Home Gardens Personal Sustainability: How-To

Seeds vs. Seedlings

With these early warm temperatures, many people are starting to think about summer vegetable gardening.  And it’s the perfect time to start your own seeds!  I usually start tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants in the second half of March and most other seedlings after that.  But should you start your own seedlings?  The answer isn’t necessarily yes.

Many great local farms and community organizations sell seedlings.  Even if six packs are more expensive then seed packages, remember your money is going to a good cause.  If you’ve been growing vegetables for a year or two (or more!) and are looking for a new challenge, go for it!  It also is often worth the effort for folks with very large vegetable gardens or farms.  But remember, strong seedlings are the key to success for a healthy summer vegetable garden.   You’ll need the right equipment, enough time to care for the seedlings, and an attention for detail to raise strong seedlings.

The first key thing to find out is which plants should be grown into seedlings indoors or in a cold frame.  Some seeds hate being transplanted and should simply be directly sowed into their final resting place – be it a container garden or in the ground.  I always direct sow beans, carrots, cilantro, corn, cucumbers, dill, summer squash/zucchini, baby lettuce greens, beets, leeks, spinach, other greens, onion “sets”, peas, potatoes (pieces of potatoes, not seeds), radishes,  and pumpkins/winter squash.

Head lettuce, kale, and chard will need to be transplanted.  However, I’ve had good luck planting them in outdoor beds, rather than indoors in seedling trays.  After they’ve grown their second set of leaves, I then spread them apart by transplanting them into their final summer resting place.

Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, basil, kohlrabi, broccoli, and cauliflower are best started indoors or in a greenhouse.  If you want to grow these from seed, make sure the following pieces are in place!

  • Be sure not to get in over your head.  Start the number of plants you can care for.  Try starting one or two of your favorite varieties of a veggie listed above if it’s your first year.
  • You’ll need really strong natural light.  If you don’t have a sunny southern window, consider buying a grow light (or put a full spectrum fluorescent bulb into a regular fixture).  You can see my set-up from last year below – the grow light is propped up on containers from my pantry.  I substitute in taller containers as the plants grow.  You can see that the light is quite close to the seedlings – keeping light this low prevents seedlings from being leggy – one of the most common weaknesses of home-grown starts.
  • Buy seed starting potting mix.  There are organic soil mixes available at most garden stores.  These mixes keep moisture even, contain the nutrients young plants need, and don’t compact like outdoor soil will.
  • You also will need warm temperatures for certain seeds to germinate (65-75 degrees).  Sunny windows can be warmer than the rest of your house.  Anything with a motor, like a refrigerator, can also provide extra warmth to specific places in your house.  If you don’t have any particularly warm places, you may need to buy a heat pad to get tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and basil to germinate.  I bought one from Johnny’s that worked well for my eggplants.
  • Timing: You want to start seeds so that they are the right size when it is warm enough to plant them outdoors.  UMass Extension has good guidelines (and many other resources for Massachusetts gardeners), or you can search for other charts online.
  • Make durable labels.  You need to know which plants are which.  I suggest popsicle sticks with permanent marker.  You can also cut strips out of recycled plastic containers and write with permanent marker on them.
  • Pay attention!  Even water is key for healthy seedlings.  Lights should be kept close to the tallest leaves, but you don’t want these leaves to touch the bulb.  Once you see plants developing their second set of leaves, you may need to transplant them into lager containers so they do not become root bound.  Keeping a close eye on your spring babies will set you up for success.
There are many websites offering advice for first time seed starters.  Check them out if you want more informaiton!  I found Mother Earth NewsNational Garden Bureau Organic,  and Gardener’s Supply interesting and informative.

Home Gardens Personal Sustainability: How-To

Backyard Gardening: Putting the Garden to Bed

This post is a bit overdue, we put the garden to bed the Saturday after Thanksgiving.  Given this year’s temperatures, we could have done it on New Years Day!

Putting a vegetable garden to bed in the fall isn’t truly necessary, but it makes things much easier in the spring.  It will allow you to plant earlier, when soil is still quite wet from melting snow.  Your garden will also look cleaner and more attractive to neighbors and housemates in urban settings.

Choosing the right time can be tricky, especially when first frosts are coming later and later in the season.  This year we had our first frost on November 2 in the city, leaving everything but chard and kale limp and dead.  These hardy greens, however, often get thicker sweeter leaves in the late cool fall, so I like to leave my garden intact until I’ve finished eating them all.  However, I also try to get my garden tucked away for the winter before it gets so cold that outdoor work becomes a painful chore.

Once you’re ready to unearth your veggie plant stumps and skeletons, gather a shovel, pruners, soil rake, a place to put your compost-ready plants, and some sort of mulch.  Leaves offer a free option, but these often blow away.  Salt march hay or straw (make sure it doesn’t have seeds) stay in place better and can be bought from a garden store.  First, pull out all your old plants, chop them up into 4″ pieces and put them into the compost.  Keeping compost additions small will ease in turning your heap.  Next, turn over your soil to kill any small weed plants and aerate your soil.  This is a good time to add completed compost or soil amendments so that everything will be ready in the spring.  Once you have raked your soil flat, add a layer of mulch over the top.  It can help to water the entire garden after mulching it to weigh down the mulch and keep it from blowing away.  Mulch will prevent weed seeds from sprouting early in the spring and will keep soil from blowing away or eroding during the winter.

We sifted completed compost out of the bin, re-layered its contents with our new dead plants, tilled the new compost into our garden soil, and mulched the garden with leaves in about 45 minutes!  Plenty of time was left for some pick-up basketball during the unseasonably warm late November weekend.

Home Gardens Personal Sustainability: How-To School Gardens

Cool Crops vs. Heat Lovers: Seasonality Tips!

We’re used to having access to whatever fruits and vegetables we want when we want them.  Sometimes this affects the growing decisions made by first-time gardeners.  If I LOVE spinach, why shouldn’t I start a new batch every 30 days all summer long? If watermelon is absolutely my #1 favorite fruit, I should be determined to grow at least one, right?!

Not necessarily.  A bit more strategy, research, and adaptation to the ebb and flow of each season is needed in order to take advantage of small backyard gardens and containers.  If you wait all year for your first pea harvest in June, they will taste better than if you ate them all year long.  And then, as soon as the thrill of eating peas starts to wane, strawberries, head lettuce, and cilantro will be ready.  If you eat seasonally, meals are appreciated and stay exciting all year round.

The Crop Availability Guide, produced by the MA Department of Agriculture gives the viewer some sense about when produce is available in Massachusetts, but this still isn’t telling the whole story.  Some plants can be grown in the middle of the summer, but farmers must use special techniques and extra effort to keep them cool and evenly watered so that they can thrive.  Similarly, some plants can be encouraged to grow despite cool temperatures with added equipment and cost, even though they really like growing later in the summer.  These efforts are worth it for seasoned gardeners and farmers who enjoy the challenge of extending their seasons.  For first time gardeners, however, my main advice is to make your job simple!  After a few years, your adjustments and adaptations will allow you to grow more of what you like when you want it.  Below, find tips on plants that grow well in small spaces and the best months to start them in.

SEASONS: Consider only planting spinach in spring and fall, using Chard as a heat tolerant substitute to get you through the middle of the summer.  Lettuce and cilantro can get through the summer in shadier corners of the garden while tomatoes, peppers, and basil love the heat and hate the cold soil and cool nights of May and April!

  • April: Peas (harvest in June), Lettuce (harvest in May/June), Spinach (harvest in May/June), Arugula (harvest May/June)
  • May: Lettuce, Spinach, Kale (harvest June-Nov), Chard (harvest June-Nov), Kohlrabi (harvest July), Cilantro (harvest June-July), Dill (harvest June-July), Onions (harvest July-Aug), Carrots (harvest July), Parsley (harvest July-Oct)
  • June: Beans (harvest July-Aug), Cucumbers (harvest July-Aug), Tomatoes (harvest July-Oct), Basil (harvest July-Sept), Marigolds, Peppers (harvest July-Sept)
  • Late August: In shadier or cool gardens, try starting a fall batch of peas, spinach, cilantro or lettuce!

SPACE: consider planting the first option rather than the second to save space in your small garden!

  • Cucumbers, trellised vertically vs. Zucchini
  • Pole beans, trellised vertically vs. Bush Beans
  • Grow greens, herbs, and tomatoes at home vs. corn, melon, and pumpkins …you can supplement your harvest by buying these space hogs from the farmer’s market

Do you have tips for those of us trying to make home gardening as easy as possible?  Did you have any early learning experiences in your garden that you can share with novice gardeners?  What unusual crops grow well in your backyard or container gardens?

Home Gardens Personal Sustainability: How-To

Backyard Gardening: Construction Day

Subject: [BBQ] Get Dirty in My Backyard April 16th @ 11am

Message: Hey Guys, Come join me for some fun-in-the-early-spring-sun … If you just want to come get your hands dirty, you can do that – I’ll be setting up some raised gardening beds which means: sawing, nailing, measuring, moving dirt – and some other stuff we’ll find out about that day. If you just want to come for a burger, hot dog or veggie burger, that’s great, because there’ll be lots of those on hand…

The day was cooler than the weekend before, but it was April so we felt lucky it wasn’t raining.  Having a BBQ at the same time kept friends and family from constantly requesting jobs to help the garden construction process.  Tools were our limiting factor – with only one drill, assembling the frames took a little while and only used the energy of two folks.

Minor shoveling helped flatten the grade of the yard and grassy areas were turned under to keep weeds from growing up through our raised beds.  Stakes were set inside the corners of each frame so we could drill into them from the end of each board.

The yard’s soil was soft from rain earlier in the week, so standing on the completed corners caused the stakes to sink into the ground, anchoring each frame in place. We then solicited the energy of the crowd to move soil from the driveway into the raised beds.

After the fluffy soil was tamped down with a rake, we planted cool season crops including lettuce, spinach, chard, kale, peas, arugula and carrots.  In just a few hours, we built 64 square feet of beautiful growing space!

After gathering up our tools we went in to warm up with tea harvested and dried from a friend’s herb garden last year.  Later that night rain fell as we made our way to a birthday party – instead of getting upset, we thanked Mother Nature for taking one task off of our “to do” list.

Home Gardens

Backyard Gardening: The Shopping List

Here’s what we bought to construct a 5’x8′ bed and a 3’x8′ bed, both raised 6 inches:

  • six 1″x6″x8′ cedar boards (cut into 3′, 5′, and 8′ lengths)
  • one 2″x2″x8′ stake, cut into eight 1′ stakes
  • 48 2″ galvanized screws
  • 1 cubic yard compost/loam mix
  • seeds (according to varieties desired and square foot gardening spacing, for small gardens, attending a seed swap is highly recommended!)
Here’s what we made sure we had at the house to help make the bed construction process a success:
  • electric drill (wasn’t cordless, so extension cord too)
  • shovels, rake
  • wheel barrow/buckets (for soil transport)
  • tarp (for dumping soil onto)
  • something to mark planted areas with (popsicle sticks)
  • cleared yard area free of brambles
  • way to play music outside
  • sent invitation to a backyard bbq and garden raising!
Home Gardens Personal Sustainability: How-To

Backyard Gardening: Planning

Last fall, my friend did a few first steps so we’d be ahead of the game in the spring.  These included taking a soil sample and sending it off to the labs at UMass Amherst for testing, and purchasing a subsidized compost bin from the city.  He also collected nearly 20 yard waste bags of leaves that neighbors had left out for collection.  We wanted to make sure there were no dangerous heavy metals in the soil and would use the leaves later for compost and mulch.

In the depths of winter, everyone benefits from dreaming of the summer!  The arrival of several seed catalogs in my mailbox get me thinking about planning the garden.  I gather up my catalogs and we spend a cozy afternoon making the initial plans for the garden space.

The first step is to check out the yard. As flurries decorate my hat, I trudge through the deep snow and take some measurements with a big tape measure.  I try to remember that the bare branches of the tree will leaf out and shade the back corner of the yard, and that snow is covering thorny shrubs in some areas but grassy lawn in others.  The best garden beds are placed in locations that get sun for most of the day and don’t interfere with other uses of the space.

After selecting the best locations, my friend browses through the seed catalog and marks off the plants he likes.  We make a list of these selections, and add columns for seeds per square foot, yield per square foot, and desired yield.  That will allow us to decide how to divide up the beds.

Garden Planning Check List:

As you can see, we didn’t worry about making our brainstorm pretty or understandable for others!  On the sheet below, you can see a rough map of the back yard along with a table listing low and high range of square feet wanted for each veggie based on sun needs, plants per square foot, and estimated yield per plant.

Home Gardens Personal Sustainability: How-To

Backyard Gardening: The Idea

Last fall, as the days grew short, CSA shares made their final distributions, and temperatures dropped, my friend came to me with a question.  He enjoyed his CSA share and was wondering if he should sign up again for the next season.  I mentioned that I thought he could grow most of the veggies he enjoyed in this year’s share in his small back yard and supplement his harvest with purchases at the farmer’s market.  I estimated that the cost of starting a garden and making a few purchases from the market would be less than that of a CSA share.  He was intrigued and open to trying it out for a season.

I realized I had never actually done personal back yard gardening in a city.  I grew up with a large garden in a rural community.  I maintain the school gardens in Somerville.  I’ve never had access to yard space while in the city, so I’ve grown choice vegetables along the edge of my of roof-covered porch.  Last year I even snuck chard and cherry tomatoes into my landlord’s flower beds.  I’d never, however, built and maintained raised beds for myself just outside my own back door. I was excited about the prospect of participating in my friend’s growing experiment!

After getting permission from the other users of his back yard space, we began to plan.  I would act as an adviser; he would be the garden manager and primary consumer.  I’d document the process so others could learn from our successes and challenges.  By the fall, we’d know how much work it really takes and how much we could realistically grow in 70 square feet of the  back yard. We welcome you to check in with our progress, offer tips or lessons you’ve learned from back yard gardening, and ask questions as we enjoy a season of urban gardening.  Maybe you can even start one for yourself!

Sungold tomatoes I was allowed to grow in my landlord’s flower bed last summer