Keeping Vegetable Plants Happy All Summer Long

Sure, they may be off to a great start, but for some veggies, the plant’s work is really just beginning. Here are some hints to make sure you have some of the biggest and the most delicious vegetables in Boone County:

Tomatoes:
It takes a lot of nutrients to make those big juicy fruits! Make sure you feed your plants a healthy ring of compost 4 inches around your plant and treat them to a fish emulsion cocktail every two weeks (around ½ gallon water plus a capful of the stuff, but best to follow the directions on the bottle). Water deeply, but less often, encouraging deep root growth and a healthier plant through the late summer. Beware of too much nitrogen, as it will give you all leaves and little fruit. Yellow leaves or weak, spindly plants could be your clue that you are actually in need of it.

Cucumbers:
Spoil your cucumbers with some shade cloth if they are suffering in the hot afternoon sun. Cucumbers are delicate plants and they need to be watered more often than anything in your garden. Just think about how watery a cucumber is! It has to come from the sky or your hose, and if you want to avoid bitter cukes, be consistent. Don’t let the plants suffer only to be rescued from their wilt. Keep them happy and your flavor will be fine. For a boost and an extended harvest, give them a layer of compost, sulfate of potash (potassium), and a side of seaweed. Yes, seaweed. Kelp liquid and granular fertilizers are wonderful for your cucumbers (among other crops), just follow the package directions and enjoy the results.

Carrots:
If your soil is good and alive with nutrients, carrots actually do want you to sit and sip the summer away while they quietly (and slowly) grow. Always worth the wait and wonder, carrots are a sure bet if you are patient enough to see them through to germination. But if you fear your soil is not up to snuff, go ahead and give them a fertilizer high in potassium and phosphorus but low in nitrogen as too much nitrogen can cause them to split their root and be “hairy.” And for your next planting, go ahead and throw some sand in the mix, as well.

Zucchini:
Similar to carrots, if your soil is rich, your zucchini may not need a summertime feeding, but who doesn’t like a snack once in a while? Go ahead and add some compost around your plants, as well as a nice drink of that fish emulsion cocktail to see what they can really do. A zucchini or summer squash plant can produce over 10 pounds of fruit with a little encouragement. Your neighbors will be thrilled when you come knocking as you try to find someone — anyone — to help you make room in your fridge. And remember, flavor is best when harvested at just 6 inches or smaller.

Peppers:
Again, nitrogen can be your enemy here, as you want peppers, not leaves, so beware of a 10-10-10, or other equal part, synthetic fertilizer. It’s best to go with a nice ring of compost around your pepper plants. Compost is the best of fertilizers because it enriches your soil for seasons to come and increases its biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers might help your current plant, but in the long run, they are not good for your garden, and can burn your plants if over-applied or if they touch the stem or leaves.

Beyond these tips, almost all plants enjoy a nice, cool covering of mulch as the dog days of summer approach, so make sure you invest in a few bags, or even a truckload. Be generous, but leave an inch or two just around the base of the plant. Mulching will cut down on your need to water and save your back from pulling all those weeds. If success still alludes you, it’s time for a soil test. Missouri “soil” can be full of clay, rocks and tree roots, and you may need to invest in some raised beds with a fresh recipe of compost, vermiculite and peat moss. If you build it now, you can have an amazing fall planting, so don’t give up hope on growing your own vegetables.

Please join us in welcoming Jennifer Roberts, our newest columnist and contributor. Jennifer can be found most days behind her lens as a photographer or talking plants and dirt at Wilson’s Garden Center.