Editor's Note: Small Space Gardening by Diane Dryden is a series of garden articles that will run the entire summer with information for both new and experienced gardeners. Every two weeks the articles will update as the gardening year progresses; from picking out a site up to harvest in the fall.

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Small Space Gardening - Article #7

Early Crops, Container Tips, And Creating A Successful Compost Pile

It's finally here! Time to plant your first garden crops in the ground!

When I say 'first garden crops," I mean lettuce, radishes, spinach, peas, pea pods, and even corn. Corn being a crop that needs to be in the ground before June 1 to give it enough time to ripen.

Crops like tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers, and beans should at least be held back another 2 weeks or so.

Two of my country neighbors don't plant a thing until Father's Day, in the middle of June, and we are all more or less harvesting at the same time in the fall.

But if your green thumbs are itching to begin, let's go.

First, a few words about raised beds. Raising beds work really well if you don't want to dig down into the existing dirt like an old fashioned garden. Even if the beds are only 8" higher than the ground, they heat faster, and you can adjust the soil easier. What's on the the bottoms of the containers is essential. If you're setting your raised beds on top of dirt, don't line the bottom with anything. No plastic, no garden cloth, nothing. Roots need to go deep for a successful above-ground plant. Below ground crops, plants like carrots or parsnips will bend at the ends or the middles if the soil is shallow because it's being stopped by a weed barrier. So, resist the urge to underline them!

If you're planting potatoes, they should already be in the ground, or in a container. If you started vegetable seeds in the house, the plants should be looking green and healthy and not over-flowing their containers. If they are, it's time late to pot them on into larger containers holding them by the leaves, not the stem when you hold on to them for transferring.

Suppose you've done your homework, especially all you first-time gardeners. In that case, you will know where you're going to plant which seeds because you've become aware of the sun patterns in your planting area. Remember, 'full sun' refers to a minimum of six hours of full sun per day.

Also, plan on putting your tall plants in the back of the bed or container, usually the most north side. Shorter plants should be in the front-facing as south as you can get.

All containers need to be filled within inches of the top rim with a mixture of garden soil, compost, and, if your soil is heavy, some vermiculite of perlite.

It's a good idea to place a coffee filter over each hole in the bottom or sides of any container you'll be using. This keeps the dirt in and the water out.

Read the entire back of the seed package, and keep the package for reference after planting some or all of the seeds. Plant the seeds as deep as the package says and mark your rows. One year I had some sad-looking silk flowers, and instead of throwing them away, I marked each garden row with the artificial blooms. When the plants all came up, I threw the tired silks away.

Most new gardeners are guilty of two things. One is planting seeds too thickly. The other is not thinning too severely. Remember, a plant doesn't know if the one next to it is a fellow plant or a weed, so they will compete for air and soil, whichever it is.

To ensure a great crop of carrots, consider buying a carrot tape. This is a great invention because the seeds are stuck to a disposable piece of ribbon-looking material. The ribbon disintegrates with time and water, and the carrots are perfectly spaced.

We plant 200 onion sets each year. These keep us in onions all year until it's time to harvest again. One of our raised beds will hold 175 sets which we plant 4” apart. The other 25 sets go into a container and are planted only an inch apart. These are used as green, or table onions. This year I sneaked in some spinach in the back row of the onions. Now to see if it work and takes over as the onions are harvested.

Deer love the early spring crops and look at them as a lush salad buffet for midnight munching. One solution, if you can find them, are clear children's size umbrellas. These work exceptionally well in container gardens letting in the sun but keeping out the predators, especially if you've planted cut-and-come-again green, leafy crops. Chicken wire also works as excellent as row covers.

Melorganite, a low-grade fertilizer that comes in large bags, is also a big help. It smells like an outhouse but makes a decent deer repellent. The only drawback is the need to reapply after each rain.

Practically everything wandering through your yard loves your garden as much as you do, so be prepared to do battle.

I find it amusing that most people who put up scarecrows wait until fall. Planting time is better to install your creation to keep birds from eating your seeds. If your scarecrow is made well, it will last until fall. Meanwhile, it's someone to talk to when you're gardening.

If you are second cropping things like lettuce, radishes, or spinach, plant the first and second crop two weeks apart. That way, you're not inundated with the product all at one time, looking for unlocked cars in parking lots for your excess harvest.

If you've never had a compost pile, this might be the year you consider constructing one.

Ours is simply four fence posts and three sides of chicken wire. We keep pests out by threading some wooden sticks through the open side to make a barrier.

There are only a few things to remember about a compost pile. Brown and green. Air and water. Vegetable peelings, melon rinds, banana skins, smashed eggshells, coffee grounds, and anything not meat, citrus, or onions work well in a compost pile. Those are some of the "green" things. The other one is grass. This is the stuff that heats the pile and aids in breaking down the other stuff.

The "brown" part of the pile is items like paper and cardboard. Fall leaves are great, as well as straw.

It's not complicated. Layer everything and keep the pile watered and turned. Soon the worms will magically appear, and in 5 to 8 weeks, you should have excellent black dirt. If the pile smells, you probably have too much green. If nothing is happening, you haven't got enough green.

Once you get your first crop of compost, you'll be hooked. Just think, all that stuff was just garbage a few months back is now the most valuable soil there is. You can top dress rows of crops and mix it in with the soil in your containers. No wonder it's called gardeners gold.

Next time, using the moon as your planting guide and planting the Three Sisters.

Comments and suggestions are always welcome.


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