Vegetable Gardening for Earth Renewal

A vegetable garden is much more than a little grocery store! By incorporating native plants in your yard, reducing lawn and using organic practices, your garden can be a nature sanctuary and capture stormwater while feeding your family healthy food. Groceries come with a big environmental cost - from the chemical inputs on farms, packaging, shipping, and refrigeration. All of those disappear when you grow your own food. In addition, by having a garden instead of lawn, you are reducing the runoff from your property that damages our waterways.

Feed your family and the living world using three basic principles

  1. Add native plants. A  truly sustainable garden requires native plants, which are the basis of the entire ecosystem and which support the beneficial insects you need for a healthy environment. Some native plants are even edible!

  2. Grow your soil. Soil is a dynamic thing, full of life and structure. Chemical additives disrupt the balance that allows soil to support your crops as well as other life. We need to give back to the earth when we take.

  3. Coexist. Embrace the invertebrate and vertebrate world alike. You can achieve good crop yields while minimizing the impact on the intricate interrelationships that are needed for the survival of us all.

To maximize your crop yields, build your ecosystem infrastructure first.

Native companions to your food crops

​By planting a diverse pallet of native plants we invite not only the plant-eating insects, but also their predators, pollinators, seed dispersers and recyclers that make a garden work. In short, because our native plants and animals have evolved together, they support each other and we enjoy the beauty and fruits of their labor.

 

Annual Vegetables

  • Locate beds of native flowers nearby to feed your soul and to support the pollinators and insects that prey on the ones that eat our crops. Underplanting your shrub beds is one convenient way to add shade tolerant natives, or cutting out an area of lawn for sun-loving pollinator plants. A bed of native plants requires minimal care compared to a vegetable garden, which needs regular tending. Plant a mix of species that support pollinators with a succession of bloom from early spring to late fall. Be tidy with your annual vegetables but allow for wildness in your native plant beds.

  • Alternatively, help out the micro ecosystem of your vegetable bed by including containers with native perennials.

  • Your mower can’t reach up to the side of your raised beds, leaving you to deal with the grass and weeds. This is a good place to  plant short native species, possibly interspersed with stepping stones. Choose plants that tolerate compaction since you will be stepping between them as you work, such as Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica), Threadleaf Coreopsis (Coreopsis verticillata), Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis) and Calico Aster (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum).

Click here for a list of native bees and the specific crops they pollinate, and a list of the native plants which attract them. For example:​

  • Squash - large bees - Milkweeds, Wild Bergamot, native thistles

  • Tomatoes - medium or large bees - Foxglove Beardtongue, Blue Wild Indigo, Wild Bergamot, Tall Coreopsis, Obedient Plant

  • Strawberries - small or medium bees - Golden Alexander, Golden Ragwort

Grow your soil

Soil is something we need to build up, not use up.

Soil preparation

  • Many gardeners are turning away from tilling, which damages the soil structure.

  • One of the joys of gardening with Virginia natives is that there is seldom much need for soil preparation The native soil has all that the native plants need, unless it has been stripped down to just construction soil. (If that is the case, throw in some compost as you plant). 

  • Annual vegetables, however, need lots of organic matter and good drainage. Raised beds are a convenient way to provide both. 

  • Revitalizing the soil enough to plant vegetables after construction without a raised bed takes a good amount of time that will take a number of freeze-thaw cycles and addition of organic matter to allow the soil microbes and macro-organisms to return to balance.

  • Rather than using inorganic chemical applications on the plants, feed the soil organic matter a couple times per year.

  • Leaf mulch is a nice, natural ground cover that helps reduce water use.

Additives

  • Chemical fertilizers are quick and convenient but damage the soil.

  • Organic fertilizers work more slowly and are less concentrated. Those made from animal products (such as blood) tend to attract animals such as dogs who try to eat them. Plant-based fertilizers are available.

  • Compost is the ideal fertilizer for most plants. The simplest way to compost is to just make a pile in a corner of your garden and give it a few months. If you run two or three compost heaps simultaneously, you will have one to use for each growing season. Using a compost bin requires attention but produces compost faster and may be aesthetically more acceptable in some gardens.

Coexist


Volumes have been written about ways to grow food without using the chemicals that do so much harm to the ecosystem and create a dependency on themselves by damaging the soil and disrupting the balance of predators and prey in the insect world. Think of yourself as creating a miniature ecosystem in your yard. It will take several years for it to come into balance. But if you have a wide diversity of native plants and have discontinued the use of chemicals, gradually you will be joined by a thriving community of critters that keep your garden healthy. 

Here are some of the basic principles for managing pests in the annual vegetable garden.

  • Plant diversity - The more different types of crops and flowers you can grow, the healthier your local ecosystem will be. Monocultures make it easy for pests to find and ravage your whole crop at once. Make it harder for them by interplanting vegetables from different families. This also helps prevent the spread of diseases. Consult a chart to know which vegetables are compatible with each other..

  • Choose resistant varieties - varieties are available that resist lacebugs, scale, sawfly, Mexician bean beetle, squash bugs. 

  • Healthy plants - Healthy plants resist disease and insects. Give them the growing conditions they need and plenty of organic matter. Use your sunniest location, but if you can’t provide at least six hours of direct sunlight, grow crops that tolerate part shade.

  • Crop rotation - at least a 3 year rotation helps control leaf miners, potato beetles and the squash vine borer. 

  • Timing - planting later in the season avoids the damaging period of some insects’ life cycles (Beets - - wait until after the lilacs bloom to foil the leaf miners. Squash/pumpkins  - wait until July 4 to avoid squash vine borers.). Planting early-maturing bean varieties avoids the Mexican bean beetle.

  • Don’t over fertilize - new growth attracts aphids.

  • Avoid ornamental plants that attract pests (such as roses and hibiscus which attract Japanese beetles.)

  • Keep the soil covered - A cover crop is ideal in the winter or when you are leaving a bed fallow. A winter rye/vetch seed blend is a good choice and can be ordered mail order, for instance from High Mowing Organic Seeds out of Vermont. To cover the soil between rows during the growing season, straw is the first choice. If using straw in the winter, you can swap it out in late winter to remove any weed seeds and insect eggs that have accumulated in it.

  • Floating row covers - keep moths from laying their eggs. Remove the covers when the plants are flowering so they can get pollinated, if needed. 

  • Be vigilant - vegetable gardens are not like native plant gardens, which need little care except occasional weeding. Inspect your food crops daily, if you can.

    • Look for frass (insect poop) to alert you to tomato hornworms and squash vine borers. 

    • Dislodge aphids, mealybugs and lace bug nymphs with a sharp stream of water.

    • Hand pick caterpillars and slugs

    • Welcome the invertebrate world! Just because something is an insect, doesn’t mean it will damage your crops. Take a photo and upload it to iNaturalist to identify it. Ladybug larvae, for example (pictured) are quite scary looking, but they eat the aphids that may damage your vegetables. And aphids themselves can coexist happily with your native milkweeds - there is no need to pester them in that location, where they provide food for beneficial insects. 

  • Add a pond to attract frogs, toads, salamanders and dragonflies to eat the slugs and insects. Or just put a plate of water and some shelter out to attract toads.

  • Clear out the debris  (unlike in your native plant garden, where leaf litter and plant stalks are necessary for the critters we are protecting to make their homes and overwinter.)

  • Water early in the day to allow the foliage to dry before night and avoid fungus and slugs which like wet foliage.

  • Trellis cucumbers, melons, pumpkins, squash and zucchini to deter squash bugs by keeping the plants off the ground.

  • Harvest more: When vegetables are ready to be harvested they send signals to pests "come eat me." Keep plants healthy by harvesting crops that need harvesting.  

  • Compost tea sprayed on foliage is thought by some to help prevent diseases.

  • Low tunnels (wire hoops and clear plastic sheeting together) provide season extension for fall seedings of spinach, mustards, claytonia over winter. Also polyester row covers protect newly planted seedlings from the harsh sun. 

  • Plant successionally: increase the number of plantings and decrease the number of plants per seeding. Example: seed half a bed with lettuce, wait two weeks and seed the other half.

Native companion plants

to attract beneficial insects, repel pests, add nitrogen or other nutrients.

Need help with your vegetable garden?

 

Local companies

 

 

Public organizations

 

In Fairfax County, vegetable gardens are now allowed in front yards as long as they are set back 15 feet from the front property line and are limited to 100 square feet. Compost heaps are not allowed in the front yard.

Community Gardens

Native plants to line the outside perimeter fence

Mowers can’t reach all the way to the fence, leaving an area where weeds grow and have to be weed whacked. A “mowing strip” composed of a perennial garden solves this problem while attracting the pollinators that your food crops need.

Here are examples of native flowers that could grow outside your deer fence - some need full sun, others part shade, several could take either - and that meet these criteria: relatively deer resistant; unlikely to be mistaken for a weed (at least not by gardeners); not aggressive; unlikely to flop (although if they are given fertilizer or over watered, that would be more likely). They are listed more or less in order of bloom time.

  • Green-and-Gold (Chrysogonum virginianum)

  • Wild Bleeding Heart (Dicentra eximia)

  • Virginia Bluebell (Mertensia virginica)

  • Woodland Phlox (Phlox divaricata) Foliage makes a nice evergreen groundcover.

  • Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis) – Late spring/early summer.

  • Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) Everyone’s favorite – blooms all summer! Attracts beneficial insects

  • Virginia Blueflag (Iris virginiana)

  • Dwarf Crested Iris (Iris cristata)

  • Blue Wild Indigo (Baptisia australis) – Wonderful foliage, nice June bloom.

  • Yellow Wild Indigo (Baptisia tinctoria)

  • Goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus)

  • Threadleaf Coreopsis (Coreopsis verticillata) – Also extremely popular, very prolonged bloom time.

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