By Tessa Henry, Clif Family Farm Manager
Springtime at the Farm
In this time of sheltering in place, starting a garden at home is a great direction to focus some energy and promote strong immune systems. I’m happy to see more people interested in growing food at home. There are so many benefits! Being outside is great for mental health, an increase in Vitamin D, and homeschooling young ones. And, of course, the obvious: having fresh nutritious food decreases our reliance and number of trips to the grocery store. It tastes better too!
Here are a few of my tips for planting a successful home garden.
Find a sunny place in your yard. Most summer vegetables need at least 6 hours of sunlight a day. If you don’t have much sunlight, choose plants that prefer cooler temperatures like lettuce, kale, scallions, peas, and other leafy greens.
You can use your native soil by working up an area with a garden fork. It’s nice to give your plants a good start by mixing in some organic fertilizer and compost that can easily be found at your local nursery. You can shape your garden beds however you like depending on the space you have. I like 30-inch wide beds with about a foot wide walking space in between each bed. Many people like the “lasagna” technique for an “instant garden” – a way of layering materials. With a little research, you’ll find many different ways and types of materials to use. My favorite, and the most straight forward, is placing cardboard on top of your worked up bed of soil then layer a few inches thick with compost or topsoil. The cardboard will act as a temporary mulch and weed barrier as your plants get established and will eventually break down inviting worms and adding organic matter to your soil.
You can also build raised beds 18-inch high, any length or width that fits your space and fill them with purchased topsoil. If you do, I recommend lining the bottom with chicken wire to prevent moles or gophers from tunneling through the bottom.
If you don’t have a big yard, you can try veggies in pots or buckets (drill drain holes if needed) on a small porch, patio or deck. In this situation, you might be better choosing plants that grow up rather than out, like pole beans, peas, cucumbers, and tomatoes.
Plants, annual vegetables:
Start seeds in small plastic cells, plant containers, or egg cartons. For best germination and plant spacing for any given crop, it is best to read the instructions on your seed packet. Usually, summer veggies can be direct seeded after danger of frost or seeded indoors for a head start on a windowsill (65-80 degrees). It is best to get those summer plants in the ground before the summer solstice. At this point, I recommend purchasing seedlings for tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers because they have a much longer germination time. You still have time to direct seed beans, sunflowers, summer/winter squash, melons, and cucumbers.
Tip for the future garden: fall plants like broccoli, cauliflower, beets, kale, cabbage, lettuce, and collards can be planted in August-October. At the farm, I begin starting mine from seed in July.
Plants, perennial herbs:
These days, I’m enjoying the ease and benefits of growing herbs. Anyone can grow these! Perennials can be lower maintenance because they grow all year round and require less water. If you’d like to add perennial herbs to your garden, be sure to plant them together in a different bed so that you are able to care for them and water them on a separate schedule. Some of my favorites to have around the house include rosemary, oregano, tarragon, thyme, sage, borage, and lemon verbena. These are all great for groundcover and landscaping, culinary purposes, teas, and bee forage. If you are curious, research their medicinal properties-many are known to aide the respiratory system as well as decrease anxiety!
Get to know your plants and when they look thirsty. The best way to get it water is through a drip system attached to a hose bib. You won’t regret adding a timer! Check the soil moisture by digging down 6-12 inches. Take a handful of soil in your hand. If it falls apart, it’s too dry. If it’s muddy, it’s too wet. If you can mold it into a ball shape that holds, it’s at a good moisture level.
This takes constant monitoring. If you have happy well-nourished plants, you’ll find less disease and pest pressure. Unfortunately, pests are inevitable. Insect/bird pressure can be alleviated with a simple insect netting cover. Creating a habitat for predator bugs and native pollinators will also decrease pest pressure. Find native plants at your nearest native plant nursery. Invite predator bugs by planting alyssum, fennel, dill, cilantro, and yarrow to name a few. You can try removing pests like aphids by hand or spraying them off with water (at force) before using a pesticide. Organic soap/oil sprays can be found at your local nursery. Be selective with sprays. Only spot-spray your target pest at a cooler time of day when bees and helpful predator bugs aren’t as active.
It is a wonderful feeling to nurture something to maturity that, in turn, nourishes you. If you are fortunate to have a successful harvest, share the wealth with your family, friends, and community. You might be surprised at how much you can grow in small areas. Learn a new recipe or freeze and can for later months. Bring some food to a neighbor or donate food to a food bank.