Flowers and vegetables and herbs … oh my! With some careful springtime planning, you'll reap a bounty of earthy delights for months to come.
Ready to get your hands a little dirty? Few projects are as rewarding as an at-home garden. To watch a plant grow from nothing into something is a thrill for even the most seasoned gardener. It's also a fun way for the whole family to spend time outdoors, and all that watering, weeding, and picking the fruits of your labor adds up to some easy exercise. To create a green space of your very own, read on for an easy roadmap to reaping what you sow.
Asses Your Space
In order to determine what you'll plant, you first need to determine where you'll plant, and how much. A ten-foot by ten-foot garden works well for a nice variety of plants and flowers. If you don't have that kind of space, opt for large containers or a few smaller parcels of land around your property. Make sure that at least part of the area gets a full six hours of direct sun each day, which is what most vegetable plants require. Avoid plots that are largely covered by trees, and low-lying areas that tend to flood or collect runoff.
Know Your Soil, Love Your Soil
Ideally, soil should have the consistency of crumbly chocolate cake. Here in New Jersey, our soil is mostly clay-based, so it needs added moisture and aeration for successful growing. The simplest solution is to add organic materials like compost or humus, which you can either make yourself or procure at your local garden center. Scoop some of the soil from your chosen spot and bring it to the garden center, where they can test it to assess its composition and advise you on how to supplement it based on what you're growing.
Making Your Selections
Choose crops that grow easily and healthfully in our area, and that you'll enjoy for months to come. For a nice mix, choose some common vegetables (like tomatoes, which you'll use all the time), and something more unusual (like radishes, which will provide a distinct sensory association as a treat enjoyed from your very own garden). To round it out, add some cutting flowers and herbs. For additional suggestions, talk to the people who work at your local gardening center. They're generally knowledgeable and passionate about gardening, and can answer any questions you have.
Most crops are at least a little sensitive to temperature and certainly frost, so whether you grow from seed or from small plants and whether you start up indoors or outdoors matters quite a bit. Strive for a "some for now, some for later" approach, and start your garden with some seeds and some small plants. This way, you don't have to wait many months to see your progress and begin your harvest.
April Showers …
As a general rule, nothing should go into the ground before May 15th or so (peas are an exception), as the evening temperatures are too cold yet for most plants to survive. If you're itching to get started before then, start a few varieties of seeds indoors in a sterile seed-starting mixture purchased at your local garden center. The best choices for seed crops are annual herbs, special hybrids, or heirloom varieties. You'll want to limit how many crops you grow from seed indoors, because this can be quite space-consuming. Cover each container with plastic wrap or fitted plastic lids, place them near sunlight, and water them regularly (be careful not to drown or displace the seeds). Uncover the plants when an inch of growth can be seen.
Also, buy flats of cutting flowers like marigolds and snapdragons now, so they don't get bought up by all the other eager Green Thumbs before you get your pick, and purchase some perennial herb plants too (tarragon, chives, and sage are easy to grow). Keep them inside in April, watering them as they grow.
… May Flowers
Starting in May, you can start to "harden off" your herb and flower plants as well as the seed plantings by bringing them outside during the day and back in at night. This acclimates them slowly to the outside elements, so that when you transplant them into the ground later in the month, they are used to the change and can thrive in their new environment. Between mid-May and Memorial Day, you can plant them all in the well-prepped ground, and watch the garden start to grow. Since your seeds and plants have started at different times and have different maturation rates, you should be off to a nice start.
May is also the right time to put small vegetable plants like eggplant and peppers directly into the ground, as it will most likely be warm enough for them to thrive. In flower beds and around the perimeter of your garden, opt for easy, hardy flowers like impatiens and pansies, which can last into the cool of early fall, long past the time when your cutting flowers have petered out. Now is also a good time to plant seeds for some perennial plants like asparagus and strawberries, though these take a few years to produce a truly rewarding crop. By using the same "some for now, some for later" approach, you'll have an active crop of some things this summer, and a harvest to look forward to a few years down the road.
Maintaining Your Garden
Watering is the key to garden care, and most plants require a good amount of moisture. Always check the instructions of each specific plant for variations, and use markers in the garden to help you remember which plants need what.
Your work with soil isn't done when you plant; it needs to be maintained as you go. Mulching is a good idea, and many gardeners prefer simple (and free!) lawn cuttings to the store-bought type, though those are fine as well. Mulching keeps the weeds at bay, locks in moisture, and adds nitrogen and other nutrients into the soil. For best results, simply sprinkle whatever blend you choose around the base of each plant as well as in between plants. If you like the idea of making your own compost, collect the scraps from your normal kitchen work (remnants from produce, egg shells, coffee grounds, and more) and keep them all under wraps in a sealed container. Mix it regularly until it grows the helpful bacteria your garden needs (most batches are ready in three to four weeks).
Fertilizing is also crucial to the health of your garden, but remember that different plants have different fertilization needs. You can consult with your nursery professional for advice, although many gardeners swear by simple fool-proof products like Miracle-Gro. Be sure not to fertilize in the hottest heat of summer; instead, do it consistently in late spring and early summer for the best results.
While you're watering, go through the garden and other planting areas, pulling out weeds and "deadheading" (removing the dead pieces of plants). This prevents nutrients from being wasted and misdirected, and will keep your garden looking fresh and healthy. Also take this time to harvest whatever growth is ready, always leaving six inches of growth on the plant. By following these general rules, you'll encourage the healthiest, most prolific growth for your plants.