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Those who relish the taste of homegrown vegetables can always find something to do in the garden. By planning ahead, you can enjoy the fruits of your labors all year long. Here's a year in the life of a successful vegetable garden.
Begin the year by spreading a 4-inch layer of organic matter, such as ground up leaves or rotted manure, onto the garden and turning it under to a depth of 8-12". Rake the garden level in order to avoid low areas where spring rains will accumulate and drown plants. If excess moisture is a problem, make raised beds 3-4' wide by mounding the soil and flattening the top for planting.
Sow seeds of English peas, spinach, rutabagas, radishes, edible pod peas, leeks, collards, kale and carrots. These can tolerate late spring freezes. As temperatures climb, plant seeds of chard, mustard, lettuce, beets, Chinese cabbage and kohlrabi. Leaf lettuces are more tolerant of warm snaps than are head varieties. This is also a good time to bring out onion sets, seed potatoes, and transplants of cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower.
Thin lettuce seedlings so that they stand 4-8" apart. You can transplant these seedlings or thin them gradually as you gather leaves for salads. Fertilize with a top dressing of compost or an application of one cup of a granular fertilizer, such as 5-10-10, per 10' of row or square yard of bed. Pick cabbage and cauliflower when the head is firm. Cut kohlrabi when the base swells to about 3". Broccoli should be a tight head with small buds. Size is no indication of maturity for either cauliflower or broccoli, so leaving them in the garden too long will result in poor quality.
Harvest greens such as spinach, mustard, turnips, Swiss chard, collards, and kale by picking the outermost leaves. As the weather warms, the stems will elongate and the greens will grow bitter. That's when it's time to pull them out, put them in the compost bin, and prepare to plant warm-weather vegetables.
When the soil has warmed and the danger of frost has passed, set out tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. If you want to get an early start on these plants, use water-filled, plastic tepees to insulate these tender plants.
Stake tomatoes to keep fruit off the ground and to use space in your garden more efficiently. Use single stakes or cages made from wire fencing. As warm weather arrives, plant seeds of beans, squash, melons, cucumbers and corn. Squash and melons are usually planted in hills - mounds spaced about 3' apart warm faster than the surrounding soil. Plant 5-7 seeds per hill. After seedlings have been up a week, pull out all but the two strongest plants on each hill. Wait until the soil is truly warm (about 75 degrees Fahrenheit) to plant okra. Because the okra seed coat is very hard, you can improve germination by soaking the seeds in a saucer of water from 6-24 hours before you plant. Space seeds about 2" apart in a row and thin them to stand 6" apart. Remember to cut okra pods often so they don't get oversized and tough. Continue to pick beans, squash, okra and other maturing items. If allowed to remain, the plant puts its energy into the maturing vegetables and stops producing new ones.
Start seeds while the ground is still very warm. At least six hours of sunlight per day is essential for fall vegetables. Don't plant in a place where they receive less. The sun is weaker and the days are shorter in the fall and the vegetables need all the light they can get. Be on the lookout for aphids, mites, whiteflies, and cabbageworms. While most pests decline in the fall, these may reappear with mild fall weather.