Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Garden Planting Primer

With the last frost date of February 18th in our area, it's time to start thinking about the spring and summer gardens.

I go back and forth on if seeds or starts are better to start a garden.  The advantage of starting with seeds is the process.  You can start earlier, and therefore garden longer.  Maybe this is also a disadvantage!  

If you start seeds inside, then you need to transplant the seedlings and possibly subject their roots to shock.  You also need to decide on the best medium to sprout the seeds.  Some gardeners swear by vermiculite, but I have had little success with it for seeds.  I have done better with potting soil.  I think I may try compost and dirt this year, or maybe the same mix that I use in my veggie boxes (a third vermiculite, a third peat moss, and a third compost).  BUT~ if you sprout and grow seeds, then the kids can watch and water and learn the process more intimately... especially if it is cold and rainy outside; I feel like the smell of dirt and the green plants growing triggers something in their brains to calm and balance them (or maybe it is just in mine!).

If you start seeds outside, then they need to be started after the last frost date in your area (February 18th in mine), and protected from the birds.  We use a screen over the whole box to keep the birds out, but this is more difficult when half the box is planted and you only add seeds to another part of the box.  For example, continuous planting vegetables like radishes and carrots are seeded all summer.  You also need to keep an eye on your sprouted seedlings when they are small and "thin" them, meaning that you need to pull some to make sure there is adequate spacing between plants.  If you don't, they will be stunted.  It is a little hard to explain to a toddler why you can pull some seedlings but he can't.

Tending to the seeds at the end of winter.
"Hardening off" the starts we made from seeds - this means they need to spend a few days outside before transplanting them so they get used to the weather.

The advantage of starts is that they are already, well, started.  You go to your local nursery, and they already know what is growing best at that time of year, you give them a few bucks, and you plant these in the ground and water them.  Starts are a sure way to make you feel like a master gardener!  

As long as you stake up the beans and tomatoes and keep the lettuce shaded in the heat of summer, you are sure to succeed with starts.  My best advice for starts is to use your space and money wisely by planting vegetables that have more than one vegetable or harvest.  For example, a huge plant takes a long time to grow something like one head of broccoli or cabbage.  But one zucchini plant gives and gives, as does a tomato plant.  Lettuce can be sliced off and will regrow, and chard can be harvested inwards leaf by leaf and keep growing.  

We do our herbs from starts, and many keep year after year.  The lavender and rosemary can even grow in the front yard, without deer interference.  We grow the garlic in front, too, thinking the smell will help deter the deer.  We keep the thyme, sage, chives, and parsley in back.  We grow the basil like a vegetable, since it doesn't keep perennially and turns black after the first frost.  We grow mint in a separate pot, since it has a tendency to get weedy.  We grow horseradish in the yard for the same reason.  
This is after planting the seedlings in the veggie box.  We ended up marking our boxes into 1' squares as Mel Bartholomew recommends in his book All New Square Foot Gardening.  He recommends this to maximize space, since it will break your area into manageable segments.  He says that after you visually break up the space, then plant your veggies in the box spaced for the 1' square instead of in rows.
Some vegetables make no sense to buy as starts, though. You need to start your root veggies from seed: beets, carrots, radishes, and the like.  You also need to plant potatoes, garlic, and Jerusalem Artichokes from "seeds" (their tubers- just put them in the dirt and they grow).  Melons and squashes are best from seed, though they also do fine from starts.  In their case, it may actually be more economical to use starts since you only need a plant or two, and a packet of seeds may cost the same as one sprouted plant.  The only reason to use a seed over a start in this case is for the increased variety availability in seeds.  Beans, peas, and corn can go either way.  With corn, make sure you plant at least nine plants so they can cross-pollinate.  With beans and peas, make sure you harvest often.  Either way you go, the more you harvest, the more the plant will produce.

This is in the middle of summer.  It is hard to visualize the abundance of the beans, basil, zucchini, and tomatoes when they are tiny tiny seedlings.  Our toddler LOVED picking beans and hunting for zucchini in this box.  The best zucchinis were the ones we'd spot, huge, at the base of the plant, after looking in that same spot daily, wondering why we hadn't seen them there before.
When deciding which plants go where, there is a bit to be said about companion planting.  We've all seen marigolds at the corners of boxes~ this is to deter insects naturally.  There is also something about corn, beans, and squash.  Read Carrots Love Tomatoes by Louise Riotte to learn more.  Rotating which plants go where year after year, and even throughout the season, helps them grow better.  Find out which vegetables belong in the same families and switch which family is in each section of your box at each planting time.  This rests the soil, since each family pulls different minerals from the soil.

You can control all sorts of pests naturally; for example, slugs can be eliminated with an open can of beer-- they crawl right in and drown.

Also think about going UP when you are planning your space.  Vining vegetables like cucumbers, melons, and peas will happily cling and grow UP if you give them something to hold onto and guide them that.  If you are growing tomatoes or tomatillos and don't want to buy tomato cages, then you can use a big stick or bamboo pole and green plant tie tape and tie the main stalk on as it grows upwards.

Compost is something you can think about year-round.  You can never have enough of it in your backyard garden.  We keep a stackable composter in the yard, and put our veggie scraps, chicken droppings, and garden cuttings into it all year long.  We supplement with compost from Home Depot (we blend their regular compost with steer manure to make it more rich and to keep the soil nutrients varied).

Cool weather vegetables are planted in the spring and fall.  These include lettuce, peas, onions, beets, broccoli, cauliflower, chard, kale, bok choi, radishes, spinach, turnips, chives, potatoes, kohlrabi, and cabbage.  These can grow in the hotter weather if your box is shaded, or if they are grown in the shade of larger plants.  Hot weather vegetables include beans, chili peppers, sweet peppers, corn, eggplant, melons, okra, squash, tomato, tomatillo, basil, radishes, chives, parsley, potatoes, pumpkin, and zucchini.  

Some of our edible garden was planted once, and will grow and grow year after year.  These perennial plants include our fruit trees, but also the asparagus (needs a LOT of compost), mint, horseradish, rhubarb, strawberries, artichoke, currants (these can be grown in the deer zone in the front, too), blueberries (needs annual acidic additions like pine shavings or soil sulfur), grapes, and kiwis.

All in all, the garden should be a fun place to be.  Once it becomes a chore, think of what you can do more or less; for example, do you not like watering?  Irrigate.  Do you detest thinning seedlings? Buy starts.  Do you have a glut of corn, and not like to eat it? Find a neighbor, or plant less.  Above all, remember to plant what you and your family like to eat!  Enjoy the process and take notes.  

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