10 Tricks for Growing Better Vegetables

Control pests, keep plants safe from cold weather and learn the experts’ secrets and tips for growing the tastiest vegetables in your garden.

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Foil Pesky Cutworms

Before setting out a tomato, pepper, or eggplant seedling, wrap each stem with a 4-inch-square collar of aluminum foil, leaving it loose enough to allow the stem to grow as it expands. Plant the seedlings with 2 inches of foil above the soil and 2 inches below so that cutworms won't be able to penetrate the shiny armor.

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Make Nighttime Warmers

If you wake up to the weatherman's prediction of an unseasonably cold night, get outdoors as early as possible and flank your vegetable plants with something that will absorb the heat of the sun all day and radiate it at night. That "something" could be large, flat stones or those terra cotta tiles left over from your bathroom renovation. Another solution is to bend wire coat hangers into wickets, secure them over the plants, and drape them with black plastic trash bags for the night.

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Safeguard Corn With Mineral Oil

Are corn earworms and black beetles targeting your ripening ears of corn? Protect the ears by squirting mineral oil at the base of the silk, using a medicine dropper. Repeat the process every few days as the plant grows. The right timing is essential: Apply the oil only after the silks have begun to dry and turn brown; if you start earlier, less pollination will occur and the kernels won't develop properly. What about those pesky birds looking for a fresh meal? Keep them from pecking ripening corn by enclosing the ears in paper bags and tying the bags closed with twine.

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Keep Root Vegetables Straight With a Pipe

To prevent horseradish and heirloom varieties of carrots and parsnips from forking or getting bent out of shape, grow them in PVC pipe sections placed vertically in the ground and filled with rich soil and humus. When you harvest the roots in the fall, you'll be surprised how straight and thick they've grown.

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Hang a Bag of Mothballs

Mothball haters include rodents and insects (duh!), so consider putting some of the smelly orbs in your vegetable garden. Just don't let them touch the soil, or the toxic chemicals mothballs contain (usually naphthalene or dichlorobenzene) could contaminate it. (If you think you can simply place mothballs on lids, tiles, or other flat surfaces to keep them off the ground, think again. In no time at all, wind and garden invaders will knock them off.) For safety's sake, put a few mothballs in small mesh bags and hang them from a cornstalk or a beanpole trellis.

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Grow Onions Through Newspaper

Here's some headline news: One of the easiest ways to grow healthy onions is through newspaper mulch. Why? Because onion stalks cast a very slim shadow at best, letting in the sunlight that will sprout weed seeds. A lights-out mat of newspapers will stop sprouters short.

In early spring, wet the soil of the onion patch. Then spread three or four sections of newspapers over the area, hosing down each one. With one or two fingers, punch holes about 5-6 inches apart through the wet mat and place an onion set within each. Firm moist soil around the sets and cover the mat with shredded leaves and grass clippings. Weeds won't stand a chance as your onions grow and thrive.

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Use Sun Boxes for Veggie Seedlings

When you're starting vegetables indoors near a normally sunny south-facing window but the early spring sun won't co-operate, maximize the rays with aluminum foil-lined sun boxes. Cut out one side of a cardboard box and line the three inner "walls" with foil. When you face the boxes toward the outside, sunlight will reflect back on your vegetable seedlings. Plants will not only catch more sun, but their stems will grow straight rather than bending toward the light.

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A Tire Tower for Potatoes

Increase your potato yield by growing potatoes in a stack of tires. Fill a tire with soil and plant two whole or halved seed potatoes about 2 inches deep. Once the potatoes have sprouted 6-10 inches of foliage, place a second tire atop the first and fill with more soil, leaving 3- 4 inches of foliage exposed.

Repeat the process again, and your three-tire tower will triple your potato crop. Potatoes sprout on the underground stems - and the taller the stems, the greater the number of tasty tubers.

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Grow Your Own Luffas

The luffa, or loofah, gourd (Luffa cylindrica) is a purely practical choice for gardeners: It's grown primarily for its dried pulp, which we know as the exfoliating beauty sponge of the same name. Just plant and cultivate luffas as directed on the seed packet - though if you live in a climate zone with a growing season shorter than seven months you'll need to start seeds indoors.

When a gourd lightens in weight and its skin begins to brown, peel it. Wet it thoroughly and squeeze out the seeds with both hands, then set the gourd on a rack to dry for two to four weeks, or until hard. (Placing gourds near a heating vent will speed the process.) Use a sharp knife to slice the dried luffa crosswise into rounds, and ta-dah! - homegrown skin scrubbers for the whole family.

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Two Sprays for Pumpkins

Ward off fungus diseases in the pumpkin patch by spraying each pumpkin with this homemade mix: 1 teaspoon baking soda and ½ teaspoon corn oil stirred into 1 litre water. Fungus diseases aside, some gardeners claim they can enrich a pumpkin's color with a different spray: aerosol whipped cream, applied around the base of each plant every three weeks.