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Vegetable Gardening For Beginners

fresh garden vegetables

A successful vegetable garden requires time and attention. But, with the right direction and some patience, even a beginner gardener can have a bountiful harvest all season long.

Site Selection

Plants convert the energy from the sun to into sugars for growth. Most vegetables need at least 10 hours of sunlight and need a location that is not shaded by buildings or trees. Access to water also is an important consideration; if a faucet isn’t present nearby, a rain barrel might be an option.

Planting Zones

West Virginia’s climate makes it excellent for vegetable production. Summers are warm enough for warm-season crops, yet there is a true spring and fall to allow for production of cool-season crops. The planting zones map is an estimation of the climate conditions in a given area (Figure 1).  It is used to help predict proper planting times for various crops based on the area’s first and last frost date. Planting zones consider elevation and other factors. Most cool-weather crops can survive frost or light freezes, but planting of warm-season crops should be delayed until after the last expected frost for an area. Gardeners can start seeds for warm-season crops indoors and plant seedlings outdoors after danger of frost has passed.

Here are more details about each of West Virginia’s planting zones:

Figure 1 – West Virginia Planting Zones Map

map of west virginia divided by zones

Zone A

  • 145-day growing season
  • Frost-free date: May 10
  • First killing frost: October 5

Zone B

  • 160-day growing season
  • Frost-free date: April 30
  • First killing frost: October 10

Zone C

  • 180-day growing season
  • Frost-free date: April 20
  • First killing frost: October 20

Types of Gardens

If you aren’t interested in a traditional in-ground garden due to lack of space, limited mobility or personal preference, there is a vast array of other options.

Container gardens can be as simple as a flowerpot or a window box of herbs. An important consideration for containers is that enough room is provided for the plant’s roots to expand and to provide drainage in the bottom. Remember this issue and choose a container large enough for the mature plant and its developed root system. If you plan on moving the container, consider the final weight of the soil, container and plant. Most vegetables can do well in containers – tomatoes, lettuce, potatoes, peppers and herbs are some of the most common.

Vertical gardens provide visual appeal and trellised support for vines and fruit, such as peas, beans, cucumbers and small melons, and they are a great way to save space as well. When plants are grown in a limited soil volume, they are more likely to dry out; ensure that all container plants are watered as needed.

Raised beds have many benefits for a home gardener. Their soil temperature warms quicker than an in-ground garden, which allows planting earlier in the spring, and generally, they have improved drainage. Additionally, gardeners can easily add hoops or covers to provide additional frost and freeze protection for affordable season extension of vegetable production (Figure 2). Raised beds also allow for intensive production with many plants carefully planned in a small amount of space. They are well-suited to perennial vegetables, fruits, flowers and herbs.

In-ground gardens are still a popular option and allow for a large amount of vegetables to be produced. The use of crop rotation, plastic mulches and irrigation or drip tape may be beneficial for some crops.

Figure 2 – Raised beds can easily be constructed from many types of framing materials

exterior raised beds covered exterior raised beds uncovered

Soil and Fertility

Plant roots prefer loose, well-drained soil high in well-decomposed organic matter. If using manure, only use a composted form or apply green manure in the fall after harvest to allow enough time for breakdown before spring planting. The first step to determining your crop fertilizing needs is to test your soil. The WVU Soil Testing Lab offers free basic soil testing for West Virginia residents and will make recommendations based upon your soil and crop needs. Most vegetables thrive in a pH of 6 to 7. The soil test will indicate your soil pH and recommend if you need lime to increase the pH as many West Virginia soils are acidic.

Nitrogen (N) is responsible for a plant’s green color and is used for growth in all parts of the plant. Phosphorus (P) is essential for plant health, root growth and seed development. Potassium (K) is used for water and nutrient transport in plants and makes fruits sweeter. Fertilizers list three numbers, which are the percentages of N-P-K. 10-10-10 would be 10% each of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, and a 50-pound bag of 10-10-10 would therefore have 5 pounds of each nutrient. A 19-19-19 would have almost twice the nutrients but may not be twice as expensive, so it is important to understand what you are buying. Home gardeners likely need a much smaller quantity of fertilizer. It is often recommended to work in a small amount at planting and add additional fertilizer later once the plant is a few inches tall to feed the roots. Too much or too little of a nutrient can kill a plant, so it is always best to soil test to see what your needs are.

Planting

Some plants do better when seeds are sewn directly into the garden once the temperature is warm enough to plant. These include beets, carrots, cucumber, beans, lettuce, peas, radish, squash and turnips. Others are best started in a container and transplanted. You can start these yourself or purchase them. Crops typically grown from transplants include broccoli, cabbage, eggplant, pepper, tomato and many herbs. Choose healthy plants showing no signs of disease or insect damage, and handle them carefully. Plant them slightly deeper than the soil line on their container and loosely press the soil around them. Tomatoes can be planted deeper than the soil line on their container as they will continue to form roots up their stem.  Melons, squash and cucumbers can easily be grown from seed but are also sold as transplants.

Insects and Diseases

Prevention is the key for pest and disease control. Integrated pest management (IPM) attempts to prevent problems and combines cultural controls to limit pest and disease damage before applying pesticides. Some examples gardeners can do include choosing disease resistant varieties, rotating crop locations, purchasing healthy plants, sterilizing tools and equipment, using proper plant spacing to allow proper air flow which decreases disease, trellising if possible, watering plants near the base and in the morning, managing weeds by use of mulch or weeding, scouting for pests and eliminating them early while their numbers are low, and obtaining correct identification of insects or diseases when it occurs. Samples or pictures can be sent your local WVU Extension Service office for identification, if needed. If pesticides are needed, always read and follow all label instructions. Insecticides should never be applied to crops in bloom as it may prevent pollination and harm pollinators.

Cool-Season Crops

Cool Season

Plant

Days to Harvest

Notes

Suggested Varieties

Asparagus

March 25

Begin harvest third year

Perennial

Jersey Giant, Purple Passion

Beets

April 1

50-70

Succession plant every two to three weeks

Red Ace, Pacemaker III, Touchstone Gold (yellow), Kestrel, Chioggia

Bok Choy (Chinese cabbage)

May 11

45-55

 

Joi Choi, Win Choi, Mei Qing Choi

Broccoli

April 6

50-65

 

Gypsy, Arcadia, Emerald Crown, Lieutenant, Imperial, Major

Brussels Sprouts

 

80-120

 

Jade Cross, Prince Marvel

Cabbage

April 6

60-90

 

Bronco, Bravo, Charmant, Cheers, Savoy Ace, Caraflex

Carrots

April 20

60-80

 

Hercules, Mokum, Sugarsnax 54, Nectar, Napoli, Bolero

Cauliflower

April 6

55-80

 

Snow Crown, Cheddar (orange), Graffiti (purple)

Collard greens

April 2

60-85

 

Top Bunch, Georgia, Vates, Champion

Kale

April 2

70-80

Succession plant every two to three weeks

Red Russian, Winterbor, Tuscan

Kohlrabi

April 3

55-70

 

Kolibri (purple), Winner

Leeks

March 20

75-130

 

King Richard, Lanceot, Bandit, Tadorna (winter

Lettuce

April 10

45-75

Succession plant every two to three weeks

Buttercrunch (bibb), Sierra (bibb), Red Sails (leaf), Monte Carlo

Napa Chinese Cabbage

May 4

60-75

 

Jade Pagoda, Blues, Mirako, Nikko

Peas

March 19

55-80

Succession plant every two to three weeks

Shell: Knight, Frosty

Sugar snap: Cascadia, Sugar Anne

Radish

March 20

25-60

Succession plant every two to three weeks

Cherry Bell, Cherriette

Spinach

March 20

45-60

Succession plant every two to three weeks

Tyee, Melody, Space, Bloomsdale

Sweet Onions

Green Onions

April 1

90-120

30-50

Succession plant every two to three weeks

Sweet: Candy (yellow), Candy Apple (red), Red Bull (red), Copra (yellow), Red Wing (red), Beltsville

Green: Bunching, Nabechan (bunching)

Swiss Chard

April 20

45-60

Succession plant every two to three weeks

Rainbow, Bright Lights, Argentata

Turnips

April 25

45-60

 

Hakurei or Tokyo White (salad turnips)

Warm-Season Crops

Warm Season

Plant

Days to Harvest

Notes

Suggested Varieties

Cantaloupe

May 12

75-100

Heavily dependent on insect pollination; requires increased amount of water

Athena, Aphrodite, Ambrosia, Orange Sherbet, Sugar Cube (mini)

Celery

May 8

85-120

Requires increased amount of water

Tango, Tendercrisp

Cucumbers

May 7

55-60

Heavily dependent on insect pollination

Dasher II, Marketmore 76, Diva (burpless), Sweet Slice, Cucapa

Eggplant

May 23

75-90

 

Nadia, Hansel, Orient Charm, Ghostbuster (white), Fairy Tale

Garlic

 

 

Cold day dependent

Music (porcelain), German X-tra Hardy White

Green Beans

May 4

50-70

Succession plant every two to three weeks

Bronco (bush), Caprice (bush), Jade II (bush)

Irish Potato

March 28

90-120

 

Superior, Salem, Chieftain (red), Lehigh (yellow), Russian

Okra

May 15

60-70

 

Annie Oakley II

Peppers

May 15

60-90

 

Red Knight, Revolution, Achimedes, Paladin, Blushing Beauty

Pumpkin

May 14

85-120

Heavily dependent on insect pollination

Magic Lantern, Aladdin, Gladiator, Super Herc, Field Trip

Squash – Acorn

May 6

75-100

Heavily dependent on insect pollination

Table Ace, Taybelle, Autumn Delight

Squash – Buttercup

May 6

90-105

Heavily dependent on insect pollination

Orange Cutie

Squash – Butternut

May 6

85-100

Heavily dependent on insect pollination

Waltham, Metro, Bugle, Avalon

Squash and Zucchini

May 7

50-60

Pick daily

Multipik, Patriot II (summer yellow), Sultan (zucchini), Independence II

Sweet Corn

May 8

70-105

Wind-pollinated

Incredible, Bodacious, Delectable (all sugar-enhanced varieties)

Sweet Potato

May 13

100-125

 

Beauregard, Jewel, Evangeline

Tomatoes

May 9

70-95

 

Crista, Mt. Fresh Plus, FI 91, Floralina, Big Beef, Celebrity, Primo

Watermelon

May 12

80-100

Heavily dependent on insect pollination

Sangria, SS5244 (seedless), Crimson Sweet, Crunchy Red

References:

Planting Dates & Planting Map: WVU Extension Service (2020) 2020 WV Garden Calendar

Recommended Varieties: 2015 Vegetable Production Guide (2015) Vegetable Varieties Recommended for West Virginia by Dr. Lewis Jett, WVU Extension Commercial Horticulture Specialist

Days to Maturity: Iowa State University Extension and Outreach (2004) Vegetable Harvest Guide [Fact sheet] by Aaron Steil


Jodi Richmond, WVU Extension Service Agent – Mercer County