Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Gardening 101

Memorial Day Weekend is, in my opinion, the official start of gardening season in Wisconsin.  Yes, if you're fancy (and I am), you will have started lettuce, spinach, and peas, as well as seeds, prior to Memorial Day, but Memorial day is when you get it all into the ground.  I guess the theory is that there shouldn't be any snow after Memorial day.

One can only hope.

I got my garden in a few days early, because I was in Las Vegas on Memorial Day, where I'm assuming planting dates are a good deal earlier.  I actually connected to the internet and typed some of this blog from an airplane.

We totally live in the future.  It's crazy.

I took the day off of work to prepare for my trip, and took the time off to get my garden in.  I also managed to get a sweet farmer's tan sunburn, so there's that...

I know a lot of people who feel gardening is too much work, or too overwhelming for them to do.  That's really not true.  Yes, it takes time.  Yes, if you want a traditional outside garden it takes space.  But the time, effort, and money you put in are really nothing compared to what you get out of it.  People always talk about the tomato... that a tomato pulled off of the vine, still warm from the summer sun, is the best thing ever.  And I agree - real tomatoes from your garden taste a bazillion times better than anything you're going to get out of the grocery store, but in my opinion, the best defense of growing your own food is lettuce.  Lettuce, that you've pulled from the ground and have on your plate within 10 minutes, tastes so spectacular.  It's no longer just a vessel for salad dressing.  It becomes a food in itself, something with flavor.  You can taste the flavor of the different kinds of lettuce.  Distinct differences.  Not just like, "Oh, yeah.  I guess that lettuce does taste a little different.  Or maybe it's just harder to chew..."  Lettuce takes almost no space.  It can be grown in a container.  It can be grown in the shade.  A packet of mixed lettuce seeds (sometimes sold as "salad bowl lettuce") costs about $1.50.  Plant half in the spring and half in the fall.

Gardening is work, but it's not that hard.  You don't need to start things from seed.  You don't need to do a lot of back breaking weeding.  You don't need to spend a fortune on fancy plants.  For those of you who are afraid, I thought I would take this post to help alleviate your fears.

Step 0: Build a Garden

Yeah, okay.  This is the hardest step.  In order to garden, you need a place to have a garden, and then you need to prepare the space before you start gardening.  The bad news is, this is going to be exhausting.  The good news is, you only have to do it once.  And you don't have to be that fancy.  People are all about raised gardens and  putting in garden liners, and fancy edges and stuff.  But you don't need any of that.  Really, you just need a patch of dirt.  Yes, okay, if all you have is a patch of dirt surrounded by grass, the grass will try to work it's way back in and you'll need to weed it out.  But you're going to have to weed anyway, so it really doesn't make that big of a difference.  I created an elevated garden because I had easy access to the stones, and because I hoped that it would create a boundary that I could teach my dog to stay out of.  That sort of worked... when I'm paying attention and when he feels like staying out of the garden.

I don't have a picture of this step, because I did it years ago.

Step 1: Weed the Garden

If you're like me, you'll wait until it's time to put your vegetables into the ground before taking a second look at your garden.  That's fine, but if you recall, we've been eating dandelions since the beginning of April.  Which means the dandelions (and other weeds) have been growing since the beginning of  April.  Which means your garden is overrun with weeds.

The first trick to weeding is to make sure your soil is damp.  You can do this by waiting until it rains and then weeding the next day, or, if you're pressed for time and can't wait, you can water the garden.  You want it to be damp, not mud, so I will water the garden pretty well first thing in the morning, and then let it dry out for about an hour.  Just make sure you are getting up early enough if you do this to get the weeding done before the sun gets super hot, or you will be nursing a severe sunburn (says the voice of experience).

The second trick to weeding is to stretch.  Seriously.  This is physical activity, and if you don't warm up a little first, you are going to be sore tomorrow.  Sore and sunburned!

Then just get in there.  Get your hands dirty.  Make sure you have one of those pronged diggy things to get the roots out.  This is why you made the soil damp in the first place.  If you're soil is bone dry, you're just going to get the plant and not the root, which means your weed is going to come back.  Which is annoying.

One hour and two bushel baskets of weeds later, this:

and this...

turned into this:


Step 2: Prepare the Soil

Dirt is dirt, but some dirt is better than others for growing stuff.  If you're interested, check out your local University Extension Program.  I am sure they have all sorts of awesome information on what you want your soil's PH to be, how to test it, and what to add to get it there.  That's all fine and good and useful, but frankly I want to play in the dirt, not do science.  I personally just try to go for soil that is soft, full of organic material (not like "ORGANIC," just like stuff.  Like compost.), and easy to work with.  I personally like to mix in a thin layer of manure, a thin layer of peat moss, and as much of my own compost as I produced last year.  I basically dump it all into the middle of my garden, rake it out across the top, and then use a shovel to turn the whole thing over.

My compost is really my secret ingredient.  I most of the credit to my successful gardening to this guy:

His name is Butch.  He's a dutch bunny.  He likes to eat, and is a little chubby, and doesn't play well with the cats.  Meaning one time he drop-kicked one of them across the kitchen floor.  He's bigger than they are, so there's not much concern of his getting eaten.  Since he is such a good eater, he is also quite a good pooper (those things generally go hand in hand), and rabbit poop is, in my opinion, the best fertilizer in the world.

From weeded to this point took about 45 minutes:

Step 3: Plan out the Garden

This is my favorite part.  It's a good idea to lay everything out before you start planting.  This way, you can be sure that everything has enough room, and you won't have any last minute surprises or need to figure out where those last two tomato plants go.  On the topic of tomatoes, you want to make sure you spread them out.  This is especially true if you are planting heirloom tomatoes, which are more prone to tomato blight.  Poor air circulation around your tomatoes encourages the blight, and the closer your plants are to each other, the more likely the blight is to spread from one plant to the next.  Your plants will continue to grow and give fruit (yes, tomatoes are a fruit) after they get the blight, but not as well and eventually they can dry up completely and die.  When they're young, I try to pull any blighted leaves and branches off, but at some point you just have to give up and say "okay, I've got the blight again this year."  But be absolutely sure NOT to throw any blighted leaves/branches/anything into your compost pile.  Burn them.  Putting them into the compost pile will only guarantee worse blight for you next year.

I read somewhere that you can help prevent the blight by planting basil in between your tomato plants. My theory is, really all you're doing is spacing the tomato plants out by putting something - anything - in between them.  But I do the basil thing anyway because I grow a lot of tomatoes and a lot of basil, and everything else I grow tends to be pretty viney and would choke out the tomatoes if they got too intermixed, and because tomatoes and basil go together anyway.

You want to make sure that you give your plants room to grow.  Even if they're not tomatoes, they still need room to breath.  BUT, I do put my plants just a little closer together than is recommended.  I do this, because when the pants get bigger, I want them to choke out any weeds.  When the plants are small, through June and early July, there is some weeding to do, but come August I am done with that.  It's too hot.  I just want to pick my produce and be done with it.  Besides, I have too much canning to do to have time to weed.  And even before that, I really do a pretty crappy job of weeding.  Because I'm lazy.

Step 4: Plant the Plants

Yeah, this is the hard part.  But it doesn't take that much time.  So suck it up and put the plants in the ground.  If you aren't doing all these steps in one day, or if you didn't stretch before step one, for the love of god do it now.  Or don't come crying to me when you're sore the next day.

You want to water your plants really well after planting them.  I recommend a hose on low while you're planting.  Just make sure it stays on a plant far enough away from any future planting areas to prevent them from getting muddy and unworkable.

And that is putting in a garden.  Actual working time, it took me about four hours.  I did take a break in the middle of the day to avoid getting burned to a fiery crisp.  

Because I wanted to save that for Vegas!

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