Planting Basics Q&A

I have spoken at many events over the years, from small gatherings, for the Master Gardener’s Program, to large sustainability and gardening shows.  I take the fear out of gardening.  Dispel the idea that you need a backhoe to clear an appropriate plot.  That you need a yard at all!  These are questions and answers that might seem obvious to the seasoned gardener (there is always something to learn from each other, however) but hundreds of people wondered at these events.  I thought this would be a good time of year and a good forum to share on.  Happy planting!

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How do I know when to plant? 

Look up your last frost date.  You can plant cold crops four weeks before that date, summer crops on that date, and seedlings (young plants) four weeks after that date.

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How deep do you plant a seeds and starts?

Twice the depth of the size of the seed.  A carrot or radish seed will just have a dusting of soil atop it, whereas a pumpkin seed could be two inches deep.  The same goes for pots of plants, bushes, or trees.  Dig a hole twice as big as the pot.  Fill it in with garden soil.  Then give it a good, gentle watering.

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How far apart do I plant the seeds?

Plant the seeds the width of the plant.  So if you want radishes that are about two inches wide, plant your seeds every two inches.  Plant corn every foot.  Plant tomatoes every foot and a half.  Carrots are every inch or two.

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How about soil?

Until your soil has had a couple of years of amendments and care, you can use organic gardening soil.  Dig a hole, plant the seed, top it with a handful of garden soil.

Alternatively, dig a three inch trench, place the seeds in the trench, and cover with the appropriate amount of soil.  This aids in watering, as you can just run your hose right down the trench. (Not too strong of current or you will dislodge the seeds!)  This also helps the bases of the plants get stronger because they are not subjected to the wind.

You can also plant in pots!  Here is a fun decorative idea to flank a sunny entrance to a porch.  In a large pot, plant a kernel of corn in the middle, a bean on either side, and four pumpkin seeds around the edges.  The three sisters will be a showstopper come late summer!

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Keep a compost pile!

In the corner of your yard between a couple of pallets or in a fancier version, throw straw from the chicken coop, grass clippings, leaves, coffee grounds, and any manner of food (no meat) that the chickens don’t eat into the mix along with a bag of soil.  In the fall, sprinkle all of that compost onto garden beds and let them sink in over the winter then blend in in the spring.

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Annuals vs. Perennials

Let your annuals go to seed!  Mother Nature has a job and it’s to keep things growing.  The seeds disperse and will come back next year.  Since we are not doing any intense tilling and we are planting up in layers as opposed to digging out a garden bed, the seeds start where they land.  I have romaine lettuce and arugula in the path.  I planted both in nice, straight-ish lines elsewhere, but because these came up earlier, being planted by Mother Nature, I get to enjoy them earlier.

Annuals are a must.  Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, corn; all these things are annuals.  You can save the seeds of the last fruit or vegetable you pick from each and dry and save them for the following year.

Perennials are really where it’s at!  I love that the raspberries, burdock, dandelions, roses, sorrel, rhubarb, and strawberries come back on their own, bigger and better!  They are really what gives us food security.  Perhaps one year you might be ill and cannot plant a garden, but you can still feast on salsify, sorrel, sunchokes, dandelions, and fruits from trees and bushes.

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How much water?

I can only speak for my state and surround.  We are bloody nose and cracked hand dry.  Like seven percent humidity would be a lot.  Water every day, folks.  Even the “drought resistant” plants like herbs and such love a bit of water every day.  One inch of water for seeds and two inches of water for plants.  If you count for ten seconds, you have one inch of water, twenty seconds=two inches.

Use a hose without a sprayer.  Use your fingers to divert and control water flow.  It will take six times longer to get enough water from a sprayer.

Place your hose by a tree while you walk over to turn it off.  Or use a five gallon bucket with a nail sized hole in the bottom, fill with water at the base of the tree and let it slowly get into the roots once a week.

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Lastly

The thing to remember here is that Mother Earth loves to grow stuff.  She shakes the seeds out of my chile ristras and plants them willy nilly.  Seeds want to grow.  It is their life purpose.  Water, sun, soil, they are off and running.  Expect that 1/3 of your seeds will make it.  Animals, wind, viability all play a part here.  I grow equal amounts of bind weed, mallow, and straw to purposely planned vegetables and fruit.  Forget the idea of perfectly manicured gardens.  Here is the deal, Mother Earth does not like barren soil, so if you have space, she will fill it.  Grow plants together.  Lettuce next to potatoes.  Beans next to corn.  One with deep roots, one with shallow.  All through the beds.

Have fun.  Have tea in the garden!  Enjoy the birds and the lady bugs and the sounds of real life.

Geraniums on the Porch (memoirs and present)

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We sit on the balcony each evening watching the clouds.  The Creator paints and creates as we watch and laugh and point out different animals and characters.  We see the same things in the clouds, and the illustrations dancing across the sky above the mountains from this third floor view helps us wind down.

The balcony is my respite.  No doubt done with the city and missing my feet on the earth but this little abode in the sky makes a lovely garden and peaceful place of thought and memory and gift.  The bare root roses bought for dollars create a lovely garden in their brightly colored pots.  The lavender flows over its spot and the Christmas poinsettia happily flaunts green.  The transplanted comfrey and horseradish root strongly and the gooseberry, mini roses from the grocery store, the rosemary that barely made it though the homeless trek, the mint, curry, catnip, Jerusalem artichokes, and chives all spread out, face the sun, and thrive.  The gay petunias beckon the hummingbird.

And the ones that have been with me the longest, the geraniums.  They are large and lush and have survived everything along side us, from house to house, and shop to balcony, their colors rich in the summer heat.  My great grandma would be impressed.  She always had geraniums on the porch.  I would pass them as I walked up the steps and to the door where I never knocked.  And there she would be in her chair in the corner.  Smiling, excited to see me, always wanting a kiss, her love for me so evident, her small frame hugging mine.

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We would walk along her row of roses, always taller than me, their fragrance rich with summer and future memories of past.  Her yard seemed so big.  Her house quaint and tidy filled with relics and memory and life.

I went to a friend’s house for dinner last week.  She lives in Washington park, one of the places I grew up.  I rode my bike past her house a million times with my best friend, Susan, I bet.  The beautiful old cottages and bungalows all similar in their individual layouts.  I walked up the steps and noted the imaginary porch swing, knocked.  And through the door I entered and did face the fireplace and mantle, the two small windows above it with beveled glass, the couch, the corner where Great grandma’s chair stood.  The same floor plan as hers, situated just blocks away, and my breath was taken as my eyes moistened and there I stood eleven years old, gangly and tall in my all encompassing grandma’s house.  I saw her stand and squeal that I was there.  I saw us at the dining room table, plants behind us lining the south window, drinking sweet iced tea and enjoying hours of rummy, where I obtained my title of rummy queen.

How she would be thrilled with my roses and geraniums.  Now we sit watching a bear emerge from the depths of the sky and an old eagle flying by, our sights set on getting to a homestead respite of our own.  Soon.  Our feet firmly on the soil of earth and our spirits restored to freedom and homestead.  We breathe in the fumes of the city streets and post rain scent.  And look upon the roses and geraniums and flowers that Mother Earth has lent.

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The Portable Garden

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I have written about gardening in pots before.  I love them and I know how handy they can be.  A half bag of potting soil, a reclaimed three or five gallon bucket (they give them away for free at the bakery counter in grocery stores) with a few holes drilled in the bottom, and a packet of seeds is all you need.

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The sides protect the seeds from being blown away.  Birds and other seed lovers don’t seem to find the loose seeds in a pot.  Water each day if dry a few inches down.  When our friend called and warned us about the hail storm’s imminent arrival we were able to cover the pots.  They were the only thing not shredded!  They could have been brought inside if necessary!  They can be moved into more sun, less sun, or indoors for winter.  Shyanne and I enjoyed a delicious salad for lunch the other day of fresh oak leaf, baby kale, Swiss chard, spinach, and radishes.  A moveable feast!

The Overhead Garden Plan

Here is one way to get a broader overview of a new garden plan.  Get a bird’s eye view of your property!  Look up your property on Google Earth and print off map.

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From here I can see where the trees are, the shady areas, the barren areas, the possibilities.  I can see that the space by the garden is shady in the summer so I need to plant things in that area that can handle partial shade.  The spot that I considered for the hoop house is partially shaded too.  Not to mention that the lawn chairs in that area are constantly blowing away.  I can see where new fruit trees would work and where a pond could thrive.

In planning a new garden it is important to analyze and observe the space diligently.

Wind- We can sure get our fair share of wind out here.  But because I placed different reading and eating areas all over I can better see where the wind goes.  Beside the house, under the elm trees, is protected.  The cushions on the chairs haven’t even budged.  This is where we will erect a canopy and build an outdoor, off grid kitchen this year.

Sunlight- The porches are very sunny right now.  They will make great spaces to grow food in pots and five gallon buckets.  When the trees are in their full foliage I should be prepared to move them around to get maximum sun or grow cold crops so that by the time the leaves are out the plants won’t require so much sun.

Space- I can see on the map where the trees expand in the summer and can lead me to plant trees a little further out.

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There are many benefits of downloading and printing the overhead view of your land.  You can see where best to fit a chicken coop, where to put a windbreak, or where to put a pond.  Or where to put a hammock!

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You can use little pictures like these and move them around before drawing in the final idea.  Just one more way to plan a new garden or implement a new idea!

Out of Space Farming (finding garden space in unusual places)

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We need a bigger garden in the next house!  This is always our mantra.  The next house will indeed have a bigger garden and I will inevitably run out of space.  We have already begun saying it again.  This quarter acre garden is the largest we have had and succeeded at but the drive to farm and garden and grow more veggies and succeed at the farmer’s market and at filling the root cellar leaves me looking for nooks and crannies of dirt.  I need more space!  Our lease doesn’t run out for another garden season or two so what is a farmgirl to do?  Find space.

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A palm reader once told me that I would be farming in pots.  Yeaaah, sure.  Pots of farm vegetables are reserved for the day our kids stick us in an apartment.  Pots of vegetables are for when you don’t have a yard to tear up.  And pots are expensive!  I don’t want to go out and buy all those pretty ceramic pots.  They would break in the first hail storm anyway.  (You can see my wheels turning here, can’t you?)  What about five gallon buckets?  I could put them between the rows of the garden!  I could line them up the driveway!  I could fill the porch with them!  So, off to Walmart we went to get five gallon buckets.  I needed over two hundred dollars worth.  Yikes.

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I wrote on our website and on our Facebook page our wish list for the farm including five gallon buckets.  Two different folks wrote back that we should check the bakeries at the local grocery stores.  That seemed odd, but the frostings and other products come in those buckets and they just throw them away.  (Read the ingredients on those suckers and never buy a cake or donut again.) So, back to Walmart we went and scored a few buckets.  Every time Doug thinks about it, he pops by the bakery and gets me more buckets.

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I have nine buckets of peas going next to the house and they are coming up wonderfully.  If an impending hail storm were to come, I could easily move the buckets to the covered porch.  Twenty seven tomato plants and ten peppers will hop into buckets of potting soil as well.  Okra, green beans, pinto beans, and more will find their way in a cushy bucket to grow.  They will line the house and wherever I can sneak them in.

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The other place I found was this patch of driveway.  It is a hill of sand and ants.  It has been overlooked long enough!  I will plant medicinal herbs there.  I will dig a hole, put some garden soil in it, then drop the plant in.  I plan on this being a spiral design down the little hill with thick hay in between the plants.  (Speaking of which, the hay was free too.  It was sitting at the feed store, moldy and unwanted.)

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One could also use a children’s swimming pool with a few holes drilled in the bottom filled with potting soil.  It could easily fit in about any size yard.  Most any large container or few feet of overlooked ground can hold vegetables and fruits.

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Anyone can grow vegetables.  A south facing window can provide all the salad fixings one would need.  We new farmers just need to look at space with new eyes.

Across Enchanted Woods and Harbors

I found this man who might have been in the woods too long!
I found this man who might have been in the woods too long!

It’s always nice to get off the homestead once in awhile.  If you are on the farm too long you start to think that everything revolves around your little plot of land.  That’s a lot of pressure.  Thinking the world revolves around me getting alpacas can be overwhelming.  I needed to get away.  Every time I tell you all that I am taking a break, or a day off, I am lying.  I can’t take a day off at home.  Not possible.  Call me a super charged housewife or a Ritalin candidate, my days off are best spent in another state so I can’t revert back to chores.  My days off here have been filled with wine country, redwood forests, and seaside lunches.  Not bad days off, if you ask me.

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But while I am lounging around my friend’s patio, watching the traffic and taking in the new plant life, I am also getting recharged and inspired.  Sometimes we need to step away from our little world in order to come up with conclusions.

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In my quest for growing fresh fruit at 6500 feet above sea level, I have concluded that I am going to try to grow raspberries, blueberries, and grapes in five gallon buckets.  That way I can control their climate, their soil, and when it is time to move in a few years, I can just take them with me and plant them on my permanent farm.  I can keep them out of the deer’s’ buffet line, in the sun they crave, and hopefully harvest handfuls of delicious fruit.

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As we walked through the Muir Woods, we took in the intoxicating smell of lush growth, soil, sea.  The unfamiliar birdsongs, the moss growing up giant trees, our steps taking us through the enchanted forest.  It felt so surreal, it could have been a set out of a Disney movie, or Lord of the Rings.  The canopy tree tops, the babbling brook, the rustling in the underbrush.

As we walked though, I started to notice similarities with the terrain I grew up around.  The land looked very similar to Colorado.  The walking trails could have been the same (except for the occasional Palm tree and flowering bush…there are no flowering bushes in Colorado in November!).  The birds were different, but their songs as sweet.  The tree in Leo’s yard across the street is as high as many of the trees in the forest, having seen many, many a decade of pioneers crossing.  We are all on the same space.  I can be happy anywhere.  I realized that I can grow where I am planted, and love the terrain I am on, but also that my next farm, probably still in Colorado, will be at a lower altitude and on an easier plot of land to grow things!

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Oyster mushrooms climbed old trees in the forest.  A delicious example of the bounty in nature.  I need to inoculate a log and get us some mushrooms growing on our humble two thirds of a acre in a tiny part of the planet.

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The next day, from the harbor in Santa Cruz, we dined on frozen fried clam strips (not at all fresh) but enjoyed the scenery of hundreds of sea lions bantering, playing, sleeping, sunning, babies frolicking and getting in trouble with the older lions.

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These experiences show me that we live in a great, wide world with so many people and species.  I should not get so in my head about my own place.  Just enjoy what I have there.  In the whole scheme of the world, of time, does it matter if I get two more goats, one pregnant, that I have no idea how to mid-wife?  We are getting the fence fixed, surely it will be fine this time.  Two alpacas who are adorable and may or may not come near us are coming to live there too.  If we fail at our homesteading quest, does it really matter?  We will surely be wildly successful on our mini-farm.  Keeping my footprint small and taking care of my allotted space, loving the animals and people around me, and enjoying the life I am living right this moment is all that is important.