10 Fascinating Edible-Plant Facts Gardeners Need to Learn

From a definition of open-pollinated crops and details about grafting tomatoes to knowing which edible garden plants are warm- or cool-weather crops, these facts about plants double as gardening tips to help you grow even more, even better.

| October/November 2015

Plant breeders, seed companies, professional farmers and veteran gardeners possess specialized knowledge that would greatly benefit the average home gardener. I’ve spent countless hours working with such specialists during my more than 30 years as a landscape designer, and I have grown numerous edibles in my trial garden. Thanks to this research, I’ve come up with my Top 10 List of edible-plant facts that will increase your plant-growing expertise. Some cover plant basics, some touch on scientific technicalities, and some are crop-specific, but all will help you grow an even better garden next season.

1. Watch Out for Nitrogen Deficiency in Plants

Nitrogen is as important to plants as protein is to animals. Nitrogen-starved plants look paler than normal, and their lower leaves start to yellow, which is especially evident on squash, peppers, broccoli and other heavy-feeding annuals. When I mention that a plant needs nitrogen to a gardener, I often hear, “But I followed the directions on the fertilizer package!” The dosage suggested on the package is only an average, however; many factors influence how much nitrogen you should actually apply. Your soil may be sandy and allow nutrients to quickly leach away, in which case you should be diligent about building soil quality by adding organic matter. Or, perhaps the bag of chicken manure you applied was sitting at the nursery too long and the nitrogen volatilized into the air before you bought it. Or, maybe a particular plant variety is an especially heavy feeder.

That said, some gardeners over-fertilize, which can be just as damaging as not applying enough. Use your eyes as your guide to judge the health of your crops, and regard the directions on any fertilizer package as a starting point, but not a set rule.

2. Which Crops to Start from Seed vs. When to Use Transplants

The plants at any garden center entice growers to head home with a full load of transplants. But, just because one can buy peas, dill and cucumbers as transplants, or start them indoors at home, doesn’t mean it’s necessary — seeds of most plants can be sown directly in the garden. The $3 you’d spend on one dill seedling, for example, would be better spent on a packet of 50 dill seeds.

I recommend shelling out money for transplants — or spending time to start seeds early indoors — only when you need to give certain crops a head start on the weather or to make plant spacing easier. In most regions, the only plants that really need the extra growing time are the longer-season crops, including tomatoes. You may also choose to transplant brassicas, such as broccoli, to take advantage of windows of cool weather. Most other crops will grow successfully if you sow seed directly outdoors. Many crops will actually produce better when direct-sown — particularly root crops. Follow the timing directions on your seed packets for best results.

When you do decide to purchase transplants, choose strong plants that aren’t too much bigger than the pot they’re in. Garden centers like to sell bigger plants at higher prices, but these plants are often stressed and root-bound, and they usually won’t grow as well after transplanting as smaller, younger plants would.

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