Getting Started at PPCG (Part 3): Garden Design

Whether you can visualize your garden’s design in your head or you need to sketch it on paper, it’s a good idea to plan your garden before you plant! I like to use graph paper to help me keep everything to scale and remind myself just how much I can (and can’t) fit in a 6′ x 12′ plot.

Electronic garden planners–some free and others free for a short trial–are also readily available. This spring, for example, I tried out the Old Farmer’s Almanac garden planner, which offered plenty of bells and whistles, such as month-by-month planning for successive crops. After a one-month trial, I ended up not subscribing to the service because I was frustrated by specific ways that it didn’t allow me to individualize my plan. Still, it’s definitely worth a try if you work well with computerized planning.

Think about sun and shade at Perkins Park

We have some shade to deal with at Perkins Park, but it isn’t always a bad thing, especially for crops that thrive with a little break from the sun.

The sun rises on the side of our garden opposite the shed and sets roughly behind the shed. Expect the shade to shift throughout the season and to broaden as leaves grow on the trees.

Currently I’m working on a shade map to help us better understand which plots get the most shade and when, but this project is a season-long one. In the meantime, if you are new to the garden, try to observe the shade coverage a few times throughout a sunny day to get a rough idea of how much light your plot receives, and don’t forget to account for leaf growth in overhead trees. Generally, the central-most plots receive the most sun.

Also think about planting in rows parallel to the sun to help your plants receive equal lighting.

summer-sunflower-flowers-sky-54459.jpegWithin your garden, think about which plants will grow tall and shade other plants.

Tomatoes and plants grown on trellises, for example, will cast broad shade, which may or may not be desirable depending on the plants you are growing near them.

Consider which plants can tolerate shade more than others.

Here’s a handy chart to use as a guideline, but always be sure to read up on your plants’ growing information.

Plan where you are going to place pathways, supports, and barriers.

Knowing where you are going to walk will help you gain access to all of your garden and minimize compacting your soil.

Supports such as tomato stakes and trellises should be installed before or at the time of planting.

It sounds obvious, but from my own experience, here’s another important tip: if you are planning on installing barriers to keep out deer, make sure that you can still have ready access to your garden.


Continued…

Part 4: Plant Choices

Part 5: Planting

Part 6: Garden Maintenance

In case you missed it…

Part 1: Organic Gardening and Soil

Part 2: Our Growing Season and Gardening Resources

Getting Started at PPCG (Part 2): Our Growing Season and Gardening Resources

Our growing season is short here in New England, which means that if you want to fit in a few successive crops, you have to plan carefully. You can try to extend your growing season by using things like tunnels and other frost protection. These lettuces that I planted out on April 1 survived a few bouts of temperatures down in the 20s under a grow tunnel, but I’m not IMG_20180423_075227139.jpgsure they’re doing much better than if I’d put them in about two weeks later, in mid April. Although they weren’t harmed, it might not have been worth the extra effort of fussing with a tunnel.

Other plants, like tomatoes, can suffer setbacks for the rest of the growing season if they’re exposed to cold temperatures.

Consult a frost chart to know when to plant.

Cool season crops, planted in spring, include onions, leeks, chives, lettuces, spinach, kale, broccoli, and peas. These plants not only thrive in the cool weather, but in many cases won’t grow well in the heat of summer. Broccoli, for example, can bolt to seed before you harvest any florets if the weather warms before the plant has produced.

Warm season crops include tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, cucumbers, corn, eggplant, melons, and squash.

Check your plant tags and seed packets for growing information. Johnny’s Selected Seeds is a great resource for growing information. Browse through their online information and request a catalogue. Seed Savers is another good resource. UMassAmherst offers a wide range of fact sheets.

Jon P. (plot 1), one of our new members with professional gardening experience, also highly recommends CreateTV (BELD channel 831, Verizon 474, Comcast 959) for gardening how-to.


Continued…

Part 3: Garden Design

Part 4: Plant Choices

Part 5: Planting

Part 6: Garden Maintenance

In case you missed it…

Part 1: Organic Gardening and Soil

Getting Started at PPCG (Part 1): Organic Gardening and Soil

Before I get in too far with this multi-post, which broadly covers the basics of getting your gardens started at PPCG, it’s worth mentioning the idea that gardening is both a science and an art. For some gardening practices, we have scientific, documented evidence to back up using a particular technique. In other cases, maybe we do things a certain way because they’re traditional, or we like the way they look, or in our own experience, we’ve found they work.

The only rules that we ask you to follow at PPCG are the ones we include in our gardening contracts, particularly the rule that you not use any synthetic herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers.

Feel free to experiment and try things out. We’ve all had successes and failures, and everyone’s site has different challenges. Don’t abandon your space if you find your plants struggling. Ask for help and keep at it. And by all means, enjoy your plot!

What is Organic?

The easy answer is that organic gardening does not use any synthetic herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers. (See here for other organic practices.)

There’s more to the definition, though. Organic gardening attempts to use nature as its guide, acting in ways that cooperates with nature.

Many hands make light work!
Many hands make light work!

By cultivating the space where our gardens are located, we’ve already disrupted natural processes. But our aim as organic gardeners is to minimize this disruption. For example, we take away organic matter when we harvest our crops, but we replace it by adding compost to the soil. (Above photo shows our site under construction, from Sustainable Braintree. See more photos on their website.)

Some people even consider organic gardening to be primarily organic soil-building. “Healthy soil yields healthy plants that are less susceptible to diseases and pests. Populations of beneficial organisms thrive in the absence of pesticides and provide further checks against problems” (Martin, 2014, p. 8).

Gary and I both get a fair amount of shade up in plots 30 and 31, but I think we do all right in part because we’ve worked for a number of years on building the soil. When I first started gardening at PPCG, right after the whole area had been been plowed under and staked out, the soil was so poor that water simply ran off and didn’t absorb into the soil.

Which brings me to the next point…

Consider Getting Your Soil Tested

If the above information hasn’t convinced you, here are some more reasons why to get it tested.

Where and how?


Continued…

Part 2: Our Growing Season and Plant Sources

Part 3: Garden Design

Part 4: Plant Choices

Part 5: Planting

Part 6: Garden Maintenance

 

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.

Start Here: Basic Organic Practices

(1) Build healthy soilwhich yields strong plants that are less prone to disease and pests.

  • Many of the practices noted below will help protect and develop soil. Think of it as a top priority.
  • Get your soil tested when planting a new garden and every few years thereafter.  Fall is the best time for testing–to allow time to adjust the soil’s pH if necessary–but spring is okay, too.
    • Here’s the link to UMassAmherst’s soil-testing lab. Cost is $15. Be sure to follow their instructions for soil sampling carefully.
    • The soil at PPCG was tested for metals such as lead before we established our gardens.

(2) Avoid agricultural chemicals. No syntheticOMRI

  • fertilizers,
  • pesticides,
  • or herbicides.
  • When in doubt about a product, look for an OMRI rating on the packaging, like the one pictured here.

(3) Use natural materials instead, such as:

  • composted vegetable scraps,
  • composted manure,
  • bone meal,
  • and seaweed.
  • Natural materials–unlike the agricultural chemicals listed above–provide organic matter that supports beneficial soil organisms and your plants.

(4) Control pests in the least harmful way possible by, for example:

  • handpicking pests,
  • installing barrier netting,
  • and mingling companion plants.
  • The goal is generally not to eliminate pests, but to keep them at acceptable, tolerable levels.
  • Use pesticides approved for organic growing only when necessary, as a last resort. 

(5) Focus on prevention.

  • For example, mulch to thwart weeds.
    • Mulches from natural materials such as wood chips, shredded leaves, and hay are especially beneficial for the soil. (See 3.)
    • Mulch also helps to regulate soil temperature and keeps your soil moist.
  • Learn about the pests and diseases you commonly see in your garden and take appropriate action before they damage your plants. Here’s a very useful guide to the pests, weeds, diseases, and disorders we might see in our region.
  • Rotating crops helps to keep your soil healthy and also disrupts the life cycle of pests and pathogens that thrive on particular crops and conditions in your garden.