Monday, April 6, 2009

Contagious: How To Get Started

Spring is upon us. March is a now a veal cutlet and April has afforded us a soggy embrace. What the hell does this mean? It's time to get planting: I'm talking to you! A few of our friends have asked us how to get started with a garden, and we want to encourage them. Even though we've chosen to overthink every part of the process doesn't mean you have to.

Many people claim to be no good at growing plants, but anyone outfitted with some basic tools and information can be a successful gardener. Unfortunately, there is a ton of advice available to the newbie plant-wrangler, much of which is contradictory or questionable. My aim here is to embolden the botanically curious--it doesn't have to be expensive or intimidating. There's no excuse not to have a little garden; if you've got a sunny windowsill or a balcony you can grow your favorite herbs, some lettuce, or a pot of tomatoes. Growing your own food, no matter how little, is intensely satisfying.

If you want to go to the experts, here are two that we have learned a great deal from. All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew is a terrific book that helps you get the most harvest out of a small space, but it's easy to read and is great for the beginning gardener. Another invaluable source is Mike McGrath's weekly radio show You Bet Your Garden. Mike was previously the editor-in-chief of Organic Gardening magazine and has and extensive backlog of his radio show available for free online. However, as great as these sources may be, the freshman gardener is still faced with the dilemma: Where do I start? Although we still consider ourselves to be novices, we're going to give you a quick primer on what we've learned in the five or so years we've been at it

1. Plant Choices
In the beginning, keep it simple. We started about six years ago with some tomatoes, herbs and a couple of hot peppers. As with any new endeavor, success is the primary goal. Your first season will be your last if you choose obscure and challenging plants exclusively. Fortunately, there are many well-organized, informative seed and plant catalogs; on Johnny's website you can search for varieties that are easy to grow like Diplomat broccoli and Juliet tomatoes. Other seed companies like Southern Exposure specialize in seeds that thrive in a specific area.

One thing the novice should initially shy away from is indoor seed starting. While outdoor direct seed plantings of crops like peas, beans, corn, melons, and squash are usually rewarding to grow if you've got the right conditions (more on this later), some of the heirloom and hybrid vegetables that lasciviously beckon from the glossy pages of certain 'veggie porn' (I'm looking at you, Seed Savers!) are just not worth the trouble when you're just starting out. But many heirloom seed providers, including Seed Savers, offer a selection of live plants that will arrive at the right time for planting in your growing zone. Local nurseries also provide a range of plants to choose from. Keep an eye out for specialty local growers; unique local suppliers are especially useful in selecting varieties that will grow well in your region. Two notable North Jersey examples are Catalpa Ridge and Well-Sweep Herb Farm.

2. Light
We learn in grade school that plants need lots of sun and water. It's pretty basic, but when it comes to plant sustenance, one size does not fit all. For example, our favorite varieties of fruits, vegetables, and flowers often require full sun. One of our recurring mistakes is attempting to grow full-sun plants like melon and squash in partial shade. We love those foods, so we plant them every year, and every year they fail, which means we've wasted that garden space that could have been devoted to something more appropriate. So consider your gardening space when deciding what to grow.

If you have a lot of sun, you're in luck. It's easier to create shade for cool-weather plants like spinach and lettuce than it is to manufacture sunlight where it doesn't exist. If sunlight is at a premium in your garden, you may have to scale your expectations back a little. This doesn't mean you have to content yourself with collards and hostas exclusively; you will probably still be able to raise beautiful tomatoes and peppers. You just may have lower yields. One of the lessons we've learned is that if we can't bring the sun to our plants, we can bring the plants to the sun by putting some in large pots or planters and strategically positioning them around the yard.
  • Full sun: Winter and summer squash, melons, eggplant, fruit
  • Good sun: Tomatoes, peppers, beans, peas, carrots, onions, potatoes, herbs, raspberries
  • Part shade: Lettuce, chard, kale, spinach, cilantro
More action-packed info to follow soon. Look for updates about watering and basic gardening equipment. Tell a friend!

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