Why every vegetable gardener should have this book

“You can never replicate the taste of garden-fresh vegetables with what you buy at the grocery store. But that’s especially true for carrots. more so than maybe any other vegetable in this book.” So writes author Joe Lamp’l, who gardens near Atlanta, Georgia, in “The Vegetable Gardening Book” (Cool Springs Press, 2022). Subtitled “Your complete guide to growing an edible organic garden from seed to harvest,” this is the only book on growing vegetables you need to have in your library. There are not enough superlatives to describe its comprehensive, step-by-step, description of the process of creating a food garden. Moreover, it’s written in a chatty style that gives you the feeling you are in conversation with a friend, and a very wise friend at that.

Getting back to carrots, which can be planted throughout the fall (along with root crops such as beets, radishes, turnips, and parsnips), Lamp’l says a major challenge in growing them is keeping their seeds moist until they germinate, which can take up to three weeks. To solve this problem, he covers the seeds with burlap which, when wet, protects the soil over the tiny seeds, planted only 1/4 inch deep, from hot, desiccating sun. He regularly lifts the burlap to check the seeds’ status and removes it once the seeds begin to sprout. And then Lamp’l gets personal – as he does throughout the book – in a way that magnetically draws the reader into his world: “And one last thing. I love seeing the bright green ferny foliage of the carrot tops every time I walk into the garden. No matter what the weather is like, or what else is growing in the garden (and later in winter, there’s not much else), those frilly fresh carrot tops always seem to lift my spirits.” 

“The Vegetable Gardening Book” (Courtesy of Cool Springs Press)

Lamp’l grows all his vegetables in wood-framed raised beds. “I’ve come to believe that raised beds simply offer overwhelmingly obvious benefits to in-ground gardens,” he writes. The primary advantage of this method of growing is that you bring in the soil of your choice since soil, after all, is the best guarantor for producing healthy crops. This is especially important for carrots since straight roots depend on “deep, loose, rich, fertile, evenly moist soil.” The author’s “perfect raised bed soil recipe” mix includes “50% high-quality topsoil, 30% high quality compost, and 20% organic matter.” The organic matter may consist entirely of mushroom compost, composted manure, worm castings, aged and shredded leaves or ground-up bark, or any combination of them. He recommends application of this same mix as a top-dressing to the beds once a season. As an alternative, he enthusiastically endorses fabric grow bags, noting that a friend grows “over 200 of the biggest, healthiest, prettiest tomato plants you’ve every seen using these bags in his driveway!” The author does note that in-ground beds retain moisture better than raised beds. 

When it comes to knowing when to water a vegetable garden, Lamp’l recommends the following test: “Stick you finger in the garden bed down to the second knuckle. If your finger comes up dirty, there’s enough water in the soil. However, if it comes up dry and relatively clean, the soil is too dry, and it’s time to water.” Regarding the quantity of water needed to irrigate a vegetable garden, Lamp’l calls one inch a week “a nearly universal guideline.” If you water with a drip system, place an empty tuna can under an emitter; when it’s full, your weekly one-inch water allotment has been delivered. Still, if your tomatoes show signs of water stress during a sizzling week in August, supplemental irrigation will be needed.

You can plant peas in November and Lamp’l reminds us of the three types to consider. Shelling peas are the ones you buy in frozen condition; their pods are inedible. Snow peas have flat pods that can be enjoyed freshly picked “before the pods inside are fully mature” or cooked in stir-fry dishes. Snap peas, which are sugar sweet, “give you the best of both worlds. Both the peas and the pods are equally delicious.” The Sugar Ann snap pea is unusual since it has a bushy growth habit and does not require vertical support, unlike nearly every other variety of pea.

If you have any recommendations regarding varieties or growing techniques where fall or winter planted vegetables are concerned, email them to me so I can share them with readers of this column.

California native of the week: Giant chain fern (Woodwardia fimbriata) is the largest fern in North America, with leaves growing up to eight feet long although usually staying in the three to four feet range. It will need regular water but as it gets bigger its resilience to drought will grow. As long as its water requirement is met, it will even grow in the desert, provided it is given adequate shade, an exposure it prefers in any case. You can propagate large plants easily enough by division of its rhizomatous roots. It’s an excellent choice for planting under redwood trees. Giant chain fern is notable for being immune to pest infestations and disease. It also makes a wonderful container plant for shady patios or balconies and its fronds serve admirably as green filler for vase arrangements and bouquets.

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