Plant yourself! Local nurseries offer tips for making your vegetable garden grow

Gardening has long been a popular hobby for homeowners, but with the coronavirus making people worry about the safety of their food, area garden centers have seen a sharp rise in the number of first-time gardeners buying supplies to help them start growing their own produce.

What kinds of plants and how many you can put in depends on a few factors, not the least of which are sun, soil, and time. If you are starting out small, consider a few raised beds (some you can buy include a self-watering system) or container/pot gardening. Deciding what plants you want is highly personal but it also helps determine the size garden you will need.

The first thing gardeners must do before sowing any seeds is find a sunny spot, as most vegetables and fruit will do best with at least eight hours of sun. It then comes down to soil preparation by checking the ph level of your soil and adding the necessary organics and soil additives, says Bob Ferrigno, co-owner of Treeland Garden Center & Nursery in Bridgeport. If you don’t know your soil’s ph level, you can bring in a coffee can filled with soil for free testing, according to Ferrigno, who says, “The ideal ph level for Connecticut should be 6.5. Once your ph is correct and your [agricultural] lime and soil conditioner are added to the soil, you are ready to plant.”

Garden centers carry seedlings that were begun weeks earlier in greenhouses, which will cut down on the total growing time until harvest; the other option is to buy seed packets. Many seeds can be directly sown into the ground outside while others are best started indoors. Some plants, like beans, are temperamental and will get transplant shock if started indoors in small pots and then moved outdoors, so read the backs of the seed packets for instructions before purchasing.

If starting seeds indoors, a daylight bulb placed in a light fixture, or a grow lamp, to provide artificial sunlight and a heat mat underneath (they usually are sold with a thermometer to check the soil temperature) will be useful. Vegetable seeds usually like a soil temperature of 70 to 80 degrees. Temperatures too low will negatively affect how well seeds will germinate. Be sure to buy a quality potting mix; your average yard soil will be too heavy to grow seedlings in.

Crops that tolerate or prefer cool weather — such as lettuce, broccoli, cabbage, and kale — can be started outdoors in May but most crops, particularly tomatoes, squash, or cucumbers, should not be put into the ground until the soil temperatures at night are consistently over 50 degrees.

After planting, it’s important to water regularly to keep soil moist but not overly wet to reduce fungus growth, and to feed plants as they need a mix of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Feeding plants these additives every second or third week ensures they have the energy to produce food.

Jonathan Kirschner, director of agriculture at Ambler Farm in Wilton, cautions that new gardeners should manage their expectations as even farmers can have crop failures, whether from fungus, weather conditions, or insects.

“Gardening is a process and takes time. You’re not going to jump in and grow everything that you eat your first year,” he says.

When it comes to choosing plants, Kirschner advises home gardeners to grow what excites them, as they will then want to put the work into tending the garden. “I always tell people that they should grow things that they love; so if you like lettuce, then grow some lettuce. If you prefer tomatoes, then you should grow tomatoes.”

Darlene Granese, greenhouse manager of Van Wilgen’s Garden Center with locations in Milford, North Branford, Guilford, and Old Saybrook, says it’s best for people to send her a sketch of their planned garden area and its size so she and her staff can help people figure out how to plant the space. She adds, “Raised bed gardens might not be suitable for most tomato varieties as they tend to grow large and need to be staked, and squash also takes up a lot of room.”

Some plants, like lettuce, won’t take up much room and should be spaced about 12 to 15 inches apart, while larger vine growing plants, such as eggplant and tomatoes, need to be planted 2½ to 3 feet apart. Dwarf and compact varieties of certain species can make them good for container gardening however, and some plants require more effort than others: tomatoes have to be staked and pruned often, for example.

Gardening has always been therapeutic, but now, in the wake of the pandemic, homeowners are getting back to basics. “We have seen a lot more people wanting to do their own gardening, especially if they have kids at home,” Granese says. “Parents want to keep everyone safe, and they want to know the food they are feeding their families is safe, so many are starting their own gardens this year.”

10 tips to grow your own vegetable garden, from Eugene Reelick, partner at Hollandia Nursery in Bethel:

1. Before starting a new garden, find a sunny spot in which to plant your vegetables; they like a lot of sun

2. Ask your local independent nursery to recommend a soil that has a good blend of compost, peat moss, perlite, top soil (if you’re planting in an existing garden, send your soil out to a university, such as UConn, Cornell, or Penn State, to be tested)

3. Start with pre-grown plants, and choose vegetables that are easy to grow: Cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, onions, and celery, for example

4. Cover your plant beds with weed fabric, which not only helps prevent weeds but also reflects the heat back into the plants

5. Install a fence 12 inches down into the ground and 12 inches out from the plants to keep out rodents

6. Fertilize your garden once in the spring with a fertilizer like “Plant-tone”

7. Really soak/water your garden in the morning, but don’t water it again during the day; too much water can kill the plants

8. Container gardens are great for kids and adults; buy big containers in different heights and sizes, which will give your container garden more character, and place them in full sun

9. Plant “thrillers,” like tomato plants, in the middle; “fillers,” like pepper and basil, around the thrillers; and “spillers,” such as cucumbers, around the edges of the pots (eggplant, cauliflower, and squash are also good for container pots)

10. Smart small — Keep your home garden a hobby, as you want it to be fun, and not become a chore!