Think Gardening Only Happens in Spring? Think Again.
It's time to get your garden prepped for planting.
“Have you planted your garden yet?” is a question I frequently get in the spring. It always puzzles me, because to supply you and your family with fresh produce all season long, planting a garden is not a one-time thing, it’s an ongoing activity. For example, to be able to harvest your own lettuce from spring through fall, you need to seed a small amount at regular intervals—about every two to four weeks.
Even in ideal weather conditions and with the best possible care, garden crops can fail. The more you diversify what you plant, and the more you spread it out over the gardening season, the better. It’s similar to smart investing, where a diversified portfolio is less likely to turn you bankrupt.
Diversifying your garden is especially important if you are one of the many people who first started gardening during the pandemic, perhaps frustrated (and discouraged) by the failures. Weathered, battled-tested gardening veterans take crop failures in stride and diversify what they grow. Successful gardening is built on failures.
But with the failures also come successes, and your garden will thank you for putting effort in year-round. Here’s a four-pronged approach that can help you make your gardening season more successful:
If you didn’t keep gardening records last year, jot down what you can still remember, such as what you planted, where, and any problems or successes. This information will be helpful as a reference for this year and for also for all future gardening years.
In your garden diary, recap which crops did well last year and which didn’t, and why. Sometimes failures are obvious—such as when the crop was decimated by a pest or a disease—and you might be able to take precautions against it (more about that below). In some cases, however, it’s not possible to identify what went wrong. That's okay!
Last year—inspired by a friend who had brought me a large bag of plump fresh lima beans from his suburban garden—I tried to grow lima beans myself. Although the plants looked very healthy, tall and lush, there were barely any beans on them. I have no idea why and until I have figured it out, I won’t set myself up for another failure, so won’t plant lima beans again.
If you still have seed packages left over from last year, check if your seeds are still viable. The viability, or life expectancy of seeds, varies greatly, and it also depends on the storage conditions. Instead of relying solely on the number of years, you can also do a germination test of a few seeds by placing them between damp pieces of paper towels and keeping them at the germination temperature that is indicated on the seed package.
Once you’ve decided what you want to grow, determine what’s best to grow from seed and what to buy as seedlings (the list of criteria to consider can be found here). Don’t delay ordering your seeds, even if there’s still snow on the ground. With the pandemic, seed companies have seen sales soar and sell out early.
Create a timeline for starting your seeds. Some crops are directly seeded in the garden, while others need to be started indoors in cooler climates. For indoor seed starting, the correct timing is crucial. If you start the seeds too early, and the weather is still too cold for the young seedlings to be planted outside, keeping them indoors for an extended period of time makes them weak and leggy.
Also, make a garden blueprint of what goes where, keeping in mind what you grew in your garden beds last year. One of the most important principles of vegetable gardening is crop rotation: never plant members of the same plant family in the same spot in two consecutive years, or even longer for some crops, because that perpetuates diseases and drains the soil of nutrients in an unbalanced way.
If you have not cleared your garden from dead plants and other debris, now’s the time for a cleanup to eliminate any plant pathogens or overwintering insects that could attack the new tender plants.
Unlike flower beds and other ornamentals, the soil in a vegetable garden gets heavily depleted every year so it needs to be replenished with fertilizer for nutrients and amended with organic matter. Do a soil test before you apply any fertilizer. Soil test kits that you can do yourself tend to be less accurate as lab tests. If you’ve never tested your soil, it might be best to get a test from your local Extension Office that will provide you with baseline data of your garden soil.
The least pleasant part of garden prep—albeit one that will pay off big time—is getting ready for any garden foes. If your plants were affected by pests or diseases last year, chances are they will come back, even if you practice good garden sanitation. Do some research to find out how to monitor for pests and diseases, and which insecticides, pesticides, or other treatments such as mechanical barriers work against them, and have them ready.
Simply put: Growing your own food is a time commitment. Take a good look at your spring and summer schedule before planning your garden. While you are on vacation, do you have someone who can water your garden if it doesn’t rain? Are you around at harvest time and ready to process what you’ve picked?
Also be realistic in your expectations. Even a large garden is likely to only supplement your fresh food requirements, not fully feed your family. Kris Bordessa, author of Attainable Sustainable: The Lost Art of Self-Reliant Living calculated that, in order to feed her family of four (sauces, salsas, salads) she needs to harvest a whopping 250 pounds of tomatoes, requiring 17 to 25 tomato plants.
That said, a small garden can easily produce enough basil for drying and pesto to last you the entire year—a worthwhile endeavor if you ask us.
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