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How to get the most out of your vegetable garden

Don’t let that tomato linger on the vine too long; regular picking encourages the plant to produce more fruit.
Don’t let that tomato linger on the vine too long; regular picking encourages the plant to produce more fruit.

Vegetable gardens can be found in backyards across the city. No matter how big or small the garden, vegetables will produce better with just a little care.

▪ Stay on top of the weeds: Weeds grow quickly and can choke out the vegetables. They are easiest to eradicate while small. The bigger they get, the more they compete with your plants for water, nutrients and sunlight.

Weeds can be removed by hand or a light cultivation. Chemical herbicides are available but usually are not necessary for small plantings. Good cultural practices should be the first defense.

▪ Mulch is the gardeners friend: We often think of mulching our landscape beds, but many gardeners overlook the value in the vegetable garden. Mulch is your best defense against weed growth. It also reduces water loss and keeps the soil cooler, which helps the plant develop strong roots.

The best mulches in a vegetable garden are those that last just one season. Grass clippings, shredded leaves saved from fall or straw work great. The mulch layer should be about 3 inches deep and cover all the open soil areas. Materials that break down as the season progresses create additional organic matter to improve the soil and can be simply worked into the ground at the end of the season. This gives you a leg up on the start of the next year.

Mulches that are traditionally used in the landscape, such as wood chips, do not break down rapidly. If they are incorporated into the soil, they rob the plants of nitrogen as they decompose. This will reduce the plants’ growth unless more nitrogen is applied.

Mulch vegetable gardens
For vegetable gardens, use mulches like grass clippings that degrade quickly. Adele Wilcoxen

▪ Provide even moisture: Since vegetables have a short season to produce, it is important that they have continual growth. Plants that are stressed by hot, dry weather will set less fruit, and it will be of lower quality.

Vegetable gardens do best with about 1 inch of water per week. This keeps the upper level of the soil, where the majority of the roots are located, moist.

There are several ways to water; pick the option best for you. But keep in mind that moisture on the foliage for long periods of time can cause more diseases, especially with tomatoes. It is best to water early so foliage has time to dry before nightfall.

Another way to avoid wetting the foliage is to use surface irrigation. This can range from a drip system or simply letting the hose flood around the base of the plants.

▪ Harvest regularly: Life gets busy but don’t forget to reap the fruits of your labor. Failure to pick reduces the plants’ ability to set additional fruits. And what’s better during summer than bringing in a basket of fresh-picked vegetables for the table?

Dennis Patton is a horticulture agent with Kansas State University Research and Extension. Got a question for him or other university extension experts? Email them to