Tuesday, May 7, 2013

How to plant your first garden, a step by step tutorial

What my early "unsexy garden" looks like. Ron likes things growing all together (he says it's sexy) , I like neat rows. To each his own!

So you want to plant a garden, but you don't know where to start? Well, I'm here to help!! I am just a normal person who has been successful at it, this tells you that you can grow something you can be proud of too! I have been growing my own garden for about 10 years now. I have taken classes and read books and am always learning! The art of growing things is always a challenging and exciting thing for me! It is something that gives me joy. It allows me the opportunity to work and sweat, tend and care, then reap the benefits of a beautiful harvest that just makes it all worth it. All the while giving me the ultimate feeling of satisfaction because I made it. (With God and nature's help of course!) I'm certainly no expert in gardening, but I am a normal person who gardens and harvests a bountiful garden each season and thought I would share what I have learned over the years. I will do a series of garden posts this season. (Watch for tomato planting next!)

This post was inspired by my attendance at the recent SNAP Conference here in Utah. One of our keynote speakers was Ron Finley who has done an amazing job of creating gardens in urban Los Angeles. He has taken vacant lots or weedy park strips and turned them into beautiful, lush gardens to feed the people of these LA neighborhoods. All the while fostering a love of gardens, vegetables, helping and teaching people. During his speech at the conference it became apparent to me how many people don't grow their own food and that they get overwhelmed and just don't know where to start. So this is why I have decided to share with you how I plant my garden. My type of gardening is tilling up a spot of ground, preparing the soil, planting and watering. Please keep in mind that there are a lot of different ways to grow gardens and opinions are many on this subject. I'm going to show you what I do. And my hope is to inspire you to give it a try for yourself!

So the first thing you need to do is figure out where you will be growing your garden. Do you have ample land (like myself) where a large garden plot is not a problem? Or will you be putting in raised garden beds/square foot garden or will it be in pots outside your apartment veranda? And then, how do you plan to water this area? I sprinkle until all the seedlings pop through the ground and then I soak after that. (I don't like to sprinkle once the plants are up, it makes them unhealthy and it wastes more water I think.)

Once you have decided what kind of garden plot you will use. Then next thing is to make a plan. What do you want to plant? Is the area where you live conducive to what vegetables/fruits you want to plant?(For instance, if you live in Randolph, Utah where it is super cold and the growing season is short, planting a melon that takes a long time to grow is not a good choice because chances are good that it will get cold before you get melons. What things will your family eat? You will want to plant what you know your family will eat and then if you have room, experiment with some new veggies/fruits that your family hasn't tried yet. (I can guarantee you that they will taste better from your garden than at the store because you have picked them at their peak of ripeness and they are fresh!) This year we are trying Artichoke and Rhubarb, we haven't grown these before.

I have a few favorite brands of seed for some things and then others I don't mind what brand they are. For instance, I cannot grow any other kind of corn on the cob than Gurney's "Gotta Have It Corn!" The reason is, it's my favorite! It has an amazingly sweet flavor, even when it's past prime, it still tastes good and every time I have tried another brand, I always go back to the Gurney's because it tastes better! (to me) And then I love "Sun Sugar" cherry tomatoes, they are like candy. (These rarely make it into the house to be used in any recipe because we snack on them straight off the plant. They are sweet like candy!)  So I get two "starts" of those Sun Sugar tomato plants at a local nursery. And then I get lots of other randomly branded seeds from IFA and some from Gurney's.

So you will need to obtain your seeds. This can be as easy as a purchase at Walmart, your local feed store like IFA or specialty seeds stores such as Gurney's ordered online. I get all my seeds ordered early in the year (like February) and then plan what needs to be planted first. I have a small greenhouse here on "Patch-A-Heaven" so I can start my warm weather plants like tomatoes, peppers, melons etc. inside so they are seedlings when Mother's Day comes around. Where I live (in Utah) you cannot plant tender things like tomatoes, corn, peppers, cucumbers, melons, beans etc. until after Mother's Day. This is the general rule where I live because if you do, you risk a frost that will kill what you have planted. (You can work around this rule a few ways also, such as using "Walls of Water" or other protective coverings around the plants to protect them.) So the next thing I do is separate my seeds into 2 boxes, one for early planting (like peas, lettuces, spinach, beets, carrots, onions etc.) and then the after Mother's Day stuff (like squashes, cucumbers, beans, corn) And then I like to plant seedlings of tomatoes and peppers with the "Walls of Water" around them in my garden about April 10. (However, it is now the 26th of April and I don't have my tomatoes in the garden yet. It has been extra cold and wet around here the last few weeks so I have been waiting for it to warm up so I could till the ground and get them in.) Today was the first warm day we have had so I've been out tilling today getting things ready.

Once you have your seeds, you need to prep your soil. I have a large plot with no beds. So I do one of two things to prepare my soil with the proper nutrients needed to grow healthy plants. I either use old composted manure (about 2 inches spread across the top of the ground) this requires manure by the dump truck load. So last year I did several dump truck loads of manure. This year I went the commercial fertilizer route. I use a formula recommended to me by an expert gardener by the name of Gordon Wells. He taught a series of gardening classes in our area a few years ago. I use his formula which is 1/4 quart ironite and 3/4 quart 16-16-8 Garden Fertilizer per 180 square feet. He told us to use a quart bottling jar, fill it 1/4 full with Ironite and then 3/4 full of 16-16-8 and that will fertilize 180 square feet. My garden is 5,250 square feet to I need approx. 22 quarts of 16-16-8 and 7 quarts Ironite. I mix all of this together in a wheel barrow or bucket then sprinkle on my garden using a seed spreader. Then I till it into the dirt using a rototiller. So I choose to rotate my fertilizer every other year, one year I will do the dump truck loads of composted manure and the next year I will do commercial fertilizer. I like this because it gives a good amount of organic matter with the manure and then a higher amount of Nitrogen with the commercial fertilizer.
Preparing your soil is one of the most important things you will need to do. And what you do will depend on what kind of plot you have. The more organic matter you can add, the better. When I say organic matter I mean things like grass clippings (without chemicals used on the grass!) leaves, a cover crop tilled in (something you grew to then till in to give organic matter back to the soil), peat moss etc. For example, I had several green weeds growing in my garden today before I tilled it. Because they had not produced seeds yet, they are a good thing to till into the dirt because they will break down and give organic matter to my soil. (I just like to remove really big pieces like corn stalks and let them break down in a compost pile instead because things this big make it hard for small seedlings to pop through.) Your soil needs several nutrients to grow healthy plants, the most important ones I need to add for my Western Soil are: Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium and Iron.

Once you have your manure or fertilizer spread on the top of the plot, till it into the dirt using some kind of rototiller. And then use a rake to smooth out any high or low spots. Then you are ready to make rows. I can't make a straight row to save my life! (Ask "Handy Husband", every time I hang something he will come in and say "You know that's not straight right?") Straight and level are not my strong points. So I like to use two stakes, one at the top of the row and one at the bottom, then I tie a string (you can use baling twine, jute, any kind of thin rope or string) tied to the stakes and the line runs in between the two stakes. This string line helps with two things. It helps me make a straight row and it also marks where the seeds should be watered and where they should pop up. These stakes and lines should be left in the garden until your seedlings pop through the soil. Then they can be removed.

Once the two stakes and string line are in place I use my trusty hoe and hoe a row about 3-4" deep along the side of the string line. This is the row I plant my seeds in. Once I have sprinkled the seeds I cover them with dirt. And then I use my feet to gently stomp on the row. This presses the dirt onto the seeds. Then I give it a good water with the hose. I prefer to only water the row where the seeds are planted instead of a general sprinkler because I like to conserve water and I like to discourage weed growth! I water the furrow row created by my feet. Water well everyday (unless it rains then nature does it for you) until the seeds make seedlings (small plants popping through the dirt) once the seedlings have emerged then I will dig an irrigation furrow row right next to them will water them in the furrow from that point on. I don't like to water with sprinklers, I feel it wastes water and gives plants water diseases. I like to deeply water at the dirt level.

A couple of other pointers: Read the back of the seed packet. It gives you all the information you need to plant that seed. Like how far apart to space the seeds, how far apart to plant the rows, how long it will take to germinate and then how long to maturity, and how much dirt to cover that type of seed.

I want to give you small amounts of information to get you started, but not overwhelm you! So today, all I got done in my own garden was the fertilizer, and a small area of the plot tilled. (I ran out of gas in the tiller and only had room for one row.) But that's okay, it will be there tomorrow and I will start again. I actually prefer to plant my garden this way, a little at a time. Then I don't feel overwhelmed by it. So I will finish tilling an area tomorrow morning and then make more rows and plant and water. Then I will do my tomatoes. I will do a separate tutorial for them. And I will continue doing small plantings until it is all in and then the fun begins of maintaining it! Watering and weeding. But I find it very therapeutic! Don't be afraid to try a garden. It's really not difficult, you just need to start somewhere! Happy Planting!!

This is what a quart jar filled with 16-16-8/Ironite looks like.


This is the fertilizer mixed and ready to spread over the dirt.


I spread all the fertilizer on the dirt by walking and spreading evenly over the entire area. Then tilled it in with my Tiller.


Dirt should look pretty like this when tilled. (You can't till if its too wet, I use the "shovel test" dig into the dirt with a shovel, if it sticks to the shovel, it's too wet, wait a day or so for it to dry out.)


Here I have 2 stakes and a line tied in between them. I will then make a row next to the line to plant seeds.

Here is the row hoed. Here is where the stakes/line helps you keep it straight! It's now ready for seed sprinkling.

Here is an example of the back of a seed packet. Read those instructions to know when to plant, how deep to cover seeds, how long it will take to grow etc.
After I have sprinkled the seeds into the row, then I use my feet to push dirt over the seeds and gently stomp over the row to push everything down.

Here is a row that has been stomped.

Now the row needs a good watering. I just use a hose and hand sprinkle water over the row until it puddles like this. Water daily (unless it rains) until the plants pop through.
Here are some peas that have popped through.

Sometimes I find surprises of the good kind! Here is a little patch of Cilantro that popped up all by itself from seeds that fell on the ground last year. I picked it (before I tilled) and we had it on tacos.
Here is another surprise that popped up, some lettuce. Notice how many different colors of green are present in a garden. So many hues to add beauty!
Here is a pic of a pea plant and a garden stake/line.
Here is my notes from Mr. Wells gardening class so many years ago. I still refer to it and his great book.
This is what I call the "Garden Bible" I refer to it a lot too!

Say "Hello" to my little hoe. This is where gardening becomes physical activity!!

Our new Artichoke plant. I'm excited, this is a perennial!

Those funny looking green "tepees" are "Walls of Water" they protect tomatoes while there is still chances of frost. Which were I live can happen until after Mother's Day!

So this is how I plant a garden. I hope that I have been able to show you that you can do it too! Start small and break it up so you don't get overwhelmed. But, try it...you won't regret it!!


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