Home & Garden

Eat what you grow: Vegetable gardens can start now


Editor’s note: This story is part of the Spring Home & Garden special section.

Though the last frost of the season may still be to come, now is a great time to start working on a summer vegetable garden, according to local experts.

And there are many resources throughout the Centre Region to help rookie and veteran gardeners alike.

According to the Farmer’s Almanac, the last frost is likely to occur in late April or early May. However, there are many crops that can be started outdoors much earlier than that.

“You don’t want to put things out too soon, but spinach, peas and different salad greens can stand a little light frost,” said Brian Kinney, of Happy Valley Organic Garden Center in Lemont.

Other plants, including the ever-popular tomatoes and peppers, can be started indoors now and transitioned outdoors in mid- to late May, Kinney said.

“Most people don’t like to do it until after Memorial Day because a late frost can kill everything, but other people like to live dangerously,” Kinney said. “I would say watch the calendar around that time and watch the weather.”

Other types of vegetables that tend to do well in this area include carrots, beets, peas and beans, Kinney said. The Farmer’s Almanac website lists a schedule of when each type of crop should be started with seeds, transferred into the ground and harvested.

Before any plants go into the ground, it’s important to make sure the soil is ready for them. Barrie Moser, of Moser’s Garden Produce in Centre Hall, said a soil test is essential to determine what type of fertilizer is needed.

Soil tests kits are available from the Penn State Centre County Extension Office, located in the Willowbank Building in Bellefonte.

“People tend to go to extremes with soil fertility,” Moser said. “They tend to over fertilize, or don’t think they need any at all.”

People tend to go to extremes with soil fertility. They tend to over fertilize, or don’t think they need any at all.

Barrie Moser, Moser’s Garden Produce

And, Moser says, just because you buy a hefty bag of fertilizer does not necessarily mean the entire thing needs to be used, especially in a small garden.

“A lot of the stores don’t cater to the small-square-foot gardener, they don’t have a 2- or 3-pound bag of fertilizer; only a 25- or 30-pound bag, way too much for a plot of 10-15 feet,” Moser said. “People hate to waste it so they put it on, but fertilizer can actually burn plants if it’s over applied.”

For an entirely organic garden, Kinney says compost is the way to go. State College residents can pick up compost from the borough’s service facility at 330 S. Osmond St., or request to have it delivered. Compost is also available at the University Area Joint Authority, 1576 Spring Valley Road, State College, and the Centre County Recycling Center, 110 Hawbaker Industrial Drive, State College.

Once the soil is tested and fertilizer secured, it’s time to determine the size of a potential garden. A popular method for new gardeners is square foot gardening, which calls for a different crop to be planted in each square foot of garden space, typically in a raised bed.

Kinney said the minimum size for a garden like this is 4 feet by 4 feet, which would allow for four different crops to be planted. It’s possible to increase the size to 4 by 8 or 4 by 10 to allow for more crops, but keeping the 4-foot width is key.

“Square foot gardening is becoming very popular because you can get maximum yield from minimum size,” Kinney said. “No larger than a 4-foot diameter is recommended because you want to reach the middle without stepping on anything.”

For those who are space constrained, both Kinney and Moser have seen clients have success with container gardens grown indoors or outdoors. Herbs do particularly well when grown indoors, they say.

Spacing and crop placement are also important factors to consider.

“A lot of people try to cram too much into too small a space, then they want to plant a lot of crops that shouldn’t be crowded,” Moser said.

For those who are short on space, the area has several community gardens available. Centre Region Parks and Recreation offers garden plots at Tudek Park, Patton Township manages the Haugh Community Garden near Circleville Park and Penn State’s community garden is located at the Center for Sustainability off of Porter Road.

Newer gardeners should also be prepared that not all of the seeds they buy are going to germinate to harvest at the end of the season. In fact, Moser said the failure rate can be as high as 50 percent depending on the crop.

“You can typically expect 85 percent and up, but that’s not always the case, especially if the soil is too cold.”

Despite those risks, Kinney said the start of the gardening season is the perfect time for new and experienced gardeners alike to try something new.

We are seeing gardeners who have experience and want to try different things or are moving toward more organic practices.

Brian Kinney, Happy Valley Organic Garden Center

“We are seeing gardeners who have experience and want to try different things or are moving toward more organic practices,” Kinney said. “We have older gardeners who want to do hydroponics and we’re getting millennials who are starting families and start a garden for the families. There really is something out there for everyone.”