Sunday, March 9, 2008

How to Start

What an opportunity is presented in the following! "I have never gardened and know nothing about growing things. Can you recommend where to start? I took some kids books out of library on "my first garden". I also signed up for adult school lectures on gardening. The thing I struggle with most is where in the yard to create garden and when to start planting?"

Best wishes! You are in for some real excitement. A garden has two basic needs: sun and soil. You can improve your soil dramatically, but you have to CHOOSE the sunniest place. The main criterion, therefore, in deciding where in your yard to create a garden is to consider the amount of sunlight each part gets. Go out several times a day and notice where the direct sun is shining. It would be prudent to write it down, so you remember and can make intelligent comparisons.

The other decision you must make immediately is how big the garden will be. You have seen mine. It took several years to get to that size. When you start digging, you may change your aspirations on garden size.

To improve the soil, you want to get as much organic matter into it as possible. Around here we have "clay" soil, and as you dig in organic matter, you will loosen the soil. I recommend double digging to get organic matter down into a deep garden. The best instructions I know are in John Jeavon's book "How to Raise More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land than You Can Imagine." It's not expensive, and it's well worth the money. In any case, you and your children need to dig your soil and put in as much compost and other organic matter as you can find.

When to start? That depends on when you have the digging done! I planted some Sugar Ann peas today. They are low growing and don't need a fence. You eat the pods, so you get a lot of pea for the area. They aren't as sweet and tasty as Sugar Snaps, but they don't need a fence and they come earlier. Sugar Bon peas are also good and low growing. I'm told you can plant peas throughout April, but I try to get all mine in during March.

The best crop for beginners is tomatoes. Tradition says you should plant them on May 15 in this part of the world, which is the traditional "frost free" date. However, our last frost last year was mid-April, and the two previous years we had no frost in April or May, so you can cheat on that quite a bit. Depending on how ambitious you are, you can buy wall-of-waters and plant tomatoes VERY early. That requires, however, raising them from seed, which a beginner may not want to do. However, since you are enjoying this with children, you may decide that is worth your time. It's exciting to watch seedlings grow. I wrote about starting seeds last week. I recommend sweet 100 tomatoes, but most "cherry" tomato types will be fine for starting early. I wait until the traditional time for the beefsteaks.

The third crop that is good for beginners is beans. Plant them in mid-April, sowing each seed directly in the soil. This is a great activity to share with your children. You can continue to plant beans through July and expect harvests.

If you have a fence or trellis on which you are growing Sugar Snap peas, Malabar spinach is a fine subsequent crop. I suspect I'll have seedlings to give away in late May. (Pea plants die in July, when Malabar takes off.)

If you have lots of sun and compost, zucchini is fun. If you like chard, it will grow; you can plant it in April. Lettuce and arugula can be sown in April, or earlier if you want to fuss. You can continue to plant them until about September. They will turn bitter and die before the season is over, so if you like to keep eating them, you have to keep planting them every few weeks.

Don't plant any root crops, including carrots, your first year. You need really friable soil for root crops to get through, and there is no way you are going to convert Montclair clay to friable soil this spring. If you aspire to grow carrots, double dig every spring and fall, and try them your third year.

If you don't have reasonable sun, don't try broccoli. Lettuce and collards have grown on my compost heap to edible size, so they need remarkably little light. Three years ago I saw a tomato seedling among never-dug dirt in front of my north-facing house. I looked at it in disbelief.

"You stupid thing! Don't you know that tomatoes need sun?" But it kept growing, so I gave it a cage. It bore tomatoes! Not as many as the ones in the back with sun and good soil, but delicious tomatoes. Last year I had almost a dozen seedlings, children of the one that had been there the previous year. So it seems that you can grow sweet-100 tomatoes with little sun, although more is better.

Now is the time to dig. Any other questions?


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