gar dening in the northeast
e Northeasteners pride ourselves on our self-sufficiency and frugality. Perhaps that’s why more of us are growing our own food gardens than ever before. Growing some of our own food helps ensure that the produce we’re eating is safe, fresh, and healthy. We know what has been sprayed on it, so we are assured that our kids, family, and friends can enjoy beautiful veggies right out of the garden. Plus, we can save hundreds of dollars a year just by growing our own fruits and vegetables. Those of us with an environment-friendly mindset also know that growing our own food reduces pollution and our carbon footprint because we’re not supporting an industry that ships fruits and vegetables 1,500 miles on average from the field to our grocery store. It’s a win-win! When I give talks across the country on edible gardening, people young and old, of all different nationalities, religions, and political persuasions, come together on this common ground of eating good, healthy, safe food.


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Gardening in the Northeast

We have a rich history of agriculture in the Northeast. The Northeast is where our European ancestors started gardening and where, for generations before them, Native American tribes grew vegetables and harvested native fruits. The “three sisters” gardens of Native Americans were first discovered here. Varieties of vegetables and fruits, such as ‘Long Island Improved’ Brussels sprouts and ‘Rutgers’ tomatoes, started here as well. While much of the commercial production of vegetables and fruits has moved west and overseas, home gardening and farming across this country and in the Northeast is actually making a comeback. For the first time since the USDA started conducting a farm census, over the past five years the number of farms in the United States has actually increased. Much of this increase is due to the renewed interested in fruit and vegetable growing. I’ve lived and gardened most of my life in the Northeast, and the variety of terrains, soils, and circumstances where you can garden is amazing. From the sandy pine barrens of New Jersey, to the rocky crags of coastal Maine, and to the mountains of the Adirondacks, the Northeast has a varied topography that makes gardening exciting and sometimes challenging, but also very rewarding. Whether you’re an urban gardener in Boston or New York, or a rural gardener in the wide-open spaces of Vermont, the gardening practices, varieties, and methods are similar.


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Along the coast, the summer is hot and humid and the winters relatively mild. In these USDA zone 5, 6, and borderline 7 regions (see the USDA Cold Hardiness Zone Map for the Northeast on page 7), you can grow a wide variety of vegetables and fruits for well over two hundred days. That’s more than six months of frost-free growing. To determine the number of frost-free days you have, see the table beginning on page 14. You can be planting in April or even March, depending on the winter and vegetable, and have frost-free days right into November. It’s easy to grow two or three crops in one season by using a technique called succession planting that I’ll talk about later. And the summers are hot and humid, perfect for growing traditional summertime treats such as sweet corn, tomatoes, eggplants, and melons. You can even grow greens through the winter with a little extra care, giving you an almost twelve-month garden. But this climate doesn’t come without its downsides. Stormy weather and even hurricanes can blow through in summer, keeping gardeners on their toes. In colder and more mountainous regions of Maine, New Hampshire, upstate New York, and Vermont, you may have fewer frost-free days to garden, but the season comes on like gangbusters. Mostly in USDA hardiness zone 4, these colder regions have late frosts. You really can’t get serious about gardening until Memorial Day. But watch out after that! The combination of long days and warm temperatures makes vegetables and fruits explode with growth in the garden. I often compare the progress of my Vermont garden with my relatives’ gardens in Connecticut. While their gardens always begin producing sooner, especially with early crops of greens and peas, by July and August we’re both noshing on sweet tomatoes and blueberries. The colder temperatures just challenge the northern gardener to be more creative about season-extending devices such as row covers and cold frames. While warm-weather-loving crops such as watermelons and sweet potatoes may be more of a challenge to grow in the northern parts of this region, cool-season fruits and vegetables, such as apples, peaches, broccoli, carrots, and peas, thrive. They slowly mature during the cool summers to yield sweet-tasting heads, leaves, and roots. The Northeast is known for its four distinct seasons. Spring can be short, but is often highlighted by windy days with wild temperature extremes. Summer starts in late May or June with heat waves, summer thunderstorms,


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Gardening in the Northeast

and sometimes drought. Fall is a classic. October and November days are still warm with cool nights and colorful leaves dropping to the ground. Winter can be severe, with classic nor’easter storms coming up the coast and dumping feet of snow. We gardeners don’t mind the snow, though. It’s a great cold-temperature insulator for our fruits and perennial vegetables. While the climate may be somewhat consistent across the Northeast, the weather is not. The old saying, “If you don’t like the weather, wait a minute,” must have originated here for good reason. I’ve seen the weather go in one day from sunny, humid, and 80°F to stormy, snowy, and 30°F. But as confused as that might make us feel, the plants seem to roll with it. Fruits, such as apples and blueberries, thrive here. They actually need the cold winters and warm summers to produce the best crop. Some of these plants are so well adapted they can grow for years with little care. I have relatives in the mountains of New Hampshire who have blueberry bushes that are still producing after forty years. The Northeast doesn’t have the deep, fertile soils of the Midwest, but our rocky soils have fed inhabitants for thousands of years. River-bottom silty soils, such as those along the Connecticut, Hudson, and Merrimack rivers, offer some of the best soils for growing. The coastal lowlands in New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts have sandy soils that vegetables such as asparagus love. The hills and mountains throughout the rest of the region often provide that ubiquitous clay soil that all gardeners sooner or later come to know. Though hard to work with initially, it is fertile, and I’ll



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talk about ways to grow a great garden in clay soil in the coming chapters. The key to good soil is organic matter. We have a lot of it in the Northeast. With our consistent rainfall and cool temperatures, we can grow a mean lawn. Lawn clippings are a good source of organic matter if you’re bagging and picking them up. Our colorful fall foliage provides truckloads of leaves that can be turned into compost for the garden. Plus, many residents love animals as well as gardens. Horses, cows, sheep, and chickens provide valuable manure that can turn a lifeless sandy soil or hard-to-work clay soil into a vibrant garden soil. While we have our share of insect pests and diseases, the most troublesome pests that gardeners ask me about are the four-legged types. Because so many people are packed into the Northeast, human development has encroached on animal habitats. The result is that the animals either leave or learn to coexist. Some of our furry friends not only have learned how to coexist, but are thriving. Deer, raccoons, woodchucks, and rabbits are some of the critters that commonly plague a garden. While the threat is real, there are ways to keep Bambi and his friends away and still enjoy your garden and the beautiful natural scenery of our region. I’ll talk more about that in the pest control chapter. Those of you in urban areas might think gardening is a pie-in-the-sky idea because you don’t have a big yard or any yard. However, with new technologies, plant varieties, and methods, urban gardens are popping up even in densely populated cities such as New York. And as New Yorkers are famous for saying, “If you can do it here, you can do it anywhere.” Community gardens in vacant lots, small raised beds in alleyways, and containers on decks, patios, fire escapes, and balconies can all be used to grow herbs, vegetables, and even some fruits. Self-watering containers, improved potting soil, and dwarf varieties all help make urban gardening in small spaces a success. There are stories of gardeners turning into urban farmers and growing more than enough food to sell at local farmers’ markets and grocery stores and directly to restaurants and individuals. So don’t be intimidated by the lack of space, animals, poor soil, or cold weather. Gardening in the Northeast has been going on for hundreds of years, so welcome to the party. Throughout this book you’ll learn how to design and site your garden; build your soil; handle weeds, water, fertilizer, and pests; and harvest and store the abundance of food you’ll soon be producing. The bulk of the book is devoted to common fruits, vegetables, and herbs, with specific information on how to grow them. So let’s get growing in the Northeast and make you a productive and successful gardener.


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