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.

How to Make Raised Garden Beds Easily and On the Cheap

I pour myself more sludge (strong coffee) as I write, the world encompassed in white, me not trying not to fall under SAD (seasonal affective disorder), knowing in a few weeks I will be planting those first seeds.

I told you that I was going to move the garden to the backyard because zoning had come by last fall and given me a warning post-garden to clean up my front yard into fancy neighborhood status.  I thought it would be easier to grow grass and flowers in the front yard and fence off a 25×25 designated garden in the back yard.  Enter large puppy, large expense for fencing, and here I am back in the front yard.

The weeds last year were incredible.  I have never seen lamb’s quarters ten feet tall!  I have never experienced mallow whose roots may actually tickle the top of Australia.  I was humbled.  This year I know we will still have weeds (they are medicine and food, but they do like to take over the world some…) but this year I will be a little better prepared.  Even though my crops did great in their sandy, never-been-gardened spaces I did want to amend the soil.  Did I mention on the cheap?  Because I never have as much extra money for gardening as I think I will!

This first-of-several beds coming this spring is a combination of everything I have learned over the years.  It is part Hugelkultur, part Permaculture, part straw bale gardening, part raised bed, part ingenious way to use what I have on hand.

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First I laid down sheets of cardboard.  Cardboard will break down within one season but it will help immensely in keeping weeds down.  I sure wish I hadn’t sent all that cardboard to recycling!  I would have layered on a few extra sheets of cardboard if I had it.

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I thought of large stones.  I thought of cinder blocks.  I thought of 2x4s.  I checked the bank account, and went into the back yard to see what I could find!  I have large limbs from the dying Elm tree that were ready for firewood.  We have lots of wood right now and these are so beautiful with the bark still on them.  They were easy to place in an 18×4 rectangle (with the help of my husband) to create a frame.

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Then two to three inch slabs of straw went on top of that.  The straw will suppress more weeds, will create an airy environment for the seedlings, will break down and become mulch and amendments, and helps fill the space so I didn’t have to buy so much garden soil.

Next went on pails of finished compost.  It never fails to amaze me that a banana peel in six months becomes dirt.  That scraps, and straw, and grass clippings, and chicken straw, and everything I put out there turns into rich, dark compost.  I won’t have enough for all the beds I am planning on putting in but I can purchase mushroom compost pretty cheap once I run out of my own.  It is only for this year.  From here on out my own compost will act as fertilizer in spring and fall sprinkled on the beds.  I won’t need quite as much.

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Then went on five bags of organic gardening soil.  I wanted to get it spread on the new bed now because it will have a few weeks to settle into the straw.  I want to make sure I don’t lose seeds in the settling soil!  We will know in a few weeks if I need more soil.

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The tiny trees I planted are in the tomato cages.  They will be watered regularly by being in the garden bed.  Once they grow nice and tall in as many years and begin to shade the patch, the patch can move.  Gardening is as much about flexibility as it is growing food.  Nature will work with you.  The main idea is to improve the soil and to create as many perennials so that each year we have more and more food and we are helping the soil regain health.

Done!  Now, the straw will try to sprout but the grasses easily pull out.  If a weed makes it through eight inches of cardboard, straw, and soil, it, too, will be easy to pull out.  At the end of the season I will pour some leaves, straw from the chicken coop, etc on top, and blend it in come spring.

*Side note- the empty soil bags will be set around perennial herbs and bushes with straw or wood chips placed over.  Weeds will not get through them!

Grab another cup of coffee, Folks, and hang in there.  We are almost back in the garden…

 

The Autumn Gardens (Spring and Fall Crops and the Great Harvest)

20170929_121332Fall crops grow beautifully and swiftly in their haphazard rows.

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The spring crops that I painstakingly place inches apart in the early cool of spring take awhile to germinate in the cold and then go to seed when summer decides to come on strong.  When those very same seeds are planted in  late July or early August they germinate quickly from the warm soil, ample water and light.  Then the nights become brisk and they soak up the cooling temperatures and thrive, which is why they are called cold crops!

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Of course I have all the energy in the world in April.  By then I have been dreaming of my garden for many months and am ridiculously excited to break ground.  By late summer we are getting tired of weeding and daily waterings and bugs so fall crops look more like mosaic puzzles than long tidy rows of food.

I had one bed pretty clear from the spring crops so I roughed it up with the hoe and planted-or rather, kind of threw in- a bunch of seeds.  Carrots, spinach, lettuce, peas, cabbage, and radishes came up with the colors of early spring with no help from me.  I forgot to water the seeds several times.  And yet they surprised me with their delicious arrival.

There are still tomatoes and other delicious summer crops in the garden.  The weather speaks of a freeze coming Monday.

Seeds and plants want to grow.  They are hard wired to do so.  As an experiment when the flea beetles came to town to chow down the cruciferous crops, I left a few of the broccoli and others to see what would happen.  I think we will have broccoli cheese soup tonight.  This garden has been a lovely experiment this year, one I allowed myself to do being in a new climate and a new place with un-amended soil.  Amazing.  Plants never fail to thrill me.  I think I will have radishes for breakfast.

Sunchokes (food security,beauty, and preservation tips)

We were back at my beautiful great aunt Donna’s house gathering sunchokes.  I wrote about these gems last fall.  Their other name is Jerusalem artichokes.  I write to you seasonally so the last thing that was available and the first thing that is available seems to be sunchokes!

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These lovely tubers are much like potatoes with a satisfying jicama crunch.  They can be nibbled on plain, sliced and put into salads, or roasted along with carrots and potatoes under a whole chicken in a Dutch oven, which is what I served on Mother’s Day.

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This beautiful flower/food promises food security as well.  During summer and fall their sunflower heads show protectively and regally over the garden beds.  In the spring and fall they provide delicious foods at their roots.  In aunt Donna’s words, “You will never get rid of them!”  Oh, I hope not.  They are such a delight.

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Last fall when I wrote you about these vegetables I placed a few in a sandwich bag.  Then forgot about them.  They went from David’s house to our apartment.  From one vegetable drawer to another.  Seven months later I pulled them out and they are just as fresh and crisp as they were when I harvested them.

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So, to preserve (though I think you can store them in a root cellar just as you would a potato) scrub clean, place dry in gallon freezer bags and store in the refrigerator.  Then you will always have some on hand for cooking, mashing, roasting, slicing, and for summer salads.  Most certainly a great food for any homestead.

Winter Learning (permaculture and garden dreaming)

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We live very seasonally.  Everything we do has its time of year to be done.  During January, there is little farm work to do.  The bees are busy in their apartment building, the goats and chickens are cared for a couple times a day, and we fill a few orders.  We have one market this entire month.  This is the time of year that we read and learn new things.  We don’t have time to learn anything in the summer and fall.  We are so exceptionally busy from pre-dawn to falling into bed exhausted at nine that we scarcely have time to read a magazine and a shower is considered a break!  So this time of year, books that we wanted to read get consumed.  Movies we wanted to see get rented.  And things we want to learn get to take precedence this month.  This year we are obsessed with Permaculture.

This will serve as a before picture of our fenced garden.
This will serve as a before picture of our fenced garden.

We have a blank slate here, really.  We have a 26×30 square foot fenced garden and ten acres.  We have established trees and areas of un-irrigated prairie and areas around the house that are near the wells.  We have rain water to capture and swales (little ditches that curve around capturing water and watering nearby plants) to create.  We have trees to plant and a food forest to create.  Visions of apple, plum, and pear trees to join the present peach trees.  We have hazelnuts and pecans to try.  Walnuts and berry bushes.  We have herbs to go crazy and work in many functions, tap roots, ground cover, attract beneficial insects, beautify the area, food, and medicine.  We have water features to add, fountains and perhaps a pond.  We have gardens to plant.

Idea garden
Idea garden

Permaculture is like learning a new language for us.  We are very much schooled in organic farming techniques and that is what we have been practicing.  But we are attracted to this Permaculture way.  It is so beautiful out here, and the landscape is so breathtaking that I would be saddened to plow it up to grow rows of corn.  Indeed, I am excited to work with nature, rather than against.  I believe this way will create more food for market as well as for our own larder and every year it will increase.  It will support wildlife and allow an oasis to remain here.

View of fenced garden and bee hive.
View of fenced garden and bee hive.

I have been listening to lectures on http://openpermaculture.com which is a free online permaculture course.  I have checked out a ton of books from the library.  I am listening, and reading, and looking at pictures, and trying to make this stick in my brain. I am trying to rewire.

Outside the back door, site of trees and food forest perhaps?
Outside the back door, site of trees and food forest perhaps?

I was so busy trying to figure out how to create this food forest in the fenced garden.  But, if I plant trees in there, won’t it all be shaded out in a few years?  One of the lectures said to start outside the back door.  The back door?  Goodness, I didn’t even think of that.  Off the deck, near the elms, across the grassy area by the clothes line, near the fence lines, by the bees, I could plant trees.  Trees with fruit bushes around them, and bulbs, and herbs, and perennial vegetables like asparagus and rhubarb, and ground covers and I could create a swirly swale around them all to catch the rain.  The farmer’s almanac predicts that this year will be hot and rainy.  Odd for this area but nothing surprises me anymore after farming the past few years.

Another view outside the back door.  Lots of space for trees and food producing perennials.
Another view outside the back door. Lots of space for trees and food producing perennials.

In the fenced garden we will create keyhole gardens and arbors with climbing food plants, squash, beans, peas, that lead to a water feature and a circular tea garden.  Maybe there will be ducks running through (I do miss my ducks) to keep the grasshoppers in check.

Another idea garden.
Another idea garden.

We have started letting the chickens out to free range.  They were so used to it at our old house that they simply seemed desperate to get out of their enclosure.  With Christopher Robin indeed being a rooster, he has already started sounding alarms when the hawks and owls fly over, keeping the girls rounded up and protected.  They love to be out foraging and will help keep the insects at bay this coming growing season.

Food forest idea garden.
Food forest idea garden.
Shade garden site.
Shade garden site.
Site of outdoor kitchen, completely off grid.
Site of outdoor kitchen, completely off grid.

I have swimming with ideas to beautify this already spectacular place and create more habitats for my beloved wildlife and create permanent food sources for all.  Mushrooms, fruit, vegetables, wild foods, this year is going to be an exciting journey as a farmer.

Possible pond location.
Possible pond location.
Will grow pots of cold crops on the porches.
Will grow pots of cold crops on the porches.

Now, time to peruse the seed catalogues!