Vegetable Garden 101: How to Grow It Right in Westchester

Local experts take you through how to start, maintain, and harvest a great vegetable garden.

Admit it: You’ve always wanted to grow your own food. It’s a normal human instinct to plant the seeds, nurture the plants, and harvest the goodies to feed yourself and your family. You’ve dreamed about it; maybe you’ve even thumbed through catalogs to make it happen. But it felt daunting. You didn’t think you had the time, or the right place, or the knowledge necessary. Well, we want to correct all those self-doubts. We are bringing you the Westchester experts who can help you put homegrown food on your table. Because we know that you can do this; you can grow a meal. In fact, you can grow many meals. Work with your land, listen to the pros, and grow the goodies. Check out the following pages, and then, dig in. This is going to change your menu, improve your diet, and bolster your well-being. There’s nothing as natural and scrumptious as growing your own food. After all, it’s seasoned with the sweat from your brow.

Seeds vs Transplants

There are plenty of veggies to feed your level of experience. Which veggies can be sown directly into your garden and which ones start indoors or should be purchased as plants from a nursery. Here’s the rundown:

outdoor garden
Photos left to right: Adobe Stock/ Grey, Adobe Stock/ William W. Potter, Adobe Stock/ Dmitriy Syechin, Adobe Stock/ Richard Griffin

The Groundwork

Want a veggie garden? Check off the boxes.

Erin and Peter Mariano of Aventine Gardens share a unique obsession — they both love growing what they eat. In 2004, Erin went professional with her passion, planting a veggie garden for her first client. Since then, the Connecticut-based couple has been adding clients (and fans) in Connecticut and Westchester County. Now Aventine Gardens is a design, build, and maintenance consultation firm that creates edible landscapes fully equipped to produce the fixings for nutritious meals. Their motto is, “Everyone should have a vegetable garden.” They’ve dedicated their careers to helping that goal happen.

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This “can do” couple comes to the rescue to help you put your own homegrown food on the table. Here is a checklist of questions to ask and solutions to make your property veggie-ready.

Do you have enough light?

Optimally, veggies prefer eight hours or more of sunlight daily, but six will do in a pinch. Watch out for shade trees (especially evergreens on the south side) and monitor shadows. Find a space that can be productive.

Is your property level?

If not, consider terracing to host your veggie garden. And remember: There are no rules about dimensions. Your veg garden could be a long, slender strip straddling a slope.

Is your soil fertile?

Start with a soil test. (Check with the Westchester County Cooperative Extension). If your soil fails, there are solutions. Amend your soil with compost to bring it up to speed. Check soil consistency. Is it too sandy or is it clay? Aventine Gardens suggests creating raised beds for fast food. “You need your soil to perform right away,” says Erin.

Do you have protection against nibblers?

“For most spaces, a veg garden fence is essential unless your entire property is fenced,” suggests Peter. For deer, the Marianos recommend a 6 ½ foot (or taller) fence for a garden larger than 12 by 12. Shorter fences should work for smaller gardens, especially near the house. Got bunny issues? Add 1-inch mesh to the fence and bury the mesh 12 inches.

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Do you lack growing time?

Some people find veg gardening overwhelming. Not only do you need to maintain, weed, and water your veg beds, but you should also harvest regularly to keep your veggies productive. No time? Consider hiring a maintenance service.

backyard garden
Adobe Stock/ K.A

The Timeline

Choreographing a garden can be daunting, for sure. But getting it all in order is fulfilling and delicious. Knowing when to get veggies in the ground will help you keep your plot productive and put food on the table throughout the growing season…and beyond.

Early May

Plant early veggies (sow these outdoors after the last spring frost date).

Lettuce
Lettuce. Adobe Stock/ sommai.
Arugula
Arugula. Adobe Stock/ siberianlena.
Radish
Radish. Adobe Stock/ New Africa.
Spinach
Spinach. Adobe Stock/ Rax Qiu.

When the Soil Warms Above 50° F

Plant outdoors.

Carrots
Carrots. Adobe Stock/ ArtCookStudio.
Leeks
Leeks. Adobe Stock/ Swapan.
Cauliflower
Cauliflower. Adobe Stock/ zainab.
Beets
Beets. Adobe Stock/ Rax Qiu.
Broccoli
Broccoli. Adobe Stock/  Szasz-Fabian Erika.
Cabbage
Cabbage. Adobe Stock/ Marcos.

On or After Memorial Day

Plant when nighttime temperatures are reliably warm.

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Eggplant
Eggplant. Adobe Stock/ Pro Hi-Res.
Beans
Beans. Adobe Stock/ photohampster.
Peppers
Peppers. Adobe Stock/ AlenKadr.
Squash
Squash. Adobe Stock/ zigzagmtart.
Melons
Melons. Adobe Stock/ Popova Olga.
Tomatoes
Tomatoes. Adobe Stock/ Tim UR.
Celery
Celery. Adobe Stock/ kovaleva_ka.
Sweet Potatoes
Sweet Potatoes. Adobe Stock/ mates.

Important Dates

May 1

The average last spring frost date

Nov 5

The average first fall frost date

Dates to maturity

Check with the Westchester County Cooperative Extension for their Vegetable Planting Guide.

Q & A Backyard Veggies

Have questions about vegetable gardening? The experts at the Westchester County branch of the Cornell Cooperative Extension have answers. Horticulture program manager Hillary Jufer shared her insight.

I have low-light, which veggies can I grow?

If you have less than six hours of sunlight daily, go for leafy greens like lettuce, bok choy, arugula, and spinach. Steer away from veggies that produce flowers and fruit like tomatoes, peppers, etc.

I don’t have an irrigation system. Can I still grow a veggie garden?

Absolutely! But veggies want at least an inch of water weekly (including rainfall). In hot and dry weather, they might need more water depending on the veggies you are growing and whether they prefer dry or moist growing conditions.

What’s the best way to water vegetables?

To see if veggies need water, stick your finger an inch into the soil. If the soil is still wet, check again tomorrow. If it’s dry, give it a drink. Water in the morning to prevent wet leaves overnight. Try to water only the soil rather than wetting the leaves to prevent spreading diseases.

Can I plant crops when the weather is still chilly?

You can plant cool-season crops such as spinach, broccoli, kale in cool weather. For tender crops like peppers and tomatoes, wait until Memorial Day.

Can you suggest some crops that are relatively disease free?

Although nothing is absolutely trouble free, look for varieties that have resistance. Planting tomatoes? Find something that could be resistant to late blight. Planting zucchini? Find something that shows resistance to powdery mildew. They won’t be bulletproof, but they’re less likely to fall victim.

Try to water only the soil rather than wetting the leaves to prevent spreading diseases.

When is the best time to apply compost to a garden?

First, do a soil test to find out what your soil needs. If compost is needed, add it in autumn when the garden is being put to bed so it can decompose and break down nutrients for next year’s crop.

Can you overdo feeding a veg garden and give it “too much of a good thing?”

Yes! A soil test helps figure this out. Excess nitrogen can lead to low yields and poor vegetable quality for a fruiting crop. Excess nitrogen might also lead to an increase in sap-sucking insects like aphids. Follow label instructions when fertilizing.

When starting a vegetable garden, what soil tests will be helpful?

The most important startup tests are soil pH, soil nutrients, and testing for possible contaminants (especially when young children will be eating the produce).

Should I fertilize container-grown vegetables differently from veggies grown in the ground?

Yes, nutrients leach out of a pot faster than fertilizer applied to a bed in the ground.

What is the best deer repellent for veggies?

The best deer repellent is a tall fence. Also, harvest crops as quickly as possible when ripe. Strong scented herbs are often overlooked by deer.

Do loud sounds or bright lights repel deer?

Frightening devices are only minimally effective because deer acclimate quickly to noises.

What if I have further questions?

Contact the Westchester County Cooperative Extension via email at westchester@cornell.edu or call 914-285-4640.

Critter Control

Who else is eating your garden? Let’s face it: The biggest challenge when growing a veg garden is to keep the competition out so that you can savor the full harvest. Here are some tips for protecting your crops.

Animals

By far, the biggest issue for Westchester County gardeners is deer. Bunnies come in a close second, followed by woodchucks. You might ask, whatever happened to grazing on grass? The truth is that your veggies are an irresistibly tantalizing smorgasbord. Fences are the best answer. You need a tall barricade, you want mesh that the tiniest bunny can’t slip through, and it’s wise to bury the fence a foot under the ground to deter digging invaders.

Birds pose a whole different level of issues. Not only do they peck seeds before they sprout, they also swoop in to tear tender greens like Swiss chard to shreds. Crows will feast on your tomatoes. If birds are a problem, protect your crop in a wire cage that can be opened for harvest.

Insects

Bugged by bugs? Don’t get out the heavy artillery. Instead, use organic controls for the welfare of the planet. In fact, you can battle most bugs simply by providing a barricade (like lightweight garden fabric) or removing the culprits by hand. But first, start by building healthy, non-stressed plants that can survive a few pests. How do you do that? With healthy soil teeming with micro-organisms.

Some of your garden’s pests can be avoided by changing your planting time. For example: Got squash vine borer? Hillary Jufer, horticulture program manager of the Westchester County Cooperative Extension, suggests planting your squashes late to avoid the problem.

For flea beetles, try draping lightweight garden fabric over your crop. Ditto for beetles, cabbage moths, leaf miners, and borers. Remember that some organic insecticides have the potential to kill the good guys as well as nuisance insects. Barriers are a better solution.

Container Veggies

Max Apton has been working in the Westchester ‘hood for years, designing, installing, and maintaining gardens. Drumroll for his newest, added role: He adopted Bedford Farms (formerly Bedford Nursery) to provide quality plants for wannabe gardeners and experts alike. Will the nursery be selling veggies? You bet! Don’t have space for a full-fledged veggie garden? Max suggests: “Grow in a container!” Here are his hints for lip-smacking pots popping with yummy goodies.

Care & Feeding of your Container

  • Where to grow your mini garden. In a bright, sunny location that gets at least six hours of good light daily.
  • Place it where you can easily water your container. Hoses work best. Any veggie container distant from a water source is doomed. Think you’re going to spend summer lugging buckets of water to your thirsty veggies? Think again.
  • Where NOT to grow your mini garden. Too much water can be a bad thing. Don’t grow your veggie container under a roof drip.

  • When to water. Apton suggests watering when the top couple of inches of soil is dry to the touch. When you water: Give your container a generous soaking. “You want to encourage the roots to plunge down to the bottom of a pot rather than staying on the surface.”
  • Consider mulching. “Straw or shredded leaves help keep veggie roots from drying out and becoming too hot,” Apton advises.
  • Thinking into the future. Your veggie container might need a snack in midsummer. “The soil often gets exhausted by July,” Apton explains. His recommendation: Provide a feeding every other week with organic fish fertilizer (he uses Neptune’s Harvest) diluted according to the label recommendations.

Want food fast? “Plant any round radish,” suggests Apton.

Dressing a Container for Success

  • Best soil for the job. An organic growing medium with good drainage. In other words: Digging up your yard soil is not the best idea. Apton’s favorite brand: Vermont Compost’s Perennial Blend.
  • Deep containers do the trick. Why? “Because shallow containers dry out too frequently,” says Apton. How deep? “At least 24 inches deep.”

Apton’s Best Veggies for Containers

  • Sungold Tomato
  • Mountain Magic Tomato
  • Fairy Tale Eggplant
  • Patio Baby Eggplant
  • Lunchbox Pepper Mix
  • Shishito Mild Chili Pepper
  • Little Gem small Romaine lettuce
  • Bright Lights Swiss chard
  • Fordhook Giant Swiss chard
  • Any kale
  • Any bok choy or mustard
  • Herbs such as parsley, basil, thyme, oregano, tarragon
rosemary, thyme, mint
Adobe Stock/ Christine Bird

The Tomato Temptation

What is it about tomatoes? More than any other veggie, tomatoes are what we crave come summer. Mike Cutri, manager at Millwood Garden Center in Millwood, finds himself juggling a whole lot of tomatoes to bring the beefsteaks — and all other types of tomatoes — to your garden and onto the table every summer.

Tomato Talk

What you need to know about tomatoes is they are divided into determinate and indeterminate groups. What does that mean?

  • Determinate tomato plants stop growing at a certain point and swing into the noble mission of ripening a pile of tomatoes simultaneously. They are more compact, but the goodies come all at once (which is great for canning).
  • Indeterminate tomatoes keep on growing to form big, bodacious vines that usually need support (such as a tomato cage) and pruning to keep them within bounds. As long as the weather is right, they’ll keep producing until frost shuts them down. Great for keeping those juicy BLT sandwiches coming.

Boutique Tomatoes

Whatever you crave, there’s a tomato for you. Want to make tomato sauce? Try a Roma tomato with meaty flesh. Just want a tiny, little tomato for salad? Go for a grape tomato. Fascinated by the tangy taste of black tomatoes? Cutri recommends Black Beauty.

Cutri’s Pointers

  • Plant tomato seeds 6 to 8 weeks before planting outdoors.
  • To transition tomatoes from indoors to outdoors, “harden them off” by bringing your tomato plants outside during warm days and indoors for chilly nights for 10 days before planting in the garden.
  • The best location for tomatoes is in full sun and well-drained soil.

Cutri’s Secret Formula

  • Don’t over-fertilize: Too much nitrogen makes lots of leaves but few fruits. Use a balanced fertilizer.
  • Provide a tomato cage immediately when you plant rather than trying to fit it over a robust mature tomato.
  • Water tomatoes generously; they’re thirsty plants.

Heirlooms are a favorite and this is why:
“They have colorful soft skin, their high sugar content means they’ll be lip-smacking sweet, and heirlooms are open-pollinated, so you can collect and save the seeds,” says Cutri

Mike Cutri’s Fav Tomatoes

Better Boy

This is his pick for a super slicer. Why? The big sweet fruit and high yields sell this scrumptious salad mainstay hands down. Better Boy is indeterminate, “and gives you the best return for your money.”

 tomato
Adobe Stock/ Maxsol7

Brandywine

Another mainstream heirloom, this dependable tomato is great for beginners who want to bite into sweet success while harvesting a whole lot of handsome fruits.

Brandywine
Adobe Stock/ Sonyakamoz

Sungold

This indeterminate crowd pleaser has small golden-orange fruit with lower acidity than many red tomatoes. “Plus, it’s a beautiful plant,” Cutri notes.

Sungolds are great for a vegetable garden.
Adobe Stock/ Pixibank

Cherokee Purple

In cultivation since the 1800s, this mainstay heirloom boasts the magic formula of sweet and easy to grow. With indeterminate growth, you’ll need to cage this hero, but the juicy fruit is worth the extra effort.

Cherokee Purple is great for a vegetable garden
Adobe Stock/ Volff

Supersweet 100

Cherry tomatoes are Millwood Garden Center’s biggest sellers and this indeterminate favorite has “pop in your mouth” goodness. It’s prolific and reliable, but smaller than slicing tomatoes.

Supersweet 100 is great for a vegetable garden
Adobe Stock/ Boomeart

Cutri’s secret for success with tomatoes:
“Shop local and stay small. Your local independent garden center selects types that are appropriate to the Westchester County region.”

Keeping the Yummy Coming

When you’ve fenced in a space for growing food, and when you’ve had a taste of ultra-fresh produce, you’ll want to keep the goodies going. The best way to maximize space is to plant another crop the moment you’ve finished harvesting your early risers. It’s called succession planting and it’s like juggling a train of passengers getting off and on at different stops. Only your version is even more gratifying when you get it right.

Here’s How It Works

Some veggies peter out when the weather turns sultry. Use their space for hot-season crops. Or sometimes a veggie crop is so delicious that you gobble up the full harvest. Use that space for another crop. Here’s the dance:

Some Like It Cold

These veggies stop producing when the weather becomes hot: Lettuce, Peas, Spinach, Arugula

snowflakes and cold can have an impact on a vegetable garden
Illustrations by Dr. Watson

Some Like It Hot

These veggies need to wait until warm weather before being planted. Tuck them in the slots when cold lovers are finished: Peppers, Tomatoes, Eggplants, Squash

sun is important for a vegetable garden
Illustrations by Dr. Watson

Multiply Your Chances

Some veggies mature rapidly and can produce multiple crops or a quick crop at the end of the season: Lettuce, Spinach, Arugula, Bush Beans

temperature is important for a vegetable garden
Illustrations by Dr. Watson

Related: Spring Cleaning 101: How to Spruce up Your Westchester Home

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