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Wednesday, January 6, 2010

1st garden: Part 1 Planning

Shelly asked me to pop in and do some posting on gardening. Twist my arm, Shelly! I've written so much at various places that most of what I'll post will be links. But do comment, email, etc. if you have questions.

Where to begin? Let's assume you have a garden site in mind, and it get 6-8 hours of direct sunlight spring through summer. Not sure if it does? Note what's going on at your potential site now-- in January-- and refer to this site to get an idea of how much longer the days will be in June (Ohio ranges from 39* to 41*N).

Experience and mistakes have taught me that there are two critical components to having success: soil quality and a realistic plan. Not much you can do about your soil when it's buried under 17' of snow, so we'll start with the plan. First, assess what fruits, herbs, and veggies your family really does eat. Make a list-- it can be general at this point. Then go to a seed catalog and do some window shopping. (Some of my favorites-- specializing in rare & heirloom seeds-- are here, but here are my thoughts on good, better, best seed sources.) Add to your list items that you would love to try. Caution! If this is your first garden please do be realistic. I'm not trying to rain on your parade but one of the biggest mistakes new gardeners make is buying 157 different seed packets, planting each and every seed, and then being completely overwhelmed come late June and giving up. IMHO far better to start slow & be wildly successful than to bit off more than you can chew (literally & figuratively). If you've been successful in the past, but want to take your garden to the next level, my advise is to throw caution to the wind! :-)

Examine your list. Can you actually grow what's on your list? In Ohio, and in principle, the answer is yes.

The USDA Hardiness Zone Map divides North America into 11 separate zones; each zone is 10°F warmer (or colder) in an average winter than the adjacent zone. If you see a hardiness zone in a catalog or plant description, chances are it refers to the USDA map.

Most of Ohio is between zone 5a and 6b. If you want to double check a veggie's hardiness in your area, refer again to the seed catalogs.

Now the fun really begins. Grab your list, open up those seeds catalogs and pick and choose the specific varieties you want. If your garden site is relatively small you can look for varieties labled "dwarf" or "perfect for containers." If you don't do well with acidic tomatoes, look for less acidic varieties. This can be an all-day project.

CAUTION! Do NOT buy seeds yet. You want to make sure that your space matches up with your crops, so there are two things you need to do/learn. First, item by item you need to know when and where to plant the seeds, and how long it will be between planting and harvest. Do this so you can manage your space and your harvests. More below. Second, you want to know what the recommended spacing is, i.e., how far apart to plant the seeds, which gives you an indication of how large the mature plant will be. Do this so that you can plan your garden out on paper.

One the first point, some seeds are started indoors before your last frost date, others are planted directly in the ground before or after your last frost date. Cabbage, for example, can be started indoors 8 weeks before your last frost date, transplanted outside 3 weeks before last frost, and (at least in southern Ohio) will be harvested about 65-70 days after planting. Sources differ somewhat on last frost dates, but let's say yours is 4/15. This means you'd be harvesting in early May. Your cabbage row will be empty come mid-May, just in time to plant some beans. There's a very useful planting schedule in pdf form at the bottom of this page. I find the easiest way to keep track of all this is by using a spreadsheet, others like the calendar approach.

(Click on it to see the whole thing.)

There may be more information here than you feel you need, but it can all come in handy when planning next year's garden.

Now that you have that information compiled, lay out your garden on paper-- to scale. Use the spacing recommendations from the seed catalogs. (Experienced gardeners know that a lot of spacing recommendations are poppycock, but they're at least a place to start.) Don't forget to leave room for paths! The picture above is for a raised bed garden I designed for a new gardener. You can read more about this aspect of planning the garden here. One thing I always encourage people to do is companion gardening-- putting herbs & veggies that benefit eachother (by deterring pests, etc.) close together. More information and some charts here and here.

You may need two scale plans if you plan to have cool season crops (those that are planted and harvested early) and warm season crops, but the main point is to be sure your list of 137 vegetables actually fits into your garden!

One final caution. For an inexperienced gardener there's really no good informaiton out there on how much to expect to harvest from each individual plant. This is the reason every new gardener has too damned many cucumbers! Folks will say it's because there are just so many factors that come into play. Fair enough, that's why I always advise people to keep their own records. Here's the summary of what I harvested from my first really really big garden. I blew it on some things, but at least I had records and knew better next year not to plant the entire packet of cucumber seeds! Really, who needs 23 pounds of cukes?

(Click to see it all.)

Hope this helps get you all started.

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