Ask Wayne

Vegetable Gardening Tips From Our Local Expert!

Wayne is a self-taught gardener who has learned through many years of trial and error. He was a founding member of the Collingswood Community Garden, and has provided vegetable seedlings and advice to its members for 10 years.

Question 4: Dear Wayne, what’s the deal with growing garlic?

Types of garlic:

-Stiff-neck: easy to grow and winters well. White outer wrapper. Single ring of cloves.

Russian Red: hardy. Smaller than stiff-neck. Purple striped wrapper.

Soft-neck: strong flavored. Good for braiding. Not as hardy as stiff-neck varieties.

Elephant: large cloves with a milder taste.

When to plant: Plant garlic cloves in the fall, about a month before the soil freezes. Buy cloves from a local garden center or a mail order catalog. Garlic sold in the grocery stores may have been treated so it won’t sprout, which gives it a longer shelf life. Note: Large cloves will produce large bulbs.

Plant cloves in well-drained soil enriched with lots of compost. Plant 6 inches apart, blunt end down, 2 inches deep. Apply an inch of compost to the bed before you mulch. Mulch with a thick layer of straw or leaves to protect the bulbs from freezing.

In the spring remove the mulch and spread some compost on the bed. Stop watering the garlic about 1 week before harvesting.

Harvesting and Storing: Harvest garlic when the leaves turn brown, usually around mid-to-late June. With your fingers, remove some of the soil to expose the top of the bulb to check the size of the bulb. The bulb should be three to four times the thickness of the stem.

Pry up the entire plant with a garden fork or shovel. Gently remove most of the soil clinging to the bulb.

Cure the plants on a rack or on top of a pallet in full sun for 2 to 3 weeks until the leaves, stems, and roots are thoroughly dry. Cover with a tarp at night and when it rains.

When the bulbs have dried trim the roots, cut the stems to about 1 inch long, and store in a cool, dry place. Garlic will keep for 6 months.

Select the largest cloves for replanting.

Question 3: Dear Wayne, there are many types of tomato plants out there. Which one is best for me?

Answer: Let’s break down the varieties of tomato plants out there.

There two types of tomatoes: heirloom and hybrid.

Heirloom varieties, also called open-pollinated, have been around for many years. Seeds collected from open-pollinated plants will produce offspring the same as the parents. If you want to save seeds for the next season, be sure to select an open-pollinated plant.

Hybrid varieties are the off-spring from two genetically pure parents to create a better tomato. Hybrids often outproduce open-pollinated varieties and are usually more resistant to disease. Seeds collected from these plants will produce inferior plants.

There are three basic types of tomato plants: indeterminate, determinate and semi-determinate

Indeterminate plants are the most common type of plant; they grow very tall like a vine and require support. These tomatoes flower and push fruit all season until the frost kills them. As a rule, the bigger the plant, the better the fruit. These plants take more work to grow.

Determinate plants are compact plants like a bush. You may see names like bush and dwarf. These types may be suitable for growing in pots. Determinate plants will grow to a determined size, flower, set fruit and then stop growing. 

Semi-determinate plants produce all season like determinate but are smaller plants in size.

Question 2: Dear Wayne, I started growing my tomato seeds under grow lights in the basement. Can I put them out in the vegetable garden once the danger of frost is over?

Answer: No, you have to acclimate your plants to the sun, wind, rain and the cold days of spring. This process is called hardening off and will take two weeks to complete. You should start this a couple of weeks before the last frost date; which is usually between April 30th and May 15th. It has been a cooler spring so I would suggest using the later date. In early May, put your plants outside in a sheltered, shady spot for two hours for the first couple of days. Increase the time outside each day for the first week. For the second week continue to increase the time and start to gradually expose the plants to the sun. By the end of the second week they should have had enough exposure to the elements and be ready to plant.

Question 1a: What should I be doing to prepare my garden/yard for a vegetable garden?

Answer: There are many variations of having a vegetable garden. Your plants can be grown in large containers, raised beds or directly in the ground.  I find raised beds work best for me (see Question #2 for details on building raised beds). Growing vegetables directly  in the ground takes more work to get the richest soil possible. For all types of vegetable gardens the following steps should be taken to prepare your soil.

1.  The first step to take is to find a suitable spot in your yard for your garden. You need a spot with as much sun as possible.

2.  Using a pitch fork or a shovel turn the soil over by digging down about 12 inches. Break-up any large clumps of dirt.

3.  Add peat moss, compost and an organic fertilizer with a number of 5-10-5. Check the backs of the bags for the recommended application needed for the size of your garden Note: you can never add too much compost. Mix well. Rake the soil smooth. The soil should not fall between your fingers when squeezed into a ball.

4. You are now ready to plant your seeds or vegetable plants.

Note: Larger plants should be put in the back of the garden so that they do not block the sun from the smaller plants.

Photo from Gardener’s Supply Company

Question 1b: What is a raised bed, and how do I build one?

How to build a raised garden bed

There are benefits to building a raised bed. One benefit to a raised garden bed is being able to can grow more vegetables in less space. Planting can be done earlier in the season because the soil temperature rises more quickly. Raised beds are also less work because they’re easier to weed, water, and fertilize. When building a raised bed, keep in mind you will need to be able to reach its center to plant, weed, cultivate, and harvest without walking or kneeling in the bed soil.

Materials needed for a 4×8×12 raised bed:

Weed barrier: usually a black cloth type material; it’s not crucial to have this but it helps control the weeds and retain moisture and heat.

3 – 2”×12”×8’ length of pine (cedar will last longer but is more expensive). DO NOT USE PRESSURE TREATED WOOD.

12- 3” screws

3-4 cubic yards of composted garden soil; available at garden centers like Leonberg Nursery, Magnolia Garden Village or McNaughton’s Garden Center. They will deliver to your house.

Cut one of the 8 foot boards in half. Using three of the screws, fasten one eight foot and one four foot board together. Do the same for the other two pieces. Screw both sections together.

Place your box where your garden will be located.

Place the weed barrier (if using) in the bottom of the box. Fill with composted garden soil. You are now ready to plant.

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