When Andrea Zuercher decided to grow vegetables this year for the first time, she looked closely at her small, mostly shaded yard and decided to do the best she could with the available space.
Zuercher’s fall garden — a small but adequately sized patch of lettuce — is being planted right next to her purple coneflowers and false indigo.
Lettuce and other leafy greens can typically be planted as late as the first week of September in our area and still produce a crop before freezing temperatures. There is also still time to plant a few other quickly maturing vegetables, including onions, radishes and turnips, although the plants may need to be covered on frosty nights.
Even though it’s Zuercher’s first year to grow edibles in her landscape, she’s learned plenty from growing flowers, shrubs and trees over the years.
“When I started, I didn’t know about amending the soil,” Zuercher says. Now, she realizes how important soil improvement is to the overall health of the plant. Incorporating compost or organic matter like chopped leaves helps to loosen tight clay soils and make nutrients more available to plants.
Once the soil is prepared, just follow the instructions on the seed packet. When plants first emerge, they may need a little extra water to keep their roots from completely drying out. Zuercher’s new lettuce patch is near the rain barrel if she should need any supplemental water this fall.
Earlier this year, Zuercher planted tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, pole beans and several herbs. Her goal was to supplement what she normally purchased at the Lawrence Farmers’ Market and to supplement her other hobby of cooking. The herbs provided more than enough leaves to cook with and freeze in the form of pesto, and the other produce is keeping her busy.
Zuercher did a good job of starting small. Her few pole beans plants grow on stakes that lean on each other for support like a small tent. Basil and sage grow nearby with maidengrass (an ornamental) as a backdrop. The other edibles were planted in large flower pots. Just a few tomato and pepper plants have supplied the household, and 16 cucumber plants, planted four per pot, have yielded enough cukes to make 12 quarts of pickles.
Zuercher and I wholeheartedly agree on one tip for new gardeners: Plant what you like to eat. Another suggestion is to look at as a learning process.
“That’s why I’m doing it, to learn,” Zuercher says with a laugh.
Her one tomatillo plant provided the best learning experience this year. The plant grew tall and healthy, bloomed profusely and produced the little paper shell that typically cover tomatillos but remains fruitless. Turns out that two tomatillo plants are necessary for good fruit production; the flowers are self-sterile.
I suspect Zuercher will continue to learn from her garden, maybe even as she enjoys a fresh salad this fall.
— Jennifer Smith is the Douglas County Extension Agent – Horticulture for K-State Research and Extension and can be reached at 843-7058.