Easy, Low-Cost & Safe Gardening

I’m writing this post with the hope that we will get to plant in Perkins Park Community Garden this summer. It’s still a big IF, and even if we can open, we will likely face significant restrictions and limitations. So I’m taking a few guesses and posting some ideas to help with planning our plots. Or maybe at home you have a patch of sun and space for a 5-gallon container or window box.

Keep it simple. Now is not the time to design complicated garden layouts, especially if this gardening season is your first try. Pick one to a few things you like to grow or eat.  It’s okay to leave open space, but plan to mulch those areas if you can (see below). And know that even if we open up, there’s always a chance we could get shut down again if the pandemic worsens.

Try No- or Low-Dig Gardening. If ever there was a good year to try a more tools-off approach to garden prep, this may be the one, when our tool shed may not be open. See here and here  for the rationale and potential benefits of no-dig gardening.

Mulch.  Last fall, many of us mulched our gardens with leaves and other material, which can be brushed into the areas among new plantings (keep young plant stems clear of mulch). But if your plot is bare, laying down some mulch will save some work later by (1) blocking weeds, (2) improving water retention, (3) building more fertile soil and (4) protecting plants from soil-born diseases. If you use leaves from PPCG and have a tool like a hoe or rake, chop them up a bit so that they don’t form a dense mat that blocks water. Or use corrugated cardboard or brown paper lawn refuse bags/grocery bags, or multiple layers of newspaper. Weight it all down with rocks, jugs of water, etc.. Added bonus: worms love this stuff.

Be Water Wise. We may need to haul our water to the garden, or we may not be able to share hoses and watering cans, so just in case, start saving up those gallon jugs, beverage containers, etc. with caps. (This is one other good reason to keep your garden plan very simple.) Also, once your plants are established, work on watering deeply and less frequently to encourage the development of deep roots and more drought-tolerant plants. See here for more ideas and lists of drought-tolerant plants. And here’s another post on preparing for drought.

Improvise and use what you have and limit your trips out to the stores.

  • Kitchen implements such as serving spoons and forks can work as garden hand tools. Paper grocery bags and newspaper work great as mulch. Milk jugs can act as mini greenhouses or pest protection (just be sure to vent them). Use scraps of old textiles for tying plants. Scavenge fallen branches to support tomatoes and create garden trellises.
  • More garden hacks here and here.
  • Ordering of seeds is delayed at many sites. How about that old packet of seeds? Are they still good? Use them if you can. Test a few seeds out to see if they sprout using this method. DSC_3375See here, this Black-Eyed Susan vine (front, middle) planted on April 1, now nearly 1.5 months later? It sprouted, but lost its oomph. Poor girl. But many other seeds will do just fine from year to year. More seed-starting tips here.

No-crowd shopping.

  • The Lowe’s parking lot in Weymouth has been almost as crowded as Pond Meadow Park. (Not really, but PMP is unruly these days.) If you must go out and buy anything, try some outdoor garden centers that may be less crowded, such as Christopher’s Garden Shop and Farm Stand (Facebook link) in Weymouth or the Artery Garden Center at 625 Southern Artery in Quincy (in Goodwill parking lot).
  • Non-profit organizations that rely on annual seedling sales are being responsive to the pandemic and are coming up with safe shopping alternatives. See Marshfield, City Natives, and Holy Hill Farm. Stay tuned for Brookwood Farm, which is evaluating its inventory.
  • Does your grocery store or other essential shopping stop sell seeds? A few weeks ago, Kam Man had seed displays filled with a nice selection of Asian greens and other veggies not typically found in the Burpee racks at Home Depot.

Low-fuss planting.

  • It can be hard to start plants from seed at the garden. They need extra watering care until they germinate and as seedlings. There may be pest pressure. Or if we get a big rainstorm, your seeds/seedlings may be washed away. Instead, start seedlings at home for transplant or purchase plants that are ready to be planted out in the garden.
  • Look for F1 or hybrid varieties that are more resistant to diseases than heirloom varieties.
  • Look for quick-maturing varieties. New Girl tomato, for example, matures in 62 days, whereas Grand Marshall takes 78 days. That’s a big difference. (Be aware, too, that in late summer, shade on the southern edge of PPCG grows long and will lengthen your ‘days to maturity.’)
  • Look for easy-to-grow crops. I like this article from High Mowing Seeds, which includes a planting schedule example. One note: zucchini isn’t impossible to grow at PPCG, but we do have some pressure from the dreaded squash vine borer.

It’s almost never too late. Even though we are coming upon the time when we could be planting our second succession of crops (warm-weather crops such as tomatoes, green beans, cucumbers, and peppers), there’s still plenty of time ahead for a third “slot” for planting (quick-growing warm-weather crops and cool weather fall crops).

Hope to see you soon!

What To Do This Spring While PPCG Is Closed

Check out The Trustees at Home, with links on gardening, virtual nature, keeping the kids busy, and more.

Complete a free vegetable gardening module from Oregon State University’s Master Gardener program. Some of the information in this program may be best suited for Oregon’s growing climate, but most looks like it’s relevant to us.

Follow the Insect Xaminer, a short video series from UMass Extension starting with (drum roll) the Gypsy Moth caterpillar. This first installment is quirky-gruesome in the context of  the pandemic, but I’m sticking with the series for its promised information on common insect pests.

Try a modified version of a technique known as winter sowing. I’m not encouraging anyone to run out to the store to buy anything, but if you can get your hands on a milk jug (or similar container functioning as a mini greenhouse), a small bag of seed-starting mix, and some lettuce seeds, cilantro, or spring onions, you can grow outside in a small, sunny space.

  • Because these plants like cold, you’ll have to open your containers on warm days or they’ll cook.
  • Once they are established with a few sets of leaves, you can probably leave the top off for good, unless we have an overnight with temps down into the 20s F.
  • I’ve never tried it, but some gardeners even start up their warm weather plants  (around now) in this fashion, though again, you’ll have to keep an eye on the weather. If we get a cold snap, throw a blanket over them.
  • There are a few benefits to protected outdoor sowing of garden plants. They’ll receive more light outdoors. (Even a sunny windowsill might not be bright enough for your plants, even if it looks bright to you.) Plus you won’t need to harden them off if you transfer them to a larger growing space. Just be aware that I don’t know when we’ll be able to get back in the gardens.

Holly Hill Farm–which like many other businesses is in need of our support–appears to still be having its early plant sale on April 18 & 19. (Their warm-weather plant sale usually happens in May.) Keep an eye on their website and/or sign up for email updates. They have altered their sales methods in response to COVID-19 concerns.

Stay tuned for more details from Braintree Farmers Market. They went to a virtual model on April 4, and it looks like the next date is May 2.

Download/stream the Birdsong radio app from RSPB.

Check out great gardening titles on Hoopla, available for free through Thayer Public Library.

Read all about why we need green spaces in The Wild Remedy, part illustrated diary, part scientific review of the mental health benefits derived from nature.

Go for a walk in any of the other numerous parks that are still open, such as DCR parks. Or try Great Esker Park in Weymouth, which was nearly empty on a sunny day this week.  For further info, here are links to the state’s assemblage guidelines and stay-at-home advisory.

Other ideas/comments? Please share below.

Photo credit: Gary R.

Spring Crops

What are the first crops that we should consider planting in our gardens in the spring? When the soil can be worked, we have a wide range of cold-hardy choices to consider. These crops all have a few things in common. They:

  • germinate in cold soil
  • grow well under cool conditions, and
  • tolerate a light frost.

Many of these crops can and should be planted in cool conditions, else you risk poor germination, poor development, and inferior flavor and/or texture. You’ll want to get them in the ground as early as you can to allow them time to develop before the heat of summer sets in. With good planning and a little cooperation from the weather, you’ll be able to harvest these crops in time to follow up with a warm weather crops such as beans, tomatoes, and cucumbers. Pay attention to the days to maturity information listed on many seed packets, and look for quick-growing varieties to make the most of your growing season. Also, be prepared to cover your crops with frost protection if temperatures take an abrupt and extreme downturn. Or stagger your plantings with the anticipation of a few losses.

  • alyssum
  • arugula
  • beets*
  • broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • cabbage, including Chinese cabbage
  • carrots*
  • cauliflower
  • celery
  • cilantro
  • collard greens
  • fava beans
  • hardy perennial herbs, such as chives, thyme, mint, oregano, and sage
  • kale
  • kohlrabi
  • leeks
  • lettuce
  • onions*
  • pak choi
  • pansies
  • parsley
  • parsnip
  • peas
  • radish
  • rutabaga
  • Swiss chard
  • tatsoi
  • turnips
img_20190608_094507449_hdr
Cilantro (foreground) often reseeds itself and grows in the spring when conditions are just right. If you like it, leave it be. Self-sown plants are often the least fussy.
img_20191210_082746432
Lettuce, spinach, tatsoi, and Hon Tsai Tai, a broccoli-like green, thrive under cool conditions. Damage thanks to slugs.

In my home garden, I’ve been able to overwinter a few of these crops–lettuce, arugula, bunching onions, spinach, tatsoi, carrots, parsley, cilantro, kale, and Hon Tsai Tai, a broccoli-like green–under protection. They didn’t grow much, but under protection, the limitation seemed to be more about diminishing winter light than cold.

On the other side of spring, a few of these crops such as the ones marked* generally can carry over well into hot conditions. With regard to one of these crops–carrots–I think a better option is to select quick-growing cultivars that mature in late spring/early summer, and then squeeze in another crop of in the fall, perhaps for overwintering. They’ll taste sweeter if they are harvested in cool conditions.

Some of the others on the cool list, such as lettuce, have cultivars purported to withstand the heat. I have yet to find a lettuce I can grow well in the summer heat, no matter what the claim on the seed packet. (Anyone? I’d love to have some lettuce with my summer cucumbers and tomatoes.) BUT, you can cheat the season a little by growing leafy vegetables in partially shaded areas.

One other note: Last summer my parsley bolted (went to seed) in early summer, and I have since read that young parsley seedlings exposed to substantial cold are more likely to have this tendency. In this case, you may want to grow a backup batch for late summer/fall. If the winter is not too harsh, they’ll even overwinter.

Ready to do some cool growing? Happy spring, everyone!


For more reading:

Cold-weather growing tips from Seed Savers Exchange.

Tips on when to start cold-weather crops from GrowVeg.

Also from GrowVeg, the “mess of protecting plants from stress.”  Lol, this is how my front yard looks right now, with hoop houses and frost blankets. Take a quick look at this article if only to see their simple, but smart way to keep plastic milk jugs in place as cloches.

The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener by Niki Jabbour (2011) is a great beginners’ resource for learning all about season extension and growing in cool and cold seasons. It’s available free from Hoopla; I liked it so much I purchased my own copy.

Eliot Coleman is well-known for four-season gardening. Here are two titles, Four-Season Harvest and The Winter Harvest Handbook. Available through Old Colony Library Network.

Use this planting schedule as a very rough guide.

Here’s a more tailored seed-starting and setting-out calculator from Johnny’s. (Note that you have to enter our region’s frost-free date, which can be tricky to figure out. The Farmer’s Almanac reports a frost-free date of April 22, using weather data from South Weymouth and allowing for a 30% risk of frost.) I feel all right using this data for cold-weather plants, but for warm-weather plants, I like less risk of frost.

PPCG 2019 Plot Plan & Spring Shade Map

For PPCG members, our 2019 plot map with garden assignments is linked here.

The below diagrams show the shade patterns on our plots in spring, for garden planning purposes. You won’t have much shade at all until around the first week of May, when leaves start to fill in. Please note these sketches were drawn roughly last year at broad intervals and may not represent all of the sun/shade in your plot. I noticed even ten minutes can make a difference. Also, shade does shift throughout the growing season.

Here’s a guide for plants and their suggested light levels.

Happy gardening, everyone!

 

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Spring In the Wings

Overall, this winter hasn’t been a bad one here on the South Shore–right?–but it seems to be going out with hooks.

So I’ve put together a list of a few garden-related doings to get us to the end. After all, opening day at PPCG is only a little more than a month away, and then we’ll be within easy reach of peas.

Boston’s Community Garden Scene

Next week on Wednesday, February 27, the Trustees, which owns and operates the largest chunk of community gardens in Boston, is showcasing a documentary film about Boston’s community gardens at More Than Words bookstore. Pre-registration recommended. Reduced rates for members.

Gardening Aside

By the way, More Than Words is one of my favorite indoor spaces, a used bookstore run as a nonprofit, so if you’re just looking for a nice place to get out of the cold, go check it out. I don’t know their schedule this year, but in the past they’ve held big sales on/around March 17. (And while I’m on the topic of used bookstores, have you been to the Montague Bookmill in western Massachusetts? It’s a great road trip destination with a few good hiking spots nearby.)

Countertop of Greens

Grow a crop of microgreens before you need your sunny/lamp-lit spaces for seedlings. Here’s my favorite how-to video. Or sign up for Holly Hill Farm’s workshop on growing microgreens on March 9 from 1 – 3. Or buy a bunch of greens and shoots at their weekly farm stand. See their website for details; locations vary.DSC_1648

Season Extender

Do you have a little yard space? Holly Hill Farm is also hosting a workshop on building cold frames on March 9 in the morning. Email cprentice@hollyhillfarm.verizon.net for details and to register.

A Day of Gardening How To

The 44th annual Gardeners’ Gathering is being hosted by The Trustees at Northeastern University on March 23. Free and open to everyone!

For Your Sweet Tooth, the New England Way

Brookwood Farm is holding its annual Maple Sugar Days Festival on March 23 & 24, from 10 – 4.

A Different Boston Gardening Scene

This year’s Boston Flower and Garden show runs from March 13 – 17.

Local Stars

Ugh, have you seen that report on declining insect populations worldwide? Planting native species can help attract and sustain beneficial insects. Author Russ Cohen presents Nibbling on Natives in Your Back Yard and Beyond. Free and open to everyone at Hingham Public Library on April 7 from 2 – 4.DSC_0345

Library Harvest

Have you used Hoopla, a free source of electronic media that’s available at our public library? Hoopla currently has a surprising number of gardening books, such as Countertop Gardens, Indoor Kitchen Gardening, High Yield Vegetable Gardening, and Thrifty Gardening. Or how about Dogscaping, How Carrots Won the Trojan War, or A Woman’s Guide to Cannabis?

Braintree’s Hidden Garden Source

Go check out all of the living things growing indoors under lights at Gardin, which outgrew its location at New England Wildlife Center and moved to its current warehouse space at 137 Bay State Drive, near the Braintree high school.  This place makes you want to turn your whole house into a terrarium. They have a huge array of indoor and outdoor growing supplies, some of which are hard to find elsewhere in our area, plus friendly, informed service. Matt helped me pick out a grow light for starting some microgreens and herbs on my countertop.

Plus, they have a turtle. This guy has the best turtle home ever.

Hang in there, everyone.