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ISTOCK seed potatoes

How to Start a Vegetable Garden with Your Family

With spring officially here, now is a great time to start a cool season vegetable garden with herbs, potatoes, onions and leafy greens. This is a great activity to bring the whole family outdoors for weeks on end, as you plant your seeds, watch them grow, and finally harvest mature veggies later this season. There are many plants that can be harvested quickly to enjoy the rewards of your work while you are waiting on your slower growing vegetables to mature, and all you need to get started is a small area with plenty of sunlight, seeds and a few supplies.

Virginia may still have some nights with frost, so at this point you will want to choose frost hardy plants that can tolerate the cool nights of spring. Greens, root vegetables and a variety of herbs are good picks. 

Cool season herb seeds, parsley, fennel and dill

Supplies

  • Shovel, hoe or small trowel
  • Organic compost, such as Bumper Crop (2 cu. ft. bag covers 25-50 sq. ft.)
  • Organic fertilizer, such as Plant-tone or Garden-tone (3.5 lbs. per 50 sq. ft.)
  • Cool season seeds
    • Herbs: Cilantro, dill, fennel and parsley
    • Leafy Greens: Cabbage, kale, loose-leaf lettuces and spinach are a few good picks. Loose-leaf lettuce will harvest quickly so are great picks for planting with your kids.
    • Root vegetables: Garlic, potatoes and onions

Prepare Your Garden Bed

Regardless of the crops you will be planting, you can set your plants up for success by preparing the soil in advance. To give your veggies a boost, turn up the soil in the area you will be planting with a hoe, shovel or trowel. Next, spread your organic compost over the area in a 1/2 inch to 1 inch layer and add about 3.5 lbs. of fertilizer per 50 sq. ft. of soil. Mix both into your turned up soil.

How to Start Seeds in the Ground

The plants suggested in this post are all frost hardy, and can handle some of the cool weather we may still experience between now and our final frost date later this season. You can work with other plants, but keep in mind that the average last frost date of our area is still several weeks away. You may need to take steps to keep non-frost hardy plants safe from the cold weather. 

Planting Steps

For more detailed instructions on direct sowing seeds in the ground, you can see our post on starting fall seeds. The method of direct sowing in the spring is the same.

  1. Review each seed packet before planting to make sure that you are planting at the correct depth and spacing. 
  2. Make a groove in the soil to the depth indicated on your seed packet. Sow seeds along the groove spaced according to the directions on your seed packet. 
  3. Cover the seeds gently with soil, and water carefully with a gentle spray of the hose or a watering wand.

When to Harvest

Most cool season vegetables are at their best when temperatures are 55-65 degrees and should be harvested before the arrival of summer heat. When temperatures jump into the 80’s, they may begin to flower. This causes the plant to produce fewer, less flavorful leaves. Gardeners call this ‘bolting’. Some herbs, such as fennel and dill have flavorful seeds and you can allow them to continue growing into the summer to enjoy their flowers and seeds.

Planting Onions, Potatoes and Garlic

Onions, potatoes and garlic are a bit different from our other cool season veggies in that you do not start them from a typical seed. Rather, you actually use part of a seed potato or dried onion or garlic bulb. Avoid using traditional potatoes, onion and garlic purchased from the grocery store as they are treated with sprout inhibitors to prevent them from sprouting on the shelf or in your pantry. 

ISTOCK seed potatoes

Seed Potatoes

  1. Prepare your seed potatoes for planting a couple of days ahead of time by cutting the potatoes into large pieces, each with one or two “eyes” 
  2. Spread them out to dry indoors for a couple of days to prevent rot once they are in the soil. 
  3. Place seed potato cuttings about a foot apart in holes approximately 2-3 inches deep, with the cut side down. Cover with soil.
  4. Water with a gentle spray of the hose or with a watering wand.

Dried Onions

Onions can be planted from seed, but onion sets, which are just dried onions, will mature much faster. 

  1. Plant your onion sets, placing bulbs approximately 6 inches apart and bury them no more than 1 inch deep in the soil. 
  2. Water with a gentle spray of the hose or with a watering wand.

Dried Garlic

Garlic is grown from the individual cloves. Each clove will produce one ‘head’ of garlic.

  1. Separate the head of garlic into individual cloves
  2. Plant each clove approximately 4 – 6 inches apart and bury them no more than 1 inch deep in the soil. 
  3. Water with a gentle spray of the hose or with a watering wand.

When to Harvest Garlic, Onions and Potatoes

Harvest your garlic and onion greens by pulling them out of the ground while they are still young, before they form bulbs. These are delicious in salads or as seasoning in other dishes. If you are growing them for the bulbs, leave them in the ground until summer, when the greens begin to yellow and fade. You should remove any flower buds so the plants will put more of their energy producing a larger bulb.

Harvest potatoes soon after the plants reach the flowering stage. At this time they are still small, thin skinned and called “new potatoes”. For larger, mature potatoes, wait until late summer or fall when the plants yellow and wither to the ground.

Feeding and Watering Your Plants

You can continue to fertilize your growing vegetables with an organic fertilizer throughout the growing season. Use 1/3 of a cup per plant, or 1 1/3 of a cup per 5 ft. row of plantings. 

When watering newly planted seeds, be careful about washing them away. It is best to use a gentle spray from a hose or a watering wand to keep them moist as they begin to sprout and develop roots. Try to check daily and see that the soil is moist and water when it begins to feel dry. After they have grown to be about three inches or more, it’s a good time to spread mulch around the plants. One to two inches of straw will help to prevent weeds, conserve moisture and prevent the soil from eroding or splashing on to your vegetables. Now that your vegetables and herbs are off to a strong start, you can begin to water more deeply and less often. Still, try to check in every 1-2 days to see what is new or may need attention. If you have any questions about caring for your vegetable garden, let us know! We are happy to provide tips and advice.

Radishes, Cool season vegetables

Growing Fall Root Vegetables

Fall is a wonderful time to grow root vegetables. Carrots, radishes, turnips and beets are easy to grow and add fresh flavor to our favorite seasonal dishes. Give your root veggies a leg up this year by taking a few extra steps to provide healthy soil and a healthy environment where they can grow throughout the fall season.

Preparing Soil for Root Veggies

Root vegetables are taproots, which means that they need garden beds free from rocks, soil clumps and debris that can deform the formation of the root. Before planting check your garden bed for any of these impediments and remove them. After doing this, check the pH of the garden bed. Some vegetables grow better at different pHs, and you may want to add lime to adjust the pH level of the soil. Radishes, for example, prefer a pH of 5.5-6.8.

Row plantings make weeding easier since you can use mulch or straw to prevent weeds between rows. You can put down more mulch during times when there is risk of frost for the added use of preventing your vegetables from freezing. This also lowers the amount of water needed to keep your plants healthy.

Wildlife and Pest Control

To prevent rabbits, gophers and deer from making snacks out of your vegetables, you may want to use a dried blood fertilizer such as Espoma Blood Meal. This organic fertilizer is made out of animal blood and works well as a deterrent to other wildlife. Netting and fencing can also keep out deer, and you can visit our blog post on deer proofing your garden for more ideas. 

Cabbage loopers and other pests on cruciferous vegetables veg (broc, cabbage, kohlrabi, kale, etc.) use B.T.

Watering

Watering regularly improves crop shape and flavor. Radishes especially will take on a woody flavor if they are underwatered, so it is important to water them consistently. If you let them dry, moisten the soil slowly over the course of a couple of days as drenching dry carrots and other root vegetables will cause them to split. For more information on watering, check out our watering instructions. 

Other Tips

When working in your vegetable garden, keep in mind that root veggies should be hand cultivated. Digging tools commonly used for working with other vegetables can damage the roots. 

Root vegetables can be overwintered with mulch. Pile the mulch up over the shoulders of the root where it emerges from the soil. Using row covers and cold frames is also a good way to keep your root veggie harvest going most of the winter.

Use successive plantings to ensure a constant harvest throughout the season. This means adding new seeds or plants every 2-4 weeks as the season goes on, which will ensure that you always have some tasty veggies ready for harvest.

You’ll Dig Growing Your Own Potatoes

David Yost, Merrifield Plant Specialist

I can’t imagine life without potatoes. Can you? Baked, mashed, boiled, fried … nutritious and delicious. I love them all.

Seed potatoes are very easy to grow. Now is the ideal time to plant them because they grow best during cool weather.

First of all, I must say that seed potatoes aren’t seeds. They’re actually small, undersized potatoes. But they’re very different from the ones you would find in grocery stores, which have been treated to prevent sprouting, making them unsuitable for planting. We carry seed potatoes with purple, yellow, red or brown skin. Just plant them directly in the ground, 2” deep and 12” apart.

If the seed potatoes are big enough, you can cut them into pieces to make even more. Each piece needs to have two to three buds or eyes and should be about 2” in diameter. When I cut seed potatoes, I allow the exposed flesh of the potato to air dry for a day or two before planting.

Seed potatoes grow fast and can be ready to harvest in 10 to 12 weeks when they begin to flower. If you’re patient and allow the plants to continue growing, you’ll be rewarded with even bigger potatoes later in the season. I like to plant them in early April and keep them in the ground until late August or early September. At this time, it may seem like your lush, healthy plants have died. But if you carefully dig into the soil, you’ll find your hidden treasure. The potatoes will seem drab, but put them under water and they’ll look like gem stones with their true colors revealed.

You’ll be surprised how good these potatoes taste. They’re juicy and creamy and fragrant. Life is good. But only if you take that first step and come to Merrifield Garden Center and buy seed potatoes while supplies last.