Helpful Hints For Growing A Spring Vegetable Garden

The calendar may say January, but gardeners are already having thoughts of preparing for the coming spring gardening season. If you are new to growing vegetables or have been at it for a while but feel the need for improvement, seasoned gardeners Louis and Suzy Cook have been generous enough to share some of their secrets for having a bountiful harvest.  They grow enough to eat, freeze, and share and demonstrate the bounty the earth will provide if given half a chance.

Here is what their garden plot looks like with deer fencing, irrigation, and weed barrier cloth between rows. (left)     And here is the result of one morning’s effort in gathering the produce. (right)

Want to know how Louis and Suzy achieve such bounty?  Here is what Louis recommends:


We reduce plant diseases and insects that attack our vegetable garden by practicing two types of crop rotation plus the use of cover crops.

First our garden is divided into two equal plots with three sections per plot. One plot will be planted and the other set aside as vacant for a year.  (Flip/flop planting each year.) The set aside plot and any section not planned for vegetable use in winter/early spring will be planted in the winter with an Elbon Rye to help control any nematode problems and Crimson Clover when tilled under will add green manure and slow release nitrogen to the soil.  Two to three weeks prior to planting vegetables for the new year, cover crops will be mowed and tilled under.

Second, in the plot to be planted, we don’t plant vegetable crops of the same family in the same row when it was used last.  Plants that are related to each other tend to be prone to the same diseases and insect pests. For example, squash borers will attack not only squash vines but also cucumbers (both members of the cucurbit family).  The squash borer larvae will over winter in the soil in a cocoon. But if they wake up the next summer and the squash plants are now at the other end of the garden, the borers will have more difficulty finding the plants.


Cucurbitaceae (Gourd Family) Cucumber


• Sensitive to cold temperatures.  Extremes early on will reduce crop expectations.  Show weather patience before planting.

• Continually monitor moisture especially during early growth & fruiting stages.  Be careful not to get water on the foliage to prevent many plant diseases.

• It is normal for plants to show wilt on hot days toward the end of the day, but not in the early morning.

• Assist the honeybees if necessary by using the male bloom (end of long stem) to pollinate the female bloom (where the actual fruit forms and grows).  Note:  The female bloom is only receptive for one day so cover your bases by pollinating them often.

Gramineae (Grass Family) Sweet Corn

• Cold soils delay germination.  Rule of thumb:  wait to plant until pecan trees start to leaf out.

• Soil moisture is especially important from tasseling to harvest.

• Pulling dirt to the plant after they are around 12” tall, then again when they are half grown helps protect the stalks from blowing over during heavy winds.

• To aid the wind pollination of the male tassel transfer to the female silks, plant in short blocks, not just one or two longer rows.

Legulminosae (Legume Family) Beans

         Southern Peas

• Unfavorably low temperatures during germination to flowering will reflect in lower production.

• These are drought-tolerant but will require adequate moisture while they are in bloom.

• Do not harvest or work wet plants to prevent spreading diseases from plant to plant.

• Blossom drop can be an indication of moisture stress or high temperatures

Malvaceae (Mallow Family) Okra

•  Okra is related to cotton.  Both like the same growing and planting warm conditions.

• Avoid “wet feet,” that is, over watering or watering too frequently.

• In order to maintain continuous production, it is important to harvest at least every other day.

• There is no cure for plants that “die overnight.”  This is an indication of an incurable root fungus.  Use proper crop rotation practices.

Solanaceae (Nightshade Family) Eggplant



• There are plant-timing differences between these three vegetables.  Plant tomatoes first, hopefully after the last frost.  Plant peppers possibly seven to ten days after tomatoes.  Eggplant is especially sensitive to frost or even the mention of the word “cold,” so be patient with it.  Add another four or five days after the peppers.  Pepper and eggplant can survive the summer heat and produce good fruit up until frost unlike our experiences with tomatoes.  Patience equals extra rewards!

• The differences continue.  Tomato and pepper plants do not like “wet feet.”  Eggplant needs a generous supply of soil moisture at all times.

• And the differences continue to continue.  Harvest eggplant when it is a bright glossy color, 2/3 its full size, and has elasticity, i.e.:  when gently pressed with your thumb, it springs back, leaving only a slight impression.  Pepper plants are relatively brittle and can be damaged easily during harvest so use a sharp knife or pruning shears to remove the fruit.  Harvest bell or sweet peppers at any usable size.  All these types of peppers eventually turn red.  There is a misconception that pungency increases as the color changes.  We like to harvest tomatoes near ripe and let them finish ripening on the counter.  If birds have been a problem in the past, hang a few red Christmas tree balls on the plant about a week before you expect the color change.  Hopefully the birds will be attracted to these fake tomatoes and will be fooled into thinking you don’t know how to grow tomatoes.

NOTE:  Garden planning – For a visual on your garden rows in order to verify no conflicts, color code vegetables by family for each row, then compare your rotation plan year to year for conflicts.  (We did a 7-year plan on an excel spread sheet making it easy to cut/paste and compare)


After a soil test has been done and adjustments made per recommendations, use a product such as Liquid Fish & Seaweed Plus concentrate 4-2-3 (brand name – Source ONE Sea Spray,  Mix 4 tablespoons per gallon of water.  Spray on all vegetables, (also works for strawberries and blackberries).  Apply 2 weeks after planting vegetable plants or two weeks after true leaf set if seeds are planted, then every 2 weeks thereafter.  Apply early in the morning when plant pores are open.

OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute)

Verify OMRI is on the label and only use these approved products for insect and disease control.


Use Bt for most worm type problems (large holes in leaves or stripping of leaves).  For corn use diatomaceous earth on the silks as the ears are forming – OR – the use of a few drops of mineral oil applied to the silks of each ear will prevent entry of the larvae into the ears and can prevent earworm problems.  Apply when silks first appear and repeat applications every three to four days until the ears are ready to be harvested.

For beetle type problems (small shot holes in leaves), use Neem oil (brand name Garden Safe, Neem oil 3 in 1).  * See note below.

For aphids & mites, use insecticidal soap.


With first signs of fungus or other plant/leaf type problems, use Neem oil (brand name Garden Safe, Neem oil 3 in 1).  * See note below.

IMPORTANT:  Do not harvest or work with plants when the foliage is wet because plant disease problems can be transferred.

* NOTE:  Use caution when applying Neem oil.  Use only early morning and late afternoon and discontinue use in extremely hot weather.


The only thanks I ask for passing along this valuable information is to have a place at the table when you plate up what you have grown.     


Story by Jolene Renfro 

Crockett Garden Club and Davy Crockett Master Gardeners