Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Basics of Gardening

Gardening seems to be the topic of the season, as temperatures rise, the sun starts to show its warm face and the seed packets start appearing in stores.

I thought I would share some things to consider as you plan your garden this year.

1. Wait until the soil has dried enough to plant. Generally, if you take a handful of soil and lightly squeeze it in your fist, it shouldn't pack into a hard ball: it should easily fall apart in your hand if prodded a bit. We struggle a bit with this and our clay soil that tends to hold more moisture than more sandy soils, although it has gotten better over the years in our main garden.

2. Check your frost date and plant accordingly.  These can be had by a quick Google search or check with your County Extension Service. Or you can zip over to Victory Seeds and use their Frost Date Selector Page. In my area, we generally plant most things around Mother's Day. Some years a week or so earlier if the weather is nice, but last year we had a lot of rain and planted a lot of stuff a few weeks later.

There are some crops that can handle the cooler weather and if I'd just go out there(and have dry enough soil), I could plant them: these include kale, spinach, peas, some lettuce, radishes and I'm sure there are a few more I am forgetting.

3. For perennials especially, check your zone and see whether what you want to grow will survive your winters. Here is a handy USDA Hardiness Zone Finder for you.

4. Clear out all weeds before planting .You basically want to start with a clean(ish) slate before you begin. Some people (like us) like to till their whole garden before planting: others prefer a no-till method and only disturb soil at the actual planting site. In any case, you don't want any weeds competing with your plants for water and nutrients.

5. Rotate your crops from year to year. There's a reason God told the Israelites to rotate their crops in Old Testament times. ;) Planting the same thing in the same place year to year leads to depleted soil, more bug problems, and less and less production.  I like to plant legumes (beans, peas)in the areas where the previous year I have had other crops planted, because they help add nitrogen to the soil(which is good for the next year's plants).  I have a notebook where I draw a rough sketch of what I have planted where each year, so that the next year I have a better idea of what to plant where this year. You could do it online and get all fancy but it's a lot easier for me to do it sitting out in the yard than inside on the computer. ;)

6. Provide ample space for your crops. I struggle with this every year--especially with tomatoes and squash. Read your little packet and provide enough space for your plants PLUS room enough to walk between rows. It will seem like a mile between plants/rows when you plant but by the middle of the season, you will be glad you left the room! Like I said, I still struggle with this, especially with tomatoes that are indeterminate(as in, they never stop spreading).

7. Mulch, but not with woodchips(because as they break down, they reduce the nitrogen availability in the soil). We personally like to use grass clippings once our plants start to become visible. The grass clippings break down fairly quickly and improve the soil, are comfy to walk on barefoot if I feel the need, help keep the soil moist if it's moist when you put the mulch down, help keep the weeds from going crazy(because the mulch limits the light exposure to the soil and thus helps prevent germination), helps you to not pack the soil when you are walking in the garden, and helps you not to be covered in mud if you need to run to the garden after a good rain and pick some green beans for dinner.

The only time I would pull the mulch away from the plants is if/when  you  have problems with squash bugs or if you have mildew problems. The squash bugs tend to like to hide underneath mulch. If you pull the mulch away from your squash plants, the bugs will have fewer places to  hide and you can get rid of the bugs more easily. (good luck with that!)

8. Fertilize. I don't have any advice about non-organic method of fertilizing, since we use organic methods here. :) We have had good luck in the past with Fish Emulsion, especially on our pepper plants. My husband has also used bone meal and blood meal, depending on what he thought the plants needed at the time.  Last year we made compost tea--yummy(if you're a plant, that is). We also, in the spring/fall, take chicken poo (aged a few months at the very least, lest it "burn" the plants and kill everything) and incorporate it into our garden.

9. Don't overwater/Don't underwater. This is a learning process here. Some crops benefit from being a little dry, others prefer to be more on the wet(but not drenched) side of things.  Basically, if  you can see that your plants are wilting, and it hasn't rained for quite some time--water your garden. ;) But don't water it if it's already wet(push your finger into the soil and feel--if it's wet, you likely don't need to water). Too much water does as much damage as too little water does. It's not an exact science--just listen to your plants.

10. Sit back and enjoy. Pick your veggies(and your flowers, if you choose) and reap the benefits. And share with others. Be satisfied with the fruit of your labors. 

Hope this helps! More to come!

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