What should you think about first if you want a garden full of fresh produce this summer, in spite of quarantines and economic fallout? Here is a summary of my suggestions, followed by some discussion:
- Evaluate your daylight
- Keep your garden a manageable size
- Prepare a garden bed
- Start with a layer of mulch
- Figure out your watering system before you plant
- Know the growing requirements for various plants
- Be prepared for pests
I am reviewing all of these as I set up a garden in a new place. Even though I had a garden for 25 years at our previous home, so I am needing to apply many first-time garden practices now.
Evaluate your daylight
Most plants need at least 6 hours of direct sunlight per day to grow properly. Some heat loving plants won’t do well unless they have more than that. Most yards have varying patterns of shadow and sunlight.
Don’t assume how many hours an area gets sunlight. Either take photos or take notes a few times during the day to determine where your best growing sunlight is.
Also consider that time of year makes a difference, both in where the sun is in the sky and it what other plants are filled in with leaves to block the sun. Sometimes pruning a tree or shrub is an option, but don’t do it haphazardly if you care about future growth.
There is also the added effect of which compass direction the light is coming from.
In the northern hemisphere, the summer afternoon western sun can be brutal in the high desert of Idaho. Look at the trees or where the siding on the house is suffering. These are indicators of where the full heat of the sun takes a toll on things. You will want to take this into consideration for some plants.
If you use moveable containers, you can possibly adjust the location as needed, but even plants in containers can get tangled on fences or need to be within reach of watering options, so plan accordingly.
Keep in mind how the mature size of plants will affect how much sunlight other parts of the garden get. A stand of corn in the wrong place can create shade that results in other plants being stunted.
Keep your garden a manageable size
A relatively smaller garden that is well cared for can give a better harvest than a large garden that is neglected. While you don’t want to crowd plants, which also inhibits growth, it can be easier to keep a small garden area weed free and monitored for pests.
Weeds compete for both sunlight and nutrients. They make it harder to see how the garden is growing, get in the way of harvesting, and provide haven for pests.
With fewer plants to harvest, you can frequently keep produce picked in ways that stimulates further production. Succession planting can be very useful, since not all plants like to grow in the same conditions or have season long life spans. We can use this to optimize garden space.
If you have other landscaping, try some inter-planting of some of the more visually desirable vegetables, like peppers or bush beans. You would already be weeding those areas, but now you can eat some of your landscaping!
Plants like sprawling pumpkins or strawberry patches can take up a lot of garden space, but can be colorful ground covers in other areas of yards.
Prepare a garden bed
While there are advantages to building a frame for a raised bed, this is not necessary. You can create a garden bed by doing something as simple as putting a tarp or some cardboard over an area of grass for a week or two to kill the grass there. Then remove the cover and you have a bare spot to plant other things in.
Sooner or later, you will benefit from having a trench or barrier so that adjacent grass does not grow into your garden bed easily, but this doesn’t need to be done right away.
You can also create a garden bed by piling some dirt over an area. The piling is useful for killing unwanted plants in that area. The raised mound also tends to heat faster in cooler regions and is often more efficient use of space than garden rows.
Let me emphasize that perfect soil composition is not necessary for a garden. Yes, there are things that can be done to improve soil, but many plants do well is basic soil. As long as the soil is not brick hard and can hold some moisture, as well as has reasonable drainage, it will work.
Start with a layer of mulch
I gave up yearly tilling of my garden soil quite a while ago. However, adding a 1-2 inch layer of composted mulch gives seedlings a good place to germinate and provides a steady source of nutrients.
It is good to do this before planting for a couple of reasons. First, it is easier. It is more time consuming to place the compost around seedlings. Beside needing to be careful about accidentally breaking them, it is often necessary to avoid building the soil up too far around the seedling stem.
Secondly, when directly planting seeds, you want them to be a certain depth (usually about twice their diameter). If you plant the seeds and then put a layer of mulch on, the germinating seeds might not make it to the soil surface.
A good soaking after the mulch is spread, but BEFORE you plant anything will help the soil settle. This will also avoid seeds settling too far down or trouble with seedlings getting soil washed away from their root ball later.
Figure out your watering system before you plant
Before you plant anything, you should have a system in place for getting water to your garden. This includes things like knowing hoses will reach and having drip systems in place.
You may be surprised to discover how hard it is to remember exactly where each seed is so that you know where to safely place a soaker or drip hose. If you plant seedlings, they are easily broken by a stray twist or flop of a hose that is being positioned.
Germinating seeds or newly transplanted seedlings need regular watering. It will be very hard to do this if you don’t have convenient ways set up to do this. Later, when plants are larger, it can be quite the puzzle to get a drip system down between plants. Do yourself a favor and have those things in place before you plant.
Know the growing requirements for various plants
We know that not all plants grow in the same climates. On top of that, not all plants sprout or flourish during the same times of year. This is also true for common vegetable garden plants.
If you wait to plant lettuce until the heat of summer, you will likely be very disappointed. If you plant your pumpkins seeds in April, they just might rot in the spring rains. This is something that will vary from region to region and plant to plant.
Understanding your average last spring frost date is an important part of this. If you are in southwest Idaho or a similar high desert clime, my recommendations may help you.
Be prepared for pests
Pests can be anything from aphids that swarm your cabbages to your own lovable children accidentally kicking the soccer ball throw the tender tomato seedlings. Pests come from the sky and from underground. They are both predictable and variable.
The first step in being prepared for pests is to have an idea of what might be common in your area. Once you know that, find out what the options are for dealing with it, make your choices, and keep supplies on hand. If you wake up to find a certain beetle wildly chomping on your potato leaves, one day can make a huge difference in successful combat.
My current go-to’s for insects are:
- insecticidal soap (Safer is the brand I have used recently)
- diatomaceous earth (Perma-Guard is what I have gotten)
- barrier fabrics (this is like what I use, but I have gotten mine in various places)
- Bonide 8 Insect Control
Other than that, avoiding mulch that is too thick or too moist helps, as does anything that provides insect habitat. Finally, I will mention my discovery of basically invisible cabbage maggots killing my cole crops like broccoli and cabbage. The ants that I thought were the problem were actually harvesting the maggots.
For the more four-legged or winged sorts of pests, barriers can be used selectively. This might mean timing them for when the harvest is nearly ready or having perpetual barriers like fences. Some people put a layer of wire at the bottom of their raised beds to keep out gophers. I have also made custom wire tops to fit over my raised beds to keep cats out when seedlings are small.
The grocery store versus the garden
Nothing beats the taste of veggies fresh from the garden, but such vegetables are usually not as convenient as the grocery store. How that plays out with the current quarantines around the world remains to be seen.
However, to enjoy produce from your garden, you have to nurture it, guard it, harvest it, and wash it. There will be successes and disappointments. Some disappointments can be avoided by a bit of relatively simple garden prep, quarantine or not.