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.

Empowering Young Farmers and Humbling the Farmer (and how to design garden beds)

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I received a message wondering if I could use the help of twenty girl scouts.  The farm they were supposed to help out decided they didn’t need volunteers.  Not only can I use volunteers, but I always jump at the opportunity to reach out to kids.  It is staggering to me the minute amount of people who have chosen to grow food and the even smaller amount of women that have opted for this job.  I don’t remember in school it even being an option.  I was told I could be anything I want, a stay at home mom, a doctor, a lawyer, a nun, but never was the word farmer uttered.

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I think it is so important to show kids that living simply and farming is indeed a real career and lifestyle choice.  So I stood there thinking of all the ways I would inspire and encourage troop 2251 to do great things as they pulled in.  My breath caught and tears threatened to come.  Two cars of smiling girls were followed by a truck and trailer.  Stacked a top that trailer were twenty bales of straw for mulch and twenty bags of organic potting soil.  They had raised money to help out a farm.  What a blessing, what a group of angels that descended on our humble farm!

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I welcomed them to Pumpkin Hollow Farm and told them a bit about our simple lifestyle.  I introduced them to the animals.  They swooned over the baby lambs and my granddaughter, Maryjane.  They looked for all the kittens in the house and I showed them the wood cook stove.  We then set off to work.  We had a daunting task, turn the barren patch of dirt that was once a thriving garden at one time into a ready-to-plant plot.

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We gathered all the cardboard boxes that I had thrown in there over the winter, flattened them, and laid them beneath the paths.  I explained how we would make a one foot path, then a four foot bed, and repeat that all the way across.  They didn’t have to be straight beds.  Gardening is art, I told them, so they could make the beds wavy like little rivers, or use interesting items to line the path.

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The girl scout leaders, the girls, and I worked diligently under the first hot day of spring to create a masterpiece.  We brought over loads of bricks from the side of the outbuildings and made wavy streams of paths.  Discarded wood and branches lined the way.  I dared the girls to find the most creative piece to line the beds with.  My Christmas three that the goats stripped clean now lines of the beds!

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We had lunch beneath the pine trees and took in the views.  The little girls took turns carrying Maryjane around.  She has been in heaven this week with so many kids around.

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We then laid the twenty bales of straw thickly onto the planting beds.  All I need to do is lay a thick layer of wood chips on the paths and place stepping stones at strategic places across the beds to get across easily.  This plot will feed many, many people.  I am ever so grateful for their help.

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They taught me about generosity and hard work.  They helped a farmer that they didn’t even know.

Farm Fresh Food

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I wanted to be a vegetarian when I was six and first found out where meat came from, but it seemed that there was no such thing as vegetarianism in my family.  I read a teen magazine at the age of twelve that indicated that there was such a thing as vegetarianism.  I was so excited.  I ran up and told my mother!  She wasn’t thrilled and I think she thought it was a phase.  That was twenty-seven years ago.  It’s not that I think it is evil (though I think factory farms are), I just can’t eat meat.  The consistency and smell and origin holds no appeal to me.  Doug went vegetarian about eight years ago for health reasons and then for compassion reasons.  We started reading books.  We became Raw Foodies for a very tumultuous year (cold food 24 hours a day anyone?).  We watched Food Inc.  We instantly became vegans.  Doug lost much needed weight and we were full of energy.  We were vegan for three years until recently when we gleefully fell off the wagon and into baked brie.

The way we are eating now feels right but we need more vegetables (come on summer!).  We likely eat too much fish and our mercury levels are probably causing us to glow.  Our cholesterol may not be so hot either.  Plants bring down cholesterol.  We are comfortably pescetarian.  We just don’t have any desire to eat our chickens.  Though if people are going to eat meat, doesn’t  it make sense to snub factory farms and their cruelty and unhealthy meat?  A chicken with his head cut off in two seconds flat and supports a local farmer makes a whole lot more sense to me than the stash of unknown meat from the grocery store.  A cow roaming happily about a pasture of green grass and doesn’t know what hit him when he becomes a side of beef is a lot nicer than the feed lots of horror.

There are so many factors for people to decide from each day.  Is a pesticide filled salad better than a factory farmed McDonald’s hamburger?  Probably.  Is an organic salad better than a pesticide filled one?  Absolutely.  Is whole grain bread better than white?  Yes.  Are organic whole grains better than non-organic, possibly genetically modified wheat?  Sure thing.  Would my cousin argue that grains are toxic and meat and vegetables are the only way to go?  Yes.

Wouldn’t our farming forefathers give us a look of absolute pity and awe at our wild confusion?

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Eat from a farm.  One that doesn’t grow GMO’s.  Where the ground was fed with manure and scraps from the farm (a full circle).  Where the animals eat grass and the chickens eat grasshoppers, where the seeds are watered and grow up to be nutritious vegetables.  Where fruit is luscious and sweet, and not trucked from Peru.  Where eggs are warm from the coop and the milk is rich and sweet and raw from the goat or cow.  Where one can recognize each and every ingredient.  Corn.  Butter.  Eggs.  Cheese.  Lettuce.  Buckwheat.  Tomato.  Basil.

Part of the reason we started using Nancy’s goat’s milk and cheese was because I started reading ingredients.  What the heck are natural flavors?  From what?  Worms?  Bark?  Rum?  How do you make soy lecithin?  I haven’t seen a recipe for this.  I don’t want any more lab created ingredients.  No more boxes in my house.

Organic if possible.  Tons of vegetables and fruits, preferably from my garden, or my friend’s, the farmer’s market, or if all else fails, the health food store.  Eggs from my coop.  Milk from the goats down the street.  Cheese and butter made by me.  Bread made from grains that I ground, preferably grown locally, and baked into four ingredient loaves of steaming hot goodness.  Corn that is actually corn.  The kind great-great grandma used to eat.

This is a “diet” I can stand behind.  Real food all the time!  Food that nourishes us.  Food that supports the community.

This year Nancy and I start out on a new venture.  Growing for market.  I hope you will support your farmers this year.  Support those that don’t use pesticides and that have dirt on their hands.  Support the right to eat real food.  The government will be happy to subsidize fake food for you but if we will open our eyes and see the environmental and physical damage we are causing and start eating real food from the ground, from a farm, from our neighbor imagine the difference that would make.

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(All artwork is from Victory Garden of Tomorrow by Joe Wirthheim. http://victorygardenoftomorrow.com/growfood2.html I have his posters hanging in my dining room as a visual inspiration.  I love them!)

For the Love of Compost!

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“So look, you just throw all the old food and egg shells and stuff onto that pile.  All that becomes dirt!” Shyanne explained excitedly to her confused looking boyfriend.  He lasted through the compost cycle but now she is on to a new boyfriend who she will likely explain the process to.  The kids have been composting since they were really little so they don’t think anything of it.  Furthermore, they grew up being scolded for throwing food in the trash.  Now that the chickens are here, it is easier to compost because they like giving the chickies the food scraps.  I do wonder, if while at other people’s houses, if they look for the compost or if they look in horror as people throw food in the trash or if they couldn’t care less.  19, 17, 16….probably the later idea.  But the lesson has been instilled all the same!  And I do hope their future homes will have a compost heap.

It is not difficult, in fact if it were it may have been nixed from our family routine long ago.  It started when I read that food scraps do not actually decompose at the dump.  Everything is sealed so toxic liquids don’t escape from batteries and such and the food, if ever, takes a century to disappear.  That scared me.  I am not going to go watch and make sure that the information was correct but it inspired me to do something else with the scraps.  We had enough with three kids.  Our grocery bill was as high as two car payments back then with growing kids.  Oftentimes stuff got lost in the back of the fridge.  It was a sad ending for perfectly good kale or leftover soup…long lost and forgotten, lurking, waiting for me to find it.

We had just adopted our greyhound, then much younger, and fenced off a running strip for him at our suburban house, for greyhounds do love to dig….to India, I’m not kidding.  While we were at it, we added raised beds and created quite a nice yard.  (Pity we put all that work into it, we moved shortly after!)  At that point I figured I may as well make my own compost instead of buying the heavy bags of it from Walmart.  We bought an expensive compost holder.  Tall, black, slotted, held three feet of compost.  The mice moved in the bottom, the pile was impossible to turn in that box and I often left the thing with bloody knuckles from hitting the slotted sides after the force of the pile turning left me cussing and carrying on.  It was not long before a pile started next to it.  And it decomposed faster.

We live in Colorado and nothing decomposes that quick because it is so dry here.  I could water the compost pile to “the degree of a squeezed out sponge” (as the books say) and it will be dry in about twenty minutes.  It takes longer here but it does happen.  At this house, Doug got some discarded wooden pallets from the feed store for free, and with a few nails, it became a triple holding compost maker!  We start in the first one.  All coffee grounds (also the ones from nearby coffee shops), and old food the chickies don’t want or I am wary of giving them (moldy canned tomatoes anyone?) and before chickens, I would just throw in leaves, old straw from the garden, torn up newspaper as the “brown” elements.  Now it gets the soiled hay and pine shavings from the chicken coop.  As soon as that one is getting a few feet high, we switch to the next opening and leave the first to do its work for about six months.

Here is the low down.  The almost finished compost goes into the garden in the fall after I have cleaned out the beds.  It finishes its work over the winter and feeds the soil.  Another light layer of compost goes in the spring.  If I had perfectly finished compost, I would be more liberal, but it never is that black gorgeous stuff because I do not water and turn as much as I should.  That all gets added in to the soil and the plants love it.  The chicken coop stuff has to sit for sure for six months so it doesn’t burn the plants.

If you start your compost pile now, no matter where you live, it will be done in August.  Just in time to give the plants some compost tea or a little dusting around the plants.  If the pile smells add more brown (dried grass, leaves, newspaper, hay, etc.) if it isn’t decomposing very fast add green (fresh grass, food scraps).  Add water if it is dry.  Turn it when you think about it.  Become an environmental maven and compost queen of your own garden!   And watch the magic of ordinary stuff turning into dirt.