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
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
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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