Monday, April 26, 2010

Getting Ready to Garden

Last fall Rachael taught us how to preserve our garden harvest; today she's giving us some tips on everything that proceeds the harvest. Wait! don't "X" out of this if you don't fancy yourself a gardener or if you only have a patio from which to coax a crop - even with only a tiny bit of know-how and space, you could be eating the fruits of your very own labors in a few months - so cool! Here's Rachael's advice, we think you'll find it helpful no matter where you find yourself on the gardening spectrum:

Before you plant:

Sit down with a sheet of paper and make a list of everything you’d like to plant. Then diagram your garden and assign plants to specific areas, based on the appropriate spacing guidelines. Think about seasonal rotation (for instance, using the same spot for lettuce in the spring, bush beans in the summer, and kale in the fall) or interplanting (parsnips and radishes together; corn, pole beans, and squash in the same hill). Once you’ve decided what’s going in the garden, create a master list of planting dates, fertilizing schedules, etc.

As you’re planning your garden, try to select a level spot that gets plenty of sunlight. Some lettuces prefer partial shade as the summer goes on, but by and large, lots of sun will maximize your overall harvest. Plan to water frequently enough to keep your soil evenly moist. If you see standing water or cracked dirt, you’ll know you need to change your watering schedule (I usually water every other day). Create raised beds to help with drainage by shoveling or trampling a path between your beds.

Plan on frequent weeding so that your plants get enough sunlight and nutrients. Weeds are much easier to battle when they’re small; a hand cultivator (which looks like a fork) is a great tool here, as is a scuffle hoe. An even better idea is to stop the weeds before they grow by using black plastic or mulch. Simply lay down the plastic, snip a hole for the plant, and you’re in business—no weeding around the tomatoes and squash! As an added benefit, the black plastic also helps retain the heat, which helps crops like melons to ripen more quickly. I lay down plastic wherever possible.

Beginning/small space gardeners

If you only have room for a few things, plant tomatoes (with a basil plant or two alongside). Nothing packs quite the same fresh-from-the-garden punch as a really awesome beefsteak tomato. (They’re also pretty idiot-proof, and you can even buy special varieties bred for container gardening). Bush beans (Bush Blue Lake 274 is my favorite) are also easy and bountiful. And summer squashes (zucchini and yellow crookneck) will be prolific beyond your wildest dreams (pick them at 8 inches long, and pick every day). Lettuces are also very reliable (try Simpson Elite); loose-leaf varieties have the added bonus of regenerating after you cut the leaves off (don’t pull out the roots!) And if you like radishes, they’re one of the ultimates in short-term gratification, ready to eat less than a month after planting.

When to plant?

Planting dates depend on where you live, or your “hardiness zone” ( What really matters here is the dates of your first and last frost (which you can easily find via Google). In general, you will find that most seed packets instruct you to either plant “in early spring, as soon as the soil can be worked,” or “after danger of frost.” In northern Indiana, where I live, this translates to planting my first round of peas, lettuces, onions, etc. around mid-March, and my tomatoes, beans, corn, etc. around May 15th. Sow seeds every two weeks for continual harvesting; with transplants, pay attention to whether a tomato, for instance, is “indeterminate,” which means it will keep producing until frost, or “determinate,” which means most of its fruit will come on all at once and last a couple of weeks. Most planting guidelines will also give you an “end date,” so you have a window of a couple months for your successive sowings.

An invaluable resource is your county extension office, which offers specific information for your area; they can advise you about weather patterns or pests, plus perform soil testing. My local extension office ( has some fantastic online publications; you can find guidelines here on just about every fruit/vegetable you can think of, plus composting, amending soil, etc.

Soil preparation

If you’re breaking sod in your backyard, save your back (and hours of time) and rent a rototiller from a local hardware store (about $50 for 4 hours, and very much worth it). You can have soil testing done through your local extension office that will give you specific guidelines as to soil amendments that you should add. Generally needed by any garden: peat moss, which will lighten your soil, vermiculite and perlite to help it retain water, and well-rotted compost, which provides the organic material to really thrive. I also use lots of rotted manure (make sure it is well-rotted so it doesn’t burn your plants). You can purchase soil amendments at any nursery and some home improvement centers (they will generally be cheaper at the home centers, but you’ll have less selection. If you know someone with animals, give them a call about the manure). Compost is trickier to find and can be quite expensive, the best way is to make your own ( by creating a pile for your yard waste and kitchen scraps—which will then rot down into beautiful, rich, black garden goodness (good to know: a correctly-managed compost pile doesn’t stink). As a bonus, carrying out the kitchen scraps to the compost pile is a job that two-year-olds think is really exciting!

Soil amendments can get pretty expensive, so what we tried last year was to amend selectively. For anything that was a single plant (broccoli, tomatoes, brussels sprouts, okra, eggplant, peppers, squash) rather than a row (corn, beans, root vegetables) we dug out a good-sized hole and fill it with a mixture of heavily amended soil (mixing 3:1 amendments to garden dirt) then plopped in the plant. For the row crops, we mixed in our amendments, but much more sparingly. We had bumper crops last year, so I’d say our experiment was a success. Selecting a good fertilizer is also key (there’s some great articles about this on the Purdue Extension site I linked earlier); check the specific plant’s guidelines for how much and how often. Most plants need fertilizer initially, when they begin to blossom, when they begin to fruit, etc.

Garden boxes are also a great option if you’ve got awful soil, or if you’d like to get a jump on planting when the ground is too frozen (or wet) to till. We built a 4 x 8 raised box for square-foot gardening last year and filled it with the best soil (and amendments) we could find; it was about $65 for the whole thing. This is more of an investment, and I don’t know that I’d recommend it for the entire garden—I look at it as a lettuce box. I also did not see a marked difference in productivity between the box (with the awesome soil) and the garden at large (with moderately amended soil).

Let’s be honest: your garden will be much happier if it is fenced off. You can use chicken wire, electrical fencing, board fencing, etc., but you’re going to need something if you want to keep your harvest. There’s lots of discussion on gardening forums about keeping away animals with more natural methods, such as marigolds, human hair, scents, etc., but I’ve always relied on a fence (and the occasional kid throwing rocks at rabbits). Be forewarned: rabbits can flatten themselves down to practically nothing and deer can jump 8-foot fences.

Bugs are another matter entirely. It’s a matter of personal preference as to whether you want to go totally organic with no pesticides, or whether you’re okay sprinkling a little Sevin out there to kill those Japanese beetles.

There are a couple of things you can do preemptively; one is to rotate your crops, avoiding planting the same things in the same locations year after year (this is especially important with the nightshade family—tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant). You can also put “cutworm collars” on your transplants to protect tender seedlings. And lastly, be vigilant—if you check on your garden every day, you’ll notice the bugs before they turn the leaves to lace.

Gardening is a lot of trial and error. Inevitably, you will have some successes and some failures every year, and you’ll learn from your mistakes, and you’ll learn to ask questions of every gardener you know. But when you can wander out to the garden on a lazy summer’s evening and decide right there in the tomato-scented dusk what you’re having for dinner, it’s worth the weeding and planting and rabbit-chasing.

Doesn't that just make you want play in the dirt? Thanks a million, Rachael. As always, you've given us so much useful information!

We’d love to hear your tips, advice, and tricks! Leave a comment to share your gardening wisdom...


Mrs. Small House said...

If you're going to till up your grass, don't leave it in there thinking it will break down. You'll have a lawn with pumpkins by the end of July.

Rachael said...

Good point! When we till through the grass, we like to do a couple of things:

a) pick out as many of the big clumps of grass as we can

b) plant something there that does well with black plastic covering the soil (i.e. squashes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, etc.)

Another option is to cut away the sod before you till--we've done this and used the sod to patch bare spots on our lawn.

Jonesy said...

Great tips! One that's worked well for us is to try to avoid planting in rows. Take advantage of the natural ecosystem plants create when grown side-by-side in a patch (planted hexagonally), which helps keep weeds from popping up. Also, don't be afraid to mix it up by intermingling different crops. Some great pairings are: corn, beans and squash; tomatoes, eggplant & basil; asparagus & strawberries; and carrots, salad greens & onions. Flowers are not only great to confuse pests, but bring in beneficial insects as well. Besides, zinnias look gorgeous planted nest to the peas!
A GREAT resource we've used for years is Great Garden Companions by Sally Jean Cunningham, Master Gardener at Cornell. We've already harvested asparagus and are eagerly awaiting the lettuce, spinach, peas, onions, radishes, beets and potatoes that have already broken through! Isn't spring just the best?

sarah said...

down here in the south we've had our garden going for about a month now. i spotted my first green beans today! hooray! and the tomato plants are already blooming.

we had to remove some grass and other stuff to make room for our garden bed. one thing that made all the difference was putting down a layer of newspaper before filling the box with dirt/compost. this keeps the weeds and grass out.

Meghan said...

This is not an organic approach, but when we were opening up new areas of the gardens that were formerly lawn, I would spray with Roundup a few weeks in advance to kill the lawn before tilling. Otherwise that grass can be very tenacious.