Blue Ribbon Basics: A Planting Checklist

By Jodi Torpey | January 03, 2016
Blue Ribbon Vegetable Garden

Know Your Soil
The smart start for growing award-winning vegetables is to get your soil tested. A complete soil test, which involves taking samples and sending them to a lab, isn’t difficult. It’s worth the small effort to help you manage the nutrient and fertilizer needs of your prizewinning veggies. Just think, no more guessing.

A soil test provides you with the levels of the major nutrients — nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium — and sometimes trace elements. It gives the pH level, which tells you whether your soil is alkaline (high pH), acidic (low pH), or neutral (just right). In dry regions where soils may contain high levels of salts, a good soil test will indicate the salinity of your soil samples. The results will help you amend the soil with the right nutrients.

Dig in With Compost
If you want to grow prizewinning fruits and vegetables, compost is your go-to organic soil amendment. Made from everyday household and yard waste, this rich, crumbly material improves soil structure and helps grow healthier plants. Compost adds slow-release nutrients, helps the soil retain nutrients from added fertilizers, and helps maintain soil moisture. In fact, compost can be the answer to most gardening dilemmas, whether you garden in heavy clay soil or struggle with the sandy stuff. So dig in with compost to improve soil fertility, to encourage the beneficial critters in your soil, and to give your gardening efforts a boost in the process.

Plant in the Sunniest, Sheltered Spots
Vegetable gardens need 6 or more hours of direct sun each day. With 5 hours, you can still grow most vegetables, but it’s hard to produce prizewinners of anything except leafy greens. Find an area that’s also protected from wind, if possible.

Prepare the Planting Bed
Vegetables grow best in loamy soil that contains lots of organic matter. Add a layer of organic matter like good-quality compost or well-aged manure (four or more months old, or purchase composted manure) to increase the soil’s ability to hold moisture and nutrients. Organic matter will also improve the texture of sandy or clayey soils. Spread at least an inch of compost or other organic matter over the entire bed, even more for a new garden, if possible. Be sure to dig it in at least 6 to 8 inches deep. And, whatever you do, don’t walk on the garden soil. Soil compaction limits root growth.

Make the Most of Short Growing Seasons
Your growing season is typically defined as the number of frost-free days you have for planting and growing. If you have a short growing season (like I do), you’ll need to pay attention to the number of days to maturity for the fruits and vegetables you plant. You can also use season extenders (cold frames, plant protectors filled with water, high or low tunnels, and row cover) to get started sooner.
If you lack heat in the garden, make the most of your microclimates. Look for those naturally warmer areas of your growing space, such as the south-facing side of your house or next to a heat-absorbing fence or wall. Raised
planting beds are also naturally warmer because all the sides are exposed. Planting in any of these ways can help you get a jump-start on the season.

Use a Soil Thermometer 
A soil thermometer is a valuable but underused tool that takes the guesswork out of when to plant. It’s more reliable than planting by average frost dates or by the calendar. When used to measure soil temperature, a thermometer can give you the go-ahead to plant cool-season crops when the soil warms to an optimum 35 to 40 deg. F. It can stop you from planting peppers before the soil has warmed to the 55 or 60 deg. F needed for these heat-lovers to grow well.

Buy Good-Quality Plants or Start from Seeds
If you purchase transplants, look for the healthiest plants with stocky stems and without any fruit already formed. Make sure transplants have been well tended; look for moist soil and nicely formed roots. Healthy transplants makes for a healthier garden.

If you want to grow unusual varieties, you’ll probably need to start them from seeds. In some areas, seeds for plants like tomatoes and peppers need to be started indoors, allowing plenty of time for plants to get to the transplant stage in advance of the contest. Other seeds, like squash seeds, are sown directly into the garden by following the planting instructions on seed packets. It’s important to follow the spacing recommendations, too.

Some seeds, like those for beans and cucumbers, germinate faster if they’re soaked in water overnight. If you don’t see seedlings after a week or so, plant again right away.

Follow Fertilizer Guidelines
For high-quality produce you may need to fertilize once a month, especially during the prime growing season. Use the fertilizer of your choice or a recommendation from your favorite gardener. Some prefer fish emulsion and seaweed extract; others use fruit- or vegetable-specific organic formulas. There are many all-purpose water soluble plant foods on the market, too. Whatever you use, follow the recommended rates of application (or dilution, for liquid formulas). Too much fertilizer makes plants more attractive to pests and can interfere with fruit production (and your tomatoes won’t taste as good). The key is to keep plants well fed.

Prepare for Next Spring 
Prepare garden beds in fall to anticipate the next growing season. Layer leaves, compost, and fertilizer on the bed, and then turn under into the soil. You can also dig trenches in the beds; pile in compost, dry leaves, and fertilizer; and cover these with soil. The compost and leaves will decompose and leave the soil more fertile for spring. Some gardeners plant cover crops like winter rye, hairy vetch, or clover to boost soil organic matter and fertility.

Excerpted from Blue Ribbon Vegetable Gardening (c) Jodi Torpey. Photographs by (c) Ryan Donnell. Used with permission of Storey Publishing.