Tuesday, January 20, 2009

garden planning do's and dont's

it's that time of year again! my seed catalogs have arrived in the mail and i'm about to get madly carried away with all the gardening i'd love to do. last year i signed up for several community garden patches, plus my own yard, plus committing to being a significant presence on my friend's farm. in the end i gardened in my own yard. full stop. so to keep my eyes from getting waaay bigger than my gardening capacity, here are some practical tips.

do plan ahead. the last thing you want is for planting time to come and for you to have no seedlings ready.
don't plant enough seedlings for an 80 acre farm.

do measure your plot(s) so you can draw up a plan when you're figuring out what seeds to order
don't wait until there are four feet of snow then realize that you're an idiot.

do create a garden that you find interesting. why not plant purple tomatoes, purple lettuce, purple carrots, purple beans, purple potatoes and white beets?
don't stick just to the varieties of produce that you can get at the grocery store. what's the point in putting all this work in if you could pick up identical food down the street?

do compost. a compost bin provides the best fertilizer you could ask for, and costs only your kitchen and garden scraps. it reduces the amount of garbage going to the landfill and feeds your garden.
don't keep cramming things into your compost bin when it gets full. when tightly packed, compost can't decompose properly and so you'll end with a useless monument to ecofriendliness instead of a soil-producing ecomachine.

do try growing plants that don't suit your climate in the winter, but are happy in pots. i have two types of hot pepper plant that have been cheerfully providing me with tasty little peppers all winter long. also a banana tree and a guava tree that are growing steadily and will one day feed me. cumquats, cherry tomatoes, and many exotic flowers love to summer outside and winter indoors near a sunny window.
don't forget about herbs - my kitchen windowsill has been home to a happy, productive basil plant for ~6 years.

do read up on lasagne beds, square foot gardening, companion planting, container gardening, and upside down tomato plants.
don't get all crazy trying ten million new things at once. keep it simple. try new things, but don't get in over your head. there are a zillion cool-sounding techniques out there, and most won't work for you. a few will, with fantastic results.

do find a local, independently owned source for your seeds. if they're based near where you live, they'll know what grows well in your area and have good tips for you
don't buy seeds from the grocery store or hardware store or any big, mainstream seed company. they're all monsanto. even a lot of the smaller companies are just subsidiaries of monsanto. and monsanto is seriously, purely evil. they're one of the largest corporations on the planet and they make wal mart look like a model corporate citizen. learn about them, yo. then refuse to give them your money. (they already get lots of it; most normal produce, as well as the corn, wheat & soybeans that are in 99.99999% of processed foods are made of come from monsanto plants)

do plant things that you like to eat and feel capable of growing
don't grow all carrots and beets just because they're easy. beans are easy, too. diversify, baby.

do have a plan for preserving the bounty of your garden
don't plant twenty heads of lettuce on the same day so they all come ripe on the same day and you end up eating nothing but lettuce for a week and still have to throw most of it away

do buy heirloom seeds. they're basically horticultural activism made easy. most seeds you see in stores and mainstream catalogs are patented and bred or modified to be sterile, so you can't save the seeds from one year to plant the next. monsanto owns most of these. heirloom seeds are ones that have been saved by regular people, mostly, for decades or centuries. they often look really cool and taste amazing. experiment with different tomatoes, especially.
don't buy thirty different types of heirloom tomato seed when you only have thirty square feet to plant in. i know they look cool and it's hard to choose, but bite the bullet and narrow down your selections.

do make your seedling pots. learn how to make an origami box and fold non-glossy flyers and newsapaper into seed starter-sized squares. or cut a toilet paper roll in half, then fold together one end of each half.
don't buy peat pots. they're convenient, but at a great ecological price. if you really want to throw money away on seed starter pots, buy coir. it's made of the hair on coconuts. how cool is that?

do start more plants than you'll actually need. expect casualties. some seeds don't grow, some succumb to baby plant illnesses, some seedlings are killed by pests as soon as they're transplanted outdoors, some wait a week and get kille by cutworms...
don't try to plant every seedling you grow. i know that composting a perfectly good young plant feels like murder, but overcrowding is a bad idea. overcrowded tomatoes & corn don't produce, overcrowded carrots & beets need thinning over and over, so it's less labour-intensive to just plant them spaced out to begin with, overcrowded beans choke each other and everything else out - just don't overcrowd, ok? err on the side of too much space between plants.

do plant strategically. carrots and beets are happy in darker, damper places, as long as they aren't too dark or damp. tomatoes and peppers need as much light as possible.

this is my plan. the top of the picture points south. because the garage blocks the sun for most of that big patch, i put mostly root crops there. all the other areas get plenty of light, so they're full of plants that love the sun. see how i've put thin rows of things together? i can put a row of root crops in front of tomato plants because they don't steal the tomatoes' light, being short and all. then behind the tomatoes (or peppers) i can put a trellis with beans or a row of sunflowers or corn, since those are all tall enough to get the light they need, regardless of the other plants. after everything is planted i go back and wedge more beets & carrots into whatever corners i can. i grow a lot of those, since i like to make vats of beet borscht and can them for winter consumption. cheaper, healthier and tastier than stupid campbell's slop.
don't make the same mistakes over and over. i make pickles, but do you seen cucumbers anywhere on that chart? squash, pumpkins, and cukes need a lot of room, and i don't have that. after my cukes overgrew their area last year i decided to stick to more decorous plants.

do grow organically. your body, your wallet and your planet will thank you. it's not that hard, honestly.
don't grow unorganically. i'm serious about this, folks. those chemicals are literally toxic. you really don't need them.

do have fun
don't make it a chore - gardening is meant to be exercise, a source of cheap, healthy food, and relaxing. if something goes wrong, that's ok. learn from it and move on. there's always next year.


  1. Less talk, more walk!
    In Soviet Russia garden hoes you

  2. Great reading and great tips. I'm really into container gardening. This will be my third year. Looking forward to it!!

    Thanks again.

  3. Thanks J, my love, for the zen of gardening.

    I really need help in this department..I am a plant abandoner.