Published on 05/27/98

Vegetable Garden Requires Water, Fertilizer, Patience

It seems like forever since the last homegrown vegetables graced the table. And a University of Georgia scientist said rushing this year's crop by overfertilizing can make the wait for fresh veggies even longer.

"You have to grow the plant first," said Wayne McLaurin, an extension horticulturist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences in Athens, Ga.

"The plant has to mature before it can start growing the fruit," he said. "If you try to rush that, you'll knock the plant's reproduction out of whack."

He said plants have distinct growth and reproductive stages. The young plant must first grow a strong root system and lots of leaf area before it can support blooms and fruits.

"Plants can either grow or reproduce," he said. "If you try to force vegetables to produce their fruit, whether it's tomatoes, squash or beans, they will stop growing before they can support the fruit."

That can cause the plant to abort its blooms or young fruit, increasing the wait for fresh veggies.

McLaurin offers three tips to keep young vegetables healthy and growing strong:

  • Don't overfertilize with nitrogen. Too much nitrogen makes plants grow faster, which may slow or end fruit set or growth.
  • Control weeds and insects. These can rob plants of nutrients or bring diseases into your garden. Healthy plants resist diseases and water stress better.
  • Keep growth steady. Give vegetables one to one-and-a-half inches of water weekly to prevent growth spurts.

Keep water off the plant leaves, if possible. "Dry leaves are less susceptible to diseases," McLaurin said.

To keep the leaves dry, use soaker hoses or aim water at the base of plants. That puts more water in the ground, too, he said, instead of letting it evaporate.

Darbie Granberry, an extension horticulturist in Tifton, Ga., said it's especially important to keep vegetables watered properly. "Deep watering about twice a week promotes good root growth," he said.

Shallow watering makes it too easy for the roots to get water, so they stay close to the soil surface.

That area dries out quickly, leaving the plant dry, too, he said. Deep watering encourages roots to grow deep, where moisture stays longer.

"Make your plants work a little for their water and they'll be healthier for it," he said.