Okay, Gardeners! Grab Your Graph Paper!

While Old Man Winter over-stayed his welcome this year (to put it mildly), spring is finally here, as evidenced by the emergence of daffodils and crocus. While these brave little bulbs are not bound by our calendar year, they are programmed by their DNA to respond to changes in the amount of light available during the day and temperature.

By now, your new garden space is filled with a mush of composting materials. All those wonderful potato peels and celery tops – I can almost hear the worms saying, “OH YUM” as they eat their way through, leaving nutrient-rich castings behind. The healthy bacteria is happy too, as they help the materials decompose and turn back into soil.

How to Get Started

Now, purchase a couple of bags of top soil or hummus (not the cheap stuff) and dump that on top, smoothing it into a top layer about 2-3″ deep. That will give you a workable planting medium on top, with all those composted nutrients ready to nourish roots. If you happen to dig up some eggshells when you’re planting, just push them back into the hole – it’s all good.

You’re itching to get out there and really plant, I know. Me too. But there is careful planning to be done and that in itself can be simply magical. Oh! The potential!

Next Steps

First, grab that graph paper. Second, get out your measuring tape and measure the length and width of your garden. Map that out on the graph paper, including any curves or dips, so you have an accurate representation of the shape of your garden. I prefer using a 1″ to 1′ ratio, using each square inch on the paper as a square foot in the garden. Plants like breathing room as they grow, so we must consider the mature size of a plant when plotting.

Using Planning Software for Your Garden

This article will deal with vegetables, which I sincerely hope you’ll grow this year. Even if you put just one tomato plant, intermingled in your flower bed, the taste and texture of a home-grown tomato will delight your senses and inspire you for a bigger bed next year. We’ll talk about installing a floral butterfly garden next month.

Gardener’s Supply Company has, as far as I’ve found, the best free planning software for a veggie garden. Click here http://www.gardeners.com/Kitchen-Garden-Planner/kgp_home,default,pg.html to access it. Type in the length and width of your garden and it will create a graph for you. When you drag your desired vegetable into the graph, the proper amount of plants per square foot will pop up. For example, drag the tomato plant to a square of your plan and you’ll see one tomato, as one tomato plant needs a full square foot to grow in a productive, disease-free manner. Drag a turnip and you’ll see nine, meaning you can grow nine evenly spaced turnips (about one per each 4 square inches) within that square foot. Your plan can then be saved so you can go back and make changes until you’re happy with it, then print it so you can take that along to the nursery to buy your seeds and plants.

Square foot gardening increased my food production exponentially last year as it’s a way to get many more plants into your available space. Also, dealing with a square foot at a time is much less overwhelming and is much more organized than trying to envision the entire garden in rows. I cannot recommend it highly enough for veggie gardening. If you need more information, click here: http://www.squarefootgardening.com

Ideas On What to Plant

If you’re a grewbie (a growing newbie), start with vegetables that are nearly fool-proof. Green beans require little fuss, zucchini is prolific with hardly any worry (as a matter of fact, they are so prolific that just one plant may be all you need!) and sugar snap peas just need a trellis to climb.

Any type of green or lettuce, such as arugula, kale, spinach or collard, are all “cut and come again”, which means that when they grow about 3 – 4″ high, you can cut them back to about 1″, enjoy your salad and then wait a week or so to cut them again – and again. This is a wonderful way to keep enjoying the bounty of your garden. When the stems start getting too fibrous, that’s when you’ll want to pull them out and consider another crop to place in that area (green beans are great for multiple plantings throughout the season).

Anything that needs intense thinning like carrots or radishes needs to be eased into carefully. Nothing turns you off of gardening faster than trying to pinch out whispers of seedlings in an attempt to leave one just every two inches – usually in the baking hot June sun! If you just must have veggies that begin from tiny seeds, use seed tape, either bought or made yourself with two-ply toilet paper. Seeds are imbedded in biodegradable paper in perfect, already-thinned spacing.

I have always preferred buying my basil, pepper, tomato and broccoli as plants, but I grow cucumbers, pumpkins and any squashes from seed as those are also a breeze. When selecting your plants at a reputable nursery (make sure you buy your plants the day they arrive at your big box garden store before they’ve had time to suffer any abuse), make sure the stems are solid, the leaves are upright and lush and the color is good.

How Planting a Garden Can be a Source of Entertainment

In the Midwest, planting corn in your home garden must be seen as merely entertainment, as I guarantee that squirrels or raccoons will strip your garden bare 10 minutes before you walk out of the door to harvest. Neighbors in a 3-block radius of my house could not understand why there were squirrels everywhere, gnawing on corn cobs and strewing shuckings on driveways, lawns and backyards until they realized the trail led to my backyard and my completely naked cornstalks. It caused a very pleasant fuss in our subdivision.

It was fascinating watching the seedlings sprout and grow, making sure the pollen fell into the elbow of the leaves, and seeing the corn cob form. For small children, this is a magnificent science project, but be prepared for observing squirrel acrobats as the culmination, because you won’t be harvesting any for yourself!

Finished and Ready to Go

Your garden plot is finished and you are ready to go! Again – we have to slow down! While we can plant our cold crops like peas and broccoli in late April, we’ll have to wait until after May 15th, zone 5’s last frost date, to plant other crops.

Hopefully, you’re dreaming of ripe, juicy tomato, crisp green beans and peppery arugula on your plate – and thinking “OH YUM” right now, just like those worms!

About the Author

Rebecca Palumbo is a certified Master Gardener and her yard is a Certified Wildlife Habitat. Since she could hold a trowel, she has been gardening – first as her mother’s oft-reluctant assistant (read: Weed Puller) and now for her own joy. She has fought Creeping Charlie tooth and nail, struggled to grow zucchini in complete shade and continues the battle of wits, hot pepper and fencing with Damn Rabbits. She is a member of the Garden Writers Association and is the Creative Director/Founder of Rollins Palumbo Creative, a graphic design and marketing firm in Chicagoland.

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