Care and How-To Articles - Vegetables and Herbs

Ornamental corn in many colors

Along with mums and pumpkins, ornamental (occasionally referred to as "Indian corn") is often used to decorate homes in the fall.  Ornamental corn can be purchased at farmer’s markets, roadside stands, craft shows, garden centers, and other locations.  Ornamental corn can also be grown in large home gardens. 

Ornamental corn in many colors
Several ornamental corn ears ranging in various colors from red, brown and yellow.

The true fruit on a potato

Gardeners are occasionally surprised to find small, round, green, tomato-like fruit on their potato plants. These fruit are not the result of cross-pollination with tomatoes. They are the true fruit of the potato plant. The edible tubers are enlarged, underground stems. 

The true fruit on a potato
Potato fruits are a novelty and of no value to the home gardener.

Winter squash

Determining when to harvest vine crops, such as melons, squashes, and cucumbers, is not always easy.  While some vegetables like tomatoes exhibit clear signs, the proper time to harvest other crops may require a little more knowledge and experience.  Learn more about the guidelines for harvesting and storing various vine crops including watermelon, cantaloupe, cucumbers, summer squash, winter squash, pumpkins, and gourds.

Vine crops (cucumber, muskmelon, watermelon, and squash) are some of the most popular vegetables in the home garden.  While vine crops are easy to grow, home gardeners are occasionally disappointed in crop yields.  Poor fruiting of vine crops may be due to the plant's flowering habit, poor pollination, or blossom-end rot. 


Cucumbers (Cucumis sativus) are a vegetable garden staple.  These vining plants are in the gourd family (Cucurbitaceae) and include not only cucumber, but squash, pumpkin, gourd, watermelon, and cantaloupe.  This member of the "vine crops" grows on long trailing vines that can take up quite a bit of space in the home vegetable garden, so plan accordingly if you are thinking of adding them to your home garden.  Cucumbers can be successfully grown on trellis systems to save space and make harvest easier.  


This guide will help you schedule the planting of vegetable gardens so space may be used efficiently.  

The range of dates provided are the time periods in which you could sow seed or plant transplant and have success.  Some crops can be planted in succession (every 2 weeks for example) within that time frame. Other crops are simply planted at some point within that time frame.   

The harvest dates are approximate based on planting on the earliest date listed and extending to the latest possible date.  Crops that are not planted in succession will be harvested within that time frame, not for the entire time frame. Crops planted in succession could have sustainted harvest within that time period.  

Dates listed are for Central Iowa.  Southern Iowa can shift the sowing, planting, and harvesting dates approximately one week earlier.  Northern Iowa can shift the dates approximately one week later.

developing winter squash on vine

Summer and winter squash are some of the most popular vegetables in the home garden. Summer squash can be eaten raw in salads, stir-fried, steamed, or cooked in various dishes. Winter squash can be baked, steamed, or boiled.  

Learn all about growing squash below.

Raised beds By daryakomarova

Crop rotation is an important and beneficial factor when planning a vegetable garden. Problems with diseases, insect pests, and soil fertility can increase when the same crop is planted in the same area in successive years. With careful planning and consideration, crop rotation can reduce issues with diseases and pests and balance the soil's nutrients. Learn how to best rotate your vegetable crops at home.

Rhubarb stalks

Rhubarb is a favorite for many Iowa gardeners.  The rhubarb leaf stalk (botanically called a petiole) is used in pies, tarts, sauces, jams, jellies, puddings, and punch. Although categorized as a vegetable, rhubarb is used as a fruit because its high acidity gives it a tart flavor.  Below is more information about rhubarb including cultivars, growing conditions, fertilization, harvesting, care, and disease and insect management.

Variety of eggplant

Eggplant is one of the most versatile vegetables in the home garden. The fruit can be steamed, baked, fried, grilled, boiled, sauteed, breaded, and stuffed. Believed to be native to India, eggplant is popular in dishes around the world.

Eggplant is a member of the Solanaceae or nightshade family. Other garden vegetables in this family include tomato, potato, pepper, ground cherry, and tomatillo.

Suggested Varieties  |  Planting  |  Pests  |  Harvest

Ant Mound on Sidewalk

There are many species of ants that occur in lawns or along and under sidewalks. Most ants are beneficial and do not require control. However, ants may become a nuisance by constructing mounds or small hills in the lawn, landscape, prairie planting, pasture, CRP field, roadside, or on the sidewalk or patio, or by invading the home in search of food.

Radishes grow best in the cool temperatures of spring or fall.  Garden radishes can be planted in early spring for a late spring, early summer harvest, and then again in late summer for a fall harvest. 

Carrots and parsnips are root vegetables that do well in cooler conditions.  Carrots are one of the most popular garden vegetables and come in colors beyond the traditional orange, including purple, red, yellow, and white.  Parsnips are close relatives of carrots and have a more subtle, sweeter, nuttier flavor.  Both are great additions to the Iowa vegetable garden. 

Planning  Site Selection  Planting  Growing & Care  Potential Problems  Harvest & Storage

Cold Frame by Martina Berg/

In the fall, cooler temperatures signify an end to the harvest of many vegetables in the garden. However, if you use cold frames, you can extend the growing season. These simple structures allow you to continue to garden and harvest fresh produce even when temperatures turn cooler. 

Cold Frame by Martina Berg/
Cold Frame by Martina Berg

sweet potatoes after harvest

The sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) belongs to the family Convolvulaceae (morning glory family). While typically considered a vegetable suitable for vegetable gardens in the southern United States, sweet potato is a vegetable that can thrive in the hot and humid Iowa summers.

The weather can be erratic as it transitions from autumn to winter and again from winter to spring.  It is common to have below freezing temperatures in late September or early October followed by a stretch of a week or more of warmer temperatures.  When this temperature dip happens, protecting plants can be beneficial, allowing to continue harvest and enjoy them in your garden longer. 

It is also common to have a period of warmer temperatures in late March or early April that can bring plants out of dormancy followed by below freezing temperatures that can potentially damage the new growth or emerging flowers.  

Spring Garden with Redbud in bloom

As winter fades and spring arrives, several things can be done to prepare the garden for the upcoming growing season.

Below are tips for the perennial garden, vegetable garden, annual containers, trees & shrubs, and lawns.

sample of microgreens

Microgreens are easy to grow – even indoors in winter in Iowa.  All that is needed is a few supplies, some microgreen seeds, and a sunny window. 

Composted Manure in Wheelbarrow Photo by gabort.

Manure is the oldest fertilizer known to civilization and can be a cost-effective soil amendment with many beneficial qualities. Many gardeners feel manure is superior to synthetic products. Careful and appropriate use of manure, especially in vegetable gardens, is important. 

Although herbs are commonly used for their medicinal and culinary uses, they can also be very ornamental. Ornamental perennial and annual herbs offer the added benefits of varying leaf color, texture, fragrance, and flowers. These multifunctional plants make wonderful additions to any garden from spring to fall.

Herbs are a wonderful addition to any garden. They can be grown in vegetable gardens, flower gardens, or in containers. Growing herbs in containers is a great way to have fresh herbs close to the kitchen for cooking. Some container-grown herbs can then be moved indoors when the growing season is over for further enjoyment.

basil, chives, thyme growing indoors on a sunny windowsill

Even while the weather is cold outside, it is still possible to enjoy fresh herbs for cooking. Taking advantage of a sunny window in your home can allow for herbs to thrive all year. Learn more below about how to grow herbs indoors. 

herbs in containers

Herbs are plants valued for their flavor, fragrance, and medicinal uses.  An enjoyable group of plants to grow, herbs require little space and care. Herbs have few insect or disease problems and generally require only moderate soil fertility levels. They can be grown easily in an apartment-sized plot, among flowers, as part of the vegetable garden, or in containers on a patio or windowsill.

Learn more about growing, harvesting, drying, preserving, and using herbs in your garden.  Details about your favorite herb are also included.

Variety of Seeds

The late growing season is a good time to collect seeds from vegetables and flowers. Seed saving allows gardeners to preserve heirloom varieties or their favorite plants from year to year.  Below are the basics of harvesting, preparing, and storing seed from your garden.

Potted plants on a cart at the garden center

In spring, many gardeners will be at nurseries, greenhouses, and garden centers looking to buy plants. Selecting the right species and cultivar of a plant for the landscape by matching sun, water, soil, winter hardiness, and other growing requirements is important. Equally important is selecting high-quality plants. Below is advice on how to purchase high-quality plants from the garden center.

storing seed in an air tight container

Storing Seeds

Proper storage conditions for seeds are essential to maintain viability and good germination at planting time. Seeds should be kept dry and cool.  A sealed glass jar can keep excess moisture out and protect seeds from pests like mice or insects. Store jars in a cool, dry location such as a cool closet, root cellar, or refrigerator. Test the germination rate on the seeds about one month prior to planting.

Sowing Seed in Plug Tray.  Photo by Adobe Stock

Mid-March is the best time to start many vegetables and annual flowers indoors for transplanting outside once the threat of frost has past. 

Regardless of what type of seed you're growing, to have the best success follow these basic tips:

  • Start with fresh seed and clean materials. 
  • Consult the package to determine how early to start the seed indoors - do not start seed too early. 
  • Provide abundant light. 
  • Do not over or under water.
  • Raise the humidity during germination.
  • If possible warm the germination mix/soil. 

More details about starting seeds indoors can be found below.

peat pots for seed starting

There are many different options for containers that can be used to start seedlings. 

sowing seeds photo by Adobe Stock

For many home gardeners, starting seeds indoors is great fun. Successfully growing seedlings indoors requires high-quality seeds, a germination medium, containers, lights, and other supplies.

sowing seeds photo by Adobe Stock

For many home gardeners, it's fun to get a head start on the upcoming garden season by starting seedlings indoors. Growing quality seedlings indoors requires high-quality seeds, a germination medium/potting mix, containers, proper temperature and moisture conditions, and adequate light.

Learn all of the steps to successfully start seeds indoors for your garden.

Managing weeds in the vegetable garden is important for growing healthy and productive plants.  There are several methods that can be used to manage weeds and in most cases using several methods together will produce the best results.  All of these methods can be considered "organic" except those that utilize herbicides.  

germinating seedling photo by adobestock

Germination requirements (light and temperature) vary among the different annuals and vegetables. The various crops also differ in the length of time from seed sowing until the seedlings are planted outdoors.  Below is germination and growing information for commonly grown annual flowers, herbs, and vegetables. 

October is pumpkin season!  Whether its pumpkin pie or pumpkin spiced lattes, cute décor or scary jack-o-lanterns, many of us enjoy pumpkins when autumn arrives. 

Below is information on how to select pupmkings, as well as how to grow, harvest, and store pumpkins at home. Answers to common pumpkin questions are also below including: What is a pumpkin? What is canned pumpkin made from? What is pumpkin spice?

Giant Pumpkins

Few vegetables have the ability to grow to the enormous sizes of pumpkins and squashes. The size of world champion pumpkins is staggering. Giant pumpkins have been recorded with a circumference of greater than 10 feet or weighing over one thousand pounds. While attaining a half-ton jack-o-lantern may not be your goal, growing giant pumpkins is certainly fun for many gardeners. With proper cultivar selection and diligent care, growing giant pumpkins can be rewarding. You might even want to get that "Big Pumpkin" form filled out for the county or state fair!

While tomatoes and peppers thrive in the summer heat, many crops prefer the cooler weather of fall. Cool season crops, such as broccoli, cauliflower, and lettuce, may bolt (go to seed) or become bitter in summer making them prime candidates for fall gardening. Planning for a fall vegetable garden is a great way to make up for spring mishaps or just extend your garden harvest.  To get started you'll need seeds and a calendar.

Newly planted tree

While spring is the traditional planting season in Iowa, late summer and early fall (mid-August to early October) is an excellent time to plant many landscape plants.  Below is advice on fall planting of trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals, spring-flowering bulbs, lawns, and vegetables.

Trees & Shrubs  |  Perennials  |  Annuals  |  Bulbs  |  Lawns  |  Vegetables  |  More Information

Picture of new garden bed being planted

The first step to creating any new garden bed in your lawn is to remove the existing sod.  There are several methods you can take to remove the turfgrass and each has its own advantages and limitations.  Which method you choose depends on the time it takes, the amount of work it requires, and your personal preferences. 
Use the guide below to determine which method of sod removal is best for your situation.

Picture of heuchera with frost

Some plants in the landscape need a little extra protection to make it through the winter months.  Here is what you need to know to successfully overwinter plants in Iowa.

Fall Garden

When autumn arrives, several things can be done to prepare the garden for winter and the following growing season.

Perennials | Vegetable Garden | Annual Beds & Containers | Woody Trees & Shrubs | Lawns | More Information

Variety of Vegetables

Harvesting vegetables at the right stage of maturity ensures the best taste and quality. Many vegetables should be picked throughout the summer to maintain plant productivity. The time, frequency, and method of harvesting vary depending on species.

Use the table below to determine the optimal time to pick and enjoy your favorite vegetables.

A newly planted maple tree showing signs of drought stress

When a summer heat wave arrives, it can be stressful for the plants and gardeners alike.  The plants of your landscape will require a little more TLC to make it through periods of extreme heat.  Below are a few tips to protect your lawn, garden, and landscape when temperatures soar.

Picture of green and red letuce

Leafy greens like lettuce, spinach, kale, collards, mustard, endive, and chard are great cool-season vegetable crops. They are some of the easiest vegetables to grow making them perfect for beginners. 

watering annuals in a container

Watering is one of the most frequent tasks performed in any garden or landscape.  Proper watering utilizes water responsibly, reducing evaporation and runoff.   There are many ways to make the process easier and better for the gardener and the plants.  Use the tips below to water the perennials, annuals, containers, hanging baskets, lawns, trees, shrubs, and vegetables in your landscape.

Colorado potato beetle (adult).

One of the familiar pests of the garden is the Colorado potato beetle, also known as the "potatobug." It's interesting to note that potatobugs were very familiar to Iowans through the first half of the 20th century but that they seemed to disappear for a while only to re-emerge as a major pest problem in the 1990s and remain widespread and destructive to this day.  Colorado potato beetles feed on the foliage of potato, tomato, eggplant, pepper and other related plants. They are most damaging to potatoes where the defoliation reduces yields and may even kill plants.

A variety of snap beans

Beans are one of America's favorite garden vegetables. They are referred to by many different names - green beans, snap beans, wax beans, string beans - all describe the same vegetable.  Early bean cultivars were stringy, hence the term "string" beans.  Modern cultivars are stringless, tender, and crisp.  Since they snap easily, these new cultivars are referred to as snap beans. 

Green beans may be classified as bush or pole beans.  Bush-type beans are low-growing plants that grow 1 to 2 feet in height.  Pole beans are vining plants which must be supported by a fence or stakes.

Hybrid melon from compost pile

Have you ever heard about this gardening tip: "Never plant cucumbers next to squash or melons because they will cross pollinate and the fruit will be off-tasting"? Although it may sound logical, this is not true for reasons that relate to the process of pollination and fertilization. A review of the lesson on the "birds and the bees" may be helpful in understanding flowering, pollination, and fruit development in members of the cucurbit family - squash, melons, pumpkins, and cucumbers. 

mulch over newspaper

Organic mulches serve several important functions in gardens and landscape plantings.

These many benefits make the use of mulch very beneficial in a wide range of garden settings. When choosing which organic mulch to use, consider availability, cost, appearance, function, and durability.

Seedlings being hardened off. Photo by Adobe Stock

Each spring home gardeners buy bedding plants (annual flowers and vegetables) from local garden centers and greenhouses. To help ensure a successful start to the gardening season, select strong, healthy plants and harden them outdoors for a few days before planting. Proper planting is another key to success.


Select short, stocky plants with dark green foliage. Avoid tall, spindly plants. Smaller seedlings become established in the garden more quickly than larger ones. Also, smaller plants are often more productive. When selecting bedding plants, "large" is usually not better.