GARDENING BASICS

By Morrigan

So, you are going to move to your rural dream home/retreat. It's a gorgeous old farmhouse, and you are planning a great big garden. You are going to be self-sufficient. Have you ever gardened? Have you asked about the local soil? Do you know the seasons and the temperature highs and lows? Gardening is not rocket science, but you do need a few key types of information to do it successfully. Remember these four things: season, soil, plant type, and pests. (Hint: Turn the soil a few weeks before you actually plan on planting, to loosen it and expose weed seeds and bug larvae. This is also a time to mix in soil improvers.)

Seasons means how long is the growing season, when does it start and end? In WA State, the season didn't really start until 1 June on a good year, 15 June on a bad one. It could frost up to that date, which would kill any "warm" type plants-tomatoes, cucumbers, summer squash, corn. Other "cold" type plants like peas and broccoli didn't mind the cooler weather. It makes a difference how long the growing season is for long growing veggies like watermelon and corn. Better to plant quick growing crops like radishes if you only have a 3-month season, or peas. If you live in the south, you can plant as early as May 1, even earlier for peas, because the danger of frost is past. The way to find out what your season is, is to ask at the local garden shop. Also, on most seed packets at the bottom is a map with latitudinal divisions into growing seasons. The seed packets recommend when to plant their specific crops according to what area you live in. You can extend your season by having cold frames to start plants in, then transfer them outside when the weather is warmer. Also, you can put a cut off milk jug over young plants to protect them from temp extremes and pests. Cut the bottom of the jug, and put the rest over the individual plant.

Soil means soil type. The 3 divisions are sandy, clay or loam. Sandy soil is just that, sandy, and will be found in coastal areas. Sandy soil suffers from less mineral content and lack of water. The soil is so loose that water penetrates, but drains quickly. To improve sandy soil, add compost, some clay, peat moss and other "soil building" elements like topsoil, vermiculite, potting soil. (Fertilizer adds nitrogen, which gives the plants food for better growth, but doesn't do much to aerate soil.) Broccoli and carrots like sandy soil. Clay soil is just that, it tends to be heavy, stuck together and acidic. To loosen up clay soil, add sandy soil, vermiculite, compost (these thing improve most any soil) lime, peat moss. Do not add hardwood leaves; they add to the acidity (tannic acid), better to compost them, and then add the compost. Clay soil sticks together, and water is stuck in it like a sponge at first, then drains right out, so plants will tend to dry out, and the soil when drained, forms hard clumps, with big gouges in between. Tomatoes like clay soil (like the acidity) and so do cucumbers. What you are trying to do with your soil is to move it to the middle ground, so that it is mineral happy (compost will add key minerals, as will bloodmeal, bone meal and fertilizer, especially nitrogen), loose, but not sandy, moist but not soaking wet or dry. And it should be dark colored, not the red/gray/tan of clay or light colored sandy. I have found that when using a 3-4 foot around compost pile, it takes approximately 3 years to get soil up to snuff. The gardens I worked on were raised beds, and the largest was 25'x 25', so if you are going to have a 50' x 100' foot garden, plan on a 10 foot compost pile (can be built with concrete block, pallets, tires, 4x4's) or two or three smaller piles. pH level is important, because plants do have a preference to acid or alkaline soil, so get a pH soil test kit from your garden shop. Adding lime to soil makes it more alkaline, adding hardwood leaves makes it more acidic.

Plant type means warm weather or cold weather, acid loving or alkali loving. Back to Basics by Reader's Digest has an excellent gardening section and will talk about all the items I'm covering in this article, with better depth and information, get this book. Generally speaking, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower , winter squash, cabbage and peas are cold weather. Pumpkins should be planted in June, but won't mature 'til late summer. They like cooler temps, and moist soil. We had Brussels sprouts year round in WA State, they loved the cold, wet weather. You can plant peas in March in most states. Once the weather gets hot, these plants wither. They also like a sweeter soil, and do poorly in clay. Warm weather crops are tomatoes, cucumbers, summer squash, watermelon, corn, radishes, lettuce, and green beans. They shouldn't be planted until after danger of frost and generally like acid soil, and don't mind clay. Corn likes a lot of nitrogen in the soil, so fertilize with commercial high-nitrogen products before planting, and use Miracle-Gro when plants are growing. Radishes and onions are great for planting between other long growing veggies, the radishes are ready in a month or two. Bean and pea plants contain nitrogen, so when they are finished giving fruit, till them back into the soil. Lettuce is also quick maturing, especially Bibb types, and many grow bushier as you pick the leaves, like leafy green. Lettuce must be well watered though, or will dry up, also will bolt (grow tall) and go to seed (begin producing flowers, then seeds)which ruins them for eating, the plant becomes bitter. The seed packet will also give information on how high plant will grow, and how far apart to plant. Again, you need to look into your area to determine what and how much to plant. If you love potatoes, but the soil isn't right, don't count on that root cellar full of spuds for your first harvest, you may find yourself knee deep in green beans instead!

Pests are both local and universal. They come in all shapes and sizes, and each can be fought with natural and chemical means. Some very common ones are aphids, which love tomato plants. They are tiny green critters that will be on the underside of the leaves, sometimes put there by ants, who "milk" the aphids. You can manually squish these critters, or wash leaves with soap/water combo. Also, by encouraging or even buying ladybugs, you will be encouraging a carnivore - ladybugs eat aphids. Slugs are another pest that will damage the leaves of most of your veggies, they come out at night and eat broccoli leaves, tomatoes, cukes, lettuce leaves, etc. ad nauseum. You can fight them in many ways. Ducks eat slugs, so do box turtles. Slugs will drown themselves in a plateful of beer. Commercial slugbait is sprinkled around the plants, activated by water, and will kill the slugs without harming the harvest. Slugs can be salted, but that is not good for the soil. Cutworms crawl up on cabbage-type veggies and eat through the stalks. You can "collar" the plant with a cutout plastic disk, cut from a milk jug or such, or use a drinking cup, cut to fit around the plant, to keep the cutworms off. I have not seen them on my plants, but have witnessed the devastation afterwards. Keeping weeds down keeps the bug population down, as weeds give them cover and additional food. Pulling weeds will guarantee keeping down the weed population, but it's labor intensive. Mulching with "neutral" materials like newspaper, woodchips, leaves, sawdust, pine needles, seaweed keeps down the weeds, although weeds have a way of growing in spite of our best efforts to destroy them. Beware using grass clippings though, there can be grass seed in with the clippings, and you'll be growing grass between your vegetables, which you don't want. Also, leaves add acidity, as will pine needles so keep on top of pH level. Consider bugs and weeds in the same pest category and realize you will always have some of both.

By gardening diligently, checking your plot everyday, tending to your plants and keeping after pests, watering regularly and fertilizing as needed, you will have a successful garden. My best advice is buy Back to Basics by Reader's Digest, and do some planning. Check the basics for your area, and then get to work. Happy Gardening!

Copyright 2000 Morrigan
No reprint or republication without express permission of author.