Monday, April 13, 2009

Gardening 101: Getting a Plan

With spring comes the garden season. Here in central New Jersey, I've begun weekly forays to my local garden and farm shop. And this year I've noticed that a lot more people are getting gardens together. Whether it's the inspiration of the First Family or the price of fresh produce, I don't know. I like to hope that it's a sense of obligation to the land and the people we feed. That and the desire for beauty would be a very good thing for people and the Earth.

I'm happy to see it. And in the name of helping out new gardeners, I'll have some regular posts about gardening as the spring and summer unfold. I'm no expert and regularly have questions myself. To that end, I will point to some other garden sources to explore. My Dad is the best source I know and I call him weekly with questions . A lot of his advice governs my gardening and will appear in my garden posts. Make friends with a locally owned nursery and tap into the knowledge base there. You should check out the Test Gardener's blog from Organic Gardening, the Organic Gardening web site itself (and get a subscription as well, you won't be sorry) and Mike McGrath's NPR show, You Bet Your Garden (listen to the pod casts if it doesn't air in your NPR listening area).

The very first step when planting a garden is to think about what you expect to get for your troubles. Do you want a few tomatoes for eating? Or are there more vegetables that you'd like to grow? Do you want flowers and, if so, do you want cut flowers or flowers in the yard to admire? Or both?

The questions here seem endless, but they must be considered. And you must be guided by what's realistic. Figure out what growing zone you live in (I am in 6b) and do some research: will the things you want to grow flourish in your zone? I long to have a magnolia tree like the ones I admired when I lived in Tennessee, but they don't prosper in this part of the country. Instead I have some rhododendrons and a dogwood tree to remind me of the South. Your zone will help you identify what you can grow and when you can plant.

I plant a garden for fresh food and cut flowers. The plants there are annuals. The rest of my yard is for beauty and admiration while JT and I are in the backyard and, typically, perennials form the foundation for that share of the garden. Balance is critical to your efforts. Undertake too much and there is a risk that your garden will become an unwelcome chore. Too little, and you won't have enough produce for bragging rights at the neighborhood potluck.

I have been planting a garden since 1997 and have a pretty good idea how much I can reasonably handle. This year, I will plant at two times. I recently planted some early seeds for cherry belle radishes, some heirloom carrots, sweet globe-shaped beets, and Spanish onions. These plants can handle a little cold and, in the case of the radishes and the carrots, are sweeter if planted earlier.

Later in the spring, when the danger of frost has passed and the soil has warmed a little more, I will plant tomatoes (slicers and Romas for cooking), green peppers, eightball zucchini squash, patty pan squash, a hill or two of cucumbers, basil, rosemary, and oregano. I will grow mint in a separate pot (more on that later). I grow mini pumpkins for JT to admire: Jack-be-Little and Bat Wings. And then there are the flowers. I love zinnias and will plant several varieties (I have seven different types right now....that's probably excessive), some old-fashioned Four O' Clocks, and Cosmos.

Your homework assignment is clear: Figure out your zone. Then make a list of the things you'd like to grow. Later this week in Gardening 101: Site and soil prep.

Update: Missy asked if it was safe to assume that plants at a local garden shop are safe for your growing zone. The answer is yes. A locally-run shop is certainly reliable and Home Depot, Lowes and the like typically offer money-back guarantees on plants they sell. So save your receipts and garden on. Hint: money back guarantees usually won't save you if you failed to water the plant. Or plant using dirt.


Jason said...

Oh no - 5a! We're right on the 4b line though, so maybe we should call ourselves a finicky 5a (or an optimistic 4b).

Missy said...

Hooray - we can give cherry tomatoes a try! Is it safe to assume that most flowers and vegetables we find at our local nursery would be OK for our area? Now we just need to get our flower box built so we can get some things in the ground. Thanks for the post!

Sharkbuttocks said...

Hint: money back guarantees usually won't save you if you failed to water the plant. Or plant using dirt.

Spoken like a true Jersey-honed smart ass. Nicely done.