Cole Jadrosich and Lila Bhide of Facilities and Real Estate Services care for edible growing spaces around campus, including the Penn Community Garden. (Photo: Scott Spitzer)

By Katherine Unger Baillie

Gardening as a pastime can seem so relaxing, even meditative—hands working the soil, communing with nature—yet it also has its share of frustrations: seeds that fail to germinate, plants that wither as temperatures rise, pests of every variety bent on decimating crops before harvest time.

Lila Bhide, coordinator of the University of Pennsylvania’s Community Garden, and Cole Jadrosich, an intern for the Penn Park Orchard, have experienced their share of setbacks when it comes to coaxing plants to bear fruit. Here they share their expertise on growing five different crops commonly found in urban gardens.

One mistake that Bhide herself made this year was to wait too long to get started with her tomatoes. “I see people just putting tomato plants in the ground in June or even July because that’s when it feels hot,” she says. “They’re not going to thrive.” If space allows, she recommends starting them indoors from seed in early spring, then transplanting them outdoors once the risk for frost is past. A rule of thumb for this region is that Mother’s Day is a good time to get tomato plants in the ground.

Once these vining plants get big enough, Bhide says to prune them. “What I usually do is pick one main stem and two main branches—or sometimes I’ll give them three if I’m feeling nice—and just pinch off or trim off the other branches,” she says. “Tomatoes naturally want to vine out so you want to direct them, you don’t want to let them go a million directions.”

Those with shady outdoor spaces may want to steer clear, Bhide notes, as tomatoes are a full-sun crop. They should be supported with trellises or cages. And lovers of Italian cuisine, rejoice; tomatoes pair well with basil growing nearby.

Cucumbers, like tomatoes, are vining plants and also need the support of trellises, “especially if you’re in an urban garden, that will help you create more space,” Bhide says. Cucumbers are mostly water, and, as such, require plenty of water to grow well and develop a nice, smooth flavor. “Make sure they’re well-weeded and give them lots and lots of water,” Jadrosich says.

The jury is out on pruning cucumbers, Bhide says. “Some people do, and some do not.” YouTube has a wealth of videos on techniques, she notes.

Fungal diseases are a common problem of many vegetable plants, including tomatoes and cucumbers. Bhide has sometimes used a copper spray to prevent fungal problems on both crops, and using proper mulch can also ward off such infections.

Perennial herbs like mint, thyme, and oregano are good choices for beginning gardeners. “Herbs are a really good bang for your buck because you can use them almost every day,” Bhide says. Annual herbs like basil and cilantro can also be grown easily in containers.

Though many herbs like sun, Bhide notes, “if you’re in a West Philly rowhouse and don’t get a lot of sun, mint is a good choice; it will grow almost anywhere.”

When it’s time to harvest, cut or pinch back the herbs from the top, leaving the sides. This will encourage the plants to branch out instead of continuing to grow straight and go to seed, Bhide says.

A versatile culinary crop, garlic is not terribly demanding. It’s possible to special order cloves for planting, but Bhide says any organic clove from a grocery store or farmer’s market will suffice. “Plant it around Halloween, then mulch over it and just leave it,” Bhide says.

Garlic is typically ready for harvest some time in July, when several of the leaves die back and turn yellow, says Jadrosich.

Although garlic doesn’t require much care while it is growing, Bhide and Jadrosich say it’s not a foolproof crop. “There has been a huge wave of new pests, like allium leafminer, that target garlic,” Bhide says.

Though most of the other plants mentioned are ready for harvest in the summer, there are plenty of choices for fall gardening as well. Different types of greens, such as lettuce, kale, and collards, can all be started in the garden now to be ready for autumn picking. The cold weather doesn’t hinder them and may even be a help. It’s often said that kale, for example, takes on a sweeter flavor when picked after a frost.

For fall harvest, now is the time to sow greens. Root vegetables such as carrots, beets, and turnips can also be planted now and enjoyed when the weather turns cooler.