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Vegetable Gardening in New England

New England with its rocky terrain, acidic soil, humid summers, and cold winters may seem like a challenging locale for vegetable gardening, but keep in mind that almost every early colonist home had a cottage vegetable garden that produced much of a family’s seasonal vegetables.

Gardening Tips

New England is famous for its rocky, acidic soil, but soil types actually vary considerably. Even within your own yard, you may have pockets of clay or sandy areas. A few soils are even alkaline instead of acidic. Vegetables prefer a soil pH between 6.5 and 7. Before you start gardening, take a soil sample to a university extension office or commercial lab. If the pH level of the soil falls below this range, amend the soil with dolomitic limestone. The soil test results will offer suggested directions for applying limestone, but in general, apply five to ten pounds per 100 square feet of soil to raise the pH level one scale interval. Clay soils require more limestone than sandy ones. In addition to limestone, add two to three inches of compost or manure to your garden annually. These amendments improve fertility, texture, and drainage, which will create healthy, productive soil.

Most of New England lies within USDA Plant Hardiness zones 4 and 5, although northern Maine and Vermont have pockets of land within zone 3. Spring is wet and muddy and usually arrives between late April and May. Summers are warm and sometimes humid, with frequent rain. Autumn is the glory season, with warm, dry days and cool, crisp nights— ideal for producing New England’s legendary fall foliage. In most parts of New England, gardeners can count on a growing season around 120 days, or four months. This is long enough to grow almost any common vegetable.

Choose vegetable plants and seeds adapted to New England’s climate. In general, these plants mature quickly. Plant leafy greens and root crops in late March to April, but wait to plant warm-season crops, such as tomatoes, peppers, corn, and beans, until after the last expected frost—usually mid-to-late May.

Buy nursery transplants of tomatoes and peppers or start seeds indoors six to eight weeks before the last frost. Choose plants that are compact and stocky, with healthy green leaves and strong stems.

To get a head start on the growing season, use heat-saving devices, such as hoop tunnels, floating row covers, and cold frames. Try Wall-O-Water cloches over tomatoes and peppers. These plastic, water-lined cloches create a mini-greenhouse effect and can protect tomatoes and peppers from all but the coldest weather. Your plants will grow more quickly and produce fruit sooner. Remove the cloches when temperatures rise above seventy-five degrees though, or you’ll burn the plants.

Another option for warming the soil is to lay black plastic over the soil several weeks before planting time. Install soaker hoses underneath the plastic and secure it with rocks or clips. Snip small holes in the plastic to insert seeds or plants. Black plastic warms the soil by more than ten degrees, making it possible to plant earlier. It also conserves moisture and keeps down weed growth. Black plastic is ideal for growing cucurbits, including summer squash, cucumbers, pumpkins, and melons. It also works well with tomatoes and peppers. One caveat: the plants must be large enough to shade the black plastic when the heat of summer arrives; otherwise the black plastic gets very hot and can burn plants. Use established plants or sow seeds early.

Summers in New England are blessed with frequent rains, but plan to irrigate at least weekly during dry spells. Use soaker hoses or drip systems instead of overhead irrigation, which wastes water and encourages disease.

Plan to fertilize your garden two or three times during the growing season. Wait until after fruiting vegetables, such as tomatoes and squash, produce blossoms. Then, apply a balanced vegetable garden fertilizer every three to four weeks until frost arrives.

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Cold winters help control disease and insect pests, but humid summers can cause problems, especially if you live near a body of water. Plant disease-resistant crops and provide adequate water and nutrition to encourage vigorous plants, which are better able to fight off disease. Avoid working in the garden when it’s wet, which can spread disease. Rotate garden crops and clean out your garden completely in the fall. Hand-pick and destroy beetles and horn worms or use Bt. Thwart aphids and leafhoppers by applying a steady stream of water or insecticidal soap or oil.

Choosing Vegetables

Leafy greens: Almost any leafy green will grow well in the New England garden. These crops become bitter when temperatures rise or if the soil is dry, so plant early and irrigate if necessary to maintain consistent moisture. Plant again in late summer for a fall crop.

Root vegetables: Plant carrots, radishes, turnips, potatoes, and onions in mid spring. Keep the soil moist and cultivate carefully.

Tomatoes: Cherry and grape tomatoes mature more quickly than large varieties and suffer fewer problems with pollination. But, most tomato varieties will grow in New England and benefit from a slightly acidic soil. Try planting several types, including grape tomatoes, fresh slicing tomatoes, and paste tomatoes.

Peppers: Bell peppers need a lot of moisture to produce their thick, juicy fruit. Plant several varieties after the last frost.

Brassicas: Broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts prefer cool temperatures and moist, rich soil, making them an ideal crop for New England in the spring. They prefer soil on the alkaline side, so amend your soil if the pH falls below 6.0.

Berries: Raspberries and blueberries thrive in New England, along with June-bearing strawberries. Since blueberries need acidic soil, plant them away from your vegetable garden and don’t add limestone to raise the pH.

Grapes: European grapes won’t tolerate New England’s cold winter, but American grapes, such as Concord, thrive here. Grapes are a long-term planting, so plan your grape arbor carefully. Grapes need full sun and grow best in a location sheltered from wind and cold. Plant them with a north-to-south orientation so the sun falls evenly over all the plants, and be sure to prune them annually.

Rhubarb: Rhubarb is a perennial vegetable used as a fruit. A plant or two is sufficient for most gardeners. Plant in full sun. Remember: the leaves and immature stems are toxic.

Asparagus: Asparagus takes several years to mature, but the eventual payoff is worth the initial investment. Plant asparagus in light, well-draining soil and buy one-year-old crowns to get a head start on the growth.

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