After you’ve planted, you might be surprised by how much attention your small garden will require, sometimes on a daily basis. You’ll also be surprised by how much it yields if you put in the effort.
Those baby seedlings and transplants can’t be abandoned; one hot dry day will do them in. Once they’ve been established, you’ll grow healthier, stronger plants by watering less frequently and more deeply, which encourages root growth beyond the surface of the soil. See more Watering Tips.
The benefits of using mulch in your garden include:
- regulating soil temperature
- maintaining moisture
- suppressing weeds
- adding organic matter to your soil
- protecting crops from soil-born diseases that can be splashed onto your plants when you water
Types of organic mulch include straw, salt hay, wood chips, seaweed, chopped leaves, buckwheat hulls, and grass clippings. But take note:
- Leaves can form a matted, water-resistant barrier if they are not chopped or composted first.
- And thick layers of grass clippings can turn into a stinky, slimy mess.
In addition, some gardeners like using plastic mulch.
Keep the mulch away from the base of your plants. I usually put down mulch in my walking paths first, then fill in with more mulch closer to my plantings as they get established. The goal is to smother weeds, not your plantings.
Last summer, I applied a thick layer of newspaper topped with wood chips. The worms loved it. Most newspaper dyes are okay; check if you’re not sure. The Boston Globe, for example, offers this info. I’ve also heard that lawn refuse bags make great weed barriers.
Gary makes use of free seaweed, collected from beaches. Louise (plot 25) favors buckwheat hulls. And I noticed that Marie (plot 11) uses salt hay.
We do not use the composted leaf mold offered for free by Braintree because we cannot guarantee that the product is free of chemicals and other unwanted matter. For this reason, we’ve started our own leaf compost pile in our garden.
It’s difficult to talk about fertilizing without knowing your soil, so here’s one more pitch for getting your soil tested. Before throwing down any fertilizer, if you know exactly what your soil needs, you won’t be making blind guesses that can be detrimental to your garden, the environment, and your wallet.
Depending on the needs of my garden at the time, I’ve used products like Garden Tone, composted manure, blood meal, bone meal, kelp meal, and compost from my home composter.
Want more information about organic fertilizers? Here’s a good place to start.
Pests and Diseases
Heads up, gardeners: the deer are active at PPCG this spring.
I’m not sure there’s much we can do to protect ourselves from determined deer because we cannot exclude them with tall fencing around our garden perimeter. In this case, it’s helpful to think more in terms of deterrents and “acceptable losses.” On a more positive note, I will also say that in every year I’ve gardened at PPCG since 2010, I’ve always harvested more than I’ve lost.
In the past, I’ve sprinkled my plants with cayenne pepper and dangled old CDs from
string around the perimeter of my garden. I’ve seen other gardeners use pinwheels. And Louise (plot 25) has covered her lettuce and pea shoots with bird netting (available at Home Depot). If you notice forks growing out of Gary’s plot, it’s because he’s hoping the sharp tines will deter rabbits. With all of these efforts, there’s not much to lose except a little bit of our time.
This year, I tried inter-planting lettuces with bunching onions and bordering my garden with shallots, leeks, and garlic. Maybe the scent of allium will deter rabbits and deer from chowing down on my lettuce. It’s worth a try, and if nothing else, this particular inter-planting makes good use of space. (Update: the deer did, indeed, skip over my lettuce, but chowed down on a perennial flower and trampled carrot seedlings. I counted myself lucky he didn’t eat the peas and decided, not without pause, to install a fence around my plot. He can still jump over or wiggle under the 4′ plastic mesh–and if he does, he’s going to cause a lot of damage–but at this point, if he gets my plantings, he’s earned them.)
Want some more ideas for deterring wildlife? Try here.
Regarding insect pests and diseases, we have a new gardening resource (stored in the shed) that will help us identify them in our garden. It’s also available here online.
- Consider using hybrid plants as a front-line defense against common diseases.
- If you have any diseased plant material, please bag it up and remove it from our site to protect other gardeners.
Specific insect problems at PPCG
- Vine borers have plagued some of our squash crops.
- Some of the gardens along the treeline bordering the park have been affected by winter moth caterpillars dropping from the trees overhead. If you garden in one of these spaces with trees favored by this caterpillar, you may want to use row covers over your leafy greens until their season passes. Remember to remove the covers if you have plants that need to be pollinated.
- In 2017, we also had a localized infestation of earwigs, which the gardeners controlled with a trap (buried bottles filled with oil and soy sauce).
- If you notice that one or more of your plants looks like it’s been snapped off at the base, you may have cutworms. There’s a simple remedy for cutworms, but you have to act before they do their damage. See the following fact sheet link.
Happy gardening, everyone!
In case you missed it…
Before you dig, check to see whether your soil is ready to be worked.
Working your soil when it is too wet creates big clumps, air pockets, and compacted areas.
Consider whether a no-till option will work well in your plot. (Again, see link above.)
Some of our plots have a fair amount of rocks that you’ll want to remove before you plant. Please do not pile them at the edge of your garden, where they are hazardous when we mow; instead, use a bucket from our compost area to collect and discard them in the brush behind the composters.
For tips on planting seeds and transplants, see this tip sheet from UMassAmherst.
Your seed packet or plant tag will also have information on how to plant and space. If you are purchasing seedlings, ask if they’ve been hardened off. (See tip sheet for more info on hardening off.)
After you’ve planted, your garden will probably look sparse, but remember that your plants need room to grow and will fill in quickly. Every year I’m amazed by how different my garden looks at the end of the season.
Intensive gardening involves techniques that maximize yields in a given space.
Before I say anything else on this topic, I’ll mention first that intensive gardening requires a lot of planning. If you are just starting out in the garden, you may do better your first season by keeping things simple and planting with traditional guidelines.
Traditionally, crops are planted in straight rows with ample spaces between plants and rows. Most of the information that you’ll see on your seed packets and plant tags relies on traditional spacing guidelines. In many cases, you can fit more plants in your space than these guidelines indicate.
Certain plants in particular can handle some crowding. Peas, carrots, and radishes, for example, can be planted in bands, with rows of staggered seeds. My seed packet of Mini Mak radishes from Johnny’s instructs, “Sow in 2-3″ wide bands or single rows, seeds about 3/4 – 1″ apart (about 35 seeds/ft for bands and 15 seeds/ft. for single rows).” Based on this info, you can see how much more you can grow in a given space.
One of the simpler ways to make efficient use of our small plot area is to grow vertically. Consider growing pole beans, for example, instead of rows of bush beans
Another intensive practice includes successive plantings, which means harvesting one crop and immediately following with another. You might follow an early carrot harvest with a planting of bush beans. Or you might follow one harvest of bush beans with another. Interplanting involves fitting one crop within another’s space. Quickly-maturing radishes, for example, might be fitted among carrots and harvested first, freeing up space for the still-growing carrots.
Some plants don’t respond well to crowding. Tomatoes, for example, require a lot of space and are susceptible to diseases if not given adequate air flow. They’ll yield more if they are given sufficient room to spread. Still, you can maximize the number of tomato plants you can fit in an area by planting them in staggered rows.
Companion planting is the idea that certain plants grown in combination with each other yield benefits. There is very little science backing up most companion- planting claims. For example, I often see the advice to plant marigolds as a pest deterrent, when in fact, there’s very limited evidence backing up this claim. Worse, in my own experience, marigolds draw Asiatic garden beetles, which strip both the marigolds and my basil plants. That’s not to say you shouldn’t plant marigolds if you like them or have had positive results with them in the past. There simply isn’t enough research to recommend them broadly as a pest deterrent.
Another popular example of companion planting is known as “Three Sisters.” In this case, corn is planted with pole beans and squash. The corn offers structural support for the climbing beans. Beans provide nitrogen for the heavy-feeding corn. And squash provides shade to help keep the soil moist.
Want a few other companion planting ideas? See this link.
In case you missed it…
PPCG is an organic garden, but you do not need to grow seeds and seedlings labelled “organic” for your plots. Choose organic plants if you want to support sustainable agricultural practices and don’t mind paying a little extra for them. You will likely find more choices of non-organic plants.
As you are deciding what to grow, also consider…
What do you like? What will you enjoy harvesting from your garden?
Is the plant or seed labelled heirloom/open-pollinated or hybrid?
Heirloom varieties can be tastier and are a must if you want to grow to save seeds. Hybrids can offer greater ease because they are often bred to overcome problems, such as common diseases. Check out this article from the L.A. Times on heirloom vs. hybrid tomatoes.
What’s the level of difficulty for a particular plant?
Here are a few challenges we’ve had at PPCG. (Consider this list a “heads up,” not a “no-go zone.”)
- Cabbage is tricky to “head up.” (Exception: Rosemary in plot 14 has grown some beautiful red cabbage.)
- Broccoli bolts to seed readily in warm weather, before anything is harvested and takes up a lot of space.
- Corn is another space hog that yields little.
- Celery requires very specific growing conditions.
- Squash is prone to powdery mildew and vine borers. This is one plant that some people have succeeded with while others haven’t. Stay tuned for a post on this subject. In the meantime, if you really like squash and want to give it a go, try finding a variety that is resistant to powdery mildew. And see our Getting Started (Part 6) post on garden maintenance.
How quickly will your plant mature?
There is a wide range in time until harvest among varieties of the same type of plant. Especially if you are planning to try to fit in successive plantings, you may want to choose a variety that matures quickly.
For tomatoes in particular, consider whether your plants are determinate or indeterminate. Determinate tomato plants tend to produce tomatoes all at once, which means you’ll have a lot of tomatoes to eat and process in a big batch. For a steadier flow, read estimated maturation dates carefully. A mix of varieties can spread out your tomato harvest.
Seeds or Seedlings?
A number of crops can or must be directly sown by seed in early spring and summer. These include: carrots, radishes, peas, beans, turnips, beets, and zucchini.
Other crops such as tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers require a long growing season and must be started indoors before being planted out in the garden when warmer weather arrives.
Where to buy? Our gardeners have a few favorites…
For organic products and tips, try Gardens Alive.
For plants, watch for excellent plant sales at Holly Hill Farm (especially their wide selection of tomatoes, organically grown!), Brookwood Farm, City Natives in Boston, Southside Community Land Trust in Providence, and Marshfield Agricultural Commission (I couldn’t find their online link; it’s on May 19, 2018 at the Marshfield Fairgrounds).
Or check out garden centers such as Christopher’s (across from BJ’s in Weymouth on Rte. 53), the plant stand on Southern Artery in Quincy (in the Goodwill parking lot), Almquist in Quincy, Kennedy’s in Scituate, or for further afield, try Peckham’s in Little Compton, RI. Do you have other favorites? Let us know!