Thursday, April 11, 2013

How Does Your Garden Grow? Part One: Setting Up the Garden

I have a garden.  Actually, strike that.  I have a couple of gardens, my home garden and a double plot at our community garden.  Plus, I've been roped into being in charge of my kids' school garden.  Because apparently people think that I'm good at gardening and that I know what I'm doing.  Which is funny to me.

I really don't have a clue.

Which is why when people ask me to help them with their garden, I kind of shrug and laugh.  I honestly don't know what I'm doing.  But it always turns out pretty well.  Except for when it doesn't.  So, when people started asking me to write a blog post about gardening, I kind of cringed.  But because I love you wonderful readers, I'm going to give it a go.

Some people are visual learners, and can read something once and remember the information.  Others are auditory learners and can listen to a lecture and remember details from it.  These people are blessed.  I, myself, am a kinesthetic learner, which means that the way that I learn best is through the physical action of DOING something.  No, seriously.  I paid lots of money to my university to get a degree in special education to figure stuff like this out.  So I apply my strengths in whatever endeavors I can, and gardening is one of those.


I keep getting gardening books from the library, trying to educate myself on the best methods for placement and soil enrichment, stuff like that.  To be honest with you, I read it for about 10 minutes before it all goes wonky in my brain and I start turning into a rebel, screaming things like, "I'll plant strawberries next to tomatoes if I want to!", or, "I can grow in clay.  I CAN!  I'll show you ALL!!".  It's not very productive.  Internet videos are a little bit better for me, but I usually end up getting distracted by the narrator's accent, or an annoying background soundtrack.  The only thing that has really worked is me getting in the garden and experimenting through trial and error.  

So now we're straight.  I'm not a trained, expert gardener.  I'm not even a hippie commune offshoot that grew up in the forest with the wildlife foraging and living off the land.  I wouldn't even think of myself as having a green thumb.  Inside of my house is pretty much where plants come to be neglected and die.  Phew.  That feels good to get off of my chest.

That said, my gardens still manage to grow into pretty awesome little food factories.  Why is beyond me.  All I can think of is that I respect the environment, I work with what I've got, I learn from experience, and I'm not scared to work hard for something that I love.

It's going to take me a few posts, but I'm going to walk you through some of that experience and let you learn from what little I do know about gardening, and how I use it to make my gardens work.  But I highly recommend that you do your own footwork at the library or online too.  People are always throwing out new tips and tricks for gardening better.  Mine are just a drop in the bucket.

Okay, so first, I guess, I should explain my gardens.  Right now, I have 8 4x4 raised beds in my home garden, and the plan is to add 3 more.  Some of them have a layer of chicken wire under them, because I found that some little underground rodents were feasting on my carrots one year.  That has stopped them, but now sometimes the carrots grow so well that they grow through the wire and I have to break them to pull them up.  Raised gardens give me more control over the soil.  I fill my beds with a combo of organic compost and peat moss, and I toss a bag of Miracle Grow organic soil mix into each bed as well, when I'm first setting them up.  Year to year, I use organic plant food when I turn the soil and plant.  Avoiding chemicals and growing organically is important to me and my family, but I get that it's not for everyone.  Using the compost and peat moss cuts down a lot on the cost for me to get a nutrient-rich soil.  

You want to think of your soil as a living thing.  You have to feed it, you can't just take from it and not give back.  This year, we invested in a big double composter, so I'm looking forward to adding the compost from that into the gardens as well.  Before, during, and after planting, I try to keep people from stepping on the soil.  Keeping it light and not compacted lets the roots thrive and get where they need to go for the best nutrients.

A neat simple soil test that you can do with the kiddos is to put some soil in a container and add 1/2 cup of vinegar.  If it fizzes, than you have alkaline soil and may need to add lime.  If it doesn't take a fresh bunch of soil in another container with 1/2 cup of water, mix, and then add 1/2 cup of baking soda.  If that fizzes, your soil is acidic, and you need to add pine needles or sulfur to it to balance it out.  

Placing my garden in a sunny spot was not a problem, because our house was built on an old corn field, and so the whole neighborhood has full sun, except for the shade that the houses make.  My garden is on the east side of my house, and gets the sun most of the day.  If you want to eat the fruit of the plant, sun is essential.

In my community garden plot, I focus on fencing it off (stupid deer broke down my fencing last year to feast on all my Swiss chard...5 times!) and enriching the soil with compost and peat moss.  I usually add some organic plant food when I plant too.  It's in full sun, all day long, out in the middle of a large field.

Using an on-line garden planner can really help.  I've used the free trail of the one at Jung Seed, and it is very useful.  It tell you how many plants can fit in your garden, when to plant them, when to harvest, details about how they grow best, and many other things.

Okay, so that's how I set up my garden, for the most part.  Next time, I'll have some suggestions as to what to plant, or how to choose plants.  Well, my way of doing it, at least.  *wink*