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Thinking Spring!

January 12, 2009 - 11:21 AM

I am dreaming of springtime buds while covered in mounds of snow...

I had been dreaming in my mind and not on paper yet but when a friend asked me a question... out came the seed packets and layouts and notes from last year's garden and in came the layouts and plans for this year!

I am no garden whiz mind you, I have a black thumb.  I haven't gone to school for any of this either, just read a myriad of books and I ask lots of questions to those in the know.

Below are a few little things I have learned in the 2, yes 2, years I have had a garden.  Again, can you say, "novice?"  There are many people who know more than me!  :)! 

I don't pretend to know it all and would love to learn more!

Our first year we did minimal quantity and spaced things very far apart.  We weeded like crazy and watered every day, thanks to it being a drought year.  We had a great harvest that year and having started small really helped us learn a lot and be faithful with what we grew.

Our second year I honestly bit off more than we could chew and the weather was incredibly terrible.  Continual rain and the strangest bugs ever.  I tried several new techniques, like block planting and succession planting.  Some of the succession did not work as well due to the crazy weather and plants planted 3 weeks prior were only as big as the new plants.  The block planting produced huge results but I didn't leave enough places to walk around in.

This year I will be paying close attention to the weather and not try and fight with it like last year.  I will not plant too much and be smart about rows and when/if I put down straw everywhere or not.  I will be more patient when planting this year.

Using straw...
Some people use newsprint, some black tarps, some just are faithful at hoeing.  I like to use straw as a way to help prevent funguses on my tomato plants and as a way to keep down our weed population.  I put it down late the first year after having weeded and it worked great.  I put it down early the second year and the weeds grew up like crazy.  I think this year I will do it late and see if it is needed (though I will definitely do it around the tomato plants base) but after having done a good weeding.  Leslie had this awesome tool for weeding that was amazing and not a back breaker like knees weeding but is doesn't work if you have down straw so I may end up with a tool like hers this year and will not do straw (again, except around base of tomatoes).  To lay straw, water ground, lay straw and then water straw.

Raised beds...
I like a mild raised bed, about 2-3".  We used carpet in the bed walkways one year and it was so nice, straw works too.  Raised beds mean that your bed will dry out of water faster, so you will have to water more, but with little kids, I found raised beds remind them where not to walk.  Straw can just be laid in walkways as well and not on raised beds.  No matter what though, make sure you are very delibertate on leaving walkways or providing access to your plants with ease.

If you use raised beds or not, always, always, when you water, water everywhere, not just the plant.  Water the walkways and the other areas around your plants as the plant will want water from not just its 6" diameter.

Rows or Blocks or All Over...
Most seeds/lings will tell you to plant in rows, seeds every 2", thinned to 6" and spaced in rows 12-18" apart. 

Block planting means you mark out squares and then space all the plants as their smaller sizes... example: Kohl Rabi says thin to 6" apart but plant rows 12-18" so in 1.5'x6' (9 sq ft) you'd get 11 plants... with block planting you would plant them all within a 2'x2' (4 sq ft) block at 6" square apart, you'd get 16 plants.  (See how you get more veggie for less sq footage?)  The only thing I found with block planting is making decent access to all the plants within the block system.  I did Kohl Rabi, onions, broccoli/cabbage/cauliflower and garlic in block planting and it worked fine but I made my onion block so big it was really hard to water and move around.

All Over (which isn't it's exact name, I can't quite remember it) means that you plant in a block with a raised bed but the sides of the bed are gradual not sharp making it so you actually plant down the slanting sides as well.  I have not done this style but is noted as being great for producing a lot in small areas and the slanting edges of the bed actually help with better water retention in the bed and it better uses space.  The key they said to do was really prepare your soil in advance, like working in lots of compost / manure / peat moss, etc.  This process of preparing the soil their way takes 6 weeks before you actually plant anything.

Preparing the soil...
You can start working the soil where we live generally in April.  It depends on the moisture of the soil.  If you can pick it up and it is moist and can squish between your fingers it is too moist.  However, I have found if it is too dry it can be a pain as well.  When I first lay out beds and work the soil I add in my peat moss / compost / manure. 

There are lots of trains of thought on this, these are just the ones I have heard and stuck with... Peat moss helps to keep soil to hold in moisture, I like one that Lowe's sells and I add 2-4 inches of it when first working the soil.  I also add organic compost or manure, depending on what's on sale.  I also add extra potting soil in each area where I plant, maybe that is cheating but with my black thumb, I need all the help I can get. 

For planting seeds I want the soil dry, make my holes or troughs and plant, cover, pat and then water.  For seedlings, I want to dig your hole, water plant, put in hole, add dirt, pat and water.

It truly depends on the soil and weather.  Some plants are called cold weather crops and some are warm weather crops.  Cold weather means you can plant them 4-6 wks before the last frost, warm weather means you can plant them after the last frost.  Where we live in IC, and what I have heard from the loacl greenhouses is that the general rule of thumb is April 10-15th for cold and May 10-15th for warm.  This can change depending on how the weather is going.  Two years ago, it was easily 2 weeks earlier on each.  Last year, it was right on if not later.  However, people can have success doing it whenever, it is honestly just up to your seeds or seedlings, location, etc. 

Doing a double planting is good.  Till up the ground for your cold crops first and then do it again when it is time for your warm crops.  This will ease the heartache when your soil is toast for the warm crops.  Also, you can plan to double use your plots, like grow lettuce in one place and then after it bolts, dig it up and plant a warm crop, like squash, or whatnot.

These are some of the plants I have done the last 2 years.  Label everything well!  (One year I did, one year I didn't and boy was it hard when I didn't!  On 1" wide popsicle sticks, or the like, note the date of planting and the earliest expected date of harvest and possibly thinning distances and heights if you have room.

1.) Beans / Edamame -
Bush crop bean seeds, space 2" and thing to 4-6" when 1" tall.
I liked the Bush Bean Trio mix of seeds.
Plant around May 10th depending on weather and moisture as they don't like wet soil.
Use additional 12" tall, very small holed fence around edge of bean area to help them stand up better AND to protect from Peter Rabbit.
Use 18" between rows.
Plant in succession, half or third, spread out by 3 weeks. 
Be on guard for bugs, they sell both organic/non-organic bean sprays for bugs that are very good and will be very necessary.
I have put straw around these but if I get Leslie's cool weeder I won't.
During harvest, be very diligent to take them all as you don't want them to go bad. Look very closely and take them all.

2.) Peppers -
Plant a myriad, green, red, yellow, jalapeno, chili, habanero, etc.
Plant seedlings outside around May 10 depending on weather and moisture can be earlier but they don't like frost.
They say planting hot peppers by sweet peppers can mix flavors.
Stake seedlings with bamboo stick or other long rod at least 2-3' tall and tie pepper plant to stick when it gets about 9-12" tall.  Depending on plant growth and weight of fruit, you may need 2 sticks per plant.
Place straw around base of plants when 12-18" tall, make sure to fertilize once straw is down every week to two weeks.

3.) Lettuce -
Can be planted early, mid-April and can be planted in succession.
Make a trough with a thick popcicle stick and attempt to space seeds every 1", good luck.
6" rows.
Plant varieties but in well marked rows, make note of days till harvest.
Can thin once to 1" high and eat thinnings.
Can cut off above 2" as much as you want until it bolts.
Bolting for lettuce means the leaves start to taste bitter.
Very tiny seeds so make sure to note rows carefully and when planted, when to thin, etc.
can plant in succession, every 2-3 weeks.
My favorite brand/type is Lettuce Mesclum, Bon Vivant by Botanical Interests... yummy!
Keep well weeded and do not put straw around.

4.) Tomatoes -
I have planted them all, big, medium, small, roma and cherry.  All wonderful!
Plant seedlings around May 10th depending on weather and moisture, can be planted earlier, but they don't like frost.
Spacing bigger, like every 2-3 feet, is good not only for ease of harvest but also to help prevent any disease that one plant gets from passing to another plant.
Be faithful with the some type of fertilizer, once a week.
Look for "sucker" leaves, a fake stem growing out of the armpit of a strong stem.
At first sign of blight, take off infected leaves and destory away from the garden.
Use some type of tomato cage and put around plant once planted.  (Kmart sells these foldable cages that are square that I LOVE because when you don't use them, they compact and store nicely, and they are easier to remove when taking down the garden.)
Plant marigolds all around plants to help keep away tomato worms, yucky!
Plant basil around tomato plants, but leave enough spacing and room to still reach basil plants.
Once plant has grown some and is around 2' tall, use straw all around plant base.  The straw is there because as you water and the dirt splashes up on the plant the dirt that gets on the plant can cause a fungus on the plants.  The straw prevents this splashing to happen but it also means that you will have to make sure you are diligent with the fertilizer after straw is laid because the straw will actually suck up good stuff from the soil.  Ironic, I know.

5.) Peas -
Can be planted mid-April as they are a cold weather crop, but some varities do not like warm weather.
Space 2" apart faithfully.
Plant seeds along fencing.
Plant every 3 weeks as suggested.
Water a lot in the beginning. 
Choose bush peas, or other short pea plant (no bigger than 5' tall). 
I like Wando peas for shelling peas, they only grow 30" tall and can be planted really early in April (as long as above 40 degrees) and can be planted in succession until the end of May as they don't mind the warmth like other varities.
I like Super Snappy for another edible pea pod type, they just like cold weather.
If you plant different variety of pea plants make sure to keep 'em separated (and keep them well labeled).
Keep well weeded and no need for straw.  Watch for bunnies.

6.) Onions and garlic -
Buy in onion sets, very cheap generally. 
Buy plantable garlic, and plant individula bulbs every 6"
Don't plant near each other because distinguishing the two can be hard.
Can be planted mid-April.
Plant every 3" for scallions.
Plant A LOT and every where I can.
Pick scallions when green part is at least 6" long.
Onions grow out of the ground and do not be startled when you see them being uncovered. 
When top green turns brown and falls over, gently loosen roots below onion and let cure on ground for 2 weeks.  Then, harvest and store in a cool, dry place.  (I kept them in the bsmt fridge at a mild temp and they kept for up to 3 months, which was as long as they lasted since we ate them all!).
Garlic does what onions do in their tops go brown and turn over.  They can be then raised up and left to dry on top of the soil.
Onions do not generally get as big as you see in the store, generally 2-3" dia.
No need to use straw.

7.) Broccoli -
Plant A LOT, our family can't get enough of this!
Plant seedlings outside (can plant seeds inside).
Can plant mid-April and plant in succession.
Yes, use maggot mats (6" square pieces of cardboard with a 1" diameter hole in the center).
Plant seeds at the same time as seedlings for succession crops. 
Harvest when plant looks tight and depending on type could be from 4" to 9" in diameter.  (Though Leslie had the world's huggest heads of broccoli 9"+, mine were generally around 5" diameter when I harvested before they bolted.  Bolting means that the tight heads start to loosen and start to grow pretty little yellow flowers.)
Cut off high on stalk that way side shoots will produce more heads.
Give 18-24" min. diameter when planting.
Watch for cabbage moths, deceivingly pretty white moths that eat holes in your pretty plants.
Don't have to do straw but I did just to keep down weeds.  Wait till plants are bigger though.

8.) Cauliflower -
Use maggot mats like with broccoli.
Plant seedlings outside (start seeds inside).
Can plant mid-April and plant in succession.
Most types require you to tie leaves.  To do this, once a tiny cauli head shows up, about 1" diameter, pull up all big leaves and loosely tie on top like a pony tail.  This will protect them from getting burned by the sun.  If you have a white cauli plant it turns yellow when burned.   
Harvest cauli when the head is still tight.  When some types of cabbage bolt they turn purple and the once compact veggie loosens up similar to broccoli.
Give 18-24" min diameter when planting.
Watch for cabbage moths.
Don't have to do straw but I did just to keep down weeds.  Wait till plants are bigger though.

9.) Cabbage -
We liked purple or white cabbage.
Can plant mid-April and plant in succession.
Plant seedlings outside (start seeds inside).
Treat like other coles... use maggot mats, space 2' apart.
Will grow tight, compact head and depending on type get to 6"-9" in diameter.
Watch for cabbage moths.
Don't have to do straw but I do just to keep down weeds.  Wait till plants are bigger though.

10.) Cantelopes or winter squash -
Plants seeds or seedlings on mounds.
Plant around May 10th or later depending on weather.
Give lots of room to grow, like 2'x6' minimum.
Squash bugs are a pain!  Check underside of leaves for little egg sacs and then remove with duct tape and destroy.  If you start to see them they will suck the life literally from all your squash plants, mellons, etc.
Don't have to do straw.  But I do straw around the mound, mostly so I can spy the little squash boogers and kill em easier.  I found not weeding the cantes as much helped keep the bugs off them and protected but that may have been a fluke and just my wishful thinking.

11.) Plant Dwarf Bush Type Nasturtium around zucchinis, squashes and melons, should plant seeds before you plant seedlings, like 2 wks early.  (I found seeds at Lowes.)

12.) Zucchini -
I cannot grow zucchini to save my life!
You would know better than me, write in your own suggestions!

13.) Eggplants -
Plant seedlings (can start seeds indoors though).
Plant around May 10th, depending on weather or moisture.
Use tomato cages around them to help them stand up.
Watch for ugly black bugs and Japanese beetles.
Japanese eggplants are long and skinny, Black Beauty are what you think an eggplant should look like.
Pick when nice and shiny, don't need more than 4 plants.
I use straw around once they are bigger.

14.) Kohl Rabi -
Early plant, mid/end April.
I planted seeds right outside and they worked great.
Thin when 2" tall to every 6-9"
I planted to block planting and it worked great.

15.) Cucumbers -
Plant seedlings around May 10th or later or earlier depending on weather and moisture.
Once they start making fruit, feed fertilizer.
Be faithful with blight warning (ie yellow leaves or wilting).
Watch for bugs.
Pick when ripe to help plant produce more.
Only 2 needed but would plant 4 just in case, due to bugs.
Plant oregano around cucumbers to help bug protect.
Plant either near fence or put tomato cage around them as they will grab hold of anything they can.

16.) Carrots -
Tiniest seeds!  Dig a trough and try your best to give some distance.
Plant chives and/or onions near carrots.  (This helps keep carrot worms away as the carrot plants smell will be diluted by the onion smell.) 
Thin to 3" once they are 2" tall.
Mark on stick when planted and when expect to harvest.

17.) Chives -
Are a perienniel plant.
Can do seeds but since you only need 1-2 plants, buying a seedling is fine.
Can cut as soon as 10" long.
During winter can dig up and plant inside pot.

18.) Other Veggies / Herbs Notes -
Oregano works well by cucumbers and scares away bugs.
Rosemary and Sage are great spices too.
Cliantro turns into corriander when it bolts.  Plant cilantro every week if you really want to harvest it. You have to pick it immediately once it looks ready, then it is done.
Basil works good by tomatoes and scares away worms.
Chives work well by carrots and keeps away bugs.
Spinach needs shade to protect from the sun.
Sunflowers are cute but make sure they grow in a spot that does not shade your veggies.
Strawberries take 3 yrs but there are some types that are 1 year, ants like strawberries.
Potatoes should not be planted close to tomatoes/peppers.
Sweet potatoes would be the better spud if you are going to use the space.
Asparagus takes 3-4 years.
Brussel Sprouts don't need more than 3 plants.
Corn needs at least 4 rows, 6' long at least to get full ears.

I buy my seeds/seedlings everywhere.  I do like Botanical Interests seeds a lot though for my lettuces, edamame and wando peas.  I've gotten great seedlings from Fareway, especially broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, peppers.  Tomato and other pepper plants I've gotten from Menards or the local nurseries.  Wherever they are, they look good and the price is good.

My favorite first book was in the Children's Section called The Victory Garden Kids' Book.  It was a wealth of information and great for a first time gardener.

The next year, I found The Fruit and Vegetable Gardener book by Richard Bird.  It is a beautiful book and taught me a lot about the plants and how to plant well.

Please do tell any books you've learned from and any tips you'd have!

Response to Thinking Spring!

  • Kirsten Hill said on January 13, 2009 - 9:09 AM

    Wow! You've learned a lot in a couple years of gardening. I think the biggest thing we learned this past year is "don't expect a lot to grow very fast in a shady back yard in MN with a short growing season." Our tomatoes thought it was a great time to start getting ripe in, oh, late September or early October, right before the freeze! :-) luckily I read a tip that tomatoes would keep getting ripe if you hang the whole plant upside down in your garage or we had the pleasure of harvesting tomatoes from our basement laundry area through about late November/early December. It was usually only a few cherry tomatoes at a time, but it was a lot of fun. We'll be moving from our current rental house in May when our lease is up and finding a new rental, so I am hoping that we find a place with a little more sun so we can at least get some tomatoes at the right time. Madeline tells me, however, that she thinks flowers are much better to grow than vegetables because they are so much prettier, so we'll probably have to have some space for her flowers too.

  • Dana said on January 13, 2009 - 9:18 AM

    I had heard that too about tomatoes but didn't try it out, I am glad to hear it actually worked! They say to hang onions and garlic in mesh bags as well in a garage or the like to "cure" and last longer too. We always leave room for flowers too, though generally the weeds take over the flower beds. However, Ambre S was talking about planting a rainbow garden, where you plant veggies in all the colors of the rainbow... maybe that would be something Madeline could really get into? :)!

  • leah said on January 13, 2009 - 2:48 PM

    dana- thanks for your thoughts! ps. what is the tool called that Leslie had? and what fertilizer did you use? the same for everything?

  • Leslie said on January 13, 2009 - 3:08 PM

    I read every word! Whew! :) Good stuff friend! It's a double edged hoe.... I think I found it at Menards.. and dana friend.. you can borrow it, we can just leave it at the garden.. that is if your gonna do a community one with me again this year :) I was just thinking about starting some seedlings.. but I was reading it's still abit to early :(

  • Dana said on January 13, 2009 - 3:13 PM

    Leslie, you're the sweetest! I am sure you could write up just as much as I about all this stuff! (Like any hints on the zucs?!) Of course I want in at the community lots again! Here's hoping we can get closer to the spicket this year!

  • Dana said on January 13, 2009 - 3:21 PM

    For fertilizer we used generally a Liquid Fish Emulsion where you add it to your watering can, sold at local nurseries. That is good to use on all the veggies I believe. You could as well go fishing, catch some fish, gut the fish and soak the guts in water and then water with that. (You can also do the same thing with manure, am told, oy!) I also have used Miracle Grow for Tomatoes (or something similar), a powder you add to your watering cans, sold at Lowe's, Menards, etc. When bringing my vegetables back from the brink after bugs or blight or whatevers, it did wonders (though not organic I believe?).

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