Master Gardeners: The basics of vegetable gardening, Part 2 | Explore Yakima

This is the second in a two-part series about the basics of vegetable gardening. This article delves into more detail about how to make the most of your gardening experience. To read Part 1, pick up the May 29 edition of the Yakima Herald-Republic or go to

Good soil

This is the most important ingredient to a good vegetable garden — good soil is a must! Here’s how to get it:

, Assess the type of native soil you have; is it clay, loam or sandy? You need to know what you start with in order to know how to obtain the best soil for your vegetables.

, Assess the pH acid to alkaline; pH is best at 6.2 to 6.8. The Master Gardener clinic can perform a soil test for you.

, Use amendments to adjust the native soil using such things as aged steer manure and limestone for alkaline soil (many soils in Eastern Washington are alkaline).

, There is a definite need for abundant organic matter to improve garden soil, as it holds nutrients better and makes the soil more porous.

, You can buy commercial compost, steer manure or topsoil by the truckload. Or you can make your own compost; it’s a great way to recycle garden and yard wastes.

, The key is to balance food, water and air to favor growth of thermophilic microorganisms that will break down ingredients into rich soil

Compost basics

, Have your compost area near the garden. The container should be a 3-sided structure of wood, straw bales, fence, or can even be an open pile.

, Make the pile using a 1:2 ratio of green to brown materials. Green equals nitrogen or energy sources needed for fast microbial growth, such as grass clippings, chicken or cow manure, garden waste and coffee grounds. Brown equals carbon sources or bulking agents needed to aerate the compost pile, such as straw, sawdust, wood chips and corn stalks.

, Use balancing agents, which have both energy and bulking agent properties, include deciduous leaves, horse manure and shrub trimmings (chipper to reduce the size is best).

, Layer the above items adding a shovel full of soil between layers, which adds the microbes necessary for decomposition.

, The compost pile should be 3 feet high by 3 feet wide by 3 feet deep when finished.

, Keep the pile moist but not soaking wet.

, For fast compost, turn the pile twice a week with a pitchfork, as it needs oxygen. The pile heats up in the center to a temperature of 120 to 150 degrees and will shrink in size and be brown and crumbly in four to six weeks.

, If you want a slower compost, don’t turn it quite so often and it may take three to four months.

, When done, screen the soil to 1/2 inch to remove large pieces.

, Apply as side dressing to plants or work into the top 3 to 4 inches of soil.

Planting the garden

, It’s stating the obvious, but it is important to select only seeds and plants that you or your family like to eat.

, Start indoors from seeds in early spring if you want to get a jump start on the season.

, You can also choose to use season extenders such as cold frames, a wall of water, cloches, or cut-off gallon milk jugs with stoppers off to cover the plants.

, Plant cool weather crops outdoors after the last frost date (May 1-15). You can pre-sprout larger seeds by using a damp paper towel in a plastic bag and choosing the seeds that sprout.

, Plant warm-weather crops when the soil temperatures warm up.

, For several plants it is easier to use bedding plants (tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers, melons, etc.). The Master Gardener plant sale is always around the first weekend of May, and we have an amazing selection of plants at reasonable prices.

, Decide how much to plant of each so you know production amounts; decide how you will use excess produce if there is more produce than you need.

, Plant tall or trellised plants on the north side so they will not shade shorter plants.

, Know planting depth, planting distance and time to maturity for each plant. It is very important to read the information on the back of the seed packet.

, Plant perennial vegetables (for example, rhubarb and asparagus) in a separate location where they will not be disturbed and they will renew year after year.

, Allow space for sprawling vegetables or put a trellis near the base of the plant.

, Label all rows and plants, especially varieties, or create a garden map with plant names.


, Water needs to be consistent yet adjusted to weather patterns (the hotter the temperature, the more water is needed). More water is needed after planting when they set flower and when they set fruit.

, Basic tenants of watering include watering slow and deep best at 4 to 6 inches, and watering first thing in the morning so leaves have time to dry.

, There are many ways to water that often depend on the garden style chosen. Row type is best with furrow irrigation or overhead sprinklers. Hand watering is best for containers. Drip irrigation is best for raised beds, but it is costly and needs to be set up. Use a soaker hose only if house water is used, as irrigation water plugs up the lines.


, Keep the microbes happy: “Feed the soil, not the plant” is a good rule of thumb.

, There are three important components: Nitrogen (N) is needed for photosynthesis and growth of stems and leaves; phosphorous (P) is needed for strong roots and ripening of the crop; and potassium (K) assists in production of carbohydrates and aids in resistance to disease.

, Micronutrients include calcium, sulfur, magnesium and iron.

, Fertilize every two to three weeks depending on need; use a weaker solution more often as opposed to a stronger solution less often.

, There are several types of fertilizers; read the labels for NPK ratio (for example, 20:5:5). Chemical fertilizers are water soluble. Use fertilizers with higher nitrogen for growth and fertilizers with higher phosphorous for bloom.

, Organic options include fish emulsion, dried kelp, and bone or blood meal.

, Compost tea is aged horse manure that is put in a burlap bag and soaked in water, then side dress the plants.

Weed control

, Pull or hoe weeds when the soil is wet and when weeds are young as they are easier to pull. Older weeds can go to seed, and then you get even more weeds.

, The “magic of mulching” has many advantages: It conserves water in the soil lost through evaporation, it insulates the plant roots from extreme cold and hot temperatures, it reduces the need for weeding and the garden looks neater.

, Types of mulches include shredded bark, straw, grass clippings and plastic sheeting.

, Place mulch around the plants, but not covering the stem of the plant, about 4 to 6 inches thick.


, Experience or consult references when food is ready to pick or try sampling it until it is right for you.

, Harvest early in the morning is always best.

, The more you pick, the more will be produced.


Learn from your mistakes and make changes accordingly for next year’s garden. Keeping a garden journal helps this process. And remember that the WSU Master Gardener program is here to help you if you have questions. You can also attend our free Saturday class each month in our Heirloom Garden at the greenhouse location.


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