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July 13, 2011 / 74

So You Want To Plant A Garden (Edited Reprint)

This being the middle of July, it’s the perfect time of year to run a reprint of my getting started article because the BEST time to decide to plant a garden is NOT next Spring – because by then, most of the things you SHOULD have done, will already be not-done. Planning is IMPORTANT! and you’ll probably learn that the plan you make this summer for next year will look NOTHING like the garden you end up planting! But that’s life. Predictable is good only to a certain level – then it becomes boring. And if everything turns out JUST as you planned it – then you didn’t learn anything new – did you. We learn LOTS of new stuff every year! ;-D

So as a first step to prepare for NEXT YEAR’s garden, here’s an update with a bit of editing. Enjoy.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

So you want to plant a garden. Okay – then. Good for YOU!!!

Me too. So you’ll go to the local hardware store and pick out some seeds from the rack with those LUSCIOUS veggie pictures on them, and maybe buy some plants from the greenhouse, take them home and faithfully follow the instructions for planting. You’ll feel all good and confident – until the bugs get more veggies than you do, and the plants that the bugs don’t kill will whither and die for no apparent reason. Or they’ll turn yellow or some other catastrophe… and you’ll have NO idea what happened.

The gardening books I read tell me that, unless there is nothing else for them to eat, bugs and such mostly attack weak or unhealthy plants, and if they do attack healthy plants, then HEALTHY plants have a better chance of surviving and producing good food.

So… you followed the instructions on the seed packet! What happened? Well… it turns out that growing food isn’t quite as easy as most people think it is – BUT it’s not all that difficult either. The difference between that beautiful veggie garden on the seed packet and the weed overgrown back yard is – knowledge. So let’s get started.

Like the bugs – you might want to check your soil – see if it has sufficient nutrients and a proper ph balance. (If you have an extension service around, I think they do soil tests relatively cheaply.) Learn about things like composting. Garbage disposals are evil contraptions that cheat your soil of much-needed nutrients! In one of the books I’m reading, the author used his compost and did all the good things to prepare his garden area. When he had everything planted, he had left-over plants so planted them in an area that he HADN’T used compost and such on. The “good” plants did beautifully – hardly any bugs, large healthy plants, bountiful harvest. The plants outside the prepared and composted area, the left-overs, were scraggly and promptly attacked by a host of bugs – and the plants died without producing anything but bulk for the compost heap. So compost is important. Exactly what compost is and how you make it is a whole other subject… which I’m still learning about.

Many of you buy or pre-start your plants like tomatoes inside instead of planting seeds directly in the ground. I used to do that too, but several books my wife and I have read lately say that buying plants could be part or even most of your problem. For example – plant sellers don’t always worry too much about matching the variety to your weather conditions – so the plant does poorly. Or they plant commercial varieties that are designed to become harvest-able all at the same time and then die.

And when you transplant a start from the nursery, there is usually about a two week “stall” where your new plant doesn’t grow much if at all because of transplanting shock. One author tried an experiment, one that I’d suggest you try this year. If you buy plants, also buy the SAME variety of seed and plant them both at the same time. His experience was that the seed caught up to the transplant in just a couple of weeks and was much healthier.

I ran the same experiment last year – bought tomato plants, and planted seeds – all the same nominal varieties. The purchased plants rushed to fruit, and then died having produced only about ten or fifteen tomatoes per plant… those were EXPENSIVE tomatoes and they tasted no different than the cardboard ones you get in the mega-grocery stores! I also planted seeds – which grew – and provided a huge number of WONDERFUL tasting tomatoes until the first frost killed off the vines. I’m now officially a believer in planting seeds.

If you can’t seem to get seeds to grow, don’t blame the color of your thumb! First, do a germination test on the seeds! (If you don’t know how to do this, it’s REALLY EASY – ask and I’ll explain the process.)

In either case – make sure you select the PROPER variety for your weather conditions!!! Our weather is pretty variable from year to year. So we buy varieties that do well in warm and dry conditions, and varieties that do well in cool and wet conditions, and we’ll plant both kinds so that no matter what the weather does, we’re covered.

Another thing to think about doing to get an early start and an extended harvest is consider making row covers – little mini greenhouses. Some 1 x 2s or 2x4s and some plastic will make you little mini-greenhouse covers for your rows. You can flip them back on warm days, and cover the seedlings/plants at night. We aren’t doing that yet – but plan to when we get time.

I grew up thinking that we just put the seeds in the ground and they will grow. I’ve since found out that’s not necessarily so. If you’re buying seeds in the little “picture packets” in places like Wal-Mart, your germination rate could be as low as below 50%. What you’re paying good money for is probably the floor sweepings in a seed packager’s factory.

The books below recommend seed sellers who care about germination rates. We recently got an advisory from one of our seed suppliers about a problem with one variety of peas that presumably showed up during their constant testing processes – and told us how to fix the problem. It’s almost like they are your partners in growing good plants!!! And another of our suppliers sent us 1.5 ounces of a particular seed – after they discovered that they’d only sent us .5 oz, – half – of the seed we ordered. (THEY caught the error – not us, and they made it right without us even asking!)

I’m currently reading a book called, “Gardening When It Counts – Growing food in hard times” by Steve Solomon. It has a lot of good basic information in it. I’m using the book this year to completely re-shape my ideas and procedures about how to grow food.

My wife is currently reading, “The Winter Harvest Handbook – Year-round vegetable production using deep-organic techniques and unheated greenhouses.” by Eliot Coleman (Did you know that 150 years ago, farmers used to grow and sell fresh veggies YEAR ‘ROUND in Paris at the end of the mini-ice age?)

I highly recommend both books.

I’m easing into the thing by properly preparing the soil, and then growing veggies that I’m familiar with and that I feel comfy that I can successfully store. I have 2 food driers (9 tray Excaliburs) – and I just ran a test with one. I bought two heads of fresh broccoli at the store, prepared them and dried them. The broccoli is beautiful!!! Deep green and fragrant, and it reconstitutes to nearly fresh, and two large heads only took up two trays! I will learn to can fruits and veggies this year. I hope to grow potatoes and learn how to store them and apples fresh.

And – who knows – I may be eating my own produce this time next year – or I may be going to the grocery store and buying it like I’m doing this year! (Assuming that the store HAS food to sell…  😀 )

We hope to eventually be able to grow or produce ALL of our own food without using chemicals or artificial fertilizer at all. I have a compost heap and I’m learning how to use it!!! And I am working at preparing the soil properly.

I’ve planted, harvested and sold organic wheat, oats, and alfalfa hay, but that’s a whole different animal from a garden!

One important thing I’m learning – if you’re in a hurry, buy TV dinners. If you want good food, learn patience. 😀

Good luck!

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