March 14, 2021
This group is a part of the Welcoming All Group at First Parish Church of Groton, Massachusetts. The group is open to anyone from anywhere but the gardening experience of most of us comes from the Northeast. We will meet on Zoom until the world opens up again and then we will have in-person meetings for demonstration purposes. Starting around the second week of June we will have garden walks at the Fisher’s which will continue through September. In addition, we are planning a fermentation workshop and a longer food preservation workshop. Both of these workshops can be held outside if necessary.
Beginning gardeners must first select a site. Even in winter you can walk out on your property and and look around. The sun tracks from east to west so look for trees that will block your garden when they are leafed out. Six hours of direct sunlight is the minimum for vegetables and ten to twelve is ideal. In high summer, that is, on June 21, the sun is at its highest and thereafter will sink below your trees earlier in the day. Most people have a sunny spot even if it isn’t very large but a lot of vegetables can be grown in a smallish garden using succession planting….more on that later. If all you have is a sunny south facing patio vegetables will do well there in pots…just make sure the pots are large and water is available.
Once you have a site selected, check the soil. You can’t do this until the ground thaws, but as early as it does and has dried out a bit, take a shovel or sturdy trowel and dig into it. This could be difficult because digging into the virgin earth is the single hardest gardening task. But check for these things: sand, if the soil falls off the trowel in a cascade or you can see that the sand is held together by a bit of dirt, that soil will drain water away quickly and not hold nutrients well; clay, if it looks like you are slicing your trowel through partially congealed cement there is too much clay and this soil will be hard for roots to penetrate, hard for water to get to the roots, and very hard to reconstitute once it dries out and turned into something resembling lumps of gravel. The solution for the clay soil is adding two items…some sand and lots and lots of organic matter. The third soil, the Goldilocks soil, is a mix of clay, sand and organic matter and will form a soft ball in your hand when mostly dry and then crumble easily when you give it a squeeze. If you are lucky to have this soil, called loamy or friable soil, then dig in. The easy thing to do if you have a clay soil is grow in raised beds on top of it and slowly it will become softer as worms begin to work it where it touches your bedding soil.
If you are going to grow in beds, stand where you want them or take some chalk to outline them and make them as big as you want with the proviso that you are going to want to walk around them not over them. If you plan to have more than one, you have to begin as you mean to go on. Put in one but have the others planned out, preferably on paper, so the space is there when you want it.
Oliver and Dante enjoying the freshly hayed raised beds with Sugar Snap peas on the cow panel to the right and First 13 peas on the left with bamboo hoops as stakes.
There are pros and cons with raised beds. If the beds have wooden or plastic lumber sides they are hard to move and only expandable by putting in more and they can be expensive. They are easy to grow in and neat for suburban lawns. If you come to see our gardens in June you will see that some of them have no beds and the main garden is nothing but beds. We tend to grow squashes in the flat, also potatoes, but the tender vegetables and some potatoes are grown in the main garden where the many varieties can be easily tended.
If you are just starting out, don’t try to grow everything. Plant one variety of bean, or possibly two, one bush and one pole. Purchase some tomato plants at the nursery, put in a pot of basil, one of parsley, what ever other herb you like. Cucumbers are popular but need either solid trellising to keep them off the ground or mulch that is renewed throughout the summer. Why renew the mulch? Because the soil organisms eat it and you do not want those cucumbers to touch the living soil. The soil organisms won’t eat the living flesh but the skin can be abraded against the soil and then the flora and fauna will eat that decomposing flesh. Everyone wants to start with zucchini but they take a lot of room. The package says three feet in each direction (or put in at the edge of a raised bed and let it flop) but I have a photo of a zucchini frond from last summer I measured at eleven feet. We had to wade through our plants to get beyond them.
What to grow? What not to grow! Do not plant anything that you do not want to eat! If you find the flavor of Swiss Chard too minerally, as I do, then leave it out of your garden. For too many years I grew it thinking that since it is supposed to be so nutritious I should grow and cook it. Now I use that space for collard greens which I do like. On the other hand, I just started five different types of eggplant….there is no accounting for taste.
Next post will address purchasing plants versus starting them from seed…we do both.