Prepared by Mary L. Perkins, Cornell University Cooperative Extension Master Gardener Volunteer
Getting Started – Many vegetables and flowers can be started directly in the garden by planting seeds. Others take too long to grow so it is necessary to start them indoors or to buy transplants. Either way, here are some tips to help get the garden off to a good start and to ensure its success.
Planning – Make a plan before ever breaking ground. Plan for those varieties of vegetable YOUR family likes best which cannot be purchased inexpensively and conveniently and which can be grown in YOUR location without a lot of attention. Lay out your plan on paper using one inch to represent one foot of garden space. Plan for season cropping by making several copies of the garden plan showing what will be in each space in each season. Make your garden as small as possible to have a better chance of success in keeping up with garden maintenance.
Site Selection – Pick a plot that is level and sunny. The garden needs at least six hours of sunlight daily and eight hours is even better. The soil should be as loose, rich and well-drained as possible. Avoid trees and shrubs that compete with your garden plants for nutrients and water. Stay away from streets, roads, sidewalks, driveways and buildings for your food garden plot. The soil around these areas will be compacted and may be contaminated by materials that could damage your health or the health of your plants.
Selecting Seeds and Plants – By careful selection of seeds and plants, many garden problems can be made nonexistent or at least minimized. Cornell University Cooperative Extension has an annual list of selected varieties of vegetables for home garden use. Go to the website, http://www.gardening.cornell.edu/vegetables/vegvar.pdf to view this great resource. There are some excellent books available at local libraries and information offered by garden magazines and catalogs can prove invaluable.
Preparing the Soil – Loosen the soil to at least six to eight inches. Double digging will make your garden even more productive. Remove a row of soil across the garden, placing it in a wheelbarrow if convenient. Then with a spading fork loosen the soil as deeply as possible in the trench you have made. Next remove another strip of soil carefully placing it in the trench left by the removal of the first soil. Try to place this soil from the second trench into the first in the same manner as it came from the second trench keeping the top soil on top. Again, loosen the soil below and fill the new trench with soil from the third trench. Continue across the garden plot until all soil has been moved and the soil beneath has been loosened. Carry the soil from the first trench to fill the final trench. Spread any soil additives over the garden and rake into the soil. When the soil has been leveled and raked smooth, the entire area is ready for planting. Preparing the garden bed in the fall gives several advantages. The garden will be ready to plant sooner if it was prepared in the fall. You can plant as soon as the soil is ready. Many of the insects that overwinter in the soil or crop residues will be killed when tilling in the fall exposes them to the extremes of winter cold.
When to Plant – The best time to plant each variety depends upon two things – its hardiness and the last frost date in your area. The AVERAGE date of the last annual frost for your area could actually vary each year by a week or even two depending on the weather. Plant cool weather crops first and the warm weather ones after the last expected frost date.
How to Plant Seeds – To achieve maximum production and minimize weeding and watering, plant seeds in wide rows. This method of planting requires the fewest seeds and reduces the necessity for thinning to a minimum. A piece of plywood with evenly spaced holes in it can help you quickly and easily plant seeds in a wide row at the proper distance from each other. Use of a threaded rod with two nuts locked at the desire depth will make planting seeds at the best depth simple. Seeds should be covered about two to three times the diameter of the seed. Set the nuts on the threaded rod to the proper depth, place the board on well-prepared soil and poke the rod through each hole. While the template is still in place, drop a seed through each hole. Remove the board, gently fill the hole with water and for best germination fill each hole with garden grade vermiculite. Vermiculite can help prevent damping off and offer the seedling an easy path to the sunlight it needs. Some seeds will benefit from soaking in warm water for a few hours or even overnight before planting.
How to Plant Transplants – Put your transplants in the ground on a cloudy day, provide your transplants with some shade or wait until late in the day to do the job. Dig a hole large enough to hold all the roots of your transplant. Never curl a root around in the hole but spread the roots out so each has plenty of space. Hold the plant by the leaves, NOT the stem as you carefully transfer plant and any soil in which it has been growing. With the plant in place, carefully cover roots and some stem with soil. Firm this soil around the plant to avoid any air pockets around the roots. With your hand, form a slight cup-shaped depression around the plant and fill it with water right away.
Protection – Protection is the real secret to getting the right start in your garden. It can give you weeks of a head start on unprotected plants. Heavy spring rains and chilling winds do a great amount of damage to all unprotected early season plantings and retard their growth. Get in the habit of protecting both your seeds and transplants as soon as they are planted. Bend metal fencing of any kind into a desire shape and cover with clear plastic film. You can form tunnels, square boxes for wide rows or even cylinders for individual plants. Close the ends or tops during the early season and you’ll have a miniature greenhouse. Your seeds and plants will reap the benefits of constant moisture and heat but will be protected from damaging winds, rains and sudden changes in temperature. As the weather warms, gradually open the ends or tops. Tin cans with neither top nor bottom, plastic jugs with bottoms cut out or anything readily available can be used for protection.
Vertical Growing – Vertical Growing involves getting the plant up off the ground and trained or tied to some kind of support. The main advantage of this method is producing more in less space. The produce will be off the ground and therefore less vulnerable to ground rot, slug and insect infestation. It will experience better ventilation too which can result in fewer outbreaks of disease. Less space will be used because the plant won’t be sprawling all over the ground. Harvesting is easier too. The vertical method is ideal for tomatoes, beans, peas, cucumbers, melons, squash and any other vine-type crops.
Cages – For individual plants a metal cage is excellent. The cages last for years and are easy to install. Best of all, compared to staking or tying, cages take very little work during the year. Once the plants are in the ground and staked down the only maintenance is a weekly watering and poking any branches back into the cage; the rest is harvesting. The best cages are made from wire having large enough spaces between the wires for a hand to reach inside to harvest the crop. Concrete reinforcement wire is an excellent, long-lasting and economical source of such cages.
Fencing – Vine crops can be planted in a straight line against fencing installed on sturdy posts on the north side of your garden. Train or tie the vines to the fencing to create a living border for your garden without interfering with the light needs of that garden. Soil preparation, watering, maintenance and harvesting are quick and easy. Tomato plants can be pruned to a single, double or triple stem by pinching off all other side branches. They can be trained to grow right up the fence without any tying, by weaving the branches in and out of the wire mesh. Plant the entire fence line with tomatoes or mix with other vine crops for a spectacular sight and a great harvest. Tomatoes should be planted three feet apart, melons two feet, cucumbers one foot and pole beans three inches apart.
Watering – Your garden needs at least one inch of water per week during the growing season and some plants may need even more. One inch of water is about two quarts of water per square foot of garden space. There are many systems for providing water to your garden and most do an adequate job. The best tips to remember about watering are:
- Leave several coils of your garden hose in a sunny spot or keep a bucket or two full of water in the garden to warm the water. In areas where the water is chlorinated the water for your garden should be left in an open container for twelve to twenty-four hours to let the chlorine dissipate.
- Mist newly planted seeds daily or as necessary to keep the soil moist.
- Place plants in a shallow depression to conserve water and prevent run-off.
- Mulch your entire garden to conserve water.
- Water immediately after planting.
- Whenever possible, water at the base of each plant. If you must use overhead watering, water early in the day.
Insect Problems – Here are a few ways to minimize insect problems. Plant in small blocks scattered around the garden instead of large solid blocks of the same variety. Small blocks separated by other species of plants will confuse some of the insects and make other blocks unavailable to the insects. Use trap crops such as marigolds and nasturtiums throughout the garden. Plant enough of each crop so you can let the bugs have some and still have enough for your own use.
Cultivating – Regular shallow cultivating not only kills weeds which rob nutrients and water from your plants but it also loosens the soil to admit rain and oxygen to the plant roots. Mulch of any sort between plants and rows discourages weed growth and helps retain soil moisture while it preserves the integrity of the soil surface.
Harvesting – Knowing how and when to harvest is important to obtain the maximum vitamin content, full-flavor and quantity of produce. For example, lettuce is ‘eating size’ in forty to forty-five days. Pull off outer leaves first to let the center part continue to grow giving you tenderer, delicious lettuce per plant and over a longer harvest period. The lettuce can be cut back to about two inches above the ground to rejuvenate the entire plant and obtain fresh growth. Radishes are ready as early as twenty-one days. Pull a test plant to be sure they are not becoming overgrown or woody. The leaves and the seed pods of radishes are very tasty for eating raw and make an excellent addition to salads. Carrots are most tasty when about one inch in diameter but still remain good when left in the ground until frost or even heavily mulched for use during the winter. Read seed packets and catalogs for plants’ time of harvest for best results. The location and other components of your garden may modify these times but this information is gained by experience.
Photo: Colleen Cavagna