February 29, 2008  
Looking Ahead: Preparing Your Garden

Whether you rent or own, there’s a pretty good chance that you devote some space to growing something. It might be a houseplant. It might be some flowers. It might even be a vegetable garden. Almost 85 percent of all households grow some kinds of plants, most often tomatoes.

With the exception of container gardens, vegetable garden beds are usually created as permanent additions to the landscape. And for good reason: this kind of commitment involves an investment of labor, money, and time at the beginning, and then a bit more of the same when the garden is growing and beginning to produce. The weeding, mulching, and watering, if there’s no rainfall, can usually be handled in a few hours a week if done regularly.

The best part is it’s not a contest. Each does according to his means and desires. A fresh pulled carrot or a sun-ripened tomato you grew and cared for in soil you worked yourself is reward beyond measure. Your soul is in it. It’s a part of you, as is the rest of the garden.

Why are we so vested? To satisfy the longing for superior flavors from nutritious vegetables, grown personally. The earth/soul connection, the health benefit, and the security are life affirming on every level. Don’t want chemicals? Don’t use them. Want to grow organically? Do! Be as ambitious as you like.

It’s late February, 2008, a leap year, and when the time comes, you’ll have an extra day to garden. Right now, it’s time to think about your garden, what needs doing, when preparing can begin, what your goals this year might be. A cold rainy or snowy day will be showing up any time now.

If you have a vegetable garden plot that’s established, you have lots to contemplate. For starters, the best time to prepare this year’s vegetable garden was last fall. This usually involves the cleaning up and removal of plant debris so pests don’t have a place to over-winter. Established gardens are usually in the process of being continually built up with the addition of organic matter. This is especially true here in the Catskills where heavy clay soils are the norm. Compost, aged manure and peat moss worked into the soil’s top six inches greatly improves its structure, porosity, air permeability, beneficial microbial population, and helps it retain moisture and nutrients.

A pH test taken last year would indicate if the addition of lime would be beneficial. If so, it is best added in the fall so it has the winter months to work its way in and do its magic. This same applies to the addition of phosphorous and potassium if tests indicate they are needed. All of these steps are best carried out in the fall. Having these adjustments to nutrient levels and their availability before spring planting will ensure a healthy more productive garden.

No mention of nitrogen was made so far because nitrogen added in the fall would be leached out of the soil by spring, long before it could be of benefit. It would be wasted money, effort and product that might likely get into streams and ground water.

In general, at this time of year it is best to stay out of the garden. Don’t walk on it or attempt to work the soil. You might compact the existing garden soil, and working it will destroy its structure. One exception: If the soil is fairly frozen and you won’t leave footprints, turn it with a pitchfork or a cultivator. This step exposes lots of over-wintering pests for the birds and other predators to find, as well as to the cold. You’ll have eliminated a lot of summer’s nuisances. Do it once, when conditions are right, and you’ll be way ahead in your garden preparation.

Some gardens have pathways that can be mowed. Others are too narrow for a mower, but might lend themselves to stepping stones or paths that can be mulched with pine needles or bark chips or even a thick layer of wet newspaper or cardboard covered over with some mulch or gravel to hold it in place. All of these work great, keep weeds (which can be an alternate host for pests) from sprouting up in the paths, and allow you access to the garden beds without walking on them. This is work you can do as soon as you have access to the garden. Has the snow melted?

Plan to put in an herb border or garden. This really brings in the beneficial insects and makes your kitchen skills shine.  You can interplant your herbs with your vegetables. Study the companion plants that work best with one another. The list is very inclusive and you can’t lose. Plan a simple water feature to bring in birds. This can be a simple slow drip of water from a gallon container hanging from a nearby tree limb or structure you erect. Make a pinhole in the jug and provide a container into which it can drip and collect. If you get just a little bit more ambitious, you can invite in toads as well. Near the dish is a good spot. These guys love slugs and other pests, too.

If there is no existing garden, Oh, boy! Have you got your work cut out for you. If you’re a traditionalist, and don’t mind hard work, you probably look forward to what’s been regarded as the best of the best for a vegetable garden, and you’ll embrace the double-dug garden. For double digging you’ll need a pitchfork, a spade, a wheelbarrow, a garden fork if your soil isn’t like concrete, ground limestone, and a three-inch layer of organic matter that will be worked into the bed. Your best bet is to create the garden space this year, plant it sparingly this year, and put in a cover crop in late summer or early fall. Next year your garden will be ready to go, full speed ahead.

The rival of the double-dug garden for superiority and ease of building is the raised bed garden. This is what the early colonists did in New England. There are many advantages including the fact that the beds are above ground level. Here there is an aesthetic free for all with some praising it as a design element and some harshly critical. You can make it as wonderful and inviting as you choose.

Regardless, there is no better way to deal with hardpan, compacted soils, soggy sites, and hard rocky clay, often poorly drained.  The beds consist of six to eight inches of imported soil mixes, contained on the sides with boards, rock, cinder block, or nothing at all, just gradually sloping sides. The idea is to be able to access all parts of each bed without walking on it.

They can be architectural, structured, simple or even casual looking. Think of intersecting circles, star forms, whatever strikes your fancy. On top of this first layer put another six to eight inches of topsoil, and then a three-inch layer of organic matter, compost is great, or mulch. Next year, after settling, these beds will be about half their original height. They can be planted their first season. Just pull back the mulch, dig a planting hole and set in your transplant even with the soil surface.

Okay, back to current reality. It’s just barely March. Decide what you wish to grow. Is your first choice the easy to grow veggies? Or is it that which family members prefer most? Or, how about those best adapted to our area? And, leave a little room for a new variety or two, no? Hybrids or standards, open pollinated (Heirloom) varieties, decisions, and decisions. Don’t forget to plan a rotation to thwart soil borne diseases and insect recurrence.

Whether you are after a single exquisite taste, or a banquet, little rivals a spring cool season salad garden with some edible flowers. Start seeds this month and transplant outdoors next. I mean it. Consider six lettuce varieties, carrots, onions, spinach, pakchoi, broccoli, cabbage, peas, and pansies, chives and violas. These all love the cold of early spring. They don’t like the heat of summer.

Assuming the garden is ready for an early crop of spring greens and more, and that it is an established garden of any kind, apply 1-2 pounds of 5-10-10 or 10-10-10 per 100 square feet. For new or relatively new gardens, double the amounts. If you want to go organic, substitute two bushels of cow or horse manure, or one bushel of poultry, sheep or goat manure. Do this now, a few weeks before you’re going to plant. Organic options are very broad and depend largely on your preferences.  

Well, the way I see it, your garden should be ready shortly after you’ve had an opportunity to get in there and prepare it for this season. Working the soil as little as possible is akin to no-till gardening and greatly reduces the opportunity for weeds to germinate and get a foothold.

It won’t be long and you will be putting in transplants of tomatoes, basil, squash, marigolds, Swiss chard, peppers, eggplants, parsley, beans, cucumbers, leeks, and shallots. Do a little double cropping. Press some onion sets into the soil where your loose head lettuce varieties are growing. Like Bibb lettuce? I love it. Plant it so it grows in the shade of the beans you put in that will grow on poles in front of it.

Remember, the rest of your work is toward that greater end of savoring the fruit of your labor tempered with the deliciousness of having a deep, personal experience with the land and your plants. Weeds come out easiest after a good soaking rain. Mulching conserves moisture and smothers weeds and their seeds. Grow with good health and enthusiasm.

      "Gardening is about  enjoying the smell of things growing in the soil,
                 getting dirty without feeling guilty,
                       and generally taking the time to soak up a little peace and serenity

       Lindley Karstens                                      

Submitted for publication in The Sullivan County Democrat on February 29, 2008

© 2008 Ed Mues. All Rights Reserved.