Gardening: how-to

USDA Northeastern Region Hardiness Zone map

By Debbie Browning
Soooooo, you want to grow some vegetables this year? Are you also having flashbacks to the seemingly humongous gardens your grandparents maintained? Yeah, to ease that particular concern, remember you were only knee-high to a grasshopper about that time yourself!

Ideally, you were volunteered / drafted / forced to help in a garden during your youth. But if that’s not the case, no worries! There’s a ton of excellent information available online to virtually hold your hand – we’re social distancing remember! – to get you through this particular pandemic ensuring-there’s-food-on-the-table adventure.
And what an adventure it is! Better yet, enlist some youngsters to help you on your chosen path.

Just so you know, gardening has a number of health benefits in addition to food production. Gardening burns calories whether you’re pulling weeds, hauling a water hose or just picking produce, not to mention all that bending and twisting increases flexibility and hand strength.

Not only is spending time outside good for your bones, some medical professionals believe vitamin D – the sunshine vitamin. hint, hint – may help boost immunity to COVID-19, partly because so many of us are deficient in D.

Other health benefits include lowering blood pressure, relieving stress and greatly reducing mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, as well as boosting mental clarity. Experts say gardening can help prevent everything from heart disease to colon cancer. Not to mention the pure personal satisfaction and/or sense of accomplishment of growing your own produce.

University extension agents are also invaluable sources of more than you ever thought you would need to know when you decided to drop some seeds in the ground.

You have to consider what will grow where you are located, amount of sun, soil type, water source, your patience level and ability to commit to the necessary time investment. Have I scared you off yet? There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. The extension agents and/or local greenhouse operators already know most of those details. Likely you are already aware of your patience level and commit-ability.

Confession: I’m an instant gratification person, once I realized and accepted this my life became easier. I mostly plant starter seedlings purchased from a vendor. I do not have the patience to baby seeds from January to planting time. There’s a reason why many greenhouses are also called plant nurseries! So there’s absolutely no shame in purchasing starter plants, especially for your first time or five. Save the seeds for some quick-growth types: radish and lettuce to name just two.

CONDITIONS

USDA Northeastern Region Hardiness Zone map

Any garden must meet a few conditions to be successful. First is the average frost-free date range, which for this area is USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 6a and normally occurs in late April. Consider we had frost warnings just last weekend. Looking ahead, there may well be frost advisories most every night after Easter Sunday. Seasoned growers might already have plants in the ground and they know tender crops need protection from frost. Easiest is a cloth covering of some sort.
If you read the previous story about the Old Well Greenhouse, they aren’t opening until the last week of April, after the last frost date. But you know Mother Nature can be quite temperamental, so even late April isn’t guaranteed to be frost-free.

SUN & WATER

Now that you know you’ve still got time to prepare, the next condition to determine is where can you place your garden so it gets at least six – and preferably eight – hours of sun? That’s an ideal, not all situations can meet that.
Also to consider is how you’re going to plant? Is it going to be in the ground, raised beds, containers or any of the myriad variations thereof? If you have the space, raised beds are very, very popular now. First of all, garden work is no longer back-breaking labor. Secondly, you will need to fill the bed with soil and you will get good planting soil. The typical tilled gardens often need various additives to boost productivity. Raised beds bypass that to a degree as do containers.
Container gardening has grown in popularity in recent years so there is now a fairly wide variety of vegetable seeds/plants available that were created to excel in a container [read that as: limited growing space]. Look for those that have bush or patio in their name. One of the major seed suppliers came out with a container-grown corn variety not too many years ago!
How to get water to your plants is another vitally important factor. Drip irrigation systems are best because they don’t waste water, putting it right where they plants can benefit most from it. However, that’s likely a bit too intensive for a first-timer. But do consider whether there’s a functioning water spigot nearby or if you have a hose that can reach your new hobby area. You do not want to have to haul water. Trust me on this.

SOME GUIDELINES

Start small. Just because you can envision an eight-foot by ten-foot growing area, doesn’t mean you need to plant that area. Start with maybe three to five types of vegetables that you and your family love. Ideally, you’ll also have enough to preserve/ can / freeze to carry you into the winter or just to give away to neighbors.
As noted before, for your first efforts, stick with seedlings / starter plants. The time to start tomato seeds, to name one, is long past. You can direct sow the speedy types: radishes, lettuce, carrots, etc.
To make the most of your space, think vertically. Stake those tomatoes; trellis your cucumbers.
Also, think in terms of height. Make sure your taller plants aren’t going to shade shorter ones.
There’s no sense planting onions if no one will eat them. Don’t waste the space. Consider your family’s tastes before you buy a single plant or seed packet.

SQUARE-FOOT GARDENING

square-foot gardening

Square-foot gardening raised bed with string as planting guides

For a new garden with abundant sunshine and water, square-foot gardening is probably your best option. There are many online tables / charts / lists to tell you how many plants of a kind fit in a single-square foot. The count ranges from one plant per square foot – peppers, potatoes and staked tomatoes, for example – right on up to 16 per square – radishes and carrots – to some that need only two plants per four squares – like Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage and broccoli. Yeah, there are some plants – asparagus and rhubarb to name two – that don’t fit in a square-foot garden. Although I have seen instructions on growing rhubarb in a tub. No guessing how long a row is and how far apart to plant seeds, etc. Plus, you only prepare where plants go, you’re not tilling up the paths as well among other work-saving benefits.

CONTAINER GARDENING

Grow bags are all the rage now, being an affordable choice between containers and raised beds. The bags come in a wide variety of sizes and are most often made of felt or a nonporous material – thus they are lighter weight [read that as: easier to move] even when filled with soil than a comparably sized large container, such as terracotta. Grow bags have a few other positives as well: handles also make them easier to carry than the previously mentioned terracotta pot.
Don’t get me wrong! I love gardening in terracotta. I’m a heavy-handed waterer. Terracotta being porous dries out more quickly than plastic as do grow bags. But terracotta is very breakable, as in a single good gust of wind tip over breakable, especially with a taller plant.
And speaking of overwatering, which is what happens when you are heavy-handed with watering, ahem, if you are gardening in containers, make sure there are holes in the bottom of the container if it’s not a grow bag.
Few thing cans kill plants as quickly as too much water [root rot] or not enough.
These next two methods do not lend themselves to balcony or porch gardening. However, when time is of the essence to plant now, they are probably your best option.
Straw bale gardening is perhaps an easier type of container gardening, if you have the space. Straw bales work better than hay bales because hay bales contain seeds, which will fight with your plants for nutrients.
Another no-dig planting method is to split open a bag of garden soil and plant right in it. Gardening doesn’t get much easier or faster than that! Also consider soil bags for a patio or to add a little greenery and/or useful plantings in a rockery around a pool area.
For deep-rooted plants such as tomatoes leave the bag standing up rather than on its side. Prop it up with some cinderblocks, perhaps.

Sample soil-bag garden with lettuce varieties

Soil-bag gardening may be your best bet if you feel this excursion into home-grown food is a one-time occurrence. [Shameless plug: Before you commit to that, however, be sure to read the column on the next page about the tastebud joy fresh-picked home-grown vegetables will bring to your table.] Dengarden.com has an excellent detailed explanation of how to do bag gardens complete with suggested plants and photos! Lots and lots of photos.
Interesting side note: First article on soil-bag gardening was in Fine Gardening; next was Mother­ Earth News. Hmmmmmmm.

COMPANION PLANTING

Just as with most everything else found on this earth, some plants just don’t get along with others whether they stunt the growth or share a common pest. Others should be planted nearby for pollination, best use of space, etc.
Let me list just a few examples. Don’t plant tomatoes near brassicas [the cabbage family] or corn. Keep lettuce and mint away from parsley, but mint does well near tomatoes and cabbage. Carrots, onions and sunflowers, among others, can stunt the growth of potato tubers. Plug companion planting into your favorite search engine.

PESTS

Marigolds are a great pest-deterrent to plant as a border around your garden.

Another facet to consider is planting pest-deterrent plants, such as marigolds around your garden plot. Most bugs don’t like their scent. Marigolds are considered especially effective near potato, tomato, pepper, eggplant and roses. One such list says planting catnip is good for all vegetables, but lets not forget it will draw those furry felines.
In this region, one also has to consider what will deter deer from feasting on your vegetable plants and bounty. Some high fences work. Dogs are probably a better deterrent. Some people report having luck planting asparagus, rhubarb, summer squash, garlic and onions to keep deer away. Another source suggests spreading coffee grounds around and in the vegetable garden, which has benefits in addition to pesky deer deterrent. Again, if deer are or will be a problem for your budding efforts, there are plenty of sources online for various types of deer repellent.
One last suggestion: While vegetables may feed your belly, flowers feed your soul! So be sure to include some flowers, such as the useful marigold and geranium or nasturtium for its edible flowers. And sunflowers just because and to make the birds happy.

SEEDS

The fast growers can be directly seeded where they are to grow – lettuce, beans, carrots, beets, chard, spinach, peas, cucumbers, and squash. Things that take longer to produce an edible fruit do better with a head start. Purchase transplants for tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and melons or start your own indoors 6 to 8 weeks before planting them outside.
For a detailed — as in daily suggestions — gardening calendar visit WVU Extension Service. Then scroll on down for information about a variety of topics, including pest control, pollinators, container planting, square-foot gardening, companion planting, choosing a site, succession – aka staggered – planting, home canning, and more, many, many more!
Another site with a veritable bounty of gardening info is The Old Farmer’s Almanac.

WHAT TO PLANT WHEN

SPRING: Carrots, lettuce, kale, dill, cilantro, onion, celery, potatoes, peas, radishes.
AFTER LAST FROST: Basil, beans (pole, bush and lima), corn and popcorn, cucumbers, eggplant, melons, okra, peppers, pumpkin, both winter and summer squash, tomatoes.
FALL / WINTER: Beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, lettuce, kohlrabi, parsley, parsnips, radish, spinach, Swiss chard, turnips.

If you're ready for the 2021 gardening how-to followup, you'll find that here.

PARTING ADVICE

Gloves are optional! It feels good to get your hands dirty. Also, when you take the starter seedling out of its container, break up the root ball. Pull roots apart, turn plant once, pull apart again. Trust me on this again.

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