Tuesday, 26 February 2013

The method to my gardening madness

This is my most successful Edamame bean plant to date.
A friend and colleague of mine, Shirley, asked me the other day to hit her up with planning tips and tricks when I mentioned I was doing some garden planning. And actually, it got me thinking. I plan. Oh, boy, do I plan. Kind of compulsively. By the time March hits, I know exactly what my garden is going to look like, and the seeds are already started. So the fact that I'm only starting in late February this year is kind of scary for me, to be honest.

But for those of you who aren't so paranoid about your garden plans, maybe this will give you something useful in enough time to make your garden excellent! I'll go over what I do in the actual planning process to figure out what I should be planting and where. And in another post (soon!), I'll make sure to continue with the actual steps to start prepping my garden!

Let's get started!

Baby steps
Timeline: as early as you can (even the previous year).

The very act of preparing needs preparation in my world. So the very first step is to make sure I have everything I need. I break out graph paper and a ruler and actually draw out an outline where each square represents a few inches of my garden (usually, 2 inches/square, in my case). Why? Because it helps me to organize my thoughts and also understand how much space I'm actually working with. If a cauliflower needs 12 inches of spacing, it helps me to represent that visually so I know only to plan for 4 cauliflower seedlings, because that's all I have space for.

Another preliminary step, as silly as this sounds, is to make sure you understand what you're working with. So the first year I had this garden, I did a lot of thinking about what it was like. How big is it? How much sunlight does it get? How much rainwater collects around the garden? What's the soil like? Once you understand this stuff, it's much easier to understand how that will affect your planning.

Selecting crops
Timeline: 3-4 months before the last frost (in Ottawa, that's late January)

If you're not sure what to plant, join the club. Gardening is always a gamble; the year you plant the veggies that love dry heat, you get rain galore, and the year you plant the ones that love water, you have a drought. So the best selecting technique I've found is to just let Mother Nature do her thing and select as best you can, assuming the weather will be on your side. That being said, there is a wealth of information available on all kinds of crops, and I encourage you to understand what you're dealing with before you select your veggies. Everything from growing conditions to how much a plant yields can factor into your decisions.

Based on what you're planting and the space you have available, you can then sit down and plot out your garden on your handy-dandy graph paper. I find it really useful to draw squares occupied by each plant, and either label them by name or come up with shapes to represent each vegetable and draw a legend. (Admittedly, the shape-drawing probably doesn't actually save me time and I do it mostly just because it's fun!)

I have three considerations when it comes to choosing veggies.

Personal taste
It makes absolutely no sense to grow something you're not going to eat. If you don't like it, don't eat it, and aren't expecting to give it away to your adoring fans, please don't grow it! There is little in this world that breaks my heart like nursing plants through a summer only to let the harvest go to waste!

Conditions they'll be growing in
If you don't get a lot of sun, you won't have much success growing strawberries, and that's just a reality you've got to accept (or find a better, sunnier garden for them!). If you're planting several crops in the same plot, but they have different needs in terms of the soil, you'll often end up with one plant that thrives and the rest that don't.

Another thing to consider is that if you plant the same crop in the same place year after year, you run into pest problems, so keep in mind that what used to be in that soil does constitute a growing condition. The more the pests can come back to the same place for their feast, the more likely they're going to do it. It's like an engraved invitation for them: "Hey, guys! This is the easiest place for you to find your dinner, year after year!"

What they'll be growing with
If you're not familiar with companion planting, I strongly urge you to check the idea out. The basic idea is that there are plants that help each other to grow better, and others that have the exact opposite affect. If you plant a bean beside a corn plant, the bean releases nutrients into the soil that the corn uses to grow strong, for instance. (Though, I will say that I've permanently given up on corn, because I fought the war against the raccoon, and the raccoon won.) On the other hand, brassicas (cabbages, cauliflower, etc.) and nightshades (tomatoes & peppers, etc.) don't like each other. There are also really useful plants that will help to keep pests away. Planting a border of marigolds around your garden will keep lots of pests away, because they don't like the smell. But most of the time, if a plant is healthy and the soil is giving it what it needs, it's less likely to be attacked by pests in the first place and better equipped to fight off any attacks. I know this sounds crazy, but some bugs can actually smell weakness in plants and so they know when to move in for the kill...

Starting seeds
Timeline: starting 3 months before the last frost (in Ottawa, that's February), and continuing as needed by your veggies!

You'll want to start your seedlings indoors for a lot of crops, at least if you live in Ottawa like I do. Basically, we just don't have a long enough growing season for most crops to reach maturity before the Fall frost hits. If you live in a warmer climate, you're probably going to get a longer season and you may not need to start seedlings ahead.

Always check the package for your planting time. Things like tomatoes need to be started early (now), whereas if you're planning to start other things in advance, you'll be better off to wait. I wouldn't try starting beans in February; you'll have a beanstalk larger than you know what to do with by the time the last frost has passed!

In terms of numbers, I always plant at least twice as many seeds as the number of plants I want in the end. Often, you'll get seeds that don't sprout, or you'll lose some seedlings along the way because they're too fragile or you dropped one on the heater in your living room and didn't even notice (true story). I have never thought to myself, "Damn. I wish I hadn't planted so many seeds!" In fact, often I find myself wishing that I'd planted just slightly more, especially when a friend approaches me and asks if I have an extra plant or two.

In terms of actually planting the seedlings, I usually use household items as containers, and I haven't actually bought plant pots in years. For tiny seedlings, in their first stages, I use a bit of organic potting mix in eggshells, neatly tucked away in the original egg carton. For seedlings that I expect to grow large really quickly, and when I need to transfer the eggshells, I use everything from old flowerpots to yogurt containers with holes poked in the bottoms. Saved foil pie plates or those trays your mushrooms come in are perfect for little containers to hold drained off water until it can be poured off.

I find the sunniest window and make sure my seedlings are in it. I set up a card table just in front of my living room window, where we get a lot of afternoon sun. I mist the seedlings regularly with water at the beginning, as they'll be working hard and that takes lots of water (well...at least it's a lot of water for such tiny plants). I don't drown them or anything. I just make sure that the soil is never bone dry. I've been known to cover them with clear plastic bags to help keep the moisture in, so I'm not watering them every two seconds.

Then you just wait for magic to happen.

Stay tuned for the continuation in the Spring...when I'll go over what you do to actually get ready for planting!


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