Spring Gardening Tips
Written by: Darla Gaiser, RPh, FASCP, director at Firelands Center for Coordinated Care at Firelands Regional Medical Center
We garden for many different reasons: exercise, therapy (very calming), food, control over chemical contaminants, aesthetics, sharing activities with family or friends, and memories (either past or making of new ones, especially with children).
The first step is to choose an appropriate site, considering light (hours of full sun), soil, drainage, and size. Exercise some caution in size, and avoid creating something you cannot maintain because it is overwhelming. Consider the types of crops you want to grow, and how much space those particular plants need. For instance, lettuce can easily be grown in a container and give you some wonderful salads, but corn needs several rows planted in order to get good pollination (resulting in nice ears of corn).
Now that you have chosen a site, test the soil for:
- Type: Squeeze a handful of soil to determine. When you open your hand, does it hold together in roughly two-inch logs?’If so, you have loamy soil and need a little organic amendment to start. Does it all crumble apart? You have sandy soil and need to add organic amendments to your site. Does it all stick together as a solid log? You have clay soil, and, again, need to add organic amendments. These amendments may be compost, peat moss, dry leaves, or other organic material (not meat or dairy).
- Worms: Put down a tarp or other barrier and dig a hole in your site, 12” x 12” x 12” (one cubic foot). Place the soil from the hole on the tarp as you dig. Break the soil apart and look for worms. If you have fewer than 12 worms, add organic matter to your site.
- Drainage: Fill the hole you dug to test for worms with water. Keep checking to see how long it takes for the water to drain out. If it takes over an hour, this spot may be too damp to grow vegetables well. Too much water can be as damaging as too little. Choose a different site.
- Nutrients: Get the soil testing kit from your county OSU Extension Office. This will take a few days to come back. Most counties have a nominal charge. It is well worth it to know what kind of amendments you may need for what you want to grow.
Soil preparation is critical to the success of your garden. If you have chosen a new area that has grass and/or weeds covering it, cover the area with black garden cloth or old newspapers (wet them down), and weight the covering down to keep it in place for a few weeks, or even months (if you do this step in the fall). Papers tend to blow away too easily for my liking, so I use the garden cloth. This will kill the grass and weeds, and attract worms (did you ever lift a rock off the ground and find worms wiggling underneath?). Till or turn over the soil when ready. There is much discussion about the wisdom of continuing to till each year. Hardpan can develop at the bottom of the tilling depth, and make it difficult for root penetration and drainage. Once a new area is prepared the first year by tilling, my personal practice is to use a hoe and rake to prepare the area in the following years.
After the initial tilling, let it sit for a few days if you can. Then, re-till adding any organic matter at this point and working it into the soil. Rototilling gets better aeriation than plowing, turns the ground better, and creates finer tilth.
- Remove any rocks, and rake to create a relatively smooth surface for planting.
- Alternatives (and I have tried them all successfully) include:
- Lasagna Gardening
- Raised Bed Gardening
- Container Gardening
- Vertical Gardening
I encourage you to search these on the internet and learn about the amazing possibilities. Raised beds are particularly popular and give you the advantage of great soil control. Container gardens and vertical gardens allow folks with limited space to successfully plant and enjoy their vegetables.
Plan your crops by your personal preferences, or those of your family. What do you like to eat? What would you like to try? How much do you want to harvest – just table use for the season, enough to share with family/neighbors/food banks, or enough to can/freeze/dehydrate?
Make a garden design map, utilizing graph paper, to scale. This helps you to be realistic about what to buy to plant. Indicate borders, paths, rows, or patches. You need paths and borders to avoid walking on the soil and compacting it. Use an ‘X’ or some other symbol to mark individual plants like tomatoes and some type of design to indication rows or patches of vegetables like lettuce or spinach. Label each area. Be aware of where to place tall vegetables to avoid blocking the sun from shorter plants. Do some research on your chosen crops to see how tall they will grow and how much space you need between plants. Indicate NSEW on your design map, and place taller plants at the north border of your garden.
If you are planting a pre-existing garden, plan to rotate crops; do not plant the same crop in the same spot as last year, or even the year before if you can avoid it. Different crops have different nutritional needs and also make differing soil contributions (such as beans contributing nitrogen to the soil, and corn depleting nitrogen). Rotation not only creates healthier soil, but it protects against encouraging plant-specific pests and diseases. Save your maps from year to year to allow you to keep good track of crop locations.
Order your planting plan, considering succession planting opportunities. Cool weather crops, like peas and lettuce, can go in first and, when done, you can replant the area with a warm-weather crop, like green beans. Green beans can be planted a week or two apart to spread out the harvest.
Decide on seeds vs transplants:
Seeds: Lettuce, spinach, beans, peas, swiss chard, herbs, radishes, corn, cucumbers (need something to climb on), squash (need vining space, and can be quite prolific)
Plants: Tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, broccoli, brussel sprouts, herbs (yes, can do either/or), cauliflower (needs extra attention to prevent sunburn)
Consider plant stacking. Native Americans used to plant ‘Three Sisters’ together – corn (created poles), beans (climbed the corn poles and provided extra nitrogen to the corn), and squash (vined as a ground cover, providing shade to the soil, increasing moisture retention, and providing prickly leaves and stems, discouraging varmints and pests).
Finally, let’s plant!
Seeds: Read packets carefully for special instructions. Use sticks and strings to create a straight furrow with your hoe. Pay attention to the depth of planting and spacing. Some seeds will be planted heavily and then thinned after seedlings emerge (salad greens?). Some seeds need to be soaked or scarified (rubbed gently between layers of medium grit sandpaper). Some need to be covered with soil, others need scattered on top of the soil and just tamped down.
Transplants: Do not transplant in the heat of the day; transplant shock is real, and very hard on plants. Use sticks and string to create a straight row of holes with your hoe or spade. Dig holes along the row a little bigger than the current pots. If in peat pots, tear off the bottom and the top edge. If in plastic pots, GENTLY remove the plant, turning over the pots, pushing on the bottom, jiggling the plant loose from the pot. Place the roots carefully, gently spreading them apart if root bound, if possible. Scoop soil around plant roots, to surface level the same as the original pot. Tamp the soil down gently. Mulch, to hold moisture and prevent weeds. Leave space between stems and mulch.
Use plant markers to identify your crops!
Immediately, water your plants and seeds, very gently but thoroughly. You can scatter your seeds or beat up your plants if you are not careful. Take your time. Mist, do not pound with water; a misting nozzle or water wand is recommended.
Watch your rainfall – a rule of thumb is that your garden needs about one inch of water per week. This will help you decide about watering needs; balance is key.
Do not water in the heat of the day, especially top watering (getting leaves wet). Water can magnify the sun’s rays. Morning is best – gives moisture for the day and allows foliage to dry before night, which helps prevent fungal infections.
Feed your garden, with the fertilizer of your choice, weighing out the needs of your chosen crops. Do your research on organic (like manure, compost) vs. non-organic options (chemical) and decide what you want to use. If you choose a commercial fertilizer, pay close attention to the nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium ratios, based on the recommendations for your crops. Too much nitrogen, and you can end up with all foliage and no fruit. Not enough, and you can end up with puny ears of corn.
Pest control is similar to fertilizer, in that you have to make your personal choices after doing your homework. Organic (marigolds, tobacco ‘juice,’ diatomaceous earth) vs. chemical (Sevin®), or a combination of both, will need some research on your part. You can also use some physical control options, like fencing and picking off bugs. It is crucial to remove diseased or dead plants or parts of plants to control the spread of disease. Do not compost diseased plant material, water early in the day, rotate crops each year, turn the soil in the fall, remove weeds, and buy healthy plants. All of these steps will help reduce disease and pests in your garden.
Harvest and enjoy!