Newbie veg-gardener bares all


Remember when I gave up my first attempt at growing food for lack of adequate sun?  Well, I'm trying again this year on my sunny enough (fingers crossed) deck.  Here's how it's going so far and I'd love your feedback.  (Pardon my ignorance.)

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Susan Harris

Susan’s a garden writer, teacher and activist in the Washington, D.C. area. Co-founder of GardenRant, she also wrote for national gardening magazines and independent garden centers before retiring in 2014. Now she has time for these projects:

  • Founding and now managing the pro-science educational nonprofit GOOD GARDENING VIDEOS that finds and promotes the best videos on YouTube for teaching people to garden.
  • Creating and managing DC GARDENS, the nonprofit campaign to promote the public gardens of the Washington, D.C. area, and gardening by locals.
  • Creating and editing the community website GREENBELT ONLINE to serve her adopted hometown of Greenbelt, Maryland (a “New Deal Utopia” founded in 1937).
  • Also in Greenbelt, MD, writing the e-newsletter and serving on the Board of Directors for the cooperatively-owned music and arts venue and restaurant called the NEW DEAL CAFE.

Contact Susan via email or by leaving a comment here.

Photo by Stephen Brown.


  1. Ha! I don’t have any advice,Susan–but I did enjoy your video! I too am doing a veggie garden for the 1st time since moving to this house, and I am always saying (aloud or in my head) I don’t know what I’m doing. My collards look like yours, and I plan to cook some in the next few days. Just planted my tomatoes today, in my very makeshift raised bed, protected right now with row cover to subvert the deer etc. Obviously a very temporary arrangement. What a nail biter this enterprise is!

  2. Hmmmm, hmmmm, good eating on the way!! Just remember LOTS of water. I find that when temperatures are high they need watering twice a day because they are not connected to soil water and don’t have the shading advantage of a large mass of soil. I love kelp meal and liquid kelp fertilizers to keep them chemical free.

  3. Susan, your deck garden looks very good to me. I just started veggie growing last year and I had fabulous luck with green peppers, cauliflower and broccoli. They want to grow!! I used the fish stuff for fertilizer. It’s too early here to plant, but this year I am going to plant veggies in amongst my flowers. Good luck! By the way, what video-recorder did you use? I want to buy one but don’t know which to choose.

  4. Susan, when I saw the headline “Gardener Bares All” it sounded like you’d written a post for World Naked Gardening Day.

    Good luck with the deck vegetables – as Norah notes, in hot summer they need water and the birds and squirrels may want to be in on the harvest.
    The view from the deck is lovely.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  5. It looks good. I use a pair of scissors to cut the tops off (instead of just cutting individual leaves) my mesclun. It looks bad for a few days but recovers quite fast.

    My only worry is your tomatoes are planted very close together. The plants won’t get as large in a container, of course, but one tomato plant will fill that entire space. Also with the tomatoes you might want to mulch. They dislike fluctuations in soil temps and moisture.

    Beautiful yard. Thanks for “baring all”.

  6. Susan, You give hope to newbies everywhere who have limited sun and still want to grow vegetables. I am having trouble picking out the container soil…what did you use? gail

  7. About the tomatoes: you might consider sticking a stake in the soil near each plant stem. As the plants grow taller you can gently wrap cloth ties around the stem and stake to keep the plants from falling over. Tomatoes don’t “climb” string the way peas do. Everything looks about right for this time of year. I would be picking and eating more of those salad greens; this is the when the leaves are at their tastiest. Later in the summer they’ll start to get a little bitter, so eat hearty now! You done good so far!

  8. It looks great, Susan! Everything looks wonderfully healthy and green. Going out now to plant my eggplants, peppers, and zinnia seed. Great planting weather right now in the DC metro area — cool, cloudy, rain in the forecast maybe. Perfect!

    Wait up on the basil for now, though. It really likes it HOT!

  9. Susan, the peas and collards look very happy. Peas will withstand the heat alright. You should get some nice ones from the look of it.

    Fruiting vegetables–tomatoes, squash, peppers, eggplants, etc.–normally need six hours sun minimum to perform well. The squash plant normally would get very large, much bigger than that planter. I would also second the emotion on the tomatoes–not enough room. It’s very typical to see beginners planting several tomatoes in a small container. In fact, they will grow enormous if given enough sun and space. I plant mine in cages made out of concrete reinforcing wire. Each cage is six feet long, wrapped into a tube shape, and five feet high. I could easily stack cages up to 30 feet–that how big the tomatoes will get–except that I would need more sun. I would not be trying to grow tomatoes is those little containers, and without at least six hours of sun.

  10. Yeah, there is no cure for lack of sun; water can be moved, soil ammended, deer fenced out, but without good sun you are out of luck. Getting sun usually means cutting down trees which is mostly bad and they might not be yours anyway.

    Ok, I’ll keep it short. Put two more peppers in the green pepper pot, they love company(Louise Riotte) You can eat the pea shoots and flowers which might be all you can get before the heat. Ditching the squash for a bush type Patty Pan will help. The Patio tomato is a good choice, generally though, in containers cherry tomatoes are the best choice. Get a Sungold.

    Most of all, keep up the dogged persistence.

    And if you do get addicted, consider a rooftoop garden!

  11. Another thought: one of the older farmers at the Tak Pk Farmers Market told me once NOT to feed my tomato plants. He said that over-fed tomatoes will produce a lot of greenery but not many flowers/fruits.

  12. Good luck and I sure do admire your determination!

    Like others have said, Tomatoes really do need lots of sun. Now, you can grow two in that pot if you train them vertically and pinch the suckers, forcing it to concentrate on going high and producing only from the main vine. You’ll get fewer, but you won’t have the typically stunted and small tomatoes from a container.

    And definitely give that pepper a little company! As for the squash, if you are going to pull the peas when they are done, you’ll open up loads of room for the squash. You might get away with that, but be diligent with watering since they need a load of it.

    Also, use low nitrogen fertilizer if possible. In containers the issue of more green and less fruit is exaggerated so you’ll need to be careful with that.

  13. That was fun! I can’t believe it’s already 90 deg F; that’s wild. Also really enjoyed the peak at your non-lawn.

    I totally pack my containers with tomatoes. Just keep your pruners handy; keep them thin for air circulation. Americans aren’t in the habit of pruning tomatoes the way Europeans are, I think.

    I also plant flowers in my vegetable pots to attract beneficials–chamomile, blue eyes, thyme, and oregano. People tell you not to; screw ’em.

  14. Nice way to post about this! It looks great! I’d mulch the hell out of everything (after watering, of course) to conserve moisture and I’d also train those tomatoes to one main stem to make it easier to control. When I first set out any veggies in spring I add a high phos. fert to get those roots going in cooler soils. Good for blooms too. I’ve found that my container tomatoes need a spray of calcium sometimes to avoid blossoms end rot too. I also grow lettuce in containers and find it’s best to start new plants every 2-3 weeks- harvesting the ones I have growing young (they are so good young and tender) and always having replacements ready to go in. Good luck and happy gardening! I loved your video!

  15. Susan, everything looks great and I think those self watering deals will take care of the need to water twice a day – which is true of other containers in the summer. I do agree that cherry tomatoes are best for containers. A tomato plant can get really big, especially that beefsteak. Great video!

  16. I, too, am doing a container garden in part sun. I did a bit of research and beans, carrots and lettuce seem to be the most forgiving. You’re about three weeks ahead of me, so I’m hoping like heck for a cool May! I know…it might no happen in the DC area. But then again, I’m thinking that the whole point of planting in part sun is to relieve the plants of a bit of the stress they would get from the sun in the brutal heat. I am also using GSC’s self-watering planters.

    I’m going to do a fall planting too, just to see if I can get away with that.

  17. Susan, I’m cracking up .. this sounds like a video I could have made. I’m not much of a veggie gardener, either. I like the idea of growing my own veggies but reality always seems to intrude on my fantasies …

  18. I was given good advice for a hot, humid climate like the one I live in, regarding tomatoes. Grow smaller, “bush” type varieties in containers–they have determinate varieties that give more fruit at once. but thats okay because after a couple moths or so, you replace the plant with a new one. Its asking a lot of a tomato plant to struggle all summer in the south, and they WILL start getting yellow/blighted from the bottom up no matter what you do. I go through about three consecutive tomato plantings and get tomatoes until the frost does everything in.

  19. Susan, looks great. I’m confident that you’ll get some peas before they burn up. Once they flower, the pods are not far behind.

    The key to tomatoes, as Ed suggested, is stout support–I’d put a sturdy 1′ by 1′ stake in there–and control. Train them to a single stem, tie them to the stake, and pinch out the side shoots that are constantly trying to develop where the leaves meet the main stem.

  20. The Celebrity tomato is a hybrid, the Beefsteak is an Heirloom. I agree the pepper needs company and you should plan to give them some support. Once they start producing the stems can break or layover the whole plant. Use a piece of bamboo or whatever you would use for your flowers to keep them upright. A large tomato cage might work as well.
    Good luck. It looks like you are on your way to some good eating this summer.

  21. Susan,
    Your beefsteak tomato may actually be a beefsteak type since Beefsteak is a regular leaf tomato. Yours is a potato leaf so I had to stop and look around to see if there was a potato leaf Beefsteak. I’ll be interested to see what your Beefsteak turns out to be. It could be a mislabled Brandywine or other beefsteak type tomato. Curious!

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