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.
So, this is the year you're thinking of putting in a few seeds and having a garden! Congratulations! This could be the start of a lifetime of tilling the soil or your one-and-only attempt at getting something to live long enough to enjoy it.
Either way, you are more or less on the same footing as our original parents, Adam and Eve, who at one point had to start gardening from scratch. Sure they were placed in a garden, but one they hadn't planted and one without weeds.
As they did, let's start at the very beginning and make some plans.
This is where it wouldn't be a bad idea to grab a tablet of paper and a pencil. Yes, a pencil because you'll be doing a lot of erasing!
First, write down your goals. Are you thinking of flowers or vegetables or both? Write it down.
Next, you'll need to note the sun patterns where you are thinking of planting. Full sun, which is at least six hours of sun a day, is the requirement of most plants. If the only spot you have for a small garden does not get the required sun, forget it.
This is where containers might work for you. These you can place just about anywhere and grow virtually anything.
Picking the right location is the first decision you need to make.
Secondly, make a list of the things you'd like to grow. Be reasonable, though. Even if you're crazy about salad, you'll have a hard time staying ahead of the patch of greens when you've planted an entire seed pack of lettuce because it all ripens at the same time. Feast or famine.
For something like lettuce, or radishes, it's wiser to plant a third of a package at a time several weeks apart. That way, you'll get a continuous crop.
Although both lettuce and radishes like it on the cool side, so by the third planting, you might be dealing with much warmer weather and end up with a bunch of nothing. Gardening is tricky, believe me.
If you like to do research, you'll love gardening.
Each type of seed requires its own spacing between plants and rows. Many packages give the number of days until harvest, but it's the number of days after the plant breaks the soil's surface. Not when you first put it in.
Some plants like potatoes and peas like a cold start and can be planted when the soil is just starting to warm. Some plants like peppers like only warm soil and warm days. Plant them early, and you'll be replanting several times replacing your dead plants.
Your first assignment is to study your sun patterns and write a list of things you'd like to grow to see if any of your choices even have a chance.
The next crucial thing to consider is your soil type. This project is on the very bottom of the excitement chart but extremely necessary for a successful crop. Naturally, if you're planting in containers or raised beds, this doesn't really apply to you. You can buy whatever soils fit your needs with all the various soils for sale. The story is different if you're digging out a patch in the ground.
Farmers used to pick up a handful of soil and squeeze it. If it stuck together like a dirt snowball, it was mainly clay. This soil lets seeds come up, but when you water it, the top becomes slick, and the water runs off, none of it getting to the roots. When the sun beats down on it, being clay, it turns hard, very hard.
What to do? Add some sort of something to make it looser. There's vermiculite or perlite available at the big box stores, or you can add shredded leaves and/or large sawdust.
Loamy soil is the best, but no one has it. That's right, no one, anywhere in the world.
Sandy soil is the last type, and if you're going into the strawberry business, you're in luck.
If it's anything else you want to grow, sandy soil will be a lifetime of frustration for you. Even if you add excellent topsoil, you'll only get a year of the crop. Every following year you'll have to add new rich soil on top because every time it rains, the sand opens up and lets all your good dirt through to the center of the earth, and you're left with sand once again.
I suppose the last "soil" would be the straw bales. These take a lot of water, but if that's not a problem, line up your bales however you would like your garden to look, and water them well. Use your hands to make deep divots in the bale, and then add a handful of dirt to the newly created hole and plant the seed or the plant.
Water, water, water all summer, and be amazed at the amount of crop you get. If the bales are hay bales, you'll get lots of hayseeds coming up, choking everything else out. That's why you do better with straw bales which are the stems of oats after the oat seeds are removed in harvesting.
The bales break down pretty much after the first year, but then they make great compost and mulch for flowers, shrubs, and regular gardens the following year.
Northern Wisconsin is pretty much zone 3. Once you get experienced, you can fudge a zone 4 or 5 plant or two if you find the ideal spot that's well protected in the winter, with lots of sun. But it's still a risk.
Our growing season is from May 15 to September 15. That's 124 days, so plan wisely.
Next time we'll talk about the difference between annuals and perennials and how to read between the lines in the seed catalog's glowing description of their products.
Soon in a store near year, there will be rows and rows of colorful seed packages screaming sublimely, Buy me! Plant me! Join the back-to-earth movement! Go organic!
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