Growing a Garden

With the world turned upside down right now, people might be thinking about picking up a) a fun, social-distancing friendly hobby that b) helps them provide sustenance in a way that is c) soothing and d) educational.

This spring could be a great time to start or expand a fruit/vegetable/herb garden. I’ve done my best to quickly lay out the basic steps to starting a garden.

As with everything you do during this time, don’t strive for perfection. One of my best summers of tomatoes happened when I dug up a patch of grass and planted seedlings straight in the sandy soil.

Outline:

  • Step 1: Site Selection
  • Step 2: Preparing the Soil
  • Step 3: Planting
  • Step 4: Math, Science, and Nutrition Education Opportunities
  • Step 5: Maintaining Your Garden

Step 1: Site Selection

Find a site in your yard that gets a decent amount of sun. Six to 8 hours a day is ideal. However, I’ve seen friends do well with gardens that are part-shade or get less than 6 hours of sun. If you only have shade, you could have luck planting herbs, kale, lettuce, or other plants that don’t need as much heat and sun.

Find a planting site that is also well drained. If water collects there in spring, it’s not a great place for a garden—unless you’ll do raised beds that are quite high (1-2 feet).

This video about laying out a vegetable garden is great. Remember that the garden doesn’t have to be beautiful or perfect. Do what you can when you can. You can always fix it up next year.

Consider whether you want to build raised beds or an in-ground garden. To build a raised bed (which means you raise up the soil level), you can use logs, bricks you have lying around (or that you get from Craigslist, a neighbor, etc.), rocks, or something else. Just avoid using treated wood that could leach chemicals into the garden. Alternately, do an in-ground garden and just mound up the soil.

Raised bed with brick (no mortar).

Step 2: Preparing the Soil

Two main ways to prep a new garden site are to a) remove the grass (by digging it up, tilling, or another mechanical method) or b) cover over it with cardboard or layers of newspaper (if you’ll be adding a lot of soil + compost or building raised beds).

Bare soil could work for a garden. If that’s all you have, dig up the grass, plant some seeds, and give it a try this year. But it’s best if you can add nutrients and volume to your soil (build it up). I prefer do build a bed with something usually called super loam—a mix of compost and topsoil. You can also try other forms of compost to enrich the soil.

In order to build stronger soil, you might try these social-distance friendly options:

1) As of March 20th, many garden centers are still open. Some will take payment online or by phone and drop however many cubic yards of super loam in a spot you designate (directly onto your garden site, on a driveway, etc.). Delahunty’s is a great option in southern New Hampshire. Wayside Garden Center in Fairport, NY is a high quality operation. It also looks like Country Max in Fairport, NY is open as an essential business during the shut down.

2) A less conventional, cheaper option would be to find free composted horse manure from Craigslist. I did this in Rochester, NY, but haven’t tried it in New Hampshire. Many folks will just give you directions right to their compost pile—no human contact needed. (I shoveled it into buckets or bag-lined bins.) Mix the compost in with your soil, and you have a good boost of nitrogen and nutrients for your plants.

3) Many towns have free compost (usually from fall leaf pick up) that you can haul yourself. Fairport, NY and Windham, NH have this. Check with your town.

Step 3: Planting

This is the fun part. Figure out what you’d like to plant, get some seeds or seedlings, read the seed packet or do a quick Google search about how to plant it—and you’re off and running.

It’s still possible to get seeds through mail order. I like Baker Creek heirloom seeds, Maine Potato Lady, and Jung seeds. You might also check dollar stores and grocery stores for seeds (if you need to go there for food anyway). Some garden centers are still open. I’m also happy to send seeds to friends if you can’t find what you need!

I’m hoping open-air farmers markets and garden centers will still open in May. They should have seedlings. I’m sure growers are still starting plants.

Seasonal timing of the planting does matter. Look up the (average) last frost date in your town here but also check the weather report. In 2020, we might have an early spring.

Broccoli plant from summer 2019.

If you scroll down on this helpful Farmer’s Almanac link, there’s a list of states and counties so you can see the planting calendar in your area. Here are some things that are great to grow at home:

  • Seed in the ground (early April): peas, arugula, spinach, lettuce, potatoes (grown from chunks of seed potatoes)
  • Put seedlings in the ground (mid-to-late-April): broccoli, cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, onions; seed beets and carrots
  • Put seedlings in the ground (mid-May): tomatoes, peppers, eggplant
  • Seed in the ground (mid May): beans, cucumbers, summer squash, winter squash

Step 4: Math, Science, and Nutrition Education

If you’re home schooling your kids (or just want to expand your own mind and skill set), gardening provides myriad hands-on educational opportunities.

Rosie plants pepper seedlings at Merrimack College.
  • Math: counting by 1s, 2s, 5s, 10s, multiplying, measuring distances, working in a grid, calculating shade angles, calculating cubic inches/feet/yards, calculating percentages (germination rates), spatial reasoning (figuring out how to maximize planting space and patterns), calculating yields of produce per plant/per garden bed, calculating how much the food costs from the grocery store and how much your family could save on the bill.
  • Science questions: How do seeds grow? What conditions does each plant prefer? What is the photosynthesis cycle? Identify a bug–what is its role in the garden? How is this plant pollinated? What organisms are in the soil? What role does the earthworm play in the garden? How does this plant reproduce?
  • Nutrition questions: What vitamins does this fruit/vegetable have? How do those vitamins help our bodies? What is fiber? Why do we need fiber? How many fruits and vegetables should we eat per day? What’s a serving size? What are some recipes that use the vegetables we grow?

Step 5: Maintaining your Garden

Gardens can be surprisingly forgiving, but they don’t like to be ignored. If it hasn’t rained in 2 or 3 days, water the plants (at the roots, not on the leaves is best). Mulch around the plant with straw, salt hay, shredded leaves, or newspaper if possible. This will hold in moisture and reduce the need to weed. Weed if you can, but remember you don’t have to make it perfect.

Inspect your garden for pests. Sometimes hand-picking bugs is the only organic solution. Other times organic sprays (like Bt for kale, cabbage, and broccoli) work well. And if you have the resources to put up a fence or some deer netting, I highly recommend it. Rabbits, squirrels, ground hogs, and deer can devastate a garden.

Good luck with your garden! Make a note of what works and what doesn’t this year, and you’ll have an even more productive garden next year. I’ll add another post about how to enhance your plantings if you already have a garden and want to do more.

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