Thursday, April 25, 2013

How Does Your Garden Grow? Part Two: What to Plant

Okay, so if you read part one of my gardening posts, you should have an idea of how to set up your garden, in terms of structure and soil.  Next comes the fun part: picking out what to plant.

Picking plants for your garden is going to be different for each one of you, depending on your garden's location, light exposure, size, and what foods you will use.  It's best to start simple and then add in as you have more experience.  I have some standards that I know will do well in my garden, and then I try a few new things each year to find new favorites.

There are great books out there, like Square Foot Gardening, The Family Garden, and others, that can give you a structured plan to help you design and set up your garden.  Like I said in part one, I'm more of a trail-and-error, learn-through-experience kind of gal.  But either way, the easiest way to find out when and how to plant the plants you like is by reading the packages.  They will give you planting dates for your zone, seed depths, and any other special requirements that the plant might require.  It will also tell you about how long it will take for the plant to be ready for harvesting.

It will take a little bit of brainpower and foresight to plan so that you will have appropriate time and space.  You may also need to add more physical structures to your garden, like supports for climbers and heavy load bearers like tomatoes.  You can also research companion planting for some ideas of plants that are actually better if they are planted near each other. This year, I'm adding marigolds and nasturtiums to my gardens in the hopes that they will help deter some pests, because last year, I spent hours picking squash bugs off of my zucchini.

Think about what your family eats, and start with those types of plants.  You can start from seeds or from seedlings.  Some seeds do better if started indoors, and then transferred to the garden as seedlings.  Again, the seed packets will tell you which do better in what ways.  Listen to them, they were written by experts.

I'm not an expert (no, seriously, I'm not), but here are a few plants that do well for me, and how I go about growing them:

Carrots:  If you have a raised bed, carrots should be an easy crop, especially if you have put a base to block unwanted critters from eating the roots from below.  The seeds are teeny tiny, so you usually get a ton in each package.  Don't be intimidated, you won't end the year with 500 carrots, as tempting as that is.  What I do is make trenches, and then sprinkle the seeds down them, covering them with a layer of soil.  Carrot seeds can be planted while it is still cool outside, as long as you can work the soil.  Sometimes, you can get a couple of crops with an early and a late planting.  Mine are already planted at home.  As the carrots grow, you'll need to thin them out.  This is the worst part, because it always feels like, I don't know, garden abortion to me, but it's essential to getting good carrots.  If they don't have the room to get big, they won't.  Simple as that.  So put away your sympathies and pull the smaller weaker shoots so that your carrots can grow big and strong and delicious.  Beets and radishes are similar growers.

Swiss chard:  This may not be a vegetable that you're familiar with, but it is one of the most satisfying growers in my garden, and we've come to love it.  Swiss chard is a green, related to beets, and it's a bit salty.  It grows like a weed, and you can keep cutting the leaves and it will grow back for the whole season.  This is another one that I seed in rows by digging a trench and  planting the seeds in it.  Thankfully, these seeds are a lot bigger than carrot seeds, so with a little patience, you can properly space them out so that you won't have to do much thinning.  These also can be planted early, in the cool.  One seeding works for the whole season.  You can harvest them when they are small, or wait until the leaves are huge and the stems are thick.  One warning on this: deer love chard.  I think it has to do with the salt factor.  If you have them around, and they find your chard, they are pretty persistent about eating it.  Speaking from experience.

Peas:  Another early planter, peas will need structure to climb on.  Seed them at the base, and let them find their way up.  I like the varieties that you can eat the whole pod of, but some prefer the kid that you shell.  They will be done fairly early as well, so you might be able to use the same spot for later plantings.

Tomatoes:  Tomatoes are one plant that, for me, is just much easier to buy as a seeding.  They need warmer weather to survive, and around here, the farmers' tale is never to plant them out before Mother's Day.  I love Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes.  One good plant of them can keep you hopping with sweet delicious little mini tomatoes for weeks.  Last year, I didn't even need to buy another, because the plant from the previous year had dropped enough fruit that they reseeded themselves.  I also like to try heirloom varieties, like green zebras or purple cherokees.  You'll need tomato cages to support them, and get those up early, because tomatoes can have huge growth spurts and get hard to control, and they don't like being trimmed.

Zucchini:  Zucchini can keep you busy once it comes to harvest time, and depending on circumstances, can be very easy or very high-maintenance.  You need to give it plenty of room to grow.  Watch it carefully for bugs and root issues.  Each plant will give you a ton of zucchini, and my family loves to harvest and eat the zucchini blossoms as well.  I'm sure that that recipe will be a blog post later this summer.  They never last long!  Plant zucchini once all threat of frost is gone.  You can start a few seeds together, but be sure to think them to the strongest one in each grouping, otherwise they'll lose growing energy fighting each other.  Cucumbers are very similar, growing-wise.

Beans:  Kids love growing beans.  Plant them in a pot, in a baggie with a wet paper towel...I've even seen them started in rubber glove fingers with wet cotton balls.  Or just sow them straight into the garden after the threat of frost is gone.  Another recipe that I'm pretty sure I'll be blogging this summer is for dilly beans, a pickle of a bean recipe that my middle child has earned a reputation as queen of.  (Poor grammar, I know...been a week around here...)  The only problem I've run into growing beans is that my kids tend to pick and eat them before they see the indoors of my house.  You can find all kinds of cool colors of beans too.  This year, we have green and purple beans, and a bright red "dragon's tongue" shelling bean from Italy that I'm trying for the first time.  Some beans are bushes, but if they are vines, you'll need support for them.  Bushes are a great way to start.

Strawberries:  Strawberries are perennial, so once you plant them, they'll be back and spread year to year.  Keep this in mind when you plant them.  It's also good to have a layer under them (of straw, maybe) to keep pests out.  However, once again , the biggest pests I have to worry about losing my strawberries to are the ones I gave birth to myself.  Plant them a year before you want to harvest, and pluck any flowers that first year so that they give their energy towards establishing roots and strength.  Watch for bugs and birds.

Herbs:  Most herbs are basically weeds, so they grow well.  Mint and chives will come back year after year and take over if you let them.  I like to split mine and share with friends.  If you want some, let me know!  Rosemary can come back after a mild winter as well.  Thyme and oregano are easy to grow, as are parsley and cilantro.  Basil can be more finicky, but I love it so much I don't care.  I also plant Thai basil, which you can't find in store around here, and it has a distinct flavor that I'm addicted to.

There's more to my garden than these, but those are the ones that seem to have the most yield with the least attention.  I also have eggplant, broccoli, tatsoi, and peppers.  This year, I'm trying a bunch of new things for my garden, including artichokes, purple tomatillos, leeks, lemongrass, sweet woodruff, lavender  and kohlrabi.  I also planted a bunch of berries, rhubarb, and fruit trees, but those will take a few years to come to their full potential.  Next year, I'm hoping to try a pot of potatoes and maybe some garlic, along with who knows what else I come across.  Some thing work, some fail.  Sometimes I know what went wrong, sometimes I have no clue.  I have constant rants and praise for nature and weather during the growing season.  It's a wild ride, but it's a worthwhile one.

Let me know how yours goes too!

If you're looking for seeds, Seeds for Change, Baker Creek, Seed Savers, Jung, and Peaceful Valley have all been great for me, but there are many other good companies out there as well.

Happy planting!

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