Small-Space Summer Vegetable Gardening

Even one small raised bed can provide summer food and enjoyment for your family.

You want a vegetable garden, but you’re stuck with a postage stamp-sized plot of grass and/or a teeny tiny deck/patio of approximately the same area. What are your options? How about a small raised bed or a few nifty container gardens for some of your favorite veggies?

The key to small-space gardening is starting with a good garden base and planting the right cultivars. Small raised beds will be most productive if they are filled with good-quality soil and situated in the sun. Add a few large, 5-gallon plastic pots to your new vegetable garden venture, rotate your vegetables accordingly, and you will be set.

Small-Space Garden Ground Rules

Small raised beds can be substantial enough to support quite a few vegetables.
  1. Grow compact vegetables because container- and small-raised-bed gardens impose limitations on plant size! Avoid large crops such as corn, melons, pole beans, and vining pumpkins. (Plant lists are below.)
  2. Choose a good location for your garden. Ideally, the spot will have full sunlight (8-10 hours), protection from wind, and quality soil in a bed or pot with good drainage.
  3. Choose the right-sized beds and containers. They should be large and deep enough to support crops. A soil depth of 12″-18″ in raised beds is recommended for deep root growth and productivity. 5-gallon pots are a good size for most potted vegetables. Some gardeners even rely on inexpensive 5-gallon hardware-store buckets with holes poked into the base, especially for pot-grown tomatoes. Ultimately, choosing large containers saves time because they need less water and encourage more growth and productivity.
  4. Choose the right pot. Most gardeners prefer light-colored plastic pots with good drainage for vegetables because they stay cool and plastic retains water better than most pottery. Drain holes are mandatory and maintaining deep saucers at the bottom for water collection helps reduce the need to water as often.
  5. Use quality potting soil and vegetable fertilizer. Do not rely on in-ground garden soil as a planting medium (really!). More organic matter is needed, especially in containers. We recommend raised bed soil amended with Black Gold Natural & Organic Raised Bed Mix and pots filled with Black Gold® Natural & Organic Potting Mix to meet the demands of your container crops from start to finish. Some experts also advocate filling container bottoms with dead (not green) lawn sweepings or compost, such as Black Gold Natural & Organic Compost Blend, and then following that with a foot or more of potting mix.
  6. Plan ahead for weekly care. Smaller gardens need less care, but you will still need to water, weed, feed, and harvest regularly. Plan a care schedule for each week. Be most conscientious of container plants because they are especially subject to drying and nutrient loss.
  7. Plan to replace crops. Some crops, like beans, greens, and root vegetables are fast-growing. Determine their days to harvest (click here for a harvest guide), and plan to replace them once they are picked or no longer productive.

Vegetables for Small-Space Gardens


Tomatoes generally grow best in larger lots because they need lots of root space, and they have greater water and nutrient needs than most other vegetables.

Choose compact bush (determinate) or semi-bush (semi-determinate) tomatoes for small-space raised beds and pots. Super small pot tomatoes include the disease-resistant cherry tomato ‘Sweetheart of the Patio‘ (24-36″) and salad tomato ‘Patio Delight’ (12-18″). Larger determinate tomatoes for caging or staking including the flavorful, red, slicing tomato ‘Celebrity’ (36-40″), the early beefsteak ‘Galahad‘ (24-36″), and golden sauce tomato, ‘Sunrise Sauce‘ (24-36″).

Planting recommendations: plant one plant per 5-gallon container. Cage or stake plants reaching 18″ or more. Manage tomato growth by cutting back excessive vining stems once they start really growing. (Click here for more tomato pruning guidelines.) Feed tomatoes regularly with a fertilizer formulated for tomatoes.


‘Spacemaster’ cucumbers have short vines and tasty cukes. (Image thanks to Burpee Seeds)

Slicing cucumbers have now been bred in compact form for pots. The most notable variety is the tried and true, ‘Spacemaster‘. The variety has diseases-resistant vines reaching just 26 inches! ‘Bush Champion‘ is another compact variety with vines reaching 24″, and it’s said to produce high yields. Both have medium-sized cukes. Harvest them smaller if you intend to use them for pickling.

Planting recommendations: Plant one or two plants per 5-gallon pot. The seeds can be directly sown into pots. A small trellis can be used if desired. Feed and water regularly, just as the potting soil begins to dry, or the plants will not bear fruit.

Green Beans

Bush beans, green, wax, or filet, are ideally suited to large-container planting. Some varieties are prolific bearers with excellent flavor. Four to five plants are needed per 5-gallon pot. Avoid overfeeding. Beans are legumes and need no extra nitrogen. Beans use a lot of moisture so use a potting mix with good water-holding capacity and water regularly. Several quality varieties

Sweet Peppers

Choose compact peppers for container culture. Their final pot should be larger than the one shown (3 gallons or more), if they are to truly thrive.

New sweet peppers are being bred for small fruits and compact plant size. The lunchbox snacking peppers are most notable. Grow them all, orange, yellow, and red, with the Lunchbox Pepper Mix. The pepper plants reach 28-36 inches and produce lots of sweet peppers.

Planting recommendations: One plant per 3-gallon pot. Transplant starts after the threat of frost has passed. They produce best with days and nights become warmer. Fruits can be harvested green, but I like them best if allowed to reach full color.


Greens of all types grow beautifully in pots or small raised beds.

Nothing tastes better than greens in pots, such as spinach, kale, Swiss chard, collards, and various lettuces. For the most part, all are suitable as container plants. Unlike the warmer crops mentioned above, many greens are more cold tolerant and can be started in spring before the danger of frost is past, usually by a couple of weeks. Then the greens can be re-sown in summer (If heat tolerant) or in the fall as temperatures cool. The best greens for summer are Swiss chard (we like the colorful Rainbow Mix), heat-tolerant lettuces, like the heirloom ‘Black Seeded Simpson‘, and beautiful Tuscan kale, like ‘Black Magic‘. Please refer to the video below for planting details. The pots are a good size for growing lots of greens!

More small-space gardening reading and information:


Five Ways to Maximize Small-Space Vegetable Gardens

How to Grow Spring Root Vegetables

Sweet spring beets, carrots, scallions, radishes, and turnips! Few vegetables are as awaited in my home garden. Though root vegetables can continue to be grown throughout the season, they are the sweetest and arguably easiest to grow in the spring. The best time to start them is usually a couple of weeks before the last frost date. Even better, they are fast to produce and easy to grow.

My Favorite Root Vegetables

Once I find a really good vegetable variety, I continue to grow it. Here are a few raised in my garden regularly.


‘Detroit Dark Red’ beets are an easy-to-grow standard.

The uniform, red ‘Boro’ beets are known for having superb sweet flavor and can be harvested as baby beets or a bit larger. They are very fast growing–ripening in about 50 days from seed. Another good red is the classic beet, ‘Detroit Dark Red’ (55 days). The popular variety is easy to find and has sweet, uniformly round roots. (Click here to watch a video with more details about growing beets.) For those seeking a more unusual beet, try the tasty white, ‘Avalanche‘ beet. It is another easy one sure to provide good results in the garden. All young tender beet greens may also be selectively harvested and eaten in salads or sauteed as a vegetable.


‘Purple Haze’ carrots are both beautiful and tasty.

A good friend shared some of her freshly plucked ‘Adelaide’ Baby Carrots (32-50 days) with me a few springs ago and I was hooked.  They are the most crisp, sugary carrots ever! Expect them to take 50 days to fully mature from seed. Another winner is the purple-red, The National Garden Bureau’s AAS-winning carrot ‘Purple Haze’ (73 days). The carrots take longer to mature but are worth the wait. Start them in March for May harvest. Those seeking a faster, reliable, classic orange carrot should try ‘Caravel‘ (58 days). It is an early-to-produce variety with good sweetness and production.


French breakfast radishes, such as D’Avignon , grow quickly and taste best when grown in cool weather. Heat produces a spicier taste.

The sweet and crisp ‘D’Avignon’ French Breakfast Radish is a traditional elongated French breakfast radish. In my garden, it tends to be sweet rather than hot. Give the roots just 21 to 30 days for full development. Watermelon radishes are both beautiful and tasty. The ‘Chinese Starburst‘ hybrid (60 days) is a good variety to choose for bright pink color and sweet and spicy flavor.


Red turnips, like ‘Scarlet Ohno’, tend to have beautiful pink interiors.

Classic purple-topped turnips are available through almost every seed vendor, but there are a few more unusual varieties worth considering. The red-skinned ‘Scarlet Ohno‘ turnip is crunchy, sweet, and pink on the inside. Expect them to take about 50 days before they are ready to harvest. Another Asian variety is the Japanese ‘Tokyo Market’ (35 days), which is white, fruity, and crisp. It is recommended for fresh eating in salads.


Scallions are gratifying to grow and harvest.

In general, scallions grow quickly and taste the mildest when grown in mild, cool weather. The fine, tender scallions of ‘Kyoto Kujo Negi‘ are tasty and fast. In just 40-50 days you can grow your own tender scallions from seed.

Root Vegetable Planting Time


The carrot seedlings shown are ready for thinning.

Root vegetables require a sunny garden space and friable loam high in organic matter and with a pH of 6.0 to 6.8. Those with tap roots, like carrots, parsnips, and Asian radishes, are most in need of rich loam.

If your soil is high in clay, I recommend double digging your growing area. Double digging loosens the soil and involves amendment with compost (Black Gold Garden Compost Blend), peat moss,  and slow-release vegetable fertilizer to encourage superior rooting. [Click here to read an article about double digging.]

Direct sow your root vegetables. Start by labeling your rows. To seed your crops, create shallow rows with a stick and sprinkle them with added peat or compost to gently cover the seeds and help germination. Finally, lightly water the rows. Keep the seeds lightly moist until the seeds start to sprout. Once they sprout and begin to grow, you can water more vigorously.

Thin seedlings when they reach 2-3 inches in height. I generally allow 4-5 inches spaces between plants, depending on the variety. Keep the most vigorous seedlings, if possible, and remove the thinnest.

Root vegetables require regular watering and weeding. Follow these steps and they should grow beautifully!

Smaller root vegetables can also be grown in containers, but I choose smaller varieties for greater yields–petite French Breakfast radishes.

When Are Root Vegetables Ready?

The ‘Tokyo Market’ turnip is nicely bulbed up at the top and ready for harvest.

Most root crops bulb up at the top when they are ready. The round, protuberant tops appear on all of the root vegetables mentioned in the article. Once their tops become substantially round and bulb up at the top, try pulling one to sample. If the vegetable appears as described in the seed catalog, your vegetable is ready. Use the sample as a guide to harvest the rest of your crops.


Double Digging for Flawless Root Crops

Easy-to-Grow Garden Tomatoes

‘Mountain Magic’ is an effortless Campari-style tomato with better flavor than the store-bought Camparis.

Fresh-from-the-garden tomatoes (Lycopersicon esculentum) are a seasonal delicacy every gardener should try to grow at home. Thirty-five years of tomato growing have taught me the effortless tomato varieties versus the more finicky, less productive types. Newer gardeners seeking to grow bountiful harvests of tomatoes should start with the standbys for ease of growth, flavor, and productivity. Of the nearly 60 tomato varieties I have grown, here are some of the most gratifying, flavorful, and easy. Some are modern cultivated varieties, and others are heirlooms.

Easy Beefsteak or Slicing Tomatoes

‘Kellogg’s Breakfast’ tomatoes are golden orange, flavorful, and bountiful.

Those who like traditional red tomatoes the best need to grow ‘Celebrity Plus’ (70-78 days) an updated version of the classic 1984 AAS Winner, ‘Celebrity’ (both are good but plus is more vigorous and disease resistant). The 8-oz fruits are produced on productive determinant (bushy) vines.

‘Kellogg’s Breakfast’ (85 days) is a golden-orange heirloom tomato with dense, meaty flesh and a distinctive tangy sweet taste. The large tomatoes can reach up to a pound each. Give the indeterminate (vining) plants good support. A strong cage is recommended.

‘Celebrity’ is a nearly foolproof red slicing tomato.

‘Mortgage Lifter’ (85 days) never disappoints. The long vines produce huge, red beefsteak tomatoes nonstop during the warm days of summer. Fruits commonly reach over 1 lb. each and regularly win taste tests.

Those seeking an exciting yellow and red bicolor with super sweet flavor need to try the effortless, ‘Virginia Sweets.’  The vining plants produce large slicing tomatoes with the best possible tangy-sweet flavor. The tomatoes are yellow with distinctive red streaks. Each tomato can weigh as much as 1 lb. each!

Easy Cherry Tomatoes

The tiny tomatoes of ‘Matt’s Wild Cherry’ are numerous and provide a burst us sweet tomato flavor.

The tiny currant tomato,  ‘Matt’s Wild Cherry’ (60 days), has bright red, sweet, flavorful fruit and produces nonstop with limited care once the vine gets going. The indeterminate (vining) tomato requires a sturdy cage and will branch vigorously, so pruning is sometimes required. (Click here to watch a video about how to prune tomatoes.)

My favorite cherry tomato of all time continues to be ‘Sungold’ (65 days) without fail. The cheerful orange fruits are super sweet and fruity and produced on vines that don’t stop until the first frost of fall. The weighty, long vines are vigorous and will continue to produce into fall. Provide a super strong cage and midseason pruning. After a long rain, ripe fruits may crack on the vine, but otherwise ‘Sungold’ is quite disease-resistant and trouble-free.

The golden fruits of ‘Sungold’ are my favorite.

A tried-and-true classic cherry tomato variety is ‘Super Sweet 100’ (70 days). The award-winning variety produces long trusses laden with bright red, sweet, slightly tart cherry tomatoes with minimal effort. Stake or cage vines.

(Click here to watch a video highlighting my 10 favorite cherry tomatoes for flavor.)

Easy Salad Tomatoes

The tomatoes of ‘Mountain Magic’ are bright red, tasty, and nearly without flaw.

The crack-free, bright red, salad tomato ‘Mountain Magic’ (66 days) rivals popular Campari tomatoes and is wonderfully easy to grow.  The large vine needs a strong cage and will continue to stay productive until frost.

Italian ‘Principe Borghese’ is a classic red salad or sun-drying tomato from Italy. The plants produce long trusses (7-10 per truss) of small, deep red fruits with a balanced tomato flavor. Like most tomatoes on the list, it is a vining type that needs strong support.

How to Grow Tomatoes

The following video provides simple steps to growing champion tomatoes.


Best New Herbs and Vegetables for 2022

Each year, I look forward to writing this article because it’s fun to research and write. Vegetable gardening is popular, and with popularity comes variety and loads of new enticing introductions each year. 2022 is no exception. New prettier, tastier, more disease-resistant vegetable pickings are many, and with inflation on the rise, I hope more people will give home growing a try. Inexpensive fresh food is a huge draw! Successful home growers quickly learn the value of less costly, better-tasting food harvested from their own gardens.

New 2022 Vegetable Introductions

Lots of the plants on this list, I plan to grow myself. Each new introduction was chosen for its advertised flavor, vigor, production, and appeal. Disease resistance is another plus.

Beans and Peas

‘Sweet Gem’ is an exceptional new snap pea from High Mowing Organic Seeds. (Image thanks to High Mowing Organic Seeds)

Starting with cool-season crops, there are a couple of select peas to try. High Mowing Organic Seeds is offering the crisp, new snow pea ‘Blizzard‘ (58 days to harvest). It performed very well in their trials, bearing lots of slender, crisp, sweet snow peas on 30-36 inch vines. Snap peas are my favorite, so I will be trying another new pea they are offering, ‘Sweet Gem’ (63 days) snap pea. Its copious, juicy, crisp, sweet peas are produced on strong 45-52 inch vines, which are disease resistant.

Warm-season bush beans can be grown in 4-week intervals throughout the summer, and I like the space-saving plants. Slender, crisp filet beans are so delicious when freshly harvested, and bright yellow ‘Bamako‘ filet bean (54 days) from Johnny’s Select Seeds is stringless, crisp, and plants become loaded with golden beans in the summer months. The upright bush bean is also very disease-resistant. Green bean lovers should consider the new Red Tail snap bush bean, which bears straight, crisp, glossy, 5-6 inch green beans with excellent flavor.  Add it to your list.

Sweet Corn

The new ‘Wild Violet’ sweet corn looks more like an ornamental. Wow! (Image thanks to Burpee)

Two new corn varieties stood out to me on the page. The early corn ‘Solstice’ (68 days), offer by Johnnys, is a tasty bicolor with yellow and gold kernels that mature in just a little over two months after sprouting. Blight resistance and reliable productivity are two more reasons to grow it. The unusually beautiful ‘Wild Violet‘ sweet corn is a Burpee offering with blue-grey and white kernels that darken after cooking. Even though it looks like decorative corn, it is sweet, juicy, and flavorful–a must-grow variety for adventurous gardeners.

Greens, Cabbages, and Roots

‘Expect’ cabbage is dense and perfectly formed. (Image thanks to High Mowing Organic Seeds)
The large, sweet Chinese cabbage ‘Miss Hong‘ (55 days) from Johnny’s Select Seeds has dark-red, crinkled leaves that are noted for their crunchy, yet tender, texture. Those who love traditional cabbage should grow the perfectly round and dense ‘Expect‘ (100 days). It is disease-resistant, heat-tolerant, and flavorful. Another cool new brassica is ‘Rainbow Candy Crush‘ kale from Jung Seed Company. It looks like the prettiest frilliest purple-pink ornamental kale but it is wonderfully flavorful. Plant it in the fall, and harvest it after frost to boost its sweetness.
Salad lovers have many new greens to grow. Butter lettuce is a personal favorite, and the disease-resistant ‘Milagro’ butterhead lettuce produces large, beautiful heads in just 54 days. Plant this with the two reliable, curly, cut-and-come-again lettuces purple EZFLOR and green EZPARK, and you will have fresh salad all spring. The EZ lettuces are long-bearing, bolt-resistant, and disease-resistant.

Unique carrots are always fun to grow, and ‘Yellow Moon‘ is an all-season Nantes x Imperator type carrot that’s crisp, long, and pale yellow. I am sold.

Squash, Melons, and Cucumbers


The sweet, red, seedless watermelon ‘Century Star’ has speckled fruits and leaves. It’s a 2022 regional AAS Winner (Michigan). (Image thanks to AAS Winners)

Parks Seed is selling, Butterbaby butternut squash (100-105 days), which has 4-6 inch, sweet squashes that are as cute as pie. The short-vined plants allow home gardeners with less space to grow them. Those with more space need to try Burpee’s ‘Butterkin’ squash (105 days), which is a pumpkin and butternut squash hybrid with a pumpkin-like look and butternut skin. Its bright orange flesh is noted as being delectably sweet and smooth.

Cucumber and pickle picklers must try ‘Mini-Me’ (45 days), a seedless snack cucumber that’s prolific, just 2-3 inches, and very crisp and sweet. Grow these little Beit-alpha-type seedless cucumbers through summer. The larger beit-alpha cucumber, Merlin (50-55 days), from Burpee Seeds, is equally seedless, sweet, and bears well.

‘Hara Madhu’ is a super sweet melon for hot, dry areas. (Image thanks to Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds)

Century Star (80 days) seedless watermelon is a 2022 AAS Regional Winner for a reason. It yielded lots of sweet, seedless, 10 lb melons in Michigan where summers are cool. The fruits and leaves are beautifully dotted with yellow spots as well. Another unique melon I could not resist is the Indian ‘Hara Madhu’ (90 days), which is noted for its exceptional tolerance to hot, dry conditions as well as its honeyed taste. It’s a great choice for those living where summers are hot.

One productive new zucchini from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds that stood out is ‘Long White of Palermo‘ (45-55 days). The heirloom Mediterranean variety bears buttery zucchinis with a pleasing nutty flavor on bushy plants just right for smaller gardens. The totally unique avocado squash ‘Zapallito Del Tronco‘ (50 days) from Baker Creek also piqued my interest. It is an Argentinian heirloom that looks like a winter squash but eats like summer squash and has buttery soft flesh.

Tomatoes and Peppers

For fantastic peppers try ‘Mocha Swirl’. (Image thanks to Burpee)

Burpee is selling the colorful ‘Mocha Swirl‘ (50-70 days) snacking pepper exclusively, and it is one of the prettiest peppers I’ve ever seen. Its tasty elongated fruits are swirled with shades of red, orange, purple, yellow, and green when mature. Plant it alongside the compact (18″) ‘Purple Beauty‘ bell pepper (75 days), from Baker Creek Heirloom Seed, which has sweet, thick-walled, blocky fruits that mature to almost black. Both will look beautiful on a crudité tray alongside Johnny’s reliable, bright orange ‘Flavorburst’ pepper (67-87 days), which is noted for its high sugar content.

The colorful slicing tomato ‘Alice’s Dream’ has tropical, sweet fruits. (Image thanks to Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds)

2022 has so many tomato introductions! My final picks were chosen for beauty, trial ratings, disease resistance, and taste (most of all). The bicolored green and red Captain Lucky (75 days, indeterminate) slicing tomato is a new one from Johnny’s with excellent flavor that challenges the best heirloom tomatoes. The yellow, green, pink, and red interior is described as psychedelic. Two more big on beauty and flavor from Baker Creek are ‘Alice’s Dream‘ (80 days, indeterminate) beefsteak and ‘Black Strawberry’ cherry tomato (60 days, indeterminate). ‘Alice’s Dream’ has an orange-yellow exterior striped with purple and a deep orange-yellow interior described as tasting sweet and tropical. The super sweet ‘Black Strawberry’ tomatoes are orange-red caste with a mottled overlay of purple-black and produced in easy-to-harvest trusses. Finally, Burpee’s Bodacious big slicing tomato (80-85 days, indeterminate) deserves attention. The large, red, tasty tomatoes are aromatic and produced on vines that really resist blight. Each can produce 40-50 fruits in a season.

Cool New Herbs

‘Purple Ball’ basil is delicious, beautiful, and compact. (Image thanks to Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds)

Baker Creek takes the cake when it comes to amazing new herbs for the garden. ‘Orangelo’ thyme (Thymus fragrantissimus ‘Orangelo’, Zones 5-8) looks extra inviting with its promise of true citrus flavor. I have to make space for a couple in my rock garden. There is no want for new and interesting basils. Small-space gardeners will love the deepest-purple, ball-shaped ‘Purple Ball, which reaches just under 12 inches. Its sweet, fragrant, darkest purple leaves will look great in salads and pasta. Baker Creek’s ‘Evivi Ntor’ African basil, originally grown and obtained from the Ewe tribe in Ghana, is described as having a sharp, peppery, citrusy flavor. It is also remarkably heat-tolerant. Another basil for flavor and summer heat is Everleaf Thai Towers. The upright plants are slow to bolt, reach 2-3 feet, and have true Thai basil flavor.

Now’s the time to purchase seeds for these vegetables, if you are inclined to grow your own from seed (click here to learn how). Vegetable gardening is hot, so hot that seeds are selling out at record speed, so now is the time to buy them. You may also want to pick up a bag of OMRI Listed Black Gold Seedling Mix while you are at it. (Click here for my top ten vegetable gardening tips.)

Cold Frame Salad Gardening

Cold frames are like outdoor mini glasshouses for winter vegetable and herb growing.

Garden-fresh eating does not have to end in the fall. The onset of chilly weather means it’s time to enjoy cold-frame salad gardens filled with easy, cool-season greens, root vegetables, and annual herbs. These crops are fast to germinate and grow, and they will tolerate serious cold weather if your frame garden is properly placed, prepared, and maintained.

What is a Cold Frame?

In 2012 I co-wrote an article with John Everard about how to build your own cold frame. This is the cold frame that he designed! (See building details in the linked article below.) (Image by Jessie Keith)

A cold frame is a cross between a raised bed and a small, sunken, covered greenhouse. It is lowered into the ground to reduce winter freezing of cold-tolerant greens, herbs, and root vegetables. Most cold frames are designed with sturdy sides of either wood, stone, or brick, and they are topped with framed glass or plexiglass lids that can be lifted on unseasonably warm fall and winter days.

Cold frames were first popularized in Europe, where winter growing conditions are generally mild, but they are also useful for American gardeners. You can build your own cold frame or purchase a premade one. Building your own has its advantages because you can create something more for less, if you know what you are doing. For a great step-by-step building guide, please click here to read this article that I co-wrote with biologist and builder John Everard for Wilder Quarterly in 2012. John created a very useful design that can be sunk into the ground in our USDA Hardiness Zone 7 area.

Cold Frame Siting

Cold frames further south can be shallower because it’s warmer.

All cold frames should be placed in a somewhat elevated location with full sun and soil that drains well–standing water and vegetable cultivation do not go hand in hand. Some steps regarding cold-frame gardening depend on one’s location and climate. In the north, a cold frame should be placed in a sunny, south-facing spot close to the home. If you can, sink the frame a few inches below the soil level. The reflective heat from the home will provide a little extra winter protection, the south-facing sun will help heat the cold frame all winter long, and the added depth will reduce the chances of freezing on cold nights. Further south, you can choose a spot away from the home, and sinking the frame is not necessary. No matter where you live, be sure to be watchful of your cold frame on uncommonly warm winter days. Prop the tops open during the day to keep the internal temperature from getting too hot and stressing your greens.

Cold Frame Soil

Rich, dark soil is best for cold frame gardens.

Dark, lofty, highly amended soil that holds water well will yield the best vegetables. Start by amending the ground soil in the frame with good compost, like Black Gold Natural & Organic Garden Compost Blend. A 1:2 ratio of soil to compost is recommended, especially if the soil is high in clay or sand. Another option is to fill the bed with Black Gold Natural & Organic Raised Bed and Planting Mix. Adding a layer of compost as a protective mulch is also important and can serve as further insulation. (Click here to learn more about creating the best soil for raised beds.)

Cold Frame Salad Crops

Rather than harvesting whole lettuce heads, I recommend snipping away leaves for cut-and-come-again salads.

It is essential to grow cool-season, frost-resistant crops. These are largely cool-season greens, herbs, and root crops. There are lots of greens for the job such as mâche, kale, lettuce, mizuna, spinach, and Swiss chard. Any lettuce will do, but small, fast varieties are most favorable. Salanova baby lettuces (55 days from seed) produce sweet and crunchy heads of green and purple very quickly, and the looseleaf lettuce Baby Leaf Mix is a reliable cut-and-come-again mix. Spinach thrives in cool weather and may have smooth or savoyed (puckered) leaves. I recommend both the 1925 heirloom ‘Bloomsdale’, which has large, savoyed leaves and is slower to bolt than most, and the smooth-leaved ‘Corvair’, which is resistant to the fungal disease, downy mildew. Arugula cultivars vary in leaf shape, color and heat. The popular ‘Wasabi’ is an easy-to-grow selection with leaves that truly taste like hot wasabi, and the newer ‘Dragon’s Tongue’ is a visually pretty, finely cut variant with purple-red venation.

In the deep winter, cool-season root vegetables bulb up more slowly.

The best root crops include winter carrots and radishes. Radishes are by far the fastest, and my favorite variety for crisp, sweet flavor is the French breakfast radish D’Avignon. Click the following link to learn more about growing winter root crops and click this link to learn more about growing cool-season greens.

For delicate cool-season herbs, try cilantro, dill, and parsley. Cilantro likes it cool and may produce leaves throughout winter. When the weather heats up, it will produce starts stems of white flowers and bulbous seed heads that can be dried and crushed to make the spice coriander. Dill will bear ferny leaves that taste great in salads, spreads, and fish dishes. Lush clumps of curly or flatleaf parsley will also flourish in cold frames all winter long.

All of these plants can be directly sown into the frame from seed. They sprout fastest in the fall when germination temperatures are more moderate–between 70 and 40 degrees F. Some need to be sown on the soil surface, particularly the small seeds of lettuce, which need light to germinate. At sowing time, start by wetting the soil, and then gently sow and pat the seeds down. Follow up with a little more water to wet the seeds. Be sure to label all seed rows with labels showing the plant names and sowing dates.

Harvest salad leaves, herbs, and roots as needed through winter–I tend to use shears to trim off what I need on a given day. By early spring, the cold frame garden will begin to look tired. Feel free to clean it out and begin planting new vegetables for spring.

Growing and Harvesting Popcorn

Popcorn is one of those crops that can last all year long until your next crop if you dry and store it correctly. And, as with any vegetable, growing your own offers more opportunities to try different delicious and unique types. Kids love to grow popcorn as well. There is something satisfying about picking off the dried kernels, jarring them up, and popping your first batch of buttery homegrown popcorn.

Planning one’s popcorn crop starts in mid-spring, just before corn planting time. There are several seed vendors that sell favorite, reliable varieties for new-time growers–Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Harris Seeds, High Mowing, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Jung’s, and others. Many have something unique for popcorn connoisseurs as well. Most offer miniature varieties as well as large-kerneled types. I like big, fluffy popcorn, so these are the varieties I like to grow and promote.

Six Top Popcorn Varieties

‘Mini Blue’ is an unusual heirloom popping corn that yields earlier than most.

‘Dakota Black‘ (95 days) is a beautiful heirloom popcorn with lustrous black kernels that are medium-sized and extra delicious when popped. The attractive ears are 5-6 inches long when mature.

Early Pink‘ (85-95 days) has large, mauve-pink kernels that make truly lovely decorative corn until the wintertime when you can hull it for crunchy popped corn. The ears reach 5-7 inches.

Mini Blue’ (80 days) has large blue kernels on  4-inch ears that pop up into light, fluffy, flavorful popcorn. The plants are noted as being productive.

‘Mushroom’ (103 days) gourmet popping corn forms big, round, fluffy popped corn that is delicious. It has yellow kernels, long ears, and is recommended for kettle or caramel corn because it is easy to sugar coat.

‘Robust 997’ (112 days) is a reliable classic popcorn variety with yellow kernels that are large and tender when popped. The high-yielding plants bear lots of 7-8 inch ears.

‘Top Pop’ (100 days), the name says it all. It has large yellow kernels that pop up into light, tender popcorn. The plants are also productive and vigorous. It is my top pick for new popcorn growers.

Growing Popcorn

Productive popcorn stalks may produce up to five ears or more.

Plant corn in the ground in late spring, once the soil is warm and frost is through for the season. (Click here for your last frost date.) Popcorn needs full sun and weed-free vegetable garden soil that drains well and has average fertility and a neutral pH. Work Black Gold Natural & Organic Compost Blend into the soil before planting to increase fertility. Plant the seeds about 2 inches deep and 12 inches apart; keep them lightly moist for good germination. You will need at least three rows of six plants for reliable pollination and lots of ears of popcorn. Corn plants require heat, so once the temperatures rise, they will take off. Keep them regularly watered during times of high heat and little rain.

Popcorn Pests

There are several pests to watch out for, including corn earworms, which eat the ears from within. Apply Bacillius thuringiensis (BT), which is approved for organic gardening, to the young tassels to keep these pests away. The common fungal disease, corn smut, will distort the ears, but it is edible (read about edible corn smut here!). Fungal northern corn leaf blight may develop under cool, wet weather conditions and cause leaf lesions and seedling death. The bacterial wilt called Stewart’s wilt is less common but deadly and will cause whole plants to unexpectedly wilt and die. Choose resistant varieties if wilt and blight are problems in your area. Corn-belt states (western Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, eastern Nebraska, and eastern Kansas) tend to have higher instances of disease.

Drying and Storing Popcorn

Mature ears can be hung to dry or left to dry on the stalk.

There are several ways to dry popcorn. If weather conditions are hot and dry, then allow the ears to dry on the plant as you would with field corn. If you are concerned about too much rain, then let the ears fully mature and begin to dry. Then, harvest them and finish drying them by hanging them in a cool, dry place. You will know they are ready when the leaves, top of the cob, and kernels feel dry.

You can leave them on the cob, or for easier popping, you can pick or hull the ears. It’s a fun job to do, so invite the kids to help. Simply pick off the dry kernels, and place them in a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid for storage, and place it in a cabinet close by to pop whenever you want!

Perfect Stovetop Popped Corn

Fresh popcorn is the ultimate wintertime treat.

I prefer to pop popcorn the old-fashioned way, in a tall pan with a little oil and a tight-fitting lid. My greatest key to success is shaking the pan every minute or so to make sure that the popcorn does not become too brown or burn.

  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1/3 cup popcorn
  • 1 to 2 tablespoon/s butter
  • sea salt to taste

Heat the oil in the pan on medium to medium-high until sizzling. Add the popcorn kernels, put down the lid, and shake the pan intermittently to keep the popcorn moving. Listen carefully once it starts to pop. Most of the corn will pop up within a minute or two, but there are always a few that are late to pop. I usually wait until I hear 30 seconds of silence before taking off the lid to add the tablespoon of butter down the side of the pan to melt. Wait another 30 seconds for the butter to melt, and then toss the popcorn in the pan with the lid on to distribute the melted butter. Finally, shake it into a bowl and add salt to taste.

You can also add parmesan cheese, garlic salt, rosemary, cheddar cheese dust, ranch seasoning, or other flavors to make your popped corn extra tasty.

Best New Herbs and Vegetables for 2021

The large-fruited ‘Orange Accordion’ is uniquely beautiful and delicious. (Image thanks to Baker Creek Seeds)

2020 was quite a year–with more downs than ups for most of us. One bright spot was the big boost in gardening nationwide. New gardeners arose from every corner of the country, trying their hand at raising their own vegetables, flowers, herbs, and house plants. It’s equally bright that this year offers no shortage of new and exciting herbs and vegetables. Promising new introductions, for both novice and seasoned gardeners, are diverse and many.

New 2021 Herb Introductions

The golden leaves of Drop of Jupiter have a delicate oregano flavor that is best suited for fresh eating in salads, soups, and sandwiches. (Image thanks to Proven Winners)

Herbs with improved performance and ornamental traits are always welcome in the garden. Here are my favorite picks from the wealth of new herbs offered by top seed vendors and online nurseries. (Click here for tips about how to grow different herbs.)

Several new and improved basils are offered this year, and two are on my to-get list. One that will be new to my garden, is the disease-resistant Amazel Basil® sweet Italian basil from Proven Winners®. The tasty variety has large leaves and is sterile, so it never flowers and stays sweet. Another is the highly disease-resistant ‘Rutgers Passion’, a new Italian basil available at Johnny’s Selected Seeds. The classic, large-leafed plants have notably sweet, aromatic leaves and are slow to bolt.

Amazel Basil® is sterile, so it always stays sweet and leafy. (Image by Proven Winners®)

The unusually ferny cilantro ‘Confetti’ is a tasty new variety from Johnny’s Selected Seeds that is fast growing and ideal for baby greens. It yields herbal greens in just 30-35 days from seed! If you prefer more traditional cilantro then grow ‘Marino‘, a new introduction from Park Seed. It has large, lush leaves and the vigorous plants are very slow to  flower, which means more cilantro for longer.

Proven Winner’s ‘Drops of Jupiter’ ornamental oregano is both attractive and delicious, with mild oregano flavor. Its chartreuse leaves look extra pretty when the numerous purplish-pink flowers appear in midsummer. The beautiful flowers are also edible and attract bees and butterflies.

New 2021 Vegetable Introductions

‘Green Light’ cucumber is a high-yielding, sweet, seedless cucumber that’s a 2020 AAS winner. (Image by All America Selections)

There are so many new vegetables on the market, it was hard to know where to start when choosing the best picks to present and try in my own garden, but I managed.

I jar pickles, so I always grow cucumbers. That’s why I could not pass up the 2020 AAS award-winning Beit-Alpha-type cucumber ‘Green Light‘. It has small, crisp, sweet, seedless cucumbers that yield early. Each compact vine can produce up to 40 cucumbers, and fruits may begin to appear as fast as 42 days from seed!

Edamame soybeans are making their way into American vegetable gardens where they are grown just like string beans. (Click here to learn how to grow string beans.) The new, prolific, early-yielding edamame ‘BeSweet‘ bears lots of flavorful beans excellent for steaming and eating from the pod.

Okra lovers can plant fewer plants and get all the okra they need with ‘Heavy Hitter‘. The new offering from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds produces huge yields of tender, green okra pods over a long period of time. Harvest pods regularly to keep production booming.

‘Orange Accordion’ tomato is juicy, flavorful, huge, and ornate. (Image thanks to Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds)

Flavorful slicing tomatoes are my favorite, and the super disease-resistant heirloom-type tomato ‘GinFiz‘ from Johnny’s Selected Seeds is on the top of my list. It has the five traits that I look for in a tomato: sweet full flavor, beauty, vigor, excellent disease resistance, and good yields. Another impressive slicer I’ve chosen is Baker Creek’s large-fruited ‘Orange Accordion‘. It is reportedly very delicious and uniquely beautiful with its deeply lobed, accordion-shaped fruits of bright orange. Pot and patio gardeners will want to try Proven Winners® miniature Tempting Tomatoes® Patio Sunshine Cherry Tomato. The tiny tomato plants become covered with so many fruits that they start crowding the foliage. (Click here to learn how to grow tomatoes from seed to harvest.)

Tempting Tomatoes® Patio Sunshine Cherry Tomato is tiny but a productive powerhouse. (Image by Proven Winners)

Bell-pepper lovers should try the new disease-resistant, high-yielding ‘Karisma‘ bell from Park Seed. The blocky, thick-walled sweet peppers produce continuously throughout the season and turn from green to bright red. For even blockier sweet red bells borne in high quantities on larger plants, try ‘Double Up’–just be sure to cage the plants for needed stability. Small-space gardeners can try the new, compact Pot-a-Peño jalapeño pepper, which is ideal for container gardens. This variety also happens to be 2021 AAS award winner, which means it is sure to perform well. (Click here to learn how to grow your own peppers.)

Pot-a-Peño jalapeño is a 2021 AAS winner. (Image from All America Selections)

The deep-purple Asian eggplant ‘Shikou’ is a very early producer of tender, long, flavorful eggplants that produce one week earlier than many other varieties of its kind. It is remarkably heat-tolerant and will also withstand limited drought.

Summer and winter squash are not in short supply when it comes to new offerings. The perfect little golden patty pan ‘Lemon Sun‘ produces lots of little uniform squashes. It’s a good choice for baby vegetable growers. Winter squash lovers will swoon over ‘Harvest Moon‘, a long-keeping, blue-skinned winter squash with a pumpkin shape and bright orange flesh. The Burpee exclusive has heirloom looks, sweet flavor, and keeping power of up to a year. Those with less space can try ‘Goldilocks‘ acorn squash. The 2021 AAS winner displays lots of orange, sweet, and nutty acorn squashes on bush-type plants.

‘Harvest Moon’ is a new winter squash from Burpee with heirloom looks and great flavor. (Image by W. Atlee Burpee & Co.)

My fall vegetable garden will certainly contain the dusty purple, mini ‘Bonarda‘ broccoli. It looks beautiful, tastes delicious, and winters over well, from fall to winter, like a perennial. If planted in mid-fall, its small, colorful broccoli florets will be produced the following spring above white and green leaves.

Now’s the time to purchase seeds for these vegetables, if you are inclined to grow your own from seed (click here to learn how). Vegetable gardening is still hot, so hot that seeds are selling out at record speed, so now is the time to buy. You may also want to pick up a bag of OMRI Listed Black Gold Seedling Mix while you are at it.

How Do I Keep Squirrels from Stealing My Tomatoes?

“Squirrels have stolen all my tomatoes for the last 3 years.  Is there any option other than putting up fencing?” Question from Barbara of Portage, Michigan

Answer: Squirrels tend to steal fruit when they are thirsty as well as hungry, and there are several proactive things that you can do to keep them away. Fences do not work due to the acrobatic nature of squirrels. Your best option is a motion-sensor repeller. There are several types. Some are in the form of hooting owls, others release ultrasonic sounds, but the best use sharp sprays of water to startle and frighten away squirrels and other pests. The Yard Enforcer is a good brand.

At my home, I also maintain a water source for birds that squirrels can also drink from and place my kitchen produce seeds–from melons, squash, etc.– outside and away from my garden for squirrels to eat. It costs no money, and well-fed and watered squirrels tend to stay away from my garden.

I hope that these tips help.

Happy gardening,

Jessie Keith

Black Gold Horticulturist

Mildew, Insects, and Rodents Damaged My Vegetable Garden. Help!

Mildew, Insects, and Rodents Damaged My Vegetable Garden. Help!

“My raised bed gardens were a disaster this year!  Mildew, cabbage worms, rodents – even though I thought I had great organic soil mix and high enough barriers.  What can I do this fall to get a great start next spring?” Question from Glenda of Sewell, New Jersey

Answer: I am sorry to hear that your vegetable garden was a downer this year. Different pests and diseases need to be dealt with in different ways. Here are some recommendations and resources.

Ways to Ward Off Vegetable Garden Pests and Disease

  1. Clean up. The best way to ward off pests and diseases is to remove all plant material from your vegetable garden in fall and do the same in early spring when winter weeds abound. It removes the overwintering eggs of some pests as well as plant-borne diseases.
  2. Go no-till. Each season, my no-till garden gets covered with a 2-3-inch layer of compost to stop weeds. Rodents cannot find a safe harbor in this type of mulch, unlike straw and leaf mulch. (Click here to learn how to create a no-till vegetable garden.)
  3. Plant resistant varieties. The more disease- and pest-resistant the vegetable varieties you choose, the better.
  4. Space plants and rows well. Increased airflow and space in the garden will dissuade many diseases, pests, and rodents. (Click here for more tips for tackling rodents and other mammalian pests.)
  5. Plan for pests: If your cabbages have had cabbage worms in the past, expect the worms to return. Apply pre-emptive applications of safe, OMRI Listed BT spray to stop them in their tracks. By learning the life cycles of different pests that have plagued your garden in the past, you can plan precise strikes with the correct pesticides.
  6. Give your plants a good head start. Choose (or raise) the healthiest plants you can. Large, robust seedlings have a greater chance of resisting pests and diseases and producing high yields. If growing plants from seed, be sure to give your seedlings plenty of light and room to develop stout, dense growth, and ample root systems. (Click here for seed-starting tips.)

I hope these tips help. You may also want to watch the video about overcoming powdery mildew below.

Happy vegetable gardening,

Jessie Keith

Black Gold Horticulturist

How Do I Build My Soil in Fall to Increase Vegetable Yields?

“Hello, I just moved to a place this year that had semi-raised beds for gardening. I planted several “crops” and the yields were not great. I don’t know if it was the seeds I used or if it is the soil itself. I waited until the ground was warm enough, and I watered regularly and planted as directed, but my yields were about 50% for everything but radishes! I am thinking of adding some more soil this fall and let it sit over the winter..any ideas?” Thank you. Question from Lucinda of Pittston, Maine

Answer: There are lots of ways to build up your soil for vegetable growing success. Here are four recommendations that will increase your success next season.

1. Feed Your Soil

Good soil is the key to gardening success. Feed it liberally feed it with organic matter, such as Black Gold Earthworm Castings, Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss, and Garden Compost Blend, especially if your soil is rich in clay or sandy. The addition of high-quality, screened topsoil is also recommended. Add at least 3 inches of amendments to the soil surface, and till it to a depth of at least 8 inches. Tilling in amendments will increase water-holding capacity and aeration for better root growth. Use the amendment application formula below to determine the amount you will need.

Amendment Application Formula

([area to cover] ft2 x [depth in inches desired] x 0.0031 = ___ yd3).

Example: If you wanted to cover a 20 square foot area with 2 inches of compost, the result would be: 20 ft2 x 2 inches of compost x 0.0031 = 2.48 yd3.

(For another take, click here for a full overview of how to prep a new no-till vegetable garden from start to finish.)

2. Choose the Right Organic Fertilizer

Vegetables perform better with regular fertilization, especially heavy feeders like tomatoes. Most veggies will deplete the soil of nutrients over time, so replenishment is necessary. There are many organic vegetable fertilizers on the market. Alfalfa, blood, bone, feather, fish, kelp, and shrimp meals are all common natural components of non-chemical fertilizers. Earthworm castings are also a good source of nitrogen and beneficial microbes. Adding mycorrhizae to the soil is also useful because it helps plants take up water and nutrients better. Black Gold Natural & Organic Ultra Coir is another of our organic-rich amendments that also contains our proprietary blend of endomycorrhizae. We recommend that you research top-rated organic fertilizers to find the best for your needs.

3. Rotate Your Crops with Legumes

Vegetables, especially tomatoes, should be rotated on a three-year cycle. For example, tomatoes one year and other vegetables in the next two years. Legumes, like beans and peas, are excellent rotation crops because they naturally fortify soils with nitrogen. For more rotation tips, I encourage you to read Spring to Fall Vegetable Rotation: Planting for Non-stop Garden Produce. It will provide all of the information you need to effectively rotate your crops, whether container- or garden-grown.

4. Clean Up and Cover

Weed your beds with quality weeding tools (I am never without my weeding knife (Hori Hori), strong hoe (Prohoes are the best), and Korean hand plow (Ho-Mi)), and then plant them with a green manure crop. Johnny’s Seeds’ Fall Green Manure Mix or annual rye are good cover crops that can be tilled under in spring. They stop winter weeds and add natural organic matter and nutrients to beds for better vegetable production.

I hope that all of this information helps!

Happy soil building,

Jessie Keith

Black Gold Horticulturist