Take a step back from your garden at the end of the season and evaluate what’s working, what’s not, and what you can do to make your process as efficient as possible in the future.
All of our lives are different. Vegetable gardens should complement, not burden their owners. Taking note of what you need and want from the garden will make it work for you, not against you. Winter is a great time to take a look at what worked in the garden and what didn’t, so, as you sip your morning coffee or tea and stroll the garden, ask yourself these questions …
What worked? Viewing your garden in small sections makes it easy to set up seasonal goals. What went wrong? Did this season seem like an endless parade of problems? Did aphids, blossom-end rot, and Japanese beetles take over the garden? Think back on what you grew. Do you need to focus some attention on replenishing the soil and putting in irrigation? What would you like to do differently? What do you recall from spring, summer, and fall as problem areas?
Your level of gardening experience, the size of your garden, and the amount of time you can spend in it will weigh heavily on what crops to choose and how much of each you can grow. Inexperienced growers may want to start with just a few of their culinary favorites, choosing ones that are easy to grow and widely adapted to different growing conditions and climates. For small gardens, it may be more rewarding to concentrate on short season crops such as greens and radishes that produce prolific harvests in a short period of time. Crops that take up a lot of space, such as melons, pole beans and tomatoes, can be grown vertically by trellising to save space. For the “DIY” kind of person, the following tips will help you re-evaluate the garden-planning process.
As you look at your garden from the windows, where does the sun rise? What areas get sun, what gets shade, and at what times of the day? South and west are your sunniest exposures with east, and then north, receiving the least direct sunlight. Start then by choosing a sunny spot for your garden. Most vegetables need 6 to 8 hours of direct sun a day for best results. Leafy greens like lettuce and spinach can thrive with a bit less. As you assess your yard this winter, remember that the deciduous trees that are leafless now will create some shade once they leaf out in spring. If possible, locate the garden close to the kitchen so it’s easy and convenient. Is it possible to view the garden from a window? When the garden is easy to see and reach, you are more apt to notice what needs attention and you’ll be harvesting more often.
Once you’ve established the garden space, make a map. Use an Excel spreadsheet, or grid paper if you are more inclined towards pen and paper. Each square of the grid should represent a specific measured unit to help you to create your layout and plan how much seed or how many plants to purchase. The best part is that once you make your map, you can use it year after year to keep track of your crop rotations and to create a new garden plan. Mapping your layout allows you to visualize your best design for the season, so that you can foresee any problems and reorganize before you plant.
The ideal garden location has loose, friable soil that drains well. If your soil isn't perfect, you can improve it over time by adding organic matter such as compost. Is it light and sandy or heavy and clay-like? If you have heavy clay or very loose sand, it will take a number of years of gradually adding amendments to improve the soil. What is its pH? If you haven't had your soil tested to determine the soil pH, do it now.
Most vegetables require a pH between 6.0 and 6.8. Limestone is often necessary to raise the pH, and sulfur to lower the pH. Start a compost pile, get inexpensive or free compost from your local city waste management, ask your neighbors for their leaves, and add those newspapers to the compost pile. The more you can get, the sooner the soil quality will improve, and then annual additions of amendments will be required. By adding organic, natural fertilizers and composts that slowly get released in the soil, you are also helping to enrich the soil. As you build each bed, broadcast several inches of compost or natural fertilizers like composted chicken manure over the surface and work it into the soil with a rake.
Raised beds are great for growing veggies and flowers if you have soil that is very rocky or just not workable. There’s no worry of soil compaction and the bed has good drainage. The sides of the beds keep the valuable garden soil from being eroded or washed away during heavy rains. In many regions, gardeners are able to plant earlier in the season because the soil is warmer since it’s above ground level. By raising the soil level, raised beds also reduce back strain when bending over to tend the bed. This is especially helpful to older gardeners with back problems. If the beds are built well, the gardener can sit on the edge of the bed while working, and for some gardeners this is the biggest benefit of all. Raised beds are open to the ground, which offers the benefit of permitting plant roots to go further into the ground for available nutrients.
Assign a “Pick up the Rocks” day where everyone picks up or digs up every rock they can find. Use them to edge a garden path or even to build a retaining wall or raised bed if they’re big enough. Have a “Dig Those Weeds” day in early spring and fall. For particularly bad weed problems, this involves layering newspaper and cardboard over the weeds and adding soil and amendments on top of that. It smothers out the weeds and as the materials break down, compost is created.
Knowing the average date of the last frost in spring and the first frost date in fall is important when garden planning. If you don't know the date for your region, check with your local extension service or a local nursery.
You can safely plant the cool-season vegetables such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, celery, peas, radishes and spinach before the last frost date. In mild-winter climates, these crops can be planted in spring and/or fall. Plant warm-season vegetables such as beans, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, melons, peppers, squashes, and tomatoes only after the threat of frost has passed.
Many vegetables are best started from seeds and sown directly in the ground (direct-sown), and others go in as seedlings. You can grow your own seedlings indoors or buy them. In early spring, a week or two before the last frost, direct sow beets, carrots, Asian and leafy greens, lettuces, parsnips, peas, radishes, Swiss chard and turnips, in the garden. Don’t forget herbs such as cilantro and fennel. These vegetables grow particularly fast from seed. After the last frost, direct sow beans, corn, cucumbers, melons, and squash. Among the herbs, chamomile and dill are sure bets from direct sown seed.
Better results are achieved if you start broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes indoors. Several vegetables, such as lettuce, summer and winter squashes, and melons that grow and produce equally well from either seeds or transplants.
By growing plants in succession and using three-foot-wide beds with 18-inch paths, you should have plenty of delicious vegetables for fresh eating and extras for canning. Always include flowers in the vegetable garden because not only are they beautiful in the garden, they can make great cut flowers to bring indoors. Flowers also attract pollinating insects to the garden, as well as repel some pests and diseases. Anytime you grow a lot of one type of vegetable, such as tomatoes and peppers, for instance, plant several different varieties. This will increase your chances of success, since some varieties will perform and taste better than others.
Finally, don't neglect the most obvious advice: Ask your local experts. Your local extension service can usually supply a list of recommended vegetable varieties for your area. Master Gardeners, garden centers and your gardening friends and neighbors are other great sources of information.
Everyone has different tastes, needs, levels of experience and enthusiasm, different climates, soils, and a different set of garden priorities. No two vegetable gardens are alike, and we all want them to produce good, healthy food. Ready, set … Grow!
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