Gardening 101.2

In which practical and increasingly detailed advice is offered to the novice wishing to set up a vegetable grow-op

Assuming you’ve decided to give gardening a try, let’s talk about seeds and planting.

It’s not critical where you buy your seeds. They’re available from supermarkets, nurseries and building supply stores. I’m not aware of much difference in quality. but if you’re prone to paranoia, buy from a nursery or seed company.

Buy seeds for smallish plants, like radish, lettuce, peas, beans, carrots, beets, onions — that sort of thing. Larger vegetables like cabbage, turnip, broccoli, cauliflower and pumpkin take a whole summer to grow, hence a whole summer of tending and fighting off insect predators. They’re more work than the smaller ones, and the stakes are higher.

Stay away from exotics like corn, which take a lot of knowledge and technique. You’re unlikely to get rewards that will justify the effort. Same thing with watermelon and peppers — they’re hot-climate plants. Experienced gardeners may grow these in greenhouses, even outside, but they know the tricks.

Varieties don’t matter a lot. You might have six or eight different carrots or whatever to choose from. Pick whichever one tickles your fancy. You might use the lowest ‘days to harvest’ number as a way to choose. But they’ll all be pretty close.

Read the directions

The seed package will tell you everything you need to know. How deep to plant the seed in the soil, how far apart to plant seeds, how far apart the rows – if you’re planting in rows. That sort of thing. Just take a stick, make a hole or scratch a trench of the right depth, drop in the seeds, and cover back over. Water. Done.

Keep the soil moist. Your seed might only be a quarter-inch down, and that depth of soil will dry out fast on hot days. No moisture means no germination.

The very worst plants for getting eaten by bugs, in my experience, are the members of the cabbage family. That’s why I don’t recommend you grow them, unless you’re particularly contrary and love a fight.

It might be a week, even two, before you see tiny green shoots popping up, as your seed germinates and begins to grow a plant. If you’re growing in the ground, be prepared for caterpillars, green grubs, slugs, snails, and all manner of creepy-crawly to show up and start chowing down on those delicious, tender young plants. The battle is on.

For the beginner, gardening in the ground is frustrating, because you have to defend your garden against all your ‘sibling’ creatures (which are also part of nature, just trying to get by) whose job in life is to find food, eat it, grow and reproduce.

You may aspire to be an organic gardener, but take if from me, when tiny creatures threaten to destroy your crop before it even has a chance to get a good start, you’ll be tempted to think chemical. There are ways of dealing with them non-chemically, but they’re only somewhat effective, and the major requirements will be your own patience and your own time. Lots of both. Count on character-building to take place.

Brassicas = trouble

The very worst plants for getting eaten by bugs, in my experience, are the members of the cabbage family. That’s why I don’t recommend you grow them, unless you’re particularly contrary and love a fight. These are cabbage, turnip, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, kale, et cetera. Also known as the ‘Brassicas’, they’re the Irish Catholic family of the food plant world. You’re lucky if you can name them all off. Interestingly, this is also known as the mustard family – yes, that mustard, grown for its seeds. Canola, grown out west for its oil, is another member. But I digress.

Having planted as described, all you need to do to maintain your little plants is keep them watered, fight off whatever wants to eat them, and pray there isn’t a late frost.

Let’s talk containers

If you have no space for an in-ground garden, or don’t want to bother, but you have deck or lawn space for containers, you can still grow food. In fact, as I said earlier, containers are more trouble-free, because you won’t have to worry about the many-footed little shaggers eating them.

The size of containers you’ll need will depend on what you’re growing. Carrots are long, so you need depth. I grew carrots last year in a rectangular plastic container (looks like a window box planter) which measures 9×28 inches and is seven inches deep. They didn’t get very big or long, but as baby carrots, they were fabulous, crunchy, tasty. You could grow radishes, three or four lettuce plants, or spinach in that sort of a planter. But remember to bear in mind the full-grown size of the plant. A leaf lettuce plant might be ten inches across or more. Plan ahead. You can’t grow an oak tree in a teacup.

Mostly, I grow in round plastic pots ten inches across the top, eight inches deep. I’ve grown tomatoes, eight-foot-tall sunflowers, parsley, peppers (tiny ones), any number of things in a ten-inch pot. It would likely support one or two pea or bean plants without any problem, or maybe a half-dozen onions or beets. One zucchini plant.

Don’t go overboard. If you grow too much in a container, there just isn’t room for proper root growth and nutrient uptake. Plants are like people — they crowd each other out and everyone loses. Fights break out in the wee hours.

Any old container in a storm

If you want to save money, you can grow in anything, if it’s big enough. The big three-gallon beef buckets would do nicely, although they’re deeper than they need to be. Any container that’s ten or more inches in diameter and eight or more inches deep should do. If any space is going to be wasted, it’s likely to be in the depth. Any more than a foot is unnecessary. More room across the top isn’t a problem, it just means more growing space.

But there’s no rush yet. You shouldn’t be planting seeds outdoors until all danger of frost is past. A few weeks left at least.

If you scrounge your own containers, make sure to drill a half-dozen (three eighth inch) drainage holes in the bottom, or punch a whole lot of them with a nail and hammer. Remember the saucer too, because if there’s no saucer, you won’t be able to see when you’ve watered enough for it to be coming out the bottom. You need to see that.

Fill your container to the top with the planting mix you bought. Bang it down on the deck a few times to settle the soil. When you start to water, the level of the soil will drop a fair bit — you want to minimize that, but don’t pack it hard. Plant your seeds according to package directions, water, and Bob, theoretically at least, will be your uncle.

Water = life

You have to be religious about watering containers. In the garden, roots can go deep and maintain the water supply to the plant. And, a garden in the ground has no sides for the sun to beat down on and force evaporation from the soil in the container. You have to be vigilant. If the soil in a pot goes bone dry (could take just a few days in the heat of summer) your plant is probably done for, or will produce poorly.

If you’re a jogger, you know the importance of hydration. Plants are no different. And they’re out in the scalding sun all day, every day. If you’re going away on a holiday, you need to make arrangements for the plants as well as Kitty. Even just a few days.

Okay. My word count is red-lining. Gotta stop.

But there’s no rush yet. You shouldn’t be planting seeds outdoors until all danger of frost is past. A few weeks left at least. Next time, I’ll talk about starting seeds indoors, buying started plants from nurseries, and transplanting into bigger containers. Oh yeah – don’t let me forget thinning.

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