Common questions from new gardeners

GardenersYesterday, I led a garden planning workshop with Preserving Traditions at the Pittsfield Grange. A couple of questions came up more than once, so I thought I’d answer them here in case they interest anyone else.

What material should I use for my raised bed’s walls?

I’ve used both composite decking material and 2″x8″x8′ standard (untreated) pine lumber. The composite has bowed out over the years but the pine hasn’t. I’m not sure how long the pine will last, but after 3 6 years in my Michigan zone 5b garden, it’s not showing much wear or rot. It’s also cheap, easy to find, and there’s no worry about leaching chemicals, so it is my preference for all my new beds. YMMV, especially if you live where it’s warm all year and termites are a problem.

Do I need to dig up the sod/soil before building my raised bed?

No. If you put at least 6″ of dirt and compost in the bed, it will smother all the grass. The grass will compost and become worm food, and your deeper-rooted plants will soften the hardpan. Save your back! Let the plants and worms do the work!

What soil should I use in the beds?

You want “garden blend” soil, which is half topsoil and half compost. Plants need the minerals of the dirt AND organic matter – don’t use just one or the other. You’ll need one cubic yard to fill a 4’x8′ bed 6-8″ deep.

Where should I get soil?

If you’re near Ann Arbor and you only need a couple yards of soil, I’d order it from Lodi Farms. They’ll deliver small loads at a decent price. It will have some weeds in it (all bulk soil does) but they’re easy to remove. For larger loads, other places, like EZ Landscaping, are probably less expensive. The soil is all more or less the same quality, and all good enough to get started with.

Don’t raised beds dry out really fast?

I water mine deeply about once a week – twice if it’s really dry, not at all if we get a good rain. They seem to do just fine and they don’t “bake” any faster than the rest of the yard. And because the soil’s so loamy, it doesn’t get compacted like the rest of my clay yard does.

Is it better to put all the plants of the same family in one bed, or spread them around?

I like putting them into one bed for two reasons: it makes crop rotation easier, and similar plants often need similar protection. So, I can fence the beans easily, and cover all the brassicas to keep out the caterpillars. Other folks like mixing up the plant families to explore companion planting, or to prevent pests and diseases from moving like wildfire through all the plants of that family. It’s up to you – both approaches have advantages!

Should I start my own seeds indoors?

Probably not, especially your first year. Seed starting is its own skill, and you’re going to have your hands full enough. Your first garden will probably be a mix of seeds you plant directly in the garden bed (green beans, lettuce, carrots, squash) and plants you bought at the market or store (tomatoes, peppers). And potatoes, which you plant in the garden as actual potatoes, and which will grow a new potato plant. For more details on what to plant as a seed outdoors vs. transplanting something that was started indoors, see Should I buy seeds or transplants?

Do I have to worry about crop rotation this year? I’m getting overwhelmed!

Personally, I think it’s much more important to get out there and start your first garden than to worry about rotating crops your first year or two. Crop rotation is certainly a concern as you think about long-term sustainability. If you plant the same crop in the same place year after year, it will deplete the soil of its favorite nutrients, and it’s possible that diseases and pests will build up in the soil. So do think about it…but if it’s too much for this year, don’t sweat it.

See also:


Michigan fall garden

Even though my garden is essentially full right now, I’ve been wondering if I can plant yet more this year. I do have some dirt leftover and could always use another bed…but what could I plant now? And the winter wheat and first spring onions and peas will be out of the garden in a few weeks…so what should I plant in the spaces they vacate?

After a bit of searching, I found a nice guide to fall vegetable gardening in Michigan (pdf) from the MSU Extension office. It has planting and harvest dates, as well as some varieties to try.

I’ll be curious to see if this works. These are mostly “cool weather crops,” and it seems odd to plant them in late July, which is anything but cool here. Perhaps some shade netting is in order. I also have a hard time imagining planting kale, as the kale in the garden will keep going strong until December – or until I eat it all, which usually happens first. Hmm, though I suppose I could plant *more* of it and then maybe it would last…

I’m still pondering a greenhouse, but I can’t bring myself to look out into my yard and see a plastic quonset hut, and other options are really too expensive. This year I’m going to see if I can do something smaller and portable, perhaps just put plastic on my screen house to convert it into a mini-greenhouse for winter.

It’s not too late to start a garden!

Hey, all you northern folks! It’s not too late to start a garden this summer! Heck, all us early gardeners got bitten by a hard frost the last week in May, so you’re actually ahead of the game.

First, be sure you’ve got the basics covered: sun, soil, and water. Then the fun part: planting!

You can plant any summer crops right now and still expect a good harvest. You might try:

  • Tomatoes
  • Peppers
  • Eggplants
  • Beans
  • Squash – summer types like zucchini or yellow crookneck, winter types like acorn or butternut, cucumbers, melons, etc.
  • Carrots
  • Beets
  • Chard
  • Grains
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Quinoa

The following are usually “cool weather” crops but should do fine unless there’s a big heat wave soon:

  • Kale and broccoli (start from plants, not seeds, at this point)
  • Peas
  • Fennel
  • Potatoes

The only things I wouldn’t bother with at this point are lettuce and spinach – it’ll probably get too hot for them before they’re big enough to eat. Though if you can find some seedlings cheap, give it a whirl in a shady location. If the summer gets off to a cool start, they might do quite well!

Victory Garden “Take Five” Update

As part of the Victory Garden Challenge, I offered to mentor five gardeners through building their first vegetable gardens. Now that the gardening season is under way for all of them, I thought I’d bring you an update.

Gardener #1 lives in Texas, and so far she’s been chasing down wood for raised beds and a handyman to set them up. Haven’t heard from you in a while, A…care to update us?

Gardener #2 lives in Arkansas, and so far she’s built her first 4’x8′ raised bed and populated it with tomatoes, squash, beans, and onions! Woohoo! Our gal loooooves her squash, but I had to talk her into thinning down to just one each of zucchini, crookneck, and spaghetti squash, lest they take over her yard and swallow her family and new dog. 🙂

Gardener #3 lives in Boston, and is doing a combination of raised bed and container gardening. The wood for the beds is in place, the dirt pick-up is being organized, and the planters are in the mail!

Gardener #4 lives in Tennessee, and she’s lined up a nice set of big recycled containers to hold lettuce, potatoes, radishes, chard…the list goes on and on! See pics and details at her new gardening blog, View From the Garden Gate.

Gardener #5 lives in Michigan, and she’s been planting resumes and watering her job prospects, so most of her gardening so far this year has been her existing herbs and flowers. Keep your fingers crossed as she learns more about where her roots will be next year!

And a bonus gardener #6, also in Michigan, has built two 4’x8′ beds. One has been filled with dirt, radishes, peas, lettuce, and spinach. She’s in the process of moving dirt from the driveway where it was delivered to the second bed, which will have beans and tomatoes and other yet-to-be-determined delicousness.

Garden journal: planting peas

These garden journal entries are just to keep track of what I planted, when. If you live in zone 5b/6, it’s likely you can plant this same stuff about now!

Peas.I planted peas today (Sugar Sprint from Johnny’s Seeds). I planted them around square tomato cages about 1.5″-2″ apart. These short (2′) plants aren’t supposed to need staking, but it’s so much easier to pick them when they are. I grew these last fall and they were fabulous, if not prolific. The pods were small and few, but tasty. I also planted them very, very late, I think. I planted around 2.5 cages and ran out of seeds – I forget how fast peas go when you plant them that closely. The “packet” from Johnny’s is huge – far larger than a supermarket packet – and with the ones I used last year, I’m guessing I planted about 200 seeds this afternoon. Time to start saving seeds, methinks. Peas are one of the easiest to save, too.

On Saturday, I planted onion sets (whatever variety is considered “sweet” at my local garden store). About a pound of sets planted four 8′ long rows on 2″ hexagonal centers (I’ll thin every other one as they grow). Need to clear some strawberries out before I plant the “keeper” onions.

I may hold some of those sets back for a second crop so they are ready closer to fall. Anyone have any input on growing onions for winter storage? I can’t get sets after about mid-May.

My Seed (non-)Starting

GardenersSome years, I just can’t wait to get gardening. Sometime in February, I haul out the racks and lights and set up a Wall o’Sprouty Goodness in the yoga room. It makes me smile to exercise in the morning and see all the little seedlings.

This year…not so much. Allow me to list for you the seeds I will be starting indoors:

  • Kale
  • Broccoli
  • Chard?
  • Corni di Toro peppers…if I feel like it…but I can get something similar at the market…
  • Ummm…

And you know what? It’ll work out just fine. I’ll buy some organic heirloom tomato and lettuce seedlings at the market (we are so lucky to have this market) and maybe some leeks from the garden store. Most everything else will be seeded directly in the garden. And I can’t even think about that until the peas go in in April.

If I get itchy, I might plant some more stuff inside, or toss a cold frame out into the garden…hmmm, I could do my kale and such out there and skip indoor seeding altogether…that would be way easier than setting up the grow racks…

The take-away? Don’t get intimidated or guilty if you see the long lists of stuff people are planting indoors. That activity is as much for the sanity of the gardener as it is for the health of the garden. 🙂

Drag and Drop Garden Planner

Looking for a simple tool to plan a square-foot garden? Try my new drag-and-drop garden planner! You’ll need the latest Flash plugin for your browser. Each plant icon shows several phases of growth (optimized for US zones 5-6):

  • The colored dots show you how many to plant in one square foot. So, one eggplant per square foot, four lettuce plants, or sixteen carrots. The garden bed ix 4’x4′.
  • Click on each month to see what stage of growth the plants should have. When you see the seeds, for example, it’s time to plant the seeds out in the garden.
  • Most plants keep growing until October…though that will vary depending on when you get your first frost, and whether you cover your plants or not.

Comments, questions, and suggestions are welcome!

Garden Planner
Click image to begin gardening!
This is a very simple tool. If you are looking for something more fully-featured, check out , which is the tool I’d dreamed of building…but someone else did first! UPDATE 3-21-12: Gardener’s Supply has a really nice one, too, and it’s free.

Easy plants for beginners

GardenersSo you want to garden? If you have your garden (or containers) set up, here are some great plants to start with. Please note, I’m writing from southern Michigan, so your results will best match mine if you live from New England through Ohio and west at about the same latitude (the light and dark green stripes on this map).

Best plants for a beginning garden (including container gardens):

  • Onions
  • Tomatoes
  • Green beans
  • Peas
  • Curly kale
  • Swiss chard
  • Hot peppers
  • Potatoes
  • Herbs, especially basil and chives
  • Squash, including zucchini, take a lot of space but are pretty reliable producers

Some plants that I don’t think are a good bet for a first garden:

  • Carrots and beets (very picky about water until they’re established)
  • Corn (takes a lot of space for a few ears; must be picked at exactly the right time)
  • Cucumbers (fairly picky about water)

Essential garden tools

GardenersSo you want to garden? Before you run out and buy a hundred different tools, consider this:

I use these all the time and couldn’t garden without them:

  • A metal rake (sometimes called a bow rake) – not the kind you rake leaves with
  • A digging fork (kind of like a pitch fork put with heavy, flat tines – not long skinny round ones)
  • A skinny hand trowel, no more than 2-3″ wide and about 6″ long

On occasion, I find a use for:

  • A widger, for indoor gardening and transplanting
  • A long-handled shovel, though I often ditch it in favor of the digging fork
  • A colinear hoe, which has a sharp blade that skims under the surface of the dirt to cut off weeds
  • A 3-tined cultivator…but I think I use it because I have it, not because it’s very necessary.

These sit patiently on the tool rack, wondering if I’ll ever use them again:

  • Seeder
  • Three-tined hand fork
  • Garden Weasel

I’ve never bothered to buy:

  • Rototiller
  • Specialized weeding tools

I also recently got a wheelbarrow, and wonder how I ever got along without it. YMMV.

Starting a garden from scratch

GardenersSo you want to garden? I can help with that. 🙂

If you’ve never gardened before, or are starting a brand new garden, here are the three things you must consider before you begin.

Thing 1: Sunshine. Look around your house and evaluate your sunlight (preferably in summer). Your yard, balcony, or patio are obvious places to start. If you don’t have those, perhaps you have a front step or a few feet in front of your garage? And sometimes landlords don’t mind if you plant a few things in that scraggly bed by the porch. Here’s what you do: make a sketch of your likely location. Then pick one sunny day and look at your area first thing in the morning, at noon, at 4-5pm, and around 8pm. Outline where all the shadows are, and note the difference between dappled shade (from trees) and full, solid shade (from buildings). At the end of one day, you’ll have a map of the sunniest part of your yard – the part that has the least layers of shadow on it. If you have a space that gets 6-8 hours of summer sunlight, you can have a garden! More is better (except maybe in Fresno…) because plants will get bigger and you can plant more varieties, but you can do *something* with 6-7 hours of sun. (In January, days are shorter, so don’t worry if you’re only getting 4 hours of sun.)

Thing 2: Soil. This makes all the difference in the world. Almost all yard soil will need some work to get it to the fertility you…and maybe you don’t even have a yard. Advanced gardeners will build their own soil, but for starting out, my preferred way to go is to build raised beds and buy good soil. Get it by the cubic yard from a landscaping company (one yard per 4’x8′ bed) It’ll be called “garden blend” and will have half dirt and half compost. You can buy bags of soil and compost at the garden store, but you will need a lot of bags to fill a 4’x8′ garden bed.

Thing 3: A container. Raised beds at least 2′ square and 8″ deep are ideal. I like 4’x8′ beds. Lumber generally comes in 8′ lengths, so you can create one from three planks with only one saw cut. I can also reach across a 4′ bed without stepping on the soil. You can also plant in BIG portable containers. Here are a couple ideas: an 18 gallon Rubbermade tote; the bottom 12″ of a plastic trash can; a 5 gallon bucket (fits one tomato plant); or a plastic wading pool. You can also buy 18″x24″x12″ self-watering plastic planters for $75 if you’re feeling gear-happy. (Here’s my favorite source.) Just keep in mind, anything smaller than a 5 gallon bucket is going to require lots of fussing and careful attention. Important: Any container must have holes in the bottom for drainage or your garden will probably drown. Plunk your container in its new home and mix your soil and compost in it. I suggest putting half the soil in, mixing it up, then continuing to do layers and mixing in batches. It’s hard to mix a hundred pounds of dirt at a time.

Thing 4: Water. Chances are, you’ll need to water thoroughly one or more times per week. The smaller your container, the more often you have to water. A 4’x8’x12″ deep bed needs water once a week. A 6″ flowerpot needs water twice every single day. Having good equipment (I like a garden hose with a fan-type nozzle) means you’re more likely to give the garden the water it needs.

If you have good sunlight and soil and a place to put the dirt, you should be able to grow tasty veggies at home

See also:

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