Cucumber Seedlings

Cucumber Seedlings

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Planning Your Garden - Basics to keep in mind

It's amazing how many plants can be grown in such a small space!  Neighbors and friends ask me what I'm growing and I feel like I should give them an abridged version to keep them interested.  In fact, in a little more than 220 square feet I'm growing over 50 different varieties of plants and there's still room for my neighbors to park their bicycles.  Some plants are growing directly in the ground, in raised beds I have dug out, and some are in containers.  The key a successful garden is knowing a bit about the plants, how they grow, and what their needs are.  Here are some things to consider when planning your garden:

Most grains and fruit-bearing plants, like eggplants, peppers, beans, etc, need at least 6 hours of direct sunlight for proper production so they should be put in the sunniest parts of your garden.  In shadier parts, it's better to stick more with leafy crops like lettuce, chard, arugula, and some herbs like mint.  Spinach and Kale do better in full sun.

All life needs water.  It's where the chemistry of life happens.  But like everything, different plants have their different preferences as to amounts and conditions of their water.  Most plants don't like to sit in pools of water, and prefer well-draining soils.  However, some plants have higher preferences than others.  Strawberries and raspberries both like sandier, very well-drained soils.  Their roots will rot if the soil is too wet.  Tomatoes and cucumbers need a fairly steady supply of water, so their soils can be less sandy and hold water better.  Zucchinis are very thirsty plants, but having water on their leaves makes them susceptible to mildew that can cripple and kill the plant.  It's better to water only the soil of the zuke, an try to avoid the leaves.

Yes.  Compost is important.  I just needed to get that out there.  Compost and manure do a lot of great things for your soil.  Here are three of them:  First, it adds organic matter, or decomposed plants and animals, which helps hold nutrients better in your soil.  Second, it contributes to a healthy microbiology in your soil.  There are lots of important bacteria, bugs and worms, and fungi that live in the dirt that do things like aerate the soil, add nutrients, and even fight off invading diseases.  Organic matter is the food for the soil's life.  Without the microbes, you will have unhappy plants.  Third, compost provides a slow release of nutrients to the soil, especially micro-nutrients.  It can also help balance the pH of the soil, but that's getting technical.  When adding compost to your soil, add a good inch or two on top then mix it in as thoroughly as you can, ideally in the top foot of soil.  It will encourage your plants roots to go deep into the soil.  In a container you can have up to 25% of the potting mix be compost.

Pole beans (bottom left) will be trained to climb up the railing.
Look at the space of your garden creatively!  Don't be constricted by the soil alone.  If you have a fence or a railing on one side, try planting some climbing beans or cucumbers to crawl up it.  If you have tree stumps or concrete in your way use a self-watering container to put around it or on top of it.  Have a gutter nearby?  Why not have it empty into a large trash can and use the rain water for your plants when it gets sunny again.  Rain water is preferable to tap water because tap water is treated with chlorine.  It will kill the germs in your water, but it's also hard on your soil's microorganisms too.

Tomato plants need between 1.5 and 2 feet between plants to be happy, and cucumbers like 12 inches between plants.  Radishes need about 2 inches, and beets take 4.  Each plant is different so it is important to have a reference to check if you're unsure.

Companion Planting
Some plants grow better together than when grown apart.  Some plants grow worse together than when grown apart.  Knowing these time-tested pairings of companion planting can add to your garden's success.  Lettuce grows well planted next to carrots and radishes.  Planting basil around your tomatoes will improve the growth and flavor of both.  Planting marigolds around your garden will work to repel all sorts of mean insects.  Different herbs repel specific insects, and help specific plants grow.  It's worth taking a look at a list of companion planting to know which combinations to try and which to avoid.

While plants make their own food, they need to get the raw materials somewhere, and some plants need more than others.  The main building block is carbon, which they get from the air (CO2).  Next they need nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K).  These three macro-nutrients are what all fertilizers are concerned with.  You've probably seen N-P-K or even 3 numbers (like 8-4-5 or 20-20-20 something) written on the side of a bag or container.  That's what this is about.  Nitrogen is essential for vegetative or leafy growth; phosphorous is important for root development; potassium is used for flower and fruit production, and is also linked to fighting diseases.  Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, zucchinis, and squash, are considered heavy feeders and need the most N-P-K of all your vegetables.  Yellowing leaves are a sign of nitrogen deficiencies.  Especially if you're growing any of these in containers, I'd recommend fertilizing them at least once a month.

There are also important micro-nutrients which include calcium, iron, boron, copper, zinc, magnesium, manganese, and molybdenum.  Plants use a lot less of these nutrients than the macro nutrients, but they are still very important.  Deficiencies in calcium, for example, cause spots of rot on the ends of fruits.  Synthetic, chemical fertilizers tend to have higher concentrations of N-P-K than organic or biologically based fertilizers, but don't have any micro-nutrients in them.  They must be added separately.  Additionally, most chemical fertilizers are made from petroleum, and take huge amounts of energy to produce.  Although organic fertilizers have lower concentrations of the macro-nutrients, they still provide the the N-P-K to plants and are also a well-rounded source of micro-nutrients as well.  Some great organic fertilizers are fish emulsion, blue-green algae, and chicken manure.

For more detailed information on starting a garden I recommend reading "How to Grow More Vegetables" by John Jeavons.  It's got tons of great information on preparing your vegetable bed, plant spacing, expected yields, making compost, companion planting, the works!  It's thorough and easy to read, a great reference for any level of gardener.

If at first you don't succeed

Last summer, construction on the outside of our apartment building rerouted my plans for a garden from the front of our building to its roof top.  My first solo gardening project, indeed my first gardening activity since the third grade, was suddenly more experimental than I had anticipated.  I bought a collection of plastic storage containers and large pots, filled them with rocks, dirt, and compost, stuck in my seedlings and crossed my fingers.  Like a novice monk, I spent the summer carrying buckets of water, filled in our bathtub, up three flights of stairs to the roof where I poured them over my parched plants.  I managed to get a decent harvest of cucumbers, some great zucchini, several harvests of herbs, and even a few tomatoes and peppers.  It was very modest, but encouraging.  By the way, I forgot to tell my landlord, who knew of my desire to plant in the front, that I had moved my operations to the roof.

We came home one afternoon after labour day weekend and the smell of basil was in the air outside of our apartment.  Looking at the ground out front, we suddenly saw all of my containers.  Most of them were broken, the earth and the plants they had held were raked out across the ground, shards of bright blue plastic half-buried among them.  With tears streaming down my face I stepped among the wreckage of my garden, trying to salvage some basil and chive plants that had been buried whole.  It was a tragic day.

Mat called the landlord who explained that he had just discovered my containers over the weekend.  Having recently redone the roof of the building he was more than a little concerned about potential damage their weight might cause.  Being too heavy to carry down, he decided to launch them off the side of the building instead.  Well!  We would have at least liked to see the fall!

It was agreed by both our landlord and ourselves that the entire situation could have been handled better by both parties, and our landlord reimbursed us for half the cost of the materials that had been broken.  He promised that next year I would have dictatorial gardening powers over the front and would even put new soil down.

So here we are in the spring of 2011 and I am very excited to have our new garden in the front.  With the help of some friends I have spent hours loosening up the soil and adding compost.  I started seedlings inside and they have recently been transplanted.  But the first plants to come up in April, before I had begun to do any work at all, were those rescued chives, three bright green patches.  They are perennials, I suddenly learned, and had survived a particularly cold Montreal winter.  Now here they were, a pungent sign of encouragement for the new season.