will set you back several hundred dollars each year. Unless you have a very large garden, your per-meal cost is going to be higher than what you would pay at the supermarket. On the other hand, if you garden organically, you're going to get vegetables that taste better than anything you could buy in a store. And you're going to get the relaxation, closeness to nature, and sense of accomplishment that come with the gardening experience. You can't put a price on those things.

Soil toil

No doubt about it. Gardening is hard work. There are shortcuts you can take to cut down on the work, or you can downsize your garden to keep it manageable. But there's one thing you should never scrimp on: soil preparation. Just because the spot you've staked out for your veggie garden is growing a nice bunch of grass or weeds now doesn't mean it's going to produce good produce.

Successful gardening is a long-term commitment. Better veggies are always next year's crop. There's only so much you can do to the ground each year, but the effects are cumulative, so keep doing it, every year!

If you're starting a garden from scratch, you're going to want to make things easier by staking out your ground and starting right in with your gas tiller. Don't bother. The tiller will make your life easier eventually, but even the best tiller is not going to break sod and get down deep enough to have much effect on virgin soil. You have to do the initial work by hand. Take off the sod first. You can rent a sod cutter just like the ones the professional sod-growers use; it's a big knife that you push along, grunting and sweating, and it gets under the sod and cuts it off at the roots.

Once you've got the sod off, get your pointy-nosed garden shovel and dig up every square inch of your plot at least as deep as the shovel blade, turn it over, and break up the clods with the shovel. Some gardening experts will tell you to "double dig" a new garden. They want you to dig up half your plot and throw the dirt on the other half, dig down the first half to shovel depth again and turn it over, return the first layer of dirt to the first half of the plot, and then repeat the process on the other half. Whew! That's nuts! I never did it. I suppose my soil would have reached its present state of richness more quickly if I had, but I just think that's overkill.

Depending on where you live, you may or may not encounter rocks. In the Northeast US, the average plot of land that's not on a river bottom is more rocks than dirt. Literally. I kid you not. In this region, you'll be hauling out a lot of big ones your first year, and probably your second and third years. Be of good cheer! Eventually, you'll get almost all of the big ones out. Sadly, though, in most parts of the USA, you'll never get all the rocks out, even if you have an infinite number of chimpanzees out there every spring hopping up and down, waving their arms and screaming, and throwing rocks out of the garden as fast as they can. Why? Because in climates that have cold winters, the earth moves under your feet. Each year, the ground freezes and thaws, not once but several times. This causes expansion and contraction of the soil, and makes rocks constantly percolate upward toward the surface. It's ok. The little ones won't wreck your tools or interfere with the growth of (most of) your plants. For the ones they will interfere with, and what to do about it, see below.

Once you've removed the sod and broken up the ground, you can haul in that tiller, and take it over the entire plot two or three times, gradually increasing the depth until you've bottomed out. If you've got one of those fancy rear-tine killer tillers, run it fast. It will aerate the soil and fluff it up nicely. My old front-tine tiller has to start slow when the clods are big and work up to high speed gradually once things are broken up; if I don't do that the thing will throw me all over the landscape.

If you've got an established garden plot, then you can skip the sod-removal and digging steps and go right to the tiller. If you haven't got a tiller, then God bless you.

When should you be doing this, you ask?

Established wisdom says you should do soil preparation in the fall. I say it's not that cut-and-dried. For one thing, there's the amount of work involved. If you till up your garden in the fall, you're still going to have to do it again in the spring. You want nice loose weedless soil to plant in. So why do it twice? There is one situation where you'd want to do it. If you're using fresh manure right from the horse's...well, not from the horse's mouth...then you want to till it in in the fall and let it decompose over the winter. Fresh manure will burn your plants. But I use dehydrated cow manure, the kind that comes in 40 lb. bags. Ideally, you put this stuff in and wait a week before planting to avoid any potential for burn, but in practice you can till it in one day and plant the next.

How much?

It is possible to use too much manure, though I'd say that would be pretty hard to do. Your back or your bank account would break before you got to that point. In different years I've ranged between 2 and 4 lbs. per square foot, without seeing much difference in the results. I wouldn't go below 2 though. And be sure to use the dehydrated manure, not the composted manure or the manure-topsoil mix. These are much weaker and won't produce nearly as good results. Yes, I know the dehydrated manure stinks. Hold your nose and use it anyway! Your tomatoes will definitely NOT stink.

But there's more to a fruitful garden than ka-ka. Manure adds vital nutrients, but the plants can only get those nutrients in soil that drains at a reasonable rate and and is easy for roots to take hold in. Heavy clay soil doesn't drain or permit root growth; light sandy soil may drain too quickly and be easily leeched of nutrients. To get the proper soil texture you need to add more stuff. Actually, adding sand to clay soil isn't a bad idea, though I've never done it. In the early years I exclusively used peat moss; now I alternate that with partially-composted grass clippings. True compost is also good; I've just never had the time or patience to produce it. As for how much to use, I try to cover the soil to a depth of 1-2 inches with peat or 3-4 inches with clippings.

Are we done yet? Nope. There's the matter of soil acidity. Most vegetables like soil that is neither too acidic nor too alkaline. This is called "neutral" soil. There are some exceptions to this; potatoes, for example, prefer fairly acidic soil.You'll want to research the plants you are planning to grow. You may not want to deal with soil chemistry, but you ignore it at your peril. If your soil chemistry isn't right, it won't matter how fluffy your dirt is or how much manure it contains; your plants will just sit there, sulking, until they wither and die. If you have a local cooperative extension or county agent, you can take a soil sample to them and they'll test it for you for a small charge and tell you how much of what you need to add to make your soil neutral. You can also buy one of those test-it-yourself kits, but I've never trusted them. To reduce soil acidity, add powdered or pulverized lime. To increase it, add sulfur. Soil tends to be acidic east of the Mississippi and alkaline west of it, but don't take my word for it. Get yours tested. Also, remember that manure and peat moss are acidic in and of themselves, so take that into account when deciding how much lime or sulfur to add.

Is there some labor-saving way to add all this stuff?

Well, if you're putting in fresh manure and you've got a really big plot, you might get the local farmer to bring in his spreader. Just don't stand around watching him though, or you're going to need a bath, big time. Or he might bring it in on a pickup truck and you can park it in different spots in the garden and shovel some off. But if you're using bagged manure and peat, you're going to have cut open the bags and distribute the stuff with a shovel. Don't try to hold the bag and pour; you won't get even distribution and you'll just have to go back and shovel it around. For lime or sulfur, you may be able to use one of those you-push-it lawn fertilizer contraptions; just make sure you can adjust it to spread the proper amount for your soil conditions. Me, I just scoop it out of the bag with an old plastic sherbet container and shake it onto the ground.

Once you've added everything, you need to run the tiller through it again at high speed to get it all thoroughly mixed.

Remember, plants are hungry! They'll eat up almost everything you put into the dirt, so you have to keep replacing your manure, organic matter (peat, compost or clippings), and lime/sulfur every year.

Making your bed and lying in it

If you have "perfect" soil, you can just plant stuff in it, water it, and it will grow. Very few people have perfect soil or a perfect location though, and if you've just started this garden, you definitely don't. It's going to be years before your virgin soil will drain well, and if you've got a lot of clay, unless you actually put in drainage pipes under the garden, even when the top 12 inches of your soil has become rich and loose, what's under that is going to hold water like a clogged sink. If your veggies' roots constantly sit in a pool of water, they will rot and you'll be buying your salad in the supermarket like everybody else. So you need to give yourself an extra few inches to work with. This is the logic behind "raised beds".

All a raised bed is, is piling the soil up high where you want to plant things, and maintaining lower paths between the planted areas. These beds can be as narrow as one row of carrots, or as wide as all outdoors--though for practical purposes, a bed should never be wider than twice the length of your arm, or you won't be able to weed it or harvest your crops. (You should never walk on a raised bed; that's what the paths are for.) Some people make these beds and then reinforce them with wood borders--2 by 6s, for example.But it's not necessary, and it makes extra work because you have to remove them each spring for tilling and then replace them. Again, if you've got one of those high-tone rear-tine tillers, you can set it up to create raised beds for you. I use a garden rake to pull the dirt from the path area in toward the center of the bed. Then I use the rake to level off the top of the bed. Finally, I walk around the bed and push in the sides with the sole of my shoe to reinforce them and keep them from crumbling so quickly. Inevitably, these beds will sink over the summer. What started out as an 8-inch bed in May will be 3 inches high at harvest time, but by then the plants will be so well-established that it won't matter.

Rows or wide beds?

Traditionally, people plant vegetables in long narrow rows one plant wide, with paths between them. This is necessary for some things, such as sweet corn. But for most things, it's an inefficient use of space, whether you use raised beds or not. I find that for most things I can get two rows side by side in a bed that's about 3 feet wide. This is narrow enough to make weeding easy, and it cuts down on the amount of space wasted by paths. For carrots, radishes, onions and garlic, I can get five or six rows side by side in a 3-foot bed. For lettuce and spinach, I broadcast the seed evenly across the whole bed, and then thin the plants out to a comfortable distance as they grow. Not only does this save space, when the plants get large they will crowd out the weeds.

All creatures great and small

Humans aren't the only critters that like veggies. Some beasts like veggies A LOT. Some of them, in fact, are vegetarians.

Depending on your situation, you may find insects or larger creatures trying to eat your salad. I've been fairly lucky and haven't had experience with a wide range of veggie-stealing varmints, but here's what I've learned:

If you're going to garden organically, you're going to lose some stuff to insects, and a lot of the stuff you keep is going to bear the scars of encounters with bug gourmets. This is because none of the "natural" methods of keeping bugs out of your garden is anywhere near 100% effective. Hey, if you're not willing to scorch the earth and render it barren and desolate unto the seventh son of the seventh son, then you're going to have creepy-crawly neighbors sharing your harvest. Learn to live with it.

Not everything out there is a pest. Some creatures are your allies. Ladybugs, for example, eat lots of other bugs that would otherwise eat your plants. So do frogs and toads (though if you've got a lot of frogs in your garden, it's probably too wet for your plants' comfort). Snakes, too, are good--if they're the non-poisonous kind. In the Northeast US, good snakes include garter, green, and king snakes. Bats eat all kinds of bugs too, but ew! Ick! I can't stand the damn things! Earthworms, of course, are golden. They eat your dirt and spew it out their back ends in much better condition than when it went in.

Cutworms inhabit plants in the cabbage family. That includes cabbage (surprise, surprise), broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts (yecch, yecch), broccoli raab, and probably some other stuff. I've heard you can make little paper collars and put them around the bottoms of these plants; the worms are supposed to be too stupid to figure out how to get over the collars and into the plants. I doubt this very much. In my experience, unless you spray nasty industrial chemical insecticides, if you grow cabbage-family, you're going to have cutworms. They are going to hide deep within the recesses of your broccoli and cauliflower. They aren't going to hurt these plants, necessarily; they're just going to hide in there. Then, even though you wash them thoroughly and even dip them in salt water before cooking, you're going to cut up a nice emerald-green head of perfectly pest-free-looking broccoli, put it in some water to boil, come back 15 minutes later and find a couple dozen little yellow caterpillars surfing the boiling foam, belly up. Sure! NOW you can see them; they turn yellow when cooked! For this reason, I've given up growing broccoli and cauliflower. It's just too disgusting. But do what you want. Just don't say I didn't warn you.

There are certain bugs that prey on tomatoes and peppers and will cause unbelievable death and destruction thereto. Or at least, so I've been told. Early on, I was told I could avoid these predators, whatever they are, by planting marigolds amongst my tomatoes and peppers. The nasty bugs are said not to like marigolds' distinctive scent. So I put one marigold plant at each end of a bed of tomatoes or peppers and one in the middle, and scatter a few more around the rest of the garden. I've never had anything eat my tomatoes or peppers, so presumably this works very well.

Oh. Those little yellow and black things that crawl all over your asparagus? Don't worry about them. They don't seem to do any harm. Just flick them off with your finger.

Depending on where you live, you may or may not need to worry much about mammals. I live in the backwoods, so I've got all kinds of animals roaming my land. Rabbits, woodchucks, moles, deer, wildcats, lions, tigers and bears. Oh my. Yeah, you can put out mothballs or set up contraptions that make noises at random intervals, but the only thing that's really going to work in a rodent-rich environment is a chicken-wire fence. Get 1-inch mesh chicken wire, at least 5 feet high. Bury the first 6 to 8 inches in the ground, securely and vertically. Don't fold it over. You're not just trying to anchor it, you're creating a 6 to 8 inch vertical subterranean barrier against burrowing beasts. Use metal stakes at 6 foot intervals to hold up the wire. Five feet high? Surely I jest. Bet you didn't know how high rabbits and woodchucks can jump when the reward is nice fresh bibb lettuce, did you? And at 3 feet or less, the deer don't even have to jump. I kid you not. Chicken wire rusts eventually, and if you live in a northern climate snow will bend your fence low and frost will heave it out of the ground. Walk your fence every spring, grab it close to the ground every foot or so and give a fairly robust tug. If it comes out of the ground, don't curse your foolishness; if you can do that so can a woodchuck. Bite the bullet, dig out that section and replace it with new wire.

Birds? I don't try to compete with birds. I know when I'm licked. Fortunately, the only thing I've been interested in growing that they really like is sweet corn, but one season in which they took every single kernel off every single ear in the space of a couple of days was enough for me. Maybe you'll have better luck.

Plants or seeds?

The answer to this one depends mostly on how much time and patience you have, and to a lesser extent, on where you live. If you have a short growing season, you're not going to have time to grow tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, or "drying" beans (pinto, navy, white northern, etc.) from seeds planted in your garden. You'll have to transplant plants that are already 6 to 8 weeks old. You can buy these at a local nursery, or if you're ambitious and patient (and you have grow lights and shelf space or a greenhouse) you can buy the seeds and start them indoors yourself.

I imagine that if I ever retire, I might go the latter route. I've tried it before but didn't get good results. My little plants were very flimsy and fragile. Indoor plants have to be "hardened" before planting outside, to acclimate them to the real world. This involves setting them outside for gradually lengthening periods of time over the course of 2-3 weeks before finally planting them. If you're not home all the time, you can't really do this right, and the result will be that your carefully nurtured plants will wither and die in the ground.

Another reason for growing things from seed in your greenhouse is that you can get those "exotic" varieties that look so good in the seed catalog but which your nursery doesn't carry. For years I bought stuff from seed catalogs, but I didn't get very good results. I finally concluded that it's safer to plant varieties that are grown and packaged locally, or at least in the same climatic region; that way you know they've got a fair chance of flourishing in your soil and weather conditions. But it's up to you; experiment if you dare.

Nurseries will also sell you seedlings for plants that you can grow in the garden from seed even in a short growing season, such as lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, zucchini and winter squash. To my mind there's no advantage in buying these, especially when seeds are so much cheaper.

In the matter of onions, you can go with "sets" (little onion bulbs, essentially very young onions that have been dried and had their tops clipped off) or plants. More on this below, in the section on specific plants.

Water, water everywhere

I'm conservative on the subject of water. Maybe it's because I live in the Northeast US, which is the second-rainiest area in North America (the first being the Pacific Northwest). Maybe it's just because I don't like standing out in the garden holding a hose and being bitten by black flies. Whatever. When I plant my veggies, I water them thoroughly, soaking each bed until the water pools up twice. For the first week, I keep the seeds damp to ensure they will germinate. That means I water every 2-3 days if it doesn't rain. After that, I tend to slack off. If I can get a good long soaking rain at least once a week, I won't pick up a hose at all. If we have seven days without rain and there's no rain in the forecast for the eighth, I'll water. During drought conditions I'll set up the sprinkler in the garden and run it for 4-5 hours 2-3 times a week. For reasons I'll never understand, even this apparently profligate use of water doesn't equal one good day-long soaking rain. My watering regimen probably won't get high marks from professional gardeners, but it produces very good results for me.

Weed eater

I'm probably the only gardener in the world who actually likes weeding. See, I don't practice "athletic" weeding. I'm not out there bent over, sweating, pounding the ground with a hoe. Instead, I sit in the path between the beds with a bucket between my legs, a radio blasting the baseball game on the lawn, sun-block and bug-repellant slathered liberally upon my body, and pull weeds by hand. This is how I get close to the earth, close to my plants, close to the sights and sounds of the great outdoors, and close to the little creepy crawly thing that's making its way up my pantsleg right now...Hey! HEY! GET THE HELL OUT OF THERE!!....Anyway, I think hand-weeding works better than the hoe method. I get every single weed I can see out by the roots, and each time I go back, there are fewer weeds to pull. Also, because I plant things as close together as I can get away with, by midsummer the veggies have pretty much crowded out the weeds between them, and I can cut down my weeding time to almost nothing. And I'm really not kidding about weeding putting me in touch with the earth. The two greatest things about gardening, for me, are the great-tasting food, and the opportunity to spend time outdoors, in quiet contact with growing things. Try it. You'll like it.

When to plant what?

That, of course, depends on where you live. In the Northeast US, the growing season runs from late April to near the end of September for the hardiest veggies, and shorter for the more delicate stuff. In Arizona, you'd best get your plants in in February and have them harvested by early June.

The dates vary from place to place, but there are some rough guidelines you can follow:

Peas hate hot weather. Plant them as soon as you can work the soil and expect to harvest them before it gets really hot. They don't care about frost. They don't always come up in a very wet spring, but you can always replant.

Lettuce, spinach and other "greens" hate hot weather as much as peas do, and they also aren't bothered by frost. When it gets hot, these plants "bolt"; they put up stalks and set seed, after which their leaves become bitter and nasty-tasting. However, their little seeds are likely to wash away in heavy rain, so if you have a wet spring, it's better to wait until the big rains are done before planting these.

Most root crops and grass-related vegetables like some hot summer sun but are not bothered by frost. Again, the main consideration is dampness; if you have very wet spring conditions, wait until the big rains are over before planting. This group includes carrots, radishes, onions, shallots and garlic. It also includes the cabbage family, if you are brave.

Summer squash (including zucchini, yellow squashes, "patty pan" and other oddball varieties), tomatoes, peppers, beans and cucumbers will all be killed by frost. This doesn't mean you can't plant them before the last frost, but you have to have a strategy when the weather report warns you that freezing temperatures are coming. Generally, this means you don't want to plant them so early that they will be too big to easily cover with a paper bag or milk carton. In the Northeast, the rule generally is, plant these things on or about Memorial Day.

Specific plants

I've experimented with several plants and have narrowed my repertoire down to the things that seem to be the most reliable and productive for my soil and climate. You, of course, will get different results, but this is what I've learned about the stuff I grow:

Asparagus

I don't like asparagus. I grow it for my wife, and she lets about half of it sit in the produce drawer of the refrigerator until it gets moldy. Unlike most of the stuff in a veggie garden, it's a perennial. Typically, you buy asparagus roots and plant them about 6 inches deep in well-prepared soil. Then you wait. For three....long....years. In spring of the third year after planting, you can harvest any spears thicker than your little finger by cutting them off at ground level with a knife or scissors, or by breaking them off. Don't pull them; you'll pull up the roots. A mature asparagus patch will produce edible spears every 2-3 days for about 4 to 6 weeks--in the Northeast, from about May 1 until mid-June. When the patch stops offering finger-width spears, it's time to stop cutting and let the plants grow out so they can photosynthesize food for themselves and get ready for next year. The little spears, uncut, will eventually become 3 to 4-foot-tall bushes with lots of tiny hair-like leaves; in the fall they produce little red berries. They will turn brown and die back in late fall, after which, if you have cold winters, you should mulch them under about 6 to 8 inches of grass clippings, straw, leaves, or other suitable material. Since it's a perennial, you can't run the tiller through the patch each year to mix in soil amendments. Instead, in late winter or very early spring, spread a mixture of manure, peat moss or compost, and either lime or sulfur depending on your soil conditions, over the top of the patch. Then use your fingers or one of those little hand rakes to work the amendments into the top inch or so of soil. The spring rains will make the nutrients percolate down to the roots. You may want to add a couple of inches of topsoil to the patch every 2-3 years also, if it looks like it's sinking. Properly cared for, an asparagus patch will produce spears for 15 to 25 years.

Green or Wax Beans

I used to grow pole beans under the assumption that they tasted, and yielded, better than bush beans, but in recent years as my garden soil has reached an unprecedented level of richness, I find I am getting at least as good results from bush beans without all the hassle of dealing with poles. If you want to do poles, you need tall ones--at least 7 feet tall, of which you must sink one foot into the ground. You can use one pole for every 3-4 plants. The vines will climb all the way up these poles and try to go higher. They'd probably go up to 8 feet or more, but then you'd have to bring in a stepladder, or another carload of chimpanzees, to harvest them. You'd probably fall off the ladder, or the chimps would pull down your poles with all their silly hopping about, scratching under their arms, and screeching. They'd probably eat the beans too, or maybe even throw them at you, all the while grinning and jabbering like...well, you know what they're like. The thing to remember is, when they get that big and bushy, they are HEAVY. The beans, that is, not the chimpanzees. They will easily pull down a wimpy-thin pole or one that isn't sunk in deep enough. Build to suit. Whether bush or pole, I plant beans in two parallel rows two feet apart in a 3-foot-wide raised bed. I make a trench about 1 inches deep with my hand and drop seeds in an inch apart. When the plants come up and have at least two good solid leaves, I thin them to about 8 inches apart. This is closer than usually recommended, but I find that when the plants get big and bushy, they completely crowd out the weeds and don't suffer any significant ill effects from being crowded themselves.

Carrots

I love raw carrots and like cooked ones. I usually tend to grow more carrots than I really want, but it's always fun to give them away and watch people's reactions when I hand them a carrot that's 8 inches long, 3 inches wide at the top and weighs two pounds. You, too, can produce these bizarre monstrosities. Here's how: Sift your soil. Carrots want to grow long and straight, and they do this early in their young lives, when their roots are still thin and wispy. Rocks will deter, stunt and twist them. To get long straight carrots, you need to go through the portion of the bed where you will be planting them with a fine-tooth comb, or better yet, your fingers, to a depth of 8 to 10 inches, and break up every little clod and take out every rock bigger than a half-inch long. Once you've done this, smooth the dirt level but don't pack it. Take a stick and make grooves 1/3 of an inch deep in the dirt for the length of the carrot section of your bed, and about 4 inches apart. I usually get 5 or 6 parallel grooves in a bed. Carrot seeds are very tiny, and no matter what you do, you're going to have to thin the plants out when they come up. But it pays to take your time and try to drop seeds individually about 1/3 of an inch apart in the grooves. When you've got all the seeds in the grooves, sprinkle dirt over them to fill them up, making sure not to cover any part of the grooves with rocks or hard clay, and pat them down firmly. Carrots can take about 3 weeks to come up, and in another couple of weeks you can thin them to about 1 inches apart. They will grow until mid-fall. The time to harvest is when the tips of the greens are just starting to wither, or when you're tired of the whole damn gardening thing and want to spend your weekend watching TV for a change, whichever comes first. By the way, don't over-water carrots; too much moisture makes them split.

Cucumbers

I don't always grow cukes. I like them, but it seems like I rarely find occasion to eat them. They tend to come fairly late in the season, long after the lettuce that would be their natural accompaniment in a salad is done, and when they do come, you usually get about 3 times as many as you need at any one time. I've grown pickling cukes and pickled them, but we never ate most of them. That's how it goes sometimes. Cucumbers can be kind of finicky; if they don't get just the right amount of water or sun at just the right time, they don't produce well. They are planted in "hills" like squash (see below), and they come in climbing or non-climbing varieties. Either way, allow plenty of space. They are essentially creeping vines, much like melons or pumpkins, and will send tendrils and creepers all over the place, infiltrating your other plants and, if the climbing variety, going up your garden fence or bean poles or tomato cages or whatever they can reach. I like the climbing type because I can set up some chicken wire between a couple of stakes and force them to use vertical space instead of horizontal area.

Lettuce

I actually haven't had much experience with lettuce, though I'm having a good year with it this year. The main thing about lettuce and other greens like spinach that I've learned is the "broadcast" method. You simply scatter seeds over the entire area where you want the greens to come up, and cover them with about a half inch of soil, patted down firmly. Then you thin out the plants to about 4 to 5 inches apart. This makes the best possible use of the available space and, when the plants reach full size, just about completely eliminates weeds. The other thing to know about lettuce is, plant early; it doesn't mind frost but it hates heat.

Garlic

You can never have too much garlic. Garlic is a tremendously beneficial plant. Before antibiotics were invented, there was a very effective class of infection-fighting drugs based on garlic. Garlic has also been shown to lower blood pressure. So the next time someone close to you complains about your garlic breath, ask them whether they'd rather have you stinky or dead. The conventional wisdom on garlic is that you should plant it in the fall and harvest it the next fall. When you do this, the plant's roots, which is the part you eat and which are frost-hardy, get a good start before the cold weather comes, so the next year they are able to grow fast and furious and produce large cloves. This, of course, assumes that they don't get flooded out by excessive rain the next spring, and that you don't mind having a big bed of garlic in your way when you're trying to amend and till your soil. This is way too untidy for me. I plant garlic in the spring and harvest that fall. Granted, I don't get very large cloves, but what I do get is exceptionally tasty and is good enough for me. Also, if you plant elephant garlic instead of the standard varieties, you'll get VERY large cloves even using my method. It is said that elephant garlic is not as pungent as standard garlic, but organic homegrown elephant garlic will out-garlic any garlic you can buy in a store. You need to buy garlic from a nursery, not from the supermarket. Supermarket garlic has been treated with an anti-sprouting agent that will keep most of the cloves from sprouting. To plant, you separate but do not peel the individual cloves, and push them down into the soil, pointy end up, until the tip is about an inch below the surface. Plant them in a grid to maximize efficient use of space, about 2 inches apart in each direction for standard garlic, about 4 inches apart for elephant garlic. Then cover them with dirt and, as with all plants except onions, pat the dirt down firmly over them. You'll start to see standard garlic shoots about 2 weeks after planting; elephant garlic can take up to a month to come up, so don't fret over that patch of bare ground.

Herbs

My herb garden is much younger than my veggie patch. Consequently, the soil has not been amended as often and so has not become nearly as rich. This is the fourth year for the herbs, and there are signs that this garden is beginning to take off. Still, I have much less experience with herbs than with other edible plants, so this section is kind of sketchy. The main thing I've learned about growing herbs for eating is that perennial isn't necessarily forever. Herbs that are perennials in my region, such as sage, oregano, and thyme, tend to start getting "woody" in the third year and don't produce a lot of edible leaves. I've taken to pulling them out and planting new ones after two years. Some herbs that are supposed to be perennial in my region, such as rosemary, actually won't survive the winter. And strangely enough, cilantro, the parsley-like herb whose seeds are known as coriander and which is popular in Mexican cuisine, especially salsa, can't stand hot weather at all; it bolts and sets seed almost immediately. I buy all my herbs as seedling plants due to my relatively short growing season.

Onions

I LOVE onions. I use a lot of them, fried with my summer squash, in tomato sauce, in salsa, raw in salads or burritos, and on and on. So I plant them in such a way as to get maximum yield for the space. I use onion plants, purchased from a nursery, and plant them in the first week of May. The one time I tried onion sets, almost none of them came up. That was the first year of my present garden, though, so the problem could have been inexperience and poor soil. Anyway, I've gotten used to plants and see no reason to drop them now, especially when I can get a flat of about 75 for $3.00. The plants are like little blades of grass, and I want them to grow to the size of softballs. How do I do that? Well, like most ballplayers, onions perform best when they're in the groove and not feeling any pressure. So I make a trench in my raised bed about an inch and a half deep, and lay the plants gently in the trench, roots at the bottom, greens protruding over the side. I plant white onions about 1 inches apart, because I plan to harvest most of them for scallions. Yellow and red onions I plant 4-5 inches apart. When I've laid out all the onions in a trench, I gently brush the dirt from the back side of the trench to the front, just until the roots are covered and the onions are standing vertical. I take care not to pack the dirt down at all. This will ensure that the onion bulbs can expand freely to maximum size. I usually get 5 or 6 parallel trenches in a 3-foot-wide bed. A word about onion varieties: These days you can get Vidalia or Walla Walla onion plants or sets just about anywhere in the US. But if you plant your Vidalias anywhere outside of Georgia, or Walla Wallas outside Washington State, what you're going to get is just another big yellow onion. These are separate varieties, but the secret of their famous "sweet" flavor lies in the chemistry of the soil where they were originally grown, not in their genetics. As far as flavor goes, you'll do just as well to grow the standard plants or sets that your local nursery "hatched".

Peas

I don't much care for peas but I keep trying for my wife's sake. Peas are supposed to be foolproof and easy, but I rarely have much luck with them. The heat of summer kills them, so they have to be planted very early, but too much rain before they sprout and they're drowned. The cold wet springs of the Northeast US make this an iffy proposition. I plant them about 2 inches deep and an inch apart in two parallel rows in a 3-foot-bed, and I set up chicken-wire pea fence between the rows. Some pea varieties need more support than others, but there's no such thing as "self-supporting" peas no matter what the seed package says. When the plants come up I thin them out to about 8 inches apart. I've tried every variety of peas I can get my hands on but only once in 15 years have I produced what I considered a crop worth my time. Still, there's always next year...

Peppers

Peppers are kind of hard to grow in the Northeast. They seem to like a combination of plenty of water and long hours of very hot, bright sunshine that is difficult to come by in these parts. But in recent years, as my soil has finally reached near-nirvana richness, I've been able to get pretty good results with both hot and sweet peppers. I've been growing green bell peppers and Hungarian yellow hot peppers for several years, and for the last couple of years I've also done well with cayenne peppers. All of these I start from plants bought from the nursery. I plant them in two parallel rows in a 3-foot-wide bed, about 12 inches apart. Again, this is closer than recommended, but I've had no ill effects. Toward the end of the season some of the plants will have to be staked up because the weight of the peppers will cause them to collapse. I use 3-ft. wooden stakes and pass a loop of string around the main stem of the plant and tie its ends to the stake.

Shallots

Also called "bunching onions", shallots are best understood as tiny, very strong onions. Sometimes they are described as "a cross between garlic and onions" but that's misleading. The larger ones sometimes have two "cloves" and can have hard, shell-like peels somewhat like garlic, but there is no resemblance to garlic at all when it comes to taste. Shallots are used more like an herb or seasoning than as a bulk vegetable, and they add a rich tang to many sauces or casseroles.

Spinach

See lettuce, above. Spinach is, if anything, even more finicky about heat than lettuce. You can stave off the inevitable bolting for a week or so by plucking off the little seed heads at the tops of the plants as soon as they form, but when you see tall stalks coming up that have hardly any leaves on them, those plants are done for, and it's time to pull them out and mulch their bed. Typically you'll be doing well to get a month's production from a planting of spinach.

Summer Squash

I hate winter squash and refuse to grow it, even for my wife. I do like zucchini and summer squash though (all zucchini is summer squash, but not all summer squash is zucchini; when I say "summer squash" I'm actually talking about some variety of yellow summer squash; the matter is further confused by the fact that you can have yellow zucchini and green summer squash), fried with onions, garlic and peppers, with a bit of white wine, and perhaps a few tomatoes. The main thing with summer squash is, you'd better have some place to get rid of it, because if you're any kind of gardener at all, you're going to have enough to supply the torpedo arsenal of a mid-sized European country, and if you don't check your plants every couple of days, you'll have squash big enough to do the job. You plant squash (and cucumbers for that matter) in "hills". It was a few years before I found out that "hill" in this context is a figure of speech. What it means is, you put five seeds into the ground in a circle about 3 inches in diameter, wait for the plants to come up, and pull out the four smallest ones. The height of the ground has nothing to do with it, though of course I plant them in raised beds. For summer squash you should space these "hills" about 2 to 3 feet apart. At this distance they will quickly create a jungle of growth so dense that not only will you not be able to find a weed between them, you will have trouble finding the damn squash unless you pick up and look under every leaf. By the way, the proper harvest size for zucchini or summer squash is no more than seven inches in length and 1 inches in diameter. Any larger and the seed-to-flesh ratio becomes too high; cook the larger ones and you'll have a pan of water that takes two hours to boil down to a mass about 1/6 the volume of your uncooked squash. They also grow like lightening. You really need to check those plants every day when they start producing, and save the "torpedoes" for the Dutch navy.

Tomatoes

Ah! This is what gardeners live for. I don't care where you live or where you shop, you simply cannot buy, for any money, a tomato that will taste anywhere near as good as the ones you grow at home. You also can't get really good tomato production until your soil reaches a fairly high level of richness. If this is your first year with your garden, don't be too surprised by paltry tomatoes; if you work your soil properly, it just gets better every year. There are "determinate" and "indeterminate" varieties of tomatoes. Determinate tomatoes will reach a set height and stop growing; indeterminate ones will just keep getting taller and bushier until the frost kills them. I know of no advantages or disadvantages between them as far as quality of the fruit; obviously, indeterminate plants are going to require more space and more support. There are lots of tomato types as well: cherry, patio, plum, standard, "beefsteak". For the most part, which to grow depends on your personal taste and circumstances. Cherry tomatoes are quite sweet but have thick skins; they will grow well in containers as well as in the ground and will start producing early; but their fruit is limited to less than an inch in diameter. Patio tomatoes are intended for container gardening; also called "ornamental" tomatoes, they produce early and yield fruit around 1 to 1 inches in diameter, but tend to have a fairly limited yield. Plum tomatoes are often described as best for sauce, as they are less juicy, more "meaty". Some people say they aren't as sweet as other types, but a homegrown plum tomato is still going to be sweeter than the sweetest store-bought tomato. "Beefsteak" tomatoes (including such varieties as "Beefsteak", "Big Boy", and "Better Boy") are bred for size, frequently reaching 6-7 inches in diameter. In my opinion, they reach this size by sacrificing sugar for starch; to me, they taste bland and have a somewhat grainy texture. I avoid them. In fact, I stick to the standard garden tomato for the most part, though my wife grows a few cherries each year in a big old barrel near the herb garden. There are three varieties that I have found to provide excellent sweet fruit in abundance over the years: Early Girl, Jet Star, and Celebrity. Each produces a large number of 3-4 inch tomatoes. I've also gotten good results with "4th. of July", a variety bred for early production, but since this plant produces fairly small fruit, I've decided it's not worth the space. I plant all my tomatoes in two parallel rows in a 3-foot bed, staggering the placement of the plants in each row and keeping them about 18 inches apart. This is much closer than the recommended placement, but my plants do fine. When all danger of frost is past (about mid-June for me) I put your standard drugstore "tomato cages" around each plant. This will keep them upright until about mid-summer, after which I will have to tie most of the cages to 6-foot wooden stakes driven at least a foot into the ground, else the weight of the tomatoes will collapse the plants, cages and all.