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Talmage Farm Agway nursery manager Sherry Brezinski with some of the vegetable and herb seedlings in the store. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

The North Fork is renowned for its sprawling farms and beautiful wineries. But how about its old-fashioned backyard gardens?

With a little effort and some helpful advice, anyone can grow their own vegetables — yes, anyone.

“Don’t sweat the small stuff,” said Sherry Brezinski, nursery manager at Talmage Farm Agway in Riverhead. “It’s relatively easy.”

Just how easy? Read on as Ms. Brezinski and Renato Stafford of HomeGrown Organic in Peconic share their tips for growing a vegetable garden you and your family will love. 

1. Start with soil.
“The absolute most important thing when you’re doing a vegetable garden is the health of your soil,” said Mr. Stafford, who makes his own compost to fertilize and condition the dirt.

You can make your own compost with leaves, fresh grass clippings, coffee grinds and dead (but not thorny or diseased) house plants. The pile, which should be kept moist, will require periodic turning, and can take anywhere from a few weeks to a year to decompose depending on how finely the material is ground up when it’s put in the pile. It will be ready to use when it’s dark brown and crumbly.

Not thrilled by the idea of making your own? Local farms and nurseries often sell good-quality compost, he said. 

2. Pick a site.
Study your backyard. The sunniest spot is the best possible site for your vegetable garden, Mr. Stafford said. Bonus points if a water source is nearby and it’s blocked from northern winds. If at all possible, plant near your kitchen so you can easily run out and get what you need when preparing a meal. 

3. Back to the soil.
Loosen the subsoil by breaking it up, and prepare the beds with a lot of compost, Mr. Stafford said. You’ll also need to pull any weeds that have accumulated — a tedious process he simplifies by plucking them when they’re small and by growing plants in tight rows, a strategic move that “out-competes” the weeds. 

4. Plant your veggies.
This time of year is all about cool-season vegetables, Ms. Brezinski said. Think peas, lettuces, spinach, kale, broccoli, asparagus and potatoes. Warm-weather vegetables, like tomatoes, peppers and eggplant, shouldn’t be planted at least until mid-May, she advised.

Plant the seeds in rows according to type. Follow the instructions on the back of seed packets to determine how far apart vegetables should be planted. 

5. Critter-proof your garden.
Don’t let your hard work become a tasty snack for rabbits or deer. Use chicken wire to build a fence that will keep bunnies away, Mr. Stafford said, or nylon fencing to keep deer at bay. Make sure the fence is high enough that deer can’t scale over it, though, he warned. 

6. Stay on top of watering.
“When you’re growing food, you have to do the things necessary for the garden when the garden requires it, not when you want to do it,” Mr. Stafford said.

So it is with watering, which he noted can take “quite a bit of time.” Compost acts like a sponge, so having a lot of it in the soil increases water absorption, he said.

The best way to know if your plants are being watered enough is to put your hand in the dirt and start digging.
If the dirt is “only wet the first couple of inches and is dry as powder underneath, then it’s not watered enough,” he said.

Plants themselves can also hint that you need to water more deeply. “Sometimes you’ll see a difference in the leaf color or it will start to droop,” Ms. Brezinski said. 

7. Enjoy the bounty
You’ll know when the vegetables are ready to be harvested, Mr. Stafford said. Radishes can be harvested in around 20 days, he said, and spinach is usually ready to eat by 30 days. But each vegetable has its own time frame, he noted, so keep those seed packets handy to see what the typical growing time is — though that might not be necessary.
“If it looks ready to eat, I would go for it,” he said.

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