Contributing Monkie Athena Dietrich
Published on May 23, 2009
Here we are in Early Spring, which means it’s time to get your garden going.
Before you order or purchase seeds, you’ll want to take into consideration the size of your garden plot. If you have limited space like most of us, it’s wise to narrow your selection down to your top priority plants. If you haven’t already done so, take a moment to make a list of the things you’d like to be harvesting this summer fresh from your garden.
It’s also practical to consider what will do best in your area. There are certain popular staples that will grow well most anywhere over the summer. For instance, in my small garden, I recently planted two dozen lettuce (in several varieties), a handful of kale, six basil plants, tomatoes and nasturtiums around the borders of the garden. At the very least, this will ensure that in a matter of weeks I’ll have greens for cooking, as well as plenty of pesto and multicolored salads garnished with tomatoes and edible flowers. My dream garden will be more complete, with an assortment of vegetables for any recipe, but this is undoubtedly a good step toward producing fresher and more vibrant produce for my dinner table.
Once I get my tax refund, I’ll send in my overly enthusiastic, eyes-bigger-than-my-wallet seed order. In the meantime, I made a quick trip to my local nursery and, for a grand total of $9.82, purchased 5 six-packs of the aforementioned vegetables and herbs – a minimal expense for a nice well-rounded beginning to my garden. Another perk of going local is that you may come across a gardener from your area who can advise you on specific varieties for your site.
Starting With Starts
Here are a few tips for selecting starts from a nursery: for upright seedlings with a central stem — basil, eggplant, tomatoes, kales, broccoli — look for strong, low, broader plants with larger leaves and a girthy trunk. Taller and spindly works in the fashion world, but it’s not what comes to mind when looking for health and vigor… in plants, I mean. To identify vitality in our low and stemless plants like lettuce, look for brightness of color and a strong tiny central leaf that’s free of insect damage. As always, go for organic whenever possible. Organic starts – even when young — are endowed with a more resourceful roots system than those that are spoon fed by chemical fertilizers. Plus, they will be more resilient to the insect and weather variables they’re likely to encounter upon leaving the safe and sterile confines of their nurseries.
If you plan to start your own seeds at home, a nursery or hardware store is likely to carry a selection of planting medium and various seed trays. For pre-made potting mix in a bag, I like Fox Farms and Whitney Farms. Make sure you purchase potting mix, not planting mix. They may sound similar on the outside, but they’re totally different inside. You’ll want to put your seeds into a light fluffy, well drained mix with a little organic fertilizer or composts mixed in to give them a snack while they’re getting started. But not too much. Planting mix is something people add to their garden soil sometimes when they accidentally buy it thinking it is potting mix. I don’t know what it made of or what it is for.
Since buying new plastic is never fun, your nursery may have greener options for planting trays. It never hurts to ask. If you’re inspired, you could probably get creative and recycle yogurt containers after punching a hole in the bottom.
In my early carefree days of farming (when the business end was someone else’s responsibility), I would use a nicely waste-free British gadget called a soil blocker. Made of metal, the user would press it into damp soil mixture and squeeze out perfect little soil cubes complete with a dimple for dropping in seeds. I would then line up rows of these soil-only seed receptacles so that they nearly touched one another. That way, a neat line of air would surround each 1- to 2-inch square, ensuring that the roots, hitting the oxygen, would stop short and grow only within it. This came in handy when transplanting them into the garden later – you wouldn’t have to tear the roots, which meant less shock during their transition.
The nice thing about the soil blocker method is that it ensured your seeds would not be planted too deep, guaranteeing a better percentage of germination – which is an easy mistake to make when planting inside or out. A general rule of thumb is four times the depth of the seed’s width. It’s less complicated than it sounds. Small seeds should be sown shallowly, with bigger seeds deeper. Seeds like beets and chard or corn and beans like to be a little compacted and do well when gently pushed into the soil. Light seeds like lettuce, on the other hand, prefer a dusting of soil over the top to hold in moisture until they germinate. Some seeds are so tiny and light sensitive (like snap dragons), that they just need to be sprinkled on surface and kept moist. Helpful information is usually provided on the back of the seed packets.
Is Your Garden Ready?
Before your starts are ready to be transplanted into your garden, make sure your garden is ready for them. Wait until you’re fairly certain that the last frost of the season is behind you. Torrential rains should have come to an end if your climate is susceptible to them. Garden beds want to be fluffed up, fertilized and mulched (for water conservation). Details on this subject can be found in my previous articles.
Vegetable starts each have their own spacing specifications. 12 inches will suffice in most circumstances, but keep in mind that they will only get as large as the space you provide them. If you have more space, give them a little room to spread out. A trick I learned through the French intensive planting method, is to stagger rows in a bricklayer’s pattern to maximize room.
Plants with longer stems often like to be planted deeper — especially tomatoes and basil, which will make new roots out of their stems and thereby become stronger and more resistant to gusty winds. Kales, cabbages and broccoli also do better when planted lower – just be sure to remove some of the bottom leaves first. Lettuce and beets have a central growing leaf right down at the base. If this is covered by soil, it will die. Be careful to plant this type of start only to the top of the root ball. You don’t want it drying out, but you want to be sure that the new growth isn’t suffocated.
When planting into mulch, carefully pull the mulch away from where you want to place your small start. Just don’t disturb the soil when doing this. With the soil gently exposed, use two fingers to make a hole large enough to insert the soil and the start’s root ball. Place it in the hole and back fill with soil, making it as level as possible. Tuck in mulch under leaves. Once you have planted all of your starts in this fashion, you’ll want to water them well — not only to ensure hydration, but also to make sure there are no air pockets remaining in the soil. The new and delicate roots of your young vegetables won’t want to grow into these. Also, if you’re planting into mulch, be sure your seeds won’t get buried by generously pulling back the straw. Alternatively, you can plant the seeds without any covering, but be aware that you’ll have to water them more frequently.
Carrots, radishes, arugula, beans, corn and salad mix, to name a few, are best sown directly into your garden beds. They’re the first in rows that will need to be thinned after germination. Salad mix will be nice “broad casted”, a term which closely resembles the definition that most readily comes to mind – meaning, the even dissemination of seeds across the area you wish to see proliferate in 2 to 4 weeks. It’s easier said than done. I must warn you that scattering seeds so that each arrives approximately 1-2 inches from its neighbor is no easy task, but rather an art form that takes time to well… cultivate (no pun intended).
Lightly cover your seeds according to size. Carrots, radish, arugula and green beans will all do fine if thinned to about 4 inches in 12-inch rows. Corn will need considerably more space and isn’t worth growing unless you’re able to devote at least a 10- by 10-foot plot. Dependent on wind pollination, it should have plenty of other plants around it to be sure of good cross pollination, creating ample rows of kernels.
Watering Is Crucial
Of all of the steps you’ve taken to create a garden, the most important one is about to begin. Watering is the most essential aspect to success, especially in the first week or two after planting and seeding. Check it in the morning, check again in evening and, if you can, in the middle of the day. New seedlings can perish quickly if they get too hot or dry out. Once established, they are much more easy going. Make sure you are watering deep enough to keep their roots systems traveling downward towards the fertility and away from the sun. Many new gardeners make the mistake of shallow watering. When it’s dry down deep and you water only the surface of the soil, living roots will move towards the water. When the sun comes out and the water dries out, this does not lead to good results.
If you are not sure how deep you’re watering, don’t be afraid to stick your finger in the soil and find out. It should be wet as far down as you can easily feel with your finger, 3 or 4 inches. Once your seeds have germinated and your starts have recovered from transplant shock, you can probably get away with deep watering once or twice a week depending on the heat and wind. Just keep an eye on them. They may shrink from the sun in the heat of the day, but they should perk up during cooler evening temperatures.
If you’ve come this far — particularly if this is your first attempt at gardening – now’s the time to give yourself some props. This is a cause for celebration! Put on your favorite music, open up a bottle of whatever you like and have a little party in your garden for yourself and your quiet new edible companions. In no time, you could be feasting on gloriously vital greens and racy red radishes that can mature in matter of weeks! (Just don’t tell them I told you that.)
After careful consideration, I’ve decided to make myself available for gardening questions. Should anyone have any, feel free to drop me an e-mail.