During my consultations, in friend’s gardens, and on Facebook I see people making the same mistakes over and over again. Follow these simple tips for your best garden ever.
1. Put your garden as close to your door as possible, where you will see it every day. Put it right next to your back patio or along the walkway to your car. If you see it every day, you will notice when it needs to be watered, weeded, when to put down some Sluggo, and and when the broccoli needs to be harvested. It will become a part of your life, it will be easier and give you more joy as you can watch things grow change every day. Please do not banish it to the neglected back corner of your yard, where it will become a chore to drag the hose over only to discover that the weeds have entirely taken over and you missed harvesting your only head of cauliflower.
2. Make permanent raised beds, no more than 4 feet wide. Raised beds dry out and warm up quicker in spring than ground-level beds. This means you will be planting and therefor harvesting earlier. They don’t need wooden sides; ours are just mounded and the soil stays put just fine. You could also use logs, rocks, bottles, or urbanite (concrete chunks) to border them if you wish. The important part is that you never walk in them so they don’t get compacted and you never have to dig them up or turn them. Keeping them no wider than 4 feet across ensures you can reach into them to plant, thin, weed, and harvest without stepping in the beds or killing your back. If your bed is against a house or fence, it should be no wider than 2 feet.
3. Think outside the box. Vegetables don’t care what shape the bed is that they are planted in. While a agree that rectangles are easier to determine spacing or put a hoop house over, I find them uninspiring. Your bed can be triangular, curvy, keyhole shaped, or whatever you desire. My main garden bed is a bunch of keyhole gardens put together, resulting in an amoeba-shaped garden. Each lobe gives a distinct planting area, plus a large area in the middle. We also mix our vegetables, flowers, and perennials all together for more diverse plantings that are more beautiful and confuse pests.
4. Become a worm wrangler. There are millions of organisms below the soil from bacteria and fungi to worms and beetles. Most of them we can’t see, but they are there, working to keep the soil aerated, breaking down organic matter, and making nutrients available for our plants. We can help our soil life proliferate by not walking on our garden beds, not tilling or turning the soil, providing a lot of organic matter for them to feed on, and keeping mulch on top of the soil to keep it moist. Sheet mulching is a great way to start garden beds that are rich with soil life. See my post on how to build a sheet mulch bed.
5. Start seeds at the proper time. Seedings starting inside should be still small when transplanted outside otherwise they will not transplant well. This differs for each type of plant and some don’t like to be transplanted at all so you must plant them directly in the ground. This is not a contest to see who can start their seeds earliest. You will not get any squash from a squash planted in December. Squash hates to be root-bound, and doesn’t like to be transplanted very much. Start them in the beginning of May in 3-4 inch pots and your plants will be plenty big to go out in the garden when the soil warms up in June. Likewise, if you try to start your celery now, they are so slow-growing that they won’t have time to mature. Check out my planting chart on the resources page for more information on when to start your seeds.
6. Start your seeds in plastic flats. Each cell in plastic flats is the right space for one plant to grow. They are easy and efficient to fill, water, move around, provide light to, and get the seedling out when transplanting. They can be reused year after year. Can you use egg shells? It might look great on Pinterest, but they are too shallow, they don’t drain, they tip over and make a big mess. And don’t waste money on peat pots or those expanding jiffy cells. The peat doesn’t break down in our cold soils and you will be fishing the netting out of your garden for years to come. Soil blocks also work great but require a greater up-front investment.
7. Give plants their proper spacing. I know it is tempting when you have all these little tiny seedlings to crowd them in, but if you do, you may not get anything at all. Especially for things like broccoli and cabbage where you are eating a “head” or an unopened flower, each plant needs to get big enough to form a decent sized head. If you crowd them they will get stressed out and bolt, which is where they go straight to flowering. Each broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower needs 15 inches of space. Measure it out! I use a planting stick 15 inches long to get the spacing right. Again, refer to my planting chart for proper spacing.
8. Get in the ground early. Most plants that like to grow up here can withstand freezing temperatures, especially when they are young, and can be planted well before the last frost. I have lettuce, arugula, and other hardy greens growing from seed in the garden already and I’m not worried about them, even with the snow coming down outside today. I plant them as soon as the ground thaws out a bit. You can also plant potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, peas and radishes right now.
9. Use floating row cover. Probably one of my most indispensable garden tools, row cover is a spun polyester fabric that you lay on top of your seedlings. It lets air, water, and light through, but creates a pocket of warm air right on the ground that the wind can’t blow away as easily. Seeds started under row cover germinate and grow faster than uncovered seeds. It also keeps cabbage root maggots off of your plants as long as you bury the edges so the flies can’t get underneath it.
10. Use the finger test and water deeply. You can’t really tell by looking at the surface of the soil if your garden needs water. You need to stick your finger in the soil as far down as it will go to see if it is moist underneath where the plant roots are. Sometimes if will be dry on top but moist underneath… other times if we get a sprinkle of rain it will be moist on top and dry beneath. When you do water, make sure you give your garden enough that it soaks down into the root zone. Once your plants are established, you should only need to water once a week or so, as long as you keep the mulch on.