Friday, March 28, 2008

Getting started

Getting started

Growing vegetables is again being considered an important thing to do. I am glad to see it becoming a part of urban life. We are being called back to simpler times, and the joys of harvesting perfectly ripened produce at the peal of freshness, and grown by our own hands.

You need not be an expert to grow vegetables, and as with much in gardening trial and error is the process of learning. A few simple concepts will get you on your way.

Selecting a site for your garden is the first step. Veggies require good light; I recommend a minimum of 6 hours direct light per day minimum. Leafy vegetables, and root crops can take less light, whereas fruit crops like tomatoes, peppers, and squash may require more.

Creating or preparing the garden bed; begins when the soil is workable in the spring. Clean up the bed of any weeds, pull mature plants, or any that have produced seed already. Small seedlings may be turned into the soil without problems.

If you are creating a bed from a section of lawn you have a couple choices. Turf makes a great addition to soil, if it is buried deeply. This is a big job, weigh this option and decide for yourself. You may want to consider composting the turf, and dressing the beds with it later.

If you want the immediate benefit of the turf, you must double dig it in. Double digging is accomplished by first removing a section of turf, and setting it aside. Then you must dig a hole or trench where you removed the sod; the earth from this is again set aside. You are ready to start the process. Remove a new section of sod, and place it grass side down in your first trench or hole. You are ready to bury it with soil excavated from your next trench, where you just removed the second strip of sod. Continue double digging until you have buried your last sod strip. The remaining hole is finished with the addition of the set aside sod, and soil from your first excavation.

When you have a clean bed prepared you can dig in your compost. Composted manure’s, or sea soil are good choices if you haven’t made compost. If your soil is heavy clay, dig in lots of organic matter at this time. An easy way to assess your soil is to squeeze a handful. When you open your hand the lump should hold together but break apart with a flick of your finger. If it stays as a lump it’s too heavy, if it will not form a lump it is too sandy. Organic matter improves both conditions.

Next falls you can apply fresh manure, mulches, or grow a cover crop if you want to provide extra care to your soil. Cover crops or mulching help prevent weeds, erosion, and provides fertility, and organic material to the soil. Cover crops with legumes, or clover fix nitrogen into the soil via a structure on their roots. Fixed nitrogen comes from the atmosphere, and has the benefit of not leaching out with rain. Caring, and replenishing your soils always pays back dividends.

When your beds are turned, and amended you can think about planting. You should not grow the same crops in the same place year after year so this is where you should learn something about crop rotation, and how to group crops. Crop rotation is the practice of rotating a group of related plants to a new location each year. A common 3-year schema is root plants, brassicas, and the other plants not in the first two groupings. You may also have a permanent section for things like asparagus, rhubarb, berries, or fruit trees. If your space is limited rotate above ground plants one year with root vegetables the next. The brassicas family of plants benefits from alkaline soil, we are acidic here in the Pacific Northwest so the addition of lime is recommended.
Now for the fun, choosing and planting your vegetables. The best rule of thumb here is plant what you like. Seed packets are your best source of information, follow the instructions, they will indicate row spacing, and other criteria. You will need to know your frost dates. Instructions base the planting time on this date. Farmer’s almanac is a wonderful source of planting information, and has a frost chart for various locations.

You will note that it is recommended to start many seeds indoors. This is because our growing season is too short, and plants like tomatoes need a head start to reach maturity before fall. You can start seeds inside, or buy already started plants in spring. A windowsill is rarely bright enough to start seeds. It is usually better to set yourself up for seed starting indoors. You will require some simple equipment, and sterile medium. A weak seedling will be disappointing when transplanted to your garden. I usually buy my tomatoes, peppers, and basil as starts, and grow the rest of my veggies from seed directly outside.

Local nurseries, libraries, or online sources can answer questions about fertilizer, and watering. Enjoy! learn as you grow.

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