Homegrown 101

Are you a first time gardener and wanting to grow vegetables this year? Here are some of the basics from my Homegrown 101 class. Lets go over a few of the things you need to think about before getting started.

Site

The first steps in planning your vegetable garden is site selection. Your vegetables will need at least six hours of sun a day as an ideal location. That isn’t always possible but there are ways to remedy any problem in the garden. One thing to remember is that for plants to bear fruit they need sun. For plants that we use for their leaves, they can tolerate some shade. In fact, many salad greens are grown successfully in the shade. Crops such as lettuce, spinach, mesclun and arugula can be grown in partial shade along with herbs such as parsley. Another way of trying to optimize your sunny areas is to grow vegetables in containers. Place a plant dolly under your container and move it around so that it is always in the sun. This is especially easy on a patio or sidewalk. You will also want to plan your vegetable garden in an area that has no shade from your house, large trees or structures. If you are a beginner, start with a sunny location and get good at that first. Stay away from placing your vegetable garden in the shade from large structures, the home or large trees. Trees will cast shade on your garden and their roots will compete with the garden for nutrients. Choose a site that optimizes your sunniest location.

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When planting your vegetables, you will want to plant your tallest vegetables so that they don’t shade each other. For example if you are planting corn, it would go to the back of the bed or north end so that the lower growing crops would not be shaded. You will notice that in the diagram above, the corn is at the back or north end of the garden with smaller crops planted according to height until you reach the lettuce at the south end of the garden.

Okay, lets look at a couple of ideas for garden design. You don’t have to have a separate area for vegetables. You can also incorporate them into your flower garden. By planting flowers along with vegetables, you will attract bees. The bees and other beneficials will pollinate your food crops. Without pollination your harvest is greatly reduced. Try planting red cabbage to accent some of your annual flowers or even some lettuce for its lovely chartreuse colour.
raised bed

Where are you planting?

Are you planting in the ground or in raised beds or containers as the choice of soil can be a bit different for each? You can amend the soil in your garden but its even easier using raised beds. Raised beds are wonderful to use if you have a hard time getting low to the ground. Raised beds also warm up faster in the spring. You can also grow anything in a container and this allows you to move your garden around to maximize the amount of sun or shade needed for your plants. In containers you can amend the soil quite easily but they dry out faster than growing plants in the ground or raised beds. In the ground, water is held for a longer period than in containers or raised beds. These are maintenance factors you will need to consider when starting a garden. Your garden may need to be watered daily during hot weather. Do you have the time to commit to your garden? Perhaps you can buddy up with a neighbour to share a garden and its tasks.

Rotation

If you are growing vegetables, its easiest to make a planting plan or diagram. Here you will see I have four beds. I must decided what crops will go in each bed. At the end of the season I will rotate my crops. For instance if I grow potatoes in one bed, it will move to the next one and each one gets a new growing space the next year. This is called crop rotation. This method helps to control any insect pests and diseases by not growing the same crop year after year in the same location. If you continue to grow one crop such as potatoes in the same spot year after year, not only will you have pest problems but your soil will be depleted of nutrients.

Homegrown 101

If you have just one raised bed, this method can be a bit more difficult. You could move the peas down to another end of your raised bed and switch it up with potatoes. You may want to grow a different set of crops each year. For an in-ground garden, it’s easier to rotate your vegetable crops. One rule of thumb used to be to rotate roots, leaves and fruit. Unfortunately if you grew tomatoes one year followed by potatoes you would be planting members of the same family two years in a row and that’s not good crop rotation. So get to know your plant families and just sketch a quick chart like I do. You could break the legume bed in half and add some salad greens to the mix.

Soil 

This is probably the most important and often ignored component in the garden. Your soil is what feeds your plants. Plants take up nutrients via their roots. It’s very important to make sure your soil is good enough to grow vegetables. How do we know if the soil is good? You can take a few soil samples and take them to a lab for analysis. It will come back with the amounts of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium along with micronutrients found in your soil. Or you can take a close look at your soil yourself. Are there lots of worms in your soil? If so, that’s a sign of good soil. Does it fall apart and is it too mucky if you grab a handful of soil and squeeze it in your hand. If it is too wet and gooey, you have clay soil. If it falls apart it may be too sandy. A good soil holds together somewhat without being too sticky. By adding organic material to your existing soil you can improve it. So what are some of the amendments we could use?

Manure

Chicken manure is high in nitrogen, has a strong odour which dissipates in a few days when mixed with soil.  It usually has few weeds.

Steer and horse manure is good to use but may have more weed seeds.Whether it is as rich in nitrogen depends on what the animal is fed. This manure also needs time to decompose if you are getting straight from the farmer.  All manures must be aged. The manure you buy at the local garden center is ready to use. If you are getting manure from a farmer, it may be too fresh to use. Fresh manure will burn your plants and you don’t want that. Manure is best if it sits for six to twelve months to age before using.

Now there was a time when mushroom manure was very popular. I will tell you now, mushroom manure is not manure unless a mushroom can poop. Right?  Mushroom manure is derived from the spent growing medium used to grow mushrooms. It contains hay, straw and it can also contain chemicals used in the growing process. So check out the amendments you use and ask questions. Know where your manure is coming from. After all you are eating the food that you will be growing. Look for a mushroom manure that is derived from organic growers.

You can also amend your soil by adding compost to your garden. You can spread a layer over the garden in the spring or fall and your garden will love you for it. The worms in the compost will tunnel down taking the compost with them. You don’t need to add too much. A thin layer is better than nothing at all. I don’t believe in turning the compost under. Maybe I am just a lazy gardener but if the worms can take it down I will leave it to them.

Many people believe in the double digging method of gardening. This is quite a workout. Double digging is the practice of removing a shovels depth of soil and setting it aside. Next you add your amendments such as compost or other organic matter to the hole. At this time you want to use a pitchfork and loosen the lower layer of soil and kind of work the amendments in. The idea is to move the top layer of soil, go under and dig deeper and the add the next top section to what you broke up. The idea is not to mix the subsoil and top soil together but to just loosen the subsoil to improve drainage and to add the organic material to the topsoil.  There is a new school of thought that it is harmful to disturb the subsoil as you also disturb the insect life and mycorrhizal fungal threads in the soils. Many beetles and earthworms are down in this area of the soil. It can also harm nearby plant roots and organisms as well as your soil structure and expose more weed seeds. The last thing you want are more weeds, right?

Homegrown 101

Adding a mulch in the fall would be a better way to improve your soil than double digging. This would break down over the winter and could turned under lightly. So what is mulch? It is either compost, leaves, straw or manures that act as organic matter in your garden.I like to add compost and sometimes its only enough to topdress some of the gardens. Adding leaves to your garden in the fall and leaving them as a mulch is very good for the garden. Over the winter they will break down and become leaf mold. I dig the leaves into the soil in early spring and the garden is ready to plant. Think about mother nature and her garden. Leaves drop and they decompose into soil. She doesn’t rake them up. She uses them to her advantage.

Homegrown 101

You can also plant green manures such as fava beans, winter wheat or fall rye which are then turned under the soil in the spring. Green manure crops add organic matter and nutrients to the soil, increase soil fertility and soil structure. They prevent soil erosion and provide shelter for birds and beneficial insects. They also fix nitrogen in the soil.

Okay that’s enough talk about soil. Are we ready to plant?

Wait, how do we know when and what we can plant? Each crop has a specific requirement when it comes to soil temperature and season. If you look on the back of a package of seeds, it will say when to begin to plant. Lets go one step further and make your planning a bit easier. You need about six weeks to grow plants from seed so I would look at this chart and think, if I want celery for April transplanting, I would start my seeds in late February to early March. You can use a calendar and schedule your plantings or use Myfolia to keep track online. On Myfolia you can enter each seed or seedling that you plant and keep track of its progress. I have over 73 varieties of vegetables and flowers growing in my greenhouse so I have found this very useful.

You will also need certain tools to get started. You will need a spade, a pitchfork, hose, hand weeder, trowel and a wheelbarrow and a good pair of garden gloves.

Let’s take a look at what we can plant now. I know, I bet you thought all planting started in May. Here in Delta we can grow almost all year round although many of us like to rest for a couple of months over winter. Winter arrives to let us recharge our batteries.

Here it is March and it’s still cool outside. So what can I plant? Before you get planting you have to prepare your garden bed. Like we learned earlier, not all soils are created equal. Heavy clay soil is a poor choice for root crops but may be used for other above ground vegetables. Sandy soil does not hold water well so it will need to be amended before planting by adding organic matter. Okay, we are ready to plant but do we need fertilizer? I would recommend adding an organic fertilizer now. That way you can mix it easily into your garden beds. I like to use a balanced fertilizer such Gaia Green 4-4-4. This organic fertilizer can be used on the whole garden, even lawns, not just your vegetable garden. For me, that’s good value. You can also make your own organic fertilizer or buy it premixed. If you go to the Terralink store in Ladner, you can buy a large quantity ready mixed organic fertilizer or buy each ingredient separately. Because I am so busy I choose to buy it premixed. Whichever you choose, it should be worked gently into the soil before planting following the manufacturers directions. During the growing season you can use a fish emulsion or seaweed extract to fertilize during the growing season.

Watering is minimal in March as we still have lots of rainfall. If you think the soil is dry be sure to water. Remember that seeds need water to germinate along with sunshine. If your seeds dry out they stop growing and can die. I find that it’s usually in April that we see the first dry period so pay attention to your garden and watch for signs that the soil may be dry. Most vegetables like to have at least one inch of water a week.

Broad Beans

Early March-These are commonly known as english beans at farmers markets. They can be planted in late fall for an early spring crop or in March for harvest in June. So how deep do I plant a seed? Good question! Be sure to read each package for directions as the seed supplier always has great information. The norm is to plant seeds three times their depth. Broad bean seeds are large and can be planted 2″ inches deep and 6-9” apart. Harvest when pods are full and branches begin to droop.

Homegrown 101

Peas- One of every gardener’s all time favourites are peas. Peas love cool weather and they are one of the first vegetables you can plant. Before you get started its best to decide which type you will grow. I like to grow heirloom peas such as Lincoln Homesteader. You may want to grow something different. Try to choose open pollinated varieties so you can collect seeds for the next season. You will need to plan how to grow your peas. They will need some kind of support. You can attach trellis to one end of a raised bed or use some of the pea growing nets available. I like to place a four-foot 1″thick stake at each end of the bed and tack  some kind of netting across the bed and on the stakes. Be sure to leave room in between so its easy enough to harvest your peas. You can also fashion a woven support system using bamboo stakes. Once the supports are in place its time to plant the seed. If you haven’t used innoculant before add it to the soil as you plant your peas. It will help the plant to form nodules on the roots and supply nitrogen to the plant instead of depleting the soil.This results in healthier plants. Plant peas about 1” deep and about 18’ apart. Each plant will grow quickly and the tendrils will grab on to the netting as it grows. The peas will flower and start to produce pods. When the pods are full to the touch and still green, its time to harvest. If you leave your peas too long, they will go woody tasting and the pods will turn yellow. But all is not lost, you can save the older peas for seed for next season. Those dried up peas can be placed in an envelope, stored in a cool dry place and planted next spring.

Homegrown 101

Potatoes-Mid to late March in raised beds, early April in the ground. Raised beds warm up faster than the soil at ground level.

Potatoes are easily grown but if you are growing in the ground work the soil so it is friable and easy to plant. Potatoes planted directly in the ground are planted using seed potatoes, available at most garden centers. The hardest part is deciding which variety to grow. You will see all sorts of gadgets such as grow boxes and cylinders that will tell you how to grow more potatoes. Ignore all that. Just plant them in the ground and hill them. I am a lazy gardener and with time so precious, do it the easy old fashioned way.

Here are the six main varieties that I like to grow:

Red Chieftain which is your common baked potato.

Fingerlings- banana shaped potato known for its creamy flavour

Kenebec- potato used exclusively for White Spot french fries

Siglinde- lovely white flesh and great flavour

Russian Blue-Blue potato with blue flesh. An interesting addition to potato salads.

Yukon Gold-yellow flesh and buttery flavour

I plant my seed potatoes about 12” deep in loose soil in raised beds. You can hill your potatoes as they grow but they will still produce even if you don’t. Never add lime or fresh manure to your soil when growing potatoes. They prefer our acidic soils best. Plant your potato seeds about 18” apart so they have room to grow. Most of the growth is underground. When the plants are about 12” high you can begin to mound soil around the plants. Potatoes only grow above the seeds so that’s why you hill them. As your plants mature they will flower. You can tell by the flower which potato it is. In July, you will see the plants finish flowering and the foliage will start to look like its dying. Cut back on watering now as your potatoes finish growing under the ground. I like to feel around below the ground in June for a few early potatoes. Potatoes are best harvested in July. You can leave them in the ground and  harvest as you need them but they could fall prey to insect damage.The wireworm is a potato growers nightmare. If you are growing potatoes in an area that used to be grass, you will get wireworms. It’s like they can smell the lovely scent of fresh potatoes. Be sure to grow your potatoes in a new bed each year. You want to have good crop rotation to prevent insect and diseases.

Homegrown 101

I like to grow onions and they can be grown from seed or from sets. Here is a package of onion sets that I just bought. It contains 80 sets and each one of these will grow into one large onion. You can grow onions from seed but it takes almost six months to grow onions from seed.The advantage to growing from seed is that there are a lot of different types of onions that you can grow.

Another thing we haven’t touched is how to bring beneficial insects to the garden.You want to grow a few flowers that will bring bees, hoverflies and other good insects into the garden. So what do we plant? Flowers such as Sunflowers are loved by bees. They tend to sleep on the protected side away from strong winds. Alyssum is another good choice and very easy to grow. Any plants with umbel shaped flowers like dill or fennel are good choices.

So have I answered some of your basic questions? I know there is so much to learn and I urge you to try growing your own food. With the drought happening in California, food prices on products such as grapes, lettuce, broccoli and almonds are already on the way up. Not only does gardening have lots of health benefits, you will love being able to harvest your own organic vegetables.

For great shade vegetable garden design ideas check out Shawna Coronado’s garden. Who said we can’t plant veggies in our front yards?

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