How to Grow Vegetables...
Organically, of Course!

Growing Tomatoes ‘Italian Grandfather Style’
Growing Tomatoes ‘Italian
Grandfather Style’
© Steve Masley
(Click IMAGE to Enlarge)
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Pesticide residues. Outbreaks of e. coli and salmonella, even on organic produce. A lot of people want to know how to grow vegetables organically, in their own back yard.

Most backyard gardeners would rather not deal with toxic chemicals, if they have an alternative. Fortunately, they do.

Plant Vigor Puts off Pests

Pests key in on weak plants. Organic gardening relies on healthy, vigorous plants as the first defense against pests and diseases.

Plants don’t just sit there, letting bugs and diseases attack. They can’t feel it when a bug is chewing on a leaf, but they can detect metabolites of their own leaves in the saliva of chewing insects.

‘Academic’ (Pointy-Headed) Cabbage, a.k.a., ‘Caraflex’
‘Caraflex’ (‘Academic’) Cabbage’
© Steve Masley
Click IMAGE to Enlarge

Once they do, they start pumping out chemicals to inhibit feeding. Some of the chemicals plants create for self-defense are important phytochemicals in the human diet. Healthy plants mount vigorous defenses against pests and diseases.

Conventionally grown vegetables are couch potatoes by comparison. Their roots are bathed in chemical fertilizers, and their leaves are sprayed to kill anything that crawls. They produce few of these valuable phytochemicals.

So the issue is, how to grow vegetables that are robust enough to repel pests, without chemical fertilizers?

Organic gardeners “feed the soil to feed the plants”, adding compost, animal manures, and/or organic soil amendments to increase soil organic matter and amplify the soil food web.

Extreme heat, cold, wind, or drought can stress even robust plants, weakening their defenses and allowing pests to attack them. When this happens, organic gardeners rely on natural garden pest control to check garden pests.

If you want to learn how to grow vegetables organically, you can start with some general information on the difference between summer vegetables and fall vegetables—basically the difference between fruit and vegetables—and why it’s important.

For information on how to grow vegetables in containers, click Here.

Alliums (Onions)  |   Amaranths (Spinach)  |   Brassicas (Broccoli, Cabbage)  |   Cucurbits (Cucumbers, Squash, Melons)
Legumes (Beans, Peas)  |   Nightshades (Tomatoes, Peppers, Eggplants)
Umbellifers (Carrots, Celery)  |   Miscellaneous (Miscellaneous Vegetables)

Rainbow Swiss Chard © Steve
…Click IMAGE to Enlarge

Each vegetable page is plant profile,
with information on:

  • Cold Tolerance/Season
  • Planting Tips
  • Soil Needs
  • Plant Culture—Watering, Fertilizing,
    Plant Care
  • Pests and Diseases
  • Growing in Containers
  • Harvesting

How to Grow Vegetables: Crop Families Simplify Organic Gardening

If you want to learn how to grow vegetables, it helps to know something about vegetable plant families. Most vegetables fall into one of 7 plant families (links below), but a few—like corn and rhubarb—have no close crop cousins, so they’re grouped under “miscellaneous”.

How to Grow...
Fall Vegetables
Green Beans
Hot Peppers
Shelling Beans
Summer Squash
Winter Squash

Plants in the same family have similar soil, fertility, and cultural needs, and share many common pests and diseases. If you know how to grow tomatoes, you also know something about growing peppers, eggplants, and potatoes.

Knowing about crop families also helps with pest control and crop rotation. Growing vegetables from the same family on the same spot year after year depletes soils of the nutrients needed by that crop, and allows pests and diseases to multiply.

Below you’ll find photo galleries for each crop family, with links to instructions for growing them above each gallery.

The photos of vegetables below come from my garden and balcony farm, although a few choice pictures come from other gardens at the Stanford Community Farm, where I have a plot. Click any photo to see a larger image and description.

All Photos © Steve Masley.

Alliums:     Chives  |   Garlic  |   Leeks  |   Onions
Scallions  |   Shallots

Harvesting Leeks

Alliums are onion family plants that are sown in early spring in cold-winter gardens. In areas where the ground doesn’t stay frozen through winter, they’re sown in fall and allowed to overwinter.

In onions, day length initiates bulb formation in most varieties. At low latitudes—below 35°—summer days aren’t long enough to initiate bulb formation in medium- and- long-day varieties, so southern gardeners should choose short-day varieties. Day length is less important for shallots, garlic, leeks, and scallions.

Alliums are moderate feeders that perform best in soils with lots of organic matter, and a neutral to slightly alkaline pH—7-7.5. See Changing Soil pH for ways to adjust pH.

Alliums need regular water during their most pronounced growth, but once the tops have sized up and start flopping over, they should be allowed to “dry back” for a week or so before harvesting. This improves storage life by allowing protective skins to form on the bulbs.

Onions ‘Sweet Yellow Granex’ Growing Garlic—‘Music’ Growing Shallots—‘Ambition’
Elephant Garlic Growing Chives in a Window Box Harvesting Garlic ‘Inchileum Red’

Up to Vegetable Plant Families NavBar

Amaranths (Chenopodioids):      Beets  |   Spinach  |   Swiss Chard

Amaranths grow best in the cooler temperatures of spring and fall. Most bolt—send up a flower stalk—quickly in high summer temperatures, although they can be grown in cooler microclimates, like partial shade from other vegetables.

Amaranths need regular, steady water, and perform best in slightly alkaline soils with lots of organic matter and supplemental calcium. Beets are light feeders, but spinach and Swiss Chard benefit from extra compost, composted manure, and high-calcium organic soil amendments like dried, ground eggshells or ground oyster shells.

Growing Beets
Growing Spinach
Golden Beets

Up to Vegetable Plant Families NavBar

Brassicas (Crucifers):    Asian Greens  |   Broccoli  |   Brussels Sprouts
Cabbage  |   Cauliflower  |   Collards  |   Kale  |   Radishes  |   Turnips

Growing Brussels Sprouts

Brassicas, or Cruciferous Vegetables are cool-season vegetables that bolt in high summer heat, but thrive in the cooler temperatures of spring and fall.

Continuous, steady growth is the key to growing brassicas and other cool-season vegetables. Anything that disrupts this steady growth—like a hot, dry spell—signals the plant it’s time to stop making leaves, and shift to producing stalks, flowers, and seeds.

All brassicas need continuous, steady water, especially during dry spells and unseasonal heat. Brassicas perform best in neutral to slightly alkaline soils with lots of organic matter and good drainage.

Incorporate a thick layer of good garden compost or composted manure into the soil at planting time. Use less for root-forming brassicas like radishes and turnips, which are moderate feeders. Use more for all other brassicas, which are heavy feeders.

If your soil is lean, brassicas benefit from supplemental organic soil amendments.

 Growing Broccoli  Asian Greens—‘Vitamin Green’ in a Window Box  Cauliflower Varieties—‘Snow Crown’
‘Mini’ Cabbage Varieties—‘Gonzales’ 'Georgia' Collards  ‘Lacinato’, a.k.a. ‘Dinosaur’ Kale

Up to Vegetable Plant Families NavBar

Cucurbits:    Cucumbers  |   Melons  |   Pumpkins
Summer Squash  |  Winter Squash  |  Zucchini

Growing Cucumbers in Containers—‘Bush Slicer’

Cucurbits—cucumbers, melons, and squash—are sub-tropical natives grown as summer vegetables in temperate climates. Their leaves turn to green goo at the first touch of frost, so don’t waste time planting them too early.

Cucurbits are heavy feeders that perform best in a slightly acidic soil—pH 6.5-7—with ample organic matter. For information on lowering soil pH, click Here.

Mix a thick layer of good garden compost or composted manure into the soil at planting time. Organic soil amendments can be built into the soil when planting vegetables, for a sustained, summer-long release of nutrients.

Cucurbits, like other fruiting plants, benefit from supplemental organic phosphate sources like colloidal phosphate.

Summer Squash Canopy ‘Charentais’ Melons, a Good Choice for Cool-Summer Gardens Pumpkin Varieties—‘Sugar’
Growing Summer Squash—‘Sunburst’ Patty Pan Buttercup Squash ‘Bonbon’ Harvest Zucchini Varieties—‘Raven’

Up to Vegetable Plant Families NavBar

Legumes:    Beans (Shelling)  |   Green Beans  |   Peas

‘Jade’ Green Beans Growing in a Window Box
‘Caraflex’ (‘Academic’) Cabbage’
© Steve Masley
Click IMAGE to Enlarge

Legumes have both cool-season and summer vegetables in the same plant family. Peas and fava beans are cool-season plants that grow best in spring and fall, but cook out in hot weather. Green beans are summer vegetables that languish and die when the weather is consistently cold.

Legumes grow well in soils with ample organic matter and good drainage, but little or no fertilizer, since they’re able to fix their own nitrogen fertilizer from the atmosphere thanks to symbiotic Rhizobia colonies on their roots.

In vegetable crop rotations, legumes are planted after heavy feeders to restore fertility to the soil.

Peas and fava beans like a neutral to slightly alkaline soil (pH 7-7.5), while green beans do better in a slightly acidic (pH 6.5-7) soil. See Changing Soil pH for information on adjusting soil pH.

Growing Green Beans ‘Spanish Musica’ (a.k.a., ‘Spanish Miralda’ on a Redwood Trellis Growing Peas Rhizobia Colonies of Fava Bean Roots

Up to Vegetable Plant Families NavBar

Nightshades (Solanacea):     Eggplants  |   Hot Peppers (Chiles)
Sweet Peppers  |  
Potatoes  |  Tomatoes

Growing Eggplant ‘Farmer’s Long Purple’ in a Clay Pot
Rainbow Swiss Chard © Steve
…Click IMAGE to Enlarge

Nightshades include some of our favorite summer vegetables—tomatoes, peppers, chiles, eggplants, and potatoes. Like Cucurbits, they’re subtropical natives grown as annuals in temperate zones.

They have little to no cold tolerance, and die at the first touch of frost. With the exception of potatoes, they’re grown for their fruit, instead of their leaves or stalks.

Nightshades are heavy feeders that like a loose, loamy soil with ample organic matter and good drainage. Mix a thick layer of good garden compost or composted manure into the soil at planting time. Organic soil amendments can be built into the soil at planting time for a sustained, summer-long release of nutrients.

Nightshades benefit from supplemental organic phosphate sources like colloidal phosphate.

Growing Peppers—'Gourmet' 1 Tomato Temple 1 Tomato Varieties—‘Sweet Cluster’
 Tomato Varieties ‘Big Beef’ Vine New Mexico Green Chile Harvest—52 lbs!
Growing Potatoes in ‘Potato Towers’

Up to Vegetable Plant Families NavBar

Umbellifers:    Carrots  |   Celery  |   Cilantro
Dill  |   Fennel  |   Parsley  |   Parsnips

Growing Celery ‘Tango’

Umbellifers are mostly cool-season vegetables, although many varieties are adapted to grow and even thrive in summer heat. They include tap-rooted vegetables like carrots and parsnips, crops grown for their stalks, like celery and fennel, and leaf vegetables/herbs, like parsley, cilantro, and dill.

Umbellifers need loose, good-draining soil, but their nutritional needs vary. Celery and fennel are heavy feeders that do well with the same soil regime as brassicas: lots of good garden compost or composted manure worked into the soil prior to planting, or the addition of other organic soil amendments.

Parsley, cilantro, and dill perform well in almost any garden soil, as long as it drains well. Carrots and parsnips are light feeders. Excess soil nitrogen produces huge green tops and skinny roots prone to forking, so avoid planting them in the same bed as heavy feeders.

Umbellifers are also among the best plants for attracting beneficial insects to your garden, and sustaining them once they arrive. Their lacy foliage creates still pockets of air and good hunting for insect predators, and their abundant, tiny flowers attract parasitic wasps.

Growing Carrots—‘Yaya’ and ‘Purple Dragon’ Dill Flowers Growing Fennel ‘Fino’
Cilantro Closup Carrot Varieties—‘Romeo’, a Good Variety for Growing in Containers and Heavy or Rocky Soils ‘Babette’ Carrots, a ‘Mini’ Carrot Variety Suitable for Growing in Containers and Heavy or Rocky Soils

Up to Vegetable Plant Families NavBar

Miscellaneous Vegetables:    Artichokes  |   Lettuce
Rhubarb  |   Sweet Corn

‘Globe’ Artichoke from Page’s Garden

Some common garden vegetables—like artichokes—have no close edible cousins in the same plant family, so I’ve included a “miscellaneous” photo gallery for these outrider vegetables.

The needs of these vegetables fit no common pattern. For information on how to grow vegetables in this group, click on individual plant links.

 Growing Rhubarb Growing Lettuce—SaladScape of Skyphos and Santoro Lettuce Growing Sweet Corn

Top of How to Grow Vegetables

How To Grow…

Artichokes  |   Basil  |   Beans  |   Broccoli  |   Cabbage  |   Carrots
Cucumbers  |   Green Beans  |   Hot Peppers  |   Lettuce  |   Peppers
Spinach  |   Summer Squash  |   Tomatoes  |   Winter Squash  |   Zucchini

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