Gardening 101 · Winter Prep

Observing your garden- how and why

Is this your first time ever hoping to put in a garden? Or have you recently moved, changed the layout of your space, or seen any big ecological changes on your property?

Then before you even touch your hoe or seed packet, you need to spend some time observing your space. Think of your backyard (or front yard, side yard, or flower bed) as uncharted territory, like a wild and unknown forest that you need to master before you tame. For some of you inheriting someone else’s overgrown garden or a concrete jungle, this might be a rather large project, but for everyone else, I promise this will be manageable.

I know it’s tempting to jump right into putting a flowerbed by your front door (that’s where they go, right?) or visiting the nursery for your favorite bushes, but resist! What if you put your bed right on a floodplain, or somewhere that hardly gets any sun, or on top of a secret trapdoor to an underground tunnel? (Ok, the last one is pretty unlikely.) Learning as much as you can about your backyard will keep you ahead of the ecological curve and future *facepalm* moments.

If you want a really in-depth look at the process of observing your growing space, I highly recommend Paradise Lot by Eric Toensmeier.

He and his buddy Jonathan spent an entire year watching, measuring, and mapping their property in Holyoke, MA before putting a single seed in the ground, a practice which I have (mostly) copied myself. Of course, you don’t have to go this in-depth if you don’t want to, but any amount of studying will improve your knowledge and therefore, your growing.

So what in particular should you be paying attention to?

SUN

Knowing the patterns of sun and shade is crucial when picking a spot for a new plot (or evaluating whether or not last year’s plot will still work, if you’re on year 2+ of this cycle). For all you know, the neighbor’s new line of poplar trees reaches so high that it completely shades out where you wanted to put a tomato patch. Or you might realize the spot you thought you’d grow some partial shade-loving lettuce actually gets full sun. If you study beforehand, you’ll avoid the lost season of growth and be one step closer to a bountiful harvest.

The beautiful, sunny view from my community garden plot.

Observing new-to-you land takes some work and prep, if you want to do it right. Not only should you think about what sun patterns look like now, but also a season or two or three from now. The sun’s angle changes, and so will the amount of light different patches get at different times based on the shadows thrown by your or neighbor’s houses, nearby trees, and any other tall structures. If you don’t want to spend a full year literally watching grass grow (I hear ya!) check out suncalc.org or another solar calculator to help you determine position and length of sunlight.

Soil

If you’ve never done it before, you really should get your soil tested. This will tell you
– your soil’s pH
– % soil organic matter
– nutrient levels (and recommendations for how to get levels perfect)
– whether or not you have dangerous levels of lead in your soil
– other interesting things

Soil test kits are available at your local Cooperative Extension office (the same organization that usually runs Master Gardener programs). They don’t cost too much if you’re just a home gardener. Where I live, the University of Maine will do a standard analysis for just $18.

It’s also important to know what kind of soil you have- silt, sand, clay, or loam. This won’t be covered in a soil test, but you can generally discover yours by using an online tool like the USDA’s Web Soil Survey. Put in your address, use the AOI (area of interest) tool to draw an outline around your property, and see what results come up! In the near future, I’ll be writing a post on what to do if your soil type is less than ideal, and how to get your beds as close to loamy as possible.

Water

I don’t just mean looking at how much rainfall your area typically gets in a year. I mean finding the little patches where your backyard turns into a lake after a drizzle, or where the water cuts a path running down your hill, or the best place to harvest rainwater for later use. Here in Maine, I don’t have to worry about water conservation techniques (or ridiculous rainwater harvesting laws), as we get plenty of rainfall spread out pretty evenly throughout the year. If your climate is more arid, however, this will probably be a crucial part of your observation.

Wind

You certainly don’t want to plant some delicate, easily-blown-over onions right in the path of frequent gusts. You also might want to think about wind if you were hoping to plant some wind-pollinated species. Check ahead to make sure wind won’t be a factor!


In addition to the natural elements I’ve already covered, there are also some human components you should think about when picking a garden site, including but not limited to:

Foot traffic patterns

Where are you going to walk when trekking between the tool shed and your berry patch? Where will your guests come from when visiting to check out your blooms? Think ahead before planting.

More from the community garden. Notice the giant, mulched pathway down the middle that branches off to go between each of the beds on either side.

Even after you’ve mapped out the rough area where a garden would best fit, make sure you think about how much space you’ll need to move around between beds for planting, weeding, and harvesting. You don’t want to be stepping in your nice bed and compacting the soil every time you go to pick a flower! Leave some space for maneuvering around.

Parking

Are there any potential issues with people parking on the strip of grass at the edge of your driveway where you planned to plant those adorable mini-pumpkins?

Underground stuff

If you were hoping to put in some deep-rooted plants or trees, make sure there aren’t utility lines or pipes underground to watch out for. The last thing you want is for your sewer line to get blocked up because you didn’t know it was right under the site of your new weeping willow. Also check with the neighbors to see if the last owner was ever seen with a box and a shovel in the backyard at night. Maybe.

Which brings me to my final point,

General neighborhood notes

Does one of your neighbors have an overgrown bush that’s home to about ten thousand common sparrows? (Ask me how I know about this one.) How about a hoard of semi-feral cats always looking for a good litter box? These are things to know and plan ahead for! Perhaps some fences or netting is in your near future.

Knowing this cat hangs around the garden means I know to add ten minutes to my planned gardening time. You know, for belly rubs.

You also might want to know about potentially beneficial elements found around you. For instance, maybe someone nearby keeps bees that could help your plants with pollination, or maybe that pond down the road is home to a bunch of pest-eating frogs! Lucky you!

At the end of the day, you probably won’t be able to plan ahead for every single facet of your growing space. Even if you could, Mother Nature has a way of changing things around on you just as you’re getting the hang of it (like a giant tree that once shaded your whole backyard coming down in a blizzard). Ecological succession is something you’ll be contending with as long as you work outside, so you might as well get used to the process of observation right away.

That’s it for me! What did you think about before putting in your first garden? Or what do you still have questions about? Let me know in comments!

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Biggest Gardening Fails

You know the old saying, “you can’t make an omelette without cracking a few eggs?”

I’d like to make a motion to change this to “you can’t be a gardener without accidentally killing everything you touch once or twice.”

Because c’mon. I’ve been there. You’ve been there. Let’s just get it out in the open, have a brief moment of silence for every plant we’ve mutilated, and move on together.

So today, I’ve gone through all my old garden notes from the past five seasons to find the biggest mistakes I’ve made in the dirt.  Everyone needs a good dose of humility every now and then, right? So let’s see what kind of scarecrows I’ve got in my closet…

Summer of 2014- Ignoring pests

2014 was the first year I really held the reins of my little community garden plot. I had complete control of what, when, and where in my plots I planted for the first time, and I got a little drunk off that power in the beginning. I felt large and totally in charge.

Then came the hornworms.

♪I CAME IN LIKE A WREEEEECKING BALLLLLLL…♪

They showed up, as hornworms usually do, in the middle of the summer, just when my tomato plants were starting to form tiny green tomatoes. But they GROSSED ME OUT. I couldn’t bring myself to do more than try and flick them off with a three foot stick. I think I kept hoping these magic, beneficial wasps I’d read about would swoop in and come to my rescue if I just waited long enough.*

As a result, I lost everything to those chubby green buggers.

Solution- Woman or man up and squish those guys. This past summer, remembering my former shame, I got my gardening gloves on and plucked these guys off by hand. I didn’t even have to spend much time doing it. Once or twice a week for ten minutes was enough to hand-manage these slow moving pests and actually have a tomato harvest through the summer. (Pesticides, even safe ones like Neem oil, should be second or third on your list of pest management techniques, as they can kill the beneficial bugs you want to keep along with the garden-destroying kind.) All it took was patience and familiarity with my plants, because hornworms are excellent at camouflage.

As an added idea, this would be an excellent task to get little kids helping with in your garden! They’re right at eye level with the green beasts and I know tons of kids love all things that wriggle and can be placed in a bucket.

Spring of 2016- Gardening too early
In 2016, I was in the middle of completing my Master Gardener certification, and I was so excited! I was soaking up everything I could learn about soil, botany, pests, organic practices, and so much more.


However, in my enthusiasm, I overlooked one crucial lesson. On many packages of seeds, it notes that planting should occur “as soon as the soil can be worked.” In my naivete, I assumed that meant “as soon as the ground is no longer frozen solid.”

Can anyone guess what kinds of seeds came in this package?


That would be a mistake. If soil is too wet in the spring (as it often is, with all the rain, melting snow, and still-chilly temperatures), moving the soil around too much will cause the soil structure to be DESTROYED. Instead of a nice, crumblike structure come May or June, the soil will have dried out into giant clods that turn to dust if you break them up. And nothing grows well in soil like that.

Solution: Be patient. Test the soil when you’d like to work it by grabbing a small handful and squeezing it into a ball. Upon releasing your fist, if the ball stays firm like play dough or doesn’t break apart nicely with a little pressure from your thumb, you’ll just have to find other projects to keep you entertained, because it is not planting time yet.

Alternatively, if you’ve already made the same mistake I have, the problem can take years to fix, depending on how vigorously you dug up your too-wet soil. Adding some more compost (in various stages of decomposition) and/or working in some manure to the top of your damaged soil, then seeding with some kind of “green manure” like clover or winter rye on top might help it heal faster. In the meantime, find a new patch to plant your veggies in, build raised beds on top of the damaged soil, or think about container gardening for the season if your plot options are limited.

Every year- Not thinning seedlings

I should know better. Intellectually, I know that if plants have optimal spacing, they’ll produce bigger, better, and maybe even faster. And yet some part of me always feels so guilty pulling out those little, tender carrot tops or radish sprouts.

“How can you kill us when we’re so small and cute?” they seem to cry out to me as I pluck and discard them. “What did we ever do to youuuu?”

And so I leave all four hundred carrots in the tiny patch I sowed them in, and thoroughly regret my soft heart about a month later when my carrots look more like wimpy shoelaces than, well, carrots.

Solution: It’s the same advice I give to my high school students looking to write a better short story- kill your darlings. It’s much better to have properly spaced plants produce big, beautiful fruits and veggies for you than to keep a bunch of measly looking ones. Trust me.

Students at Farm Camp doing exactly what I should always do- THINNING CARROTS.

Fall of 2017- Not harvesting completely

Sometimes, I get so excited about finally pulling all the potatoes or carrots out of the ground, I rush. I go as fast as I can so I can run home and make soup immediately with all my delicious, fresh veggies. (Which, of course, you should never do with potatoes. Let them cure for like two weeks in a cool, dark place before cooking with them.) In my haste in 2017, I missed a few and got a big surprise the following spring when something that was DEFINITELY not a bean plant popped up in my bean patch.

Potatoes are proof that there is a God.

Solution: Go slow, use a hoe. (If in doubt, eh, it’ll sprout.) (Pull it then, that’ll be the end.)

(Okay, I’m done now.)

What about all of you? What do you consider your biggest gardening fails? (It’s okay, this is a safe, judgement-free garden. 😉 )

*Yes, this is actually a viable solution if it happens to present itself. The parasitic Braconidae wasp lays its eggs on the backs of hornworms, and if you wait long enough, the baby wasps will hatch, feed on the host hornworm, mature, and then fly off to destroy hornworms all over the neighborhood. So if you ever see a hornworm with what looks like dozens of bright white eggs on its back, LEAVE IT!