In this post, I hope to explain why your summer garden starts now (in the dead of winter) and what steps you can take now to get the best return on your investment during the peak growing season.
why your summer garden starts now
Inexperienced gardeners often go into the growing season unprepared and find themselves caught offguard by less than optimal results or unexpected challenges. Growing your own vegetable garden is so rewarding, and there really is no sense of accomplishment quite like sitting around the table eating food that you grew from your very own dirt! But to really yield a successful harvest, you to have a solid plan for how to plant and manage your growing yield. The key ingredients to a successful garden are soil, sunlight, quality seed (or starts), and water. All of these things are easy to accomplish, but just require a bit of thoughtfulness. So a successful garden starts with a plan.
your summer garden starts with a plan
To make sure your plants reach their peak potential, they need a few things: energy to grow (carbon) and nutrients (nitrogen) – both of which they absorb from the surrounding soil. They also need plenty of sunlight and water (which plants convert into glucose for food). So, where you are planting and how you are planting contributes significantly to your success or failure. So let’s discuss the key ingredients of a successful garden that you will need to think about.
step 1: garden planning
Choose a location
You want to map out a garden spot that has full sun, which means at least 6 hours a day or more of full sunlight. You need access to water and quality soil (more on that later). If possible, you want a South facing garden because it will receieve the most direct sunlight. You’ll want easy access to tools, as well as a way to keep out unwanted pests like deer or other critters.
Map out your garden
You want to make sure that you plan in such a way that your plants benefit from their location. Plan for the number of plants on each row so that you don’t overcrowd them and cause them to compete for nutrients. Make sure that smaller plants aren’t shaded out by taller, bushier plants. You’ll want to make a list of all the varieties that you want to grow and how many plants you need to produce a harvest. For example, while it might be fun to grow corn, but did you know that one corn stalk produces only two ears of corn? That’s a lot of garden space for a really low yield. So you might want to choose varieties that are high producing and that grow fruit continuously throughout the season. A few good questions to consider:
What does my family actually like to eat?
How many plants will I need to feed my family?
Do I want to have extra to share with family and friends?
Will I have a way to store or preserve excess?
Order Seeds to direct sow or plan to buy starts
Once you know what you want to grow and how much you want to grow, you need to decide if you will be buying starts or seeds. Starts can be easier for a first time gardener and are widely available at most garden centers. But seeds offer freedom and lots of variety. Also, seeds that can be directly sewn into the soil are much easier than seeds that require starting indoors and transplanting. So decide which things you want to grow and determine how to best start your garden. I have written a post here about my favorite places online to order seeds.
This smay seem obvious, but I didn’t think about it as a beginning gardener. But it’s important to make sure that you buy seeds or starts for the appropriate season. Once, I bought starts at a local garden center assuming they would grow in season. But they were cold weather plants and I was starting a summer garden. They all bolted and died. I learned that just because they are being sold locally, that doesn’t mean they are appropriate for the season. Do your research and grow the right veggies for the season.
Once you have laid a solid plan for the location of your garden, mapped out your garden space, and ordered seeds, it’s time to start prepping your soil.
step 2: prepping your soil
Buy or create your own compost
Adding compost to your garden soil is one of the easiest ways to improve your chance of successful planting! Compost adds essential nutrients into the soil and helps your plants get off to a good start. You can work compost into the top few inches of your soil just before planting and then add it continually throughout the growing season to continue to provide essential carbon and nitrogen into the soil. Organic compost works better than chemical ammendments because it is what you call a “cold” fertilizer, meaning it won’t burn or scorch your plants like other forms of fertilizer, which may contain a high concentration of nitrogen.
Step 3: find your growing zone and last frost date
set your planting date
You need to know which gardening zone you are in so that you can keep track of your first and last frost dates and plan accordingly. The last thing you want is your newly planted garden being threatened by unexpected weather. You’ll want to plant transplants or direct sow after the last frost date for your region. Or, you’ll want to get started on your indoor seeds 6- 8 weeks before that last frost date. There are several ways to find out your last frost date, but the easiest is to look at the USDA Plant Hardiness Map. You can also find a website or phone number for your local county extension office.
County Extension Services are often connected with local Universities where experts are available to help you with specific information regarding your local agriculture, soil, and weather. This is a fantastic resource and can be so helpful when struggling with something like plant disease or insect pressure. They have research based information on specific remedies and solutions and will also provide a map of your local growing zone along with the corresponding planting dates. They’ll also help you determine which varieties grow well in your region and which things will be threatened by climate or disease.
Step 4: gather tools
You can have a wonderful gardening experience simply planting a couple tomato plants in pots on your patio. But the one thing you don’t want is to be caught unprepared trying to do the right job with the wrong tool. Depending on your garden’s size, you may need a tiller, hoe, or broadfork. Do you have extra garden hose to reach to the garden? Do any of your plant varieties need a trellis? You will be surprised at how little you can get away with using! But it is good to have a plan and be prepared so that you aren’t trying to improvise with hard manual labor when there is a perfect tool for the job.
Have fun and enjoy the process
It’s easy to measure success by how perfectly red, plump and flavorful your heirloom tomatoes are, but gardening is a process. Even experienced gardeners fail. Take time to adjust your expectations before you begin. Enjoy the experience of growing your own food. Learning new skills is invaluable, and sometimes the failures teach you more than the victories.
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