"She who plants a seed, beneath the sod, and waits to see, believes in God."
Even the most free-blooming cottage garden starts with a plan. If you are planting only one variety of plant, a few basic things must be taken into consideration before you dig the first hole: location of the bed, availability of water, and how much time you have available to garden.
Personally, I'm a lazy gardener. I even own a book by that title. I want to get the hard stuff over with quickly, so I can get to the fun stuff. For me choosing plants is fun, planning is fun, digging the beds--not so much fun, enjoying the blooms and/or harvest is fun again.
I started this year's garden planning back in October, when I was putting last year's garden to bed. I took note of things that worked for me and things that did not go so well during the whole season. First of all, I encountered back problems in mid-spring. By that point I had already started over 130 plants (mostly tomato plants). I had big plans for canning lots of paste tomatoes. Once summer came along, the best I could do was water the pots of tomatoes. I couldn't bend over, so I couldn't plant them. I gave away over a third of my started tomato plants. After I finished with four weeks of physical therapy, I was again able to bend and work for short periods. I planted as many of the plants as I could and continued watering the rest. I finally had to give up on the last third of the tomato plants and ended up tossing them in the compost.
So, lesson number one:
Know Your Limitations
Planting 130 tomato plants was going to be a problem anyway, since I needed to dig an additional planting bed next to a fence. That did not get done. By the time I was able to garden again, my husband had to help me get my existing bed weed-free (no small task) and he turned the soil, pounded in stakes, and helped me keep up with the 20' x 25' vegetable bed. I didn't get to plant any flowers after a very early spring perennial border planting (with my husband tilling and digging the previously ungardened area) and a small shade garden that goes three-quarters of the way around a big tree made by stacking river rocks and filling in with soil bought from the Big W store.
This year, while I have big ideas, I'm limiting my seed starting to what I know I can get planted. It helps that I have a definite garden design, instead of using a "plant till I run out of space" plan. I'm adapting a pretty 18' x 18' design from The Herb Companion magazine March 2009 issue. It is a very smart way to plan a garden as it breaks the design into a three- to five-year plan. I'll be able to plant all the fresh vegetables we will use through the summer and into fall. I also have the advantage that my bed is already dug. I just need to divide it into sections for planting and sections for walking. I really like that the vegetable garden will rival the flower garden.
Narrow Your Selections
This year I am putting in five different varieties of tomatoes. In the main bed there will only be three varieties planted, and only one or two of each. If I am able to recruit a garden helper to help me start a 'harvest garden', I will plant more tomatoes and whatever else I want to preserve in the fall. I am using nine different herbs in this garden because they are included in the designer's original plan. This will truly be a kitchen garden, with fresh produce growing just a few steps outside the back door.
I have enough seeds to plant several such gardens, but I have learned an important lesson: seeds keep! Some of them are viable five or more years. Just because twenty five seeds come in a pack no longer means I have to plant all of them.
Start Your Plants Indoors
Many plants can be jump started by starting the seeds indoors from three to ten weeks before the last frost date in your area. Read your seed packet to determine when to start yours. I rely on my Extension Service calendar to keep my seed-starting on a schedule that is appropriate for my Zone 6 gardening area.
Right now I'm starting some leeks indoors because they take nearly 100 days from planting to harvest. I use them lightly throughout the summer, but come fall, I will start making (and freezing) my favorite vegetable broth to use as a base for soups and stews all winter. Leeks play an important role in the flavor of that broth.
Some varieties of pumpkin, squash, and watermelon take nearly as long or longer than the leeks. Each of these will get a jump start in my sunroom, too... along with tomatillos (for my salsa recipe), peppers (sweet and hot), and most of my tomato varieties. I also like to start a few okra plants inside so they are ready to take off growing as soon as there is no chance of frost. The seed packet does not have a recommendation for starting the seeds indoors, but I usually start about five since my family loves them so much.
Eggplant is my new plant to try for this year. I've never grown eggplant but my son requested I try some. Of course, my over-enthusiastic ordering has left me with not one, but three varieties -- because they all look interesting: Black Beauty (the traditional supermarket type), Fairy Tale (white with violet-blue stripes), and Purple Rain (dark purple with creamy white streaks). I know two things about this year's eggplant harvest: 1) I'm only planting one plant of each variety; 2) We will be eating a lot of Eggplant Parmesan this summer!
Plant Your Garden Successively
By knowing which plants mature first, it is possible to make the most of even limited garden space. For instance, radishes grow really fast. When they have been harvested in one spot, you can replace them with parsley you've started indoors. More radishes can be started in another spot. A word of caution: radishes are fun to grow because they are so fast -- but unless your family eats a lot of radishes, you should stagger your plantings: up to eight seeds first, followed by another eight seeds two weeks later, then replant the spot with another type of plant.
Also a wise gardener learns to plant in rotation, never planting from the same plant family (Brassicas: broccoli, cabbage, Brussel's sprouts; Nightshade: Tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant) in successive years in the same location. This practice prevents diseases from spreading from year to year and prevents nutrients from being completely depleted.
Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew is a great book for learning what to plant for good crop rotation and to maximize available space.
Make Space for Your Flowers
I love to include edible flowers throughout the garden. Nasturtiums make a beautiful and spicy addition to the salad bowl. Chive flowers lend an onion-y flavor and a purple color to a chef salad. Some herbs are beautiful when left to flower - lavender, of course, is at it's best when blooming. If you let a couple dill plants go into bloom, they will attract butterflies to visit and lay eggs. The pretty caterpillars will nibble on the dill as they mature into delightful winged blossoms.
Not all the flowers need to be edible. I include French marigolds to keep undesirable insects away and cosmos to feed the bees and butterflies. In my rectangle kitchen garden, I may plant a few more flowers in the corners and in the center rectangle.
Enjoy Your Labors
Careful planning ahead will make gardening a real pleasure. I plant "intensively," planting as close as is good for each plant. In this way, they mulch themselves and shade the soil, conserving water. Just following this simple step allows me to be that lazy gardener I spoke of earlier.
Once your plants are in the ground, a daily stroll through the paths, pulling baby weeds here and there and bringing a cup of water to the more thirsty varieties can become the highlight of your day. Put a seat in a corner, take a glass of tea and your Bible and enjoy your own little Eden.
Next week we will talk about flower gardening with some of these same steps as we lay out several flower bed ideas. As a special bonus, I will be sharing instructions from my blogger friend, author Bonnie Calhoun @ Ink It Blog, for making your own seed tape as an economical option to purchasing expensive manufactured seed tape.