Getting Started at PPCG (Part 6): Maintaining Your Garden

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.

Watering

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.

Mulching

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, stubble-harvest-straw-agriculture-158198.jpegand 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.

Fertilizing

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.

IMG_20180423_075227139.jpgThis 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.

Here’s a good fact sheet with more info on general insect management and here are more fact sheets on specific pests, but please remember that we do not permit synthetic products.

Happy gardening, everyone!


In case you missed it…

Part 1: Organic Gardening and Soil

Part 2: Our Growing Season and Gardening Resources

Part 3: Garden Design

Part 4: Plant Choices and Sources

Part 5: Planting

Getting Started at PPCG (Part 5): Planting

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.)

Rockspexels-photo-634548.jpeg

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

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.


Continued…

Part 6: Garden Maintenance

In case you missed it…

Part 1: Organic Gardening and Soil

Part 2: Our Growing Season and Gardening Resources

Part 3: Garden Design

Part 4: Plant Choices and Sources

Seed Saving

Louise and her husband Chuck joined PPCG in 2014, the spring after they escaped (Louise’s word) from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She grows the most beautiful red oak leaf lettuces that decorate her garden like boutonnieres. For the first few seasons she planted them, I watched them grow tall and mangy, wondering why in the world she wasn’t eating them. It turns out she had another purpose for them…

Seed Saving

by Louise Quigley

Agriculture began thousands of years before there were garden stores or seed catalogs.  Until very recently, gardeners and farmers had seeds to plant in spring only if they saved seed from the previous year’s harvest.  This can still be done, and there are good reasons to do it.

Why Save Seeds

Before the twentieth century, people all over the world bred seeds and slowly improved crops by saving seed from the best-performing plants each year, which produced thousands of varieties of each crop, each one adapted to its native soil and climate and with potential resistance to different pests or diseases.  If one variety failed in a given season or soil or climate, there would be other varieties to fill in.  But recent commercial agriculture has focused on offering the few crop varieties that are easiest to grow with farm machinery or for mass distribution.  Often, these varieties are very high-yielding only because they’re hybrid seeds bred to respond to chemical fertilizers and requiring chemical pesticides.  Locally adapted seeds were not profitable to offer in nationally-distributed catalogs, even though they were often tastier and better suited to various local conditions and organic practices.  The result has been the unfortunate and potentially dangerous loss of some 75% of the crop varieties that existed just one century ago [Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook 2018, p. iii].

Saving seed and working with other seed savers enables you to grow varieties of garden crops not commercially available but which may be specially adapted to your conditions and organic growing methods.  They’ll taste better than anything you can buy.  At the same time, by growing heirloom crop varieties and saving and sharing the seed, you help preserve those varieties and the heritage they represent.  And as a bonus, it’s fun and very satisfying.

How to Save Seeds

  1. Start with seeds of an “heirloom” or “standard” or “Open-Pollinated/OP” variety of whatever crop you want to grow. “Hybrid” or “F1” seeds will not breed true, and should not be used. Catalog descriptions should give you this information; if they do not, get seeds from a source that does.  (See below for some useful catalogs.)  Most garden store starts are hybrids, so unless they are marked as heirlooms do not use them for seed-saving.
  2. Plant your OP seeds as you usually would. Cool-weather crops like peas, spinach, lettuce, and radish can be direct-seeded, as can fast-growing warm-season crops like beans and corn. But saving seed from longer-season warm-weather crops like tomatoes and peppers will require starting them indoors between March and early April for planting after danger of frost in May.
  3. When saving seed from more than one variety of plants that could cross-pollinate with each other, pay attention to spacing them so as to avoid unwanted cross-pollination. For example, I place my two different heirloom lettuces in different areas of my garden space. If you want to save cucumbers or squashes, note that they can be particularly complicated in this regard. For details on this and all other aspects of seed-saving, I still rely on Suzanne Ashworth’s book Seed to Seed, though I note that Seed Savers Exchange has replaced this old “bible” with a newer book, The Seed Garden.
  4. Once the plants are growing, they have to be allowed to go to seed; for some but not all crops this takes considerably longer (and looks a whole lot… seedier) than just growing them to eat. Different techniques are needed for different crops.  For example:pexels-photo-89267.jpeg

* When I save leaf lettuce, I harvest individual leaves rather than a whole plant, leaving enough of the plant to keep growing until it starts to send up a flower stalk.   Leaves then become too bitter to eat, and I leave the plants to go to flower and produce seeds.

* pexels-photo-870808.jpegFor peppers, simply let the fruits ripen fully, past green to yellow or red or whatever color that variety gets to.  Choose one pepper from each of your plants of that variety, and when you cut them open you save the seeds that are in them and eat the cases as you ordinarily would.

*Tomatoes are harvested for seed when the fruits are ripe, tomato-red-salad-food.jpgthe same as peppers, but the seeds need special treatment.  You may have noticed that fresh tomato seeds, unlike similar-looking pepper seeds, have a kind of gel around them.  This must rot off before the seeds will grow.  In nature, a ripe tomato falls to the ground and rots, and then its seeds sprout.  In the kitchen, this process must be reproduced.

Cut open one tomato from each of the plants of a given variety.  Squeeze a bunch of seeds from each fruit of that particular variety into a glass together.  Add a little non-chlorinated water (I have a filter on my tap;  otherwise use distilled water, or something similar:  plain tap water in Braintree has enough chlorine in it to taste and smell, and the chlorine is there to inhibit the mold that in this case you want).  You can then eat the rest of those tomatoes.  Place the glass on the counter and check it daily;  add non-chlorinated water as needed to make sure that the seeds do not dry out.  After a few days, it will look scummy and start to smell really really bad.  This is a good sign, and indicates that the rotting process is proceeding correctly. After a few more days, it will no longer look very scummy or smell so much.  This indicates that the rotting process is complete.  Pour out the water and scum, retaining the seeds, and spread them on a plate to dry for a few days.  Once they are quite dry, save them in a labelled baggie in a cool dry place (as described below).

*pexels-photo-768090.jpegWith peas and beans, which produce multiple pods on each plant, I harvest some or most of what grows for eating while leaving one or two pea or bean pods on each of the better plants to mature into viable seed (they’re ready when the pods turn brown and dry).

*pexels-photo-73640.jpegThen there are the crops like carrots and parsley, which are biennials:  their first year they just make roots and leaves, and you have to leave a few of the best ones in the ground to overwinter so they can put up their flower stalks in their second growing season.

And so on. Consult a book like The Seed Garden for all the details.

  1. Once you have harvested viable seeds, you may need to remove any hulls or pods from the actual seeds. Do this for one crop variety at a time, and then place each variety’s seeds in their very own baggie and Label It clearly with the crop type, variety name, and year.  Do NOT even think about trying to remember all winter which seeds were in which baggie!!!!  Really!!  Save them in a cool dry place (I use my frost-free fridge, which keeps them viable over the winter just fine).

 

This is all a bit more to do than just going to the garden store and buying what they have there.  But it enables you to grow crops and crop varieties that the garden stores don’t sell.  For example, the original snap pea, Sugarsnap, which I grow and save, has been superseded in many catalogs by its descendants, but is still my favorite.  Matt’s Wild Cherry Tomato, a unique kind of cherry tomato, was collected from the wild near Mexico City by someone named Matt and offered only through Johnny’s Selected Seeds;  I do not know of any other sources besides Johnny’s and SSE.  The McClintock tomato that I grow is available only from SSE.  The rarity of many wonderful varieties is therefore one reason to save seed.  In addition, it is enormously satisfying and a lot of fun to complete the circle from seed to plant to seed to plant again.  And it makes you part of the effort to preserve the crop biodiversity that we’ve inherited.  Give it a try!

Useful Sources of Seed

Seed Savers Exchange started in 1975 as a small group and has expanded to about 350 “listed members” who offer seed each year (I have been a listed member for over 20 years now).  SSE encourages gardeners to join the exchange, save seed, and share it with each other through an annual Yearbook with over 10,000 listings, all open-pollinated.  Nonmembers too can buy seed of many of the Yearbook’s offerings, and can also buy from SSE’s regular (ordinary-size) catalog.  Find the online yearbook at exchange.seedsavers.org    The website for the catalog is www.seedsavers.org   SSE’s snail mail address is 3094 North Winn Road, Decorah, IA 52101.

Other seed catalogs I’ve used that note which offerings are heirloom/ open-pollinated versus hybrid:

Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 955 Benton Ave., Winslow, ME 04901-2601

Seeds of Change, PO Box 152, Spicer, MN 56288

Park Seed,  One Parkton Ave., Greenwood, SC 29647-0001

Pinetree Garden Seeds,  or hello@superseeds.com, PO Box 300, New Gloucester, ME 04260

Territorial Seed Company,  PO Box 158, Cottage Grove, OR 97424-0061

Burpee,  300 Park Ave., Warminster, PA 18974

Giving Your Garden Soil (and You) the Spring Treatment

A lot of my cool season seedling packets tell me to “Plant as soon as the soil can be worked in spring” without any further instruction.

Obviously, I’m not going to dig in frozen or snow-covered ground. But otherwise, as soon as it’s thawed, is it good to go?

Definitely not, according to the garden resources I checked. Soil that is too wet from melting snow and spring rains will compact easily when you walk on it. Dig into it with all of the energy of a New Englander who’s been cooped up all winter and your soil will break up into an uneven mess of clumps and air pockets.

Compacted soil. Clumpy soil. They don’t even sound good, and in fact, both are bad environments for your seedlings and transplants. Ideally, your soil should contain about 50% open pore space–that’s 25% water and 25% air. Luckily, no one is expecting you to measure the pore space; I’m only mentioning it to help demonstrate what can happen if you mess too much with your soil structure. Working your soil, especially when it’s too wet will alter the pore spaces, affecting water and air movement and how well all of the seeds you planted will develop roots and emerge as seedlings.

What’s the right moisture level for working the soil? Information on Rodale’s website suggests that if you can squeeze your soil into a ball that can be easily shattered by pressing into it with your finger or dropping it from a height of three feet, you should be okay. On April 1 of this year, I felt okay about prepping my bed at Perkins Park; the next day when it snowed was a different condition altogether. The point is, conditions can change from day-to-day.

Let’s say your garden’s moisture level is ideal for prepping it for planting. Time to get out pexels-photo-296230.jpegthe shovels and pitchforks and hoes and rototillers? Hold on…the more I’ve been reading and learning about soil, the more convinced I am that the less you work your soil, the better. Here is one case where laziness–no more back-breaking double digging–might be better for the long-term health of your garden.

Tom Akin, agronomist and State Resource Conservationist at the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in Amherst, MA promotes a minimal tillage approach to growing. I heard Mr. Akin speak last fall at an Urban Gardening course I was taking through the Trustees. Tillage alters your soil structure even under ideal moisture conditions– not just on top, where you’re digging, but deeper below, too. Soil that’s been heavily tilled tends to have compacted layers below the depth of the tilled space.

Also, disturbing the soil brings dormant weed seeds to the top where they’ll germinate and compete with your garden plants until you pull them out. AND, the more you dig around in the soil, the more you disrupt all of the beneficial living organisms in your soil–not just the obvious ones like earthworms, but also bacteria and fungi.

Now, having said all of that, some crops with fine seeds grow better in soil that’s been more finely loosened. Carrots and lettuce, for example, benefit from a fine bed. Hand-tilling is better. Do the least amount of digging necessary.

Bottom line, what’s the best spring treatment for your soil and you?

  1. Be kind to the pores in your soil. Check your soil’s moisture before you do anything in your garden. Hold off if it’s too wet, no matter how much you want to get in there. Organize the tools in the shed instead.
  2. Give the back-breaking, labor-intensive approach to garden bed prep a rest. Think less CrossFit and more meditation, if you like. Dig only as necessary.
  3. Consider getting your soil tested if you’re new to a space or haven’t had it done in a few years.