It’s past our earliest planting date in the upper Midwest, which is May 15th. I usually wait until later in the month to lessen the chance of frost. But, the cucumbers and peppers can take a little cold better than the tomatoes, so go ahead and plant them now. If you do decide to put the tomatoes in, watch the weather. If the nighttime temps are heading for freezing, the tomatoes will need to be covered. A paper grocery bag or Styrofoam rose cones both work well. Remember to remove in the morning.
Step one, choose your plants. A good choice for beginning gardeners are tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and beans. Go to a local garden center or big box home center. With tomatoes, it’s best to choose different varieties according to their growing times. An “Early Girl” for quick growing, a medium variety like a “Better Boy” or “Celebrity”, and finally, a “Beefsteak” or other large variety for later harvest. This will give you enough for both eating and making sauce. Some people add a plum variety for a meatier sauce tomato. For the other vegetables, choose what you like or interests you, such as red peppers, jalapeños, seedless cucumbers, or pickles.
Hopefully you added compost to your garden soil last year. Till the soil well and plan where the plants will go. Tomatoes need the most sun, 6-8 hours per day. Cucumbers and peppers don’t need as much. Follow the planting placement on the stake that comes with every plant. Tomatoes need around 4 sq. feet, peppers a little less. Dig a hole a little wider and deeper than you think you need. Throw some good garden soil in the hole and place the plant. Fill in around the plant with more garden soil, making a mound around the stem. Add a fertilizer made for new plantings. Water the plants well. Prepare for the support you will need when the plants grow larger. We usually place tomato cages around the peppers as well as the tomatoes right away. Cucumbers will need to crawl up a trellis or fence. Make sure all plants are in a spot with good drainage, especially the cucumbers. Watch when there is a heavy rain. If you have puddling, make gutters in the soil to drain the water away.
KATHLEEN WEAVER-ZECH & DEAN’S TEAM CHICAGO