Garden Spotlight: Sun and Shade

Our back yard is one shady customer.

I should stop being surprised when someone asks me whether vegetables can grow in shade, a question I have received many times.

Perhaps, folks look at the many flowers, ground covers, and bushes and shrubs, which do well in shade, and transfer this to vegetables.  I get that reasoning.  With veggies, though, it doesn’t apply.

Generally, your vegetable garden should receive sun from morning till evening.  Specifically, it can get by with six hours of midday sun.  Some cooler-weather-loving types—think greens and root crops—do okay with fewer than six hours.

The reason I put my garden in the front yard is because our back yard is far too shaded.  Our first year here, I put in a small garden on the west end of the back yard, as a test.  The spot doesn’t get full sun until after mid-afternoon.  It was not good enough.  Everything grew very spindly.

In the spring of 2016, I rototilled a strip in front of our house.  In both 2017 and 2018, I extended it a few more feet into the yard.

The 2016 garden extended too far to the east.  I planted corn on that end, and the first row received too much shade.  The stalks in that row were short and never grew decent ears.  I cut the garden back from the east by three feet.

I took the photos, below, at 10:00 a.m., on August 8.  The west end, where the tomatoes are, had been in the sun for under an hour.  Our neighbor’s tree keeps the east end shaded until 10:30 or so.

The east end remains in the sun until late afternoon, thus giving it at least six hours of midday sun.  This year and last, everything I planted on that end grew very well.

The west end faces a situation that I did not encounter until this year, with the garden a few feet more toward the street.  The next photo was taken at 3:00 p.m.  Note the shade has landed upon the tomatoes and the entire west end.  This is not good!


Here’s the weird part, which has been a lesson for me, never to forget as long as that oak is there.  The arc of the shade only glances over the back half of the garden.  My watermelons are nearest the house.  Next to them was my corn, then a row of peppers, then the tomatoes.  The shade remains over the back side of the garden for way less time than it does over the front.  The watermelons have grown great.


The photo, above, was taken around 3:00 p.m, on July 22.  Looking at the four corn rows, from left to right, see how the corn grew according to the sun/shade mix.  The row closest to the house grew tallest, and that corn was ready first.  Each row, moving toward the tomatoes, was a little shorter, and the corn was ready a few days later in each successive row.  The row closest to the corn produced fewer good ears of corn.

In all of these photos, note the size of the tomato plants.  With how well my garden grew this year, they should be to the top of the cages, with their branches completely filling the cages.

It took me until mid-July to figure out the reason they are so small.  I stuck those tomatoes in a bad spot.  They get too much shade, not enough midday sun.  Last year, that chunk of ground was grass, I wasn’t growing there, and too much shade didn’t dawn on me.

The sun returns in the very late afternoon, and the tomatoes get enough total sunshine to be growing and bearing fruit, but I stunted their potential.  So far, I’ve gathered perhaps six quarts of tomatoes.  Easily, I would be at twenty quarts by now.

Lesson learned.  Next year, I will likely place spinach or kale there.  I rotate my crops, never putting the same thing in a spot until at least the third year, so I’ll have to be mindful.

Anyone putting in the time and effort to grow vegetables wants to harvest a good crop.  Placing your garden where it gets plenty of midday sunshine is one of a handful of keys to success.

Here’s my best proof that the back of the garden gets plenty of sun.  This is our first watermelon of the year.  My granddaughter was impressed with its size and potential sweetness, but not with the seeds.  She set out to remove them by hand.

Garden Spotlight: Pest Control

You can do everything right—keeping your garden weeded, watered, and fertilized—and end up with little or no crop, because of plant pests and disease.

For years, I used sevin dust.  I’ve long since ceased.  While it worked well, the stuff is dangerous.  Julie and I began searching for a safe alternative.  Folks swear by this one or that—soapy water, for example—but I was never happy with the results of everything I tried.  Last year, Julie found neem oil.  It worked great!


Neem oil is natural.  It comes from the fruits and seeds of the neem tree, which originated in India and has now been introduced to other areas.

The stuff is easy to use.  I mix it in my watering bottle, then drench my plants in the same manner in which I fertilize.  While the directions calls for also wetting the undersides of leaves, my watering-can method makes that extremely difficult.  Thankfully, I have found that the oil works well, without the undersides being covered.


As you can imagine, if it rains, or you water your garden, the oil will be washed off.  I watered on Sunday, we had no rain in the forecast, and used the neem oil on Monday.

I only use it on certain plants, the ones which I can see have begun to be pestered.  Some things never get bothered by pests, and rarely by disease.  On my summer squash and vine crops—such as watermelon, cantaloupe, and winter squash—I have rarely had pests or disease.  Some years, green beans are not bothered, and some years worms infest them.  I simply keep an eye on the telltale signs, whether the leaves look eaten or unhealthy.

This time of year, the Cole crops—broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi—are the object of worms’ appetites, as are some greens—our kale and collard greens—while other greens are left alone—our spinach and Swiss chard are worm-free.  A bit later, as the tomatoes begin to bear fruit, worms will be attracted to them.

Neem oil is safe, not too expensive, and easy to use.  You should be able to find it at larger store that has a garden center.

Because my bottle is my trusty sidekick, I’ve name it Leonard.

Leonard Neem Oil.

Garden Spotlight: Tomato Cages

It is Wednesday, June 13.  My tomatoes have reached that stage where they need to be caged, lest they heed the call of the broccoli and make plans to go in search of greener pastures.  (Note to self: silence the broccoli.)

The first decade that I was a gardener, everything I tried in my effort to keep my tomatoes upright, failed—driving a stake and tying the plant to it; then triangle-shaped, taller and stronger metal stakes for the same purpose; and, of course, those three-feet tall round cages, which the tomatoes outgrow by the end of July.

No matter how hard I worked at it, my plants fell all over the place.  Branches wound up on the ground.  I could barely find spots to step among them.  I tried to prop them up.  I put grass clippings under them.  I lost lots of tomatoes, which rotted when on the soil.  Thankfully, in stepped my friend, Rick Hughes, with a suggestion, which I have now used for thirty years.

When I planted, I used the cages to mark the spots for each plant, so that the cages would butt up against each other.

Rick told me to buy garden fence, four feet tall, with 4″ x 2″ wire sections, enough feet that, when I cut into eight foot lengths, I would have enough cages for all of my plants.  Next, roll the eight foot lengths into circles—this gives them a 2.5′ diameter—and secure them, top and bottom, with zip ties.  Then, at various spots around each cage, high and low, cut out some of the wires to make 4″ x 4″ holes, which will be large enough through which to get my hand and retrieve the fruit.


My current cages have many 4″ x 4″ holes, but lately I have expanded some of them to 6″ x 8″, as in the photo, above.  With the smaller holes, I tend to catch the edges and scratch my arms.  The larger holes take care of that problem . . . mostly.  (Shush, broccoli!)  I haven’t cut the larger holes too close together, lest I weaken the cages.

When the plants get large—if you take good care of them with water and fertilizer, they should grow over the top of the cages; most years, I have plants that reach as high as my eyes, and I am 6’1″—a windy day can result in them falling over.  I keep that from being a problem, two ways.


First, I secure the cages to each other, as in the photo, above.  Second, I drive a stake next to them, as the next photo shows, and attach it.  If, when the plants grow large, I find that one stake doesn’t do the job, I’ll add another, on the end.

(Confession time: It’s only the past few years that I got wise and planted so that the cages touched each other.  Before that, late in the season I drove stakes next to each cage, as needed.  Experience has been a great teacher!)


Here is where I would insert a photo of my large tomato plants, from a previous year.  Alas, a search of my computer, my Facebook photos, and those I’ve posted to my blog have left me empty-handed.

Perhaps, that will ensure your checking in as the summer rolls on.  (See, broccoli, I ain’t so dumm.)

Garden Spotlight: Fertilizing

Somehow, I was able, with my right hand, to take this picture of myself, with my left hand, accurately watering this hill of watermelon plants.  Okay, I wasn’t entirely successful; it took a half-dozen tries to get all of the components working in unison.

There are four things which are musts for a successful garden:

  1. Keep it weeded.
  2. Water it when rain doesn’t provide enough moisture.
  3. Control any pests.
  4. Fertilize your plants.

There are a number of ways to fertilize.  My dad taught me with the granular type, 10-10-10 formula, which you put on the ground next to the plants, and then cover it just a bit.  I did it that way for several years.  It worked fine.  I don’t recall what prompted my changing to water soluble fertilizer, but when I did I never went back.

There are far quicker ways to fertilize, when using water soluble, than to mix watering can after watering can, but I have been doing it this way all these years because of the slow process.

You read that right.  I like the slow process.

For me, fertilizing my garden is as much about the time spent among the plants as it is feeding them.  On a lovely summer day, to stand over each tomato or pepper plant, or the rows of corn and green beans, is pure joy.  It is a time to soak up the beauty, to ponder when this or that will be ready to harvest, to appreciate everything the garden does for me.

My garden takes an hour or so to fertilize.

I use this stuff—


—one two-gallon watering can at a time.

For vegetables, two scoops go into two gallons.  For flowers, only one scoop.  I hang the can on our outdoor spigot, and the force of the water thoroughly mixes the blue grains.

The box recommends fertilizing every one to two weeks.  I always intend to do it every week, but rarely do.  Making sure to apply this at least inside the two week window, I have large, productive plants.

The bigger question is how much to apply.  It is easy to apply too little.  You can think that you’ve watered the plants nicely, but if you scratch the dirt around them you will find that only the surface is wet.

I douse them nicely—for example, around single plants I pour until a puddle forms—before moving on.  After I empty the can, I return with the refilled one and hit the plants again.  Everything gets two applications.

Keep up with your fertilizing, along with weeding and watering and controlling pests, and you will enjoy a successful garden.  Here’s how mine looked on June 30, 2017:


Garden Spotlight: Cultivator



I do ninety-five percent of my weeding with the cultivator, above. It’s a good workout, but worth it. I can cultivate my entire garden in under twenty minutes. One pass per week, with a bit of hand weeding around plants as I go, and my garden quickly returns to being virtually weed free.

This cultivator belonged to my father. I wouldn’t be surprised if it had belonged to his own dad, so aged does it look. When Pop died in 2010, I asked my step-mother for only one thing of his: this cultivator. Not only is it tremendously useful, when I am pushing it my thoughts often go to him, the man who taught me how to garden.

Way more than teaching, his joy was infectious. Whether we were planting, weeding or fertilizing or watering, picking or pulling or cutting, canning or freezing, and especially when we were eating the fruits of our labors, his effusive, ebullient, exuberant comments—always joined with big smiles—could only be met with the same spirit.

That same spirit grew in me. I’ve been at it ever since I had my own land to cultivate—since 1980.