weeding the vegetable garden (14075 bytes)

Maintaining the Vegetable Garden

By Nana Kindler, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension agent, horticulture

By now most vegetable gardens have been prepared and planted. Garden chores are piling up, the tomatoes and zucchini squash are growing in the warm soil and weeds are everywhere.

Garden maintenance becomes a labor of love as gardeners across the state try to keep young plants properly watered and growing strong while staying ahead of the weeds.

Watering the garden doesn't have to be a chore. Keeping some basic concepts in mind can make it less time consuming and more efficient.

  • Remember that high temperatures, low humidity, wind and the sun contribute to the evaporation of water. Water droplets from a sprinkler head or hose nozzle may evaporate before they touch the soil. To minimize evaporation, water the garden when the air is still, in the early morning hours or during the cool evening (*keep leaves dry to prevent the spread of disease). Use a nozzle that produces large droplets rather than a fine spray. As plants grow, they need more water because more leaves equals more loss of water from these leaves. This is known as transpiration.

  • As the season progresses most plants will need more water. If too much water is applied, however, soluble fertilizer can be leached from the soil. When plants are small, only the soil around their root systems should be kept moist; toward the end of the growing season soil down to 1 foot or more should be kept moist. Avoid frequent, shallow watering because this hinders deep root development. Apply water uniformly and slowly to prevent runoff and erosion. If in doubt about when to water, check your soil by sampling it: dig down carefully, making a narrow deep hole 1 foot or more away from the plant and about 4 to 12 inches deep to where the plants' roots grow. Squeeze some soil into a ball in the palm of your hand. If it holds together, there is enough moisture. If it crumbles, it's time to water. If the hose has been lying in the sun, let the water run for a few seconds on a stone or on a mulched area until the water comes out cool.

  • Mulches will preserve soil moisture. Many types are available. For best results, use landscape fabric, secured with metal pins; then cover the fabric with a wood chip product 4 to 6 inches deep. For an inexpensive mulch use newspaper, dry grass clippings or composted leaves watered lightly to stop the wind from blowing it to other areas of your yard. Mulching the paths between rows not only preserves moisture, but also keeps weeds down (while helping to keep your shoes mud-free).

  • Weeding is a job few people like unless it is a team effort. Mulching will help, but some weeds will persevere and will need to be removed by hand. The key here is to be just as persistent in scouting and pulling weeds as the weeds are persistent in finding spaces to invade. The proud and avid gardener goes out into the garden frequently to check the plants' progress, scout for weeds and insects, see if plants need water and to enjoy being outdoors. * Some vegetables need to be trained to upright structures for best results. These include tomatoes that take up less room when supported by cages. Cucumbers, pole beans and peas also can be trained on fences, trellises or poles. Get this task out of the way early since it is difficult to untangle plants once they are older.

  • Fertilizer generally is needed to keep plants growing strong but use caution to prevent overfertilizing because melons, cucumbers, squash and tomatoes are sensitive to high applications of nitrogen or manure. Excessive growth can delay fruiting in these plants.  Rely on an accurate soil test to determine nutrient elements to add.

  • Generally, avoid the use of lawn clippings containing pesticides and fertilizers containing herbicides on vegetables or in composting. Keep in mind that soils vary greatly from one site to another. Read and follow all label instructions for garden products.

While these tasks seem time-consuming, an hour of work per day usually is enough for a small home vegetable garden. Not only will the fruits of your labor be beautiful and delicious, but gardening is something everyone in the household can enjoy.

Photo: Duane Howell

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Date last revised: 01/05/2010