VEGETABLE GARDENING 101
Ohana Kuleana Community Garden, April 25, 2017
Compost Team Captain at Shared Harvest
"Keoki has transformed the garden,
All projects start with a vision: Start small and keep your garden manageable. In gardening, you don’t have to learn everything all at once. Your vision becoming real is the end product of work, time and thought. This is where planning comes into the picture. If your vision is to be seated at the dinner table with your family eating a stew made from veggies that you grew yourself, then start from that point and work backward, making each step part of the vision. Let’s say your vision is to have carrots, leeks, potatoes and onions in your stew. When you are new to gardening, you may not be equipped with the information that you need in order to proceed.
Collecting information: Collecting information is a strong component of the planning process. First, you should understand what is needed for you to get from the point of having a seed or seedling in your hand to harvesting the vegetables for your stew. Expect to do some research. If you google “vegetable plant harvest chart”, you’ll find an abundance of information on planting and harvesting times. These charts will indicate whether to plant a seed or a seedling. You can also find this information on seed packets and at websites of most seed companies.
So, you’ve reviewed some different charts and discovered that all of your vegetables will mature in the fall, which is good. You have also discovered that you will have to purchase carrot seeds, shoots for leeks, seed potatoes, and onion bulbs or shoots. Let’s say that you want to eat your stew around the first part of October. Next, you need to know the number of “days until harvest” for each of your vegetables. That’s the number of days from when you plant the seed or seedling to the time when that plant is mature and can be harvested. With this information, you should be able to plant each of your vegetables at their respective times and harvest them at nearly the same time for your stew. We’ll go into further detail on seed selection a little later.
Gardeners tend to watch other gardeners. They are curious about how other people are gardening. So, be curious, check out other gardens, listen to discussions, ask questions, look at gardening magazines and check out Internet gardening sites. Most gardeners are flattered when asked for advice or opinion. Just remember, if you ask ten gardeners the same question, you’ll get several different answers and opinions. This is evidence that our gardening experiences are not the same. If you need more information, find a different gardener and ask again.
Plan in the winter: Do your garden planning early during winter months and order your seeds or seedlings in January or February. Sometimes you can order and pay, and the company will ship them later when according your plant hardiness zone. Seed companies seem to be overwhelmed by gardeners who order later and their seed inventory diminishes which means that part of your order might be out of stock. It is also easier to get corrections to your order when you order early. Winter is an excellent time to plan your garden. There is something comforting about sitting in front of a fire on a cold winter’s day and planning your garden for the upcoming season.
Keep a journal: Keep a garden journal for each growing season. Keep track of what worked and what didn’t work. Start an ongoing list of things to do next year and jot them down, things that will make your garden better or your gardening easier, things that need to be changed, new tools to include, gardening tips that you learned and want to remember, new plants to try, and the list goes on. Keep files on different gardening subjects and as you research the different gardening web sites; you can copy helpful information for quick reference in the future. Bookmark your favorite seed companies, especially the ones that provide good information about gardening topics that you are interested in.
*****Create a planting schedule: As your garden grows bigger, create a planting schedule form using a spreadsheet program such as Excel. You can create a personalized schedule of events that you can easily refer to for things such as dates for starting seeds indoors, re-potting, transplanting, sowing directly, which bed to put them in, successive planting, consecutive planting, harvest dates, what companies you purchased from, cost of seeds, etc. You can make it as detailed as you want. I have schedules for planting, seed inventory, seed purchases and one that lets me see what I am planting in each of my garden beds. Save these forms and refer to them from year to year. This will help you to make rational choices based on experience because you will have all the information you need from prior years, right at your fingertips.
Through all kinds of weather: Weather can help or hinder a gardener’s life. In Durango, weather can change quickly, without warning. Reliable, traditional weather patterns of the past seem to be changing rapidly these days. During times of unsettled weather, a smart gardener will rely on his preferred weather information source for forecasts. Knowing what kind of weather is on the horizon will help you to make informed decisions about when to plant seeds or starts, when to work your soil, when to turn off (or on) the watering system, when to cover certain crops as the threat of hail becomes apparent, when to shade crops if an exceptionally hot day is due or when to protect your plants if strong wind is on the way. For the most part, gardeners tend to track weather events with greater frequency around the times of late and early frosts, as these can be critical times for planting and harvesting. Weather events can be helpful or harmful.
Rain: According to the City of Durango’s website, we get an annual rainfall of 19 inches with August being our wettest month and June the driest. The national average of rainfall is 35 inches. Rain obviously provides humidity essential to plant life. If your soil has good drainage, you should have no problem with rain here in Durango.
Lightning converts atmospheric nitrogen into a usable form by plants. Rain carries this nitrogen to earth and deposits it in the soil. This is why plants always seem to perk up and look good after a storm. If you have a scheduled planting day coming up, and rain is forecast, try to plant before the rain, in order to take advantage of that nitrogen input. If it is time to work the soil and rain is forecast, try to get it done before it rains because your soil could remain wet for a week after it stops raining, thus, setting you back for planting. Covering your garden bed with a plastic sheet during a rainfall is one way to prevent the soil from becoming too wet to work.
Wind and Hail: Staking or supporting plants against strong winds, or protecting them from the possibility of impending hail (or strong rains) becomes second nature for experienced gardeners. Most gardeners learn from experience that it is well worth the effort to take the time, and go to the trouble of caring for our plants before this kind of potentially catastrophic event takes place. Have some row covers and soil staples standing by somewhere that can be laid-out quickly against the hail. An empty five-gallon bucket placed over the plant works well for smaller plants. The buckets work well against strong winds too.
Frost and Freezing: Frost and freezing events that affect our gardening, normally, take place in early spring or early fall. In this area we expect them and are usually prepared. Old time residents of this area can tell you about times when it has snowed in July, or hailed in mid-Summer. These oddly timed events can take us by surprise, but we should still be prepared, because the consequences of having a damaged plant is greater because our plants are now more mature and perhaps flowering or fruiting.
Strong Sun Exposure: Although sunny days are not necessarily regarded as being a weather event, they are, none-the-less, a weather event. The time for greatest concern should be a cloudless, exceedingly hot day or series of days. Not all plants thrive in hot weather, therefore, when the temperature soars and the sun blisters paint off a wall, its time for action. The same row covers that you set aside for protection against hail can be used to shade your plants. Or, you can construct a simple PVC frame and attach a strip of shade cloth (row cover) to it during the heat of the day. It doesn’t have to cover the whole frame. Make it about three feet wide and position it on the frame so that those three feet offer shade to your garden bed during the hottest part of the day. Leave it up over the course of mid-summer and take it off when the sun starts its decline and is not so intense. Two PVC hoops that can be quickly slipped over spikes that are already secured to your garden bed is a quick and simple remedy. Attach your shade cloth with twist-ties. When not in use, remove the hoops and spikes.
When choosing seeds, there are some things you need to know or do before making your selection.
1) What would you like to eat this season?
2) Choose which kind of seed you prefer (organic, heirloom, conventional, etc.)
3) Choose some seed companies that you could do business with
4) Know your plant hardiness zone.
5) Will you be planting certain crops consecutively?
6) Will you be planting certain crops successively?
7) Growing season
8) Amount of midday sunlight
9) Choose a variety
10) Seeds or seedlings
11) Design your garden (Will everything fit?)
12) Keep records
What would you like to eat this season? What’s your vision for your garden? Make a list of the vegetables that you want to eat. This is where you start. This is your “dream sheet” and becomes the vision for your garden bed.
*****Organic or Conventional Seeds: Next, decide if you want to go organic, heirloom, open pollinated, conventional, etc. These terms are defined in the “Seed Coding Glossary” provided by Johnny’s Seeds. These codes are normally found on all seed packets so that you know what you are buying.
If you can’t find an organic seed or plant that you want, try the heirlooms or open pollinated seed suppliers. Organic hybrids are becoming easier to find as well. If you are into seed collecting then you should stick with organic, heirloom or open pollinated.
Choosing Seed Companies: Now, choose some seed companies that you want to do business with. This means doing some investigation. If you go to “organic (or heirloom, or conventional, or whatever) vegetable seeds for sale” on the Internet, you’ll find plenty of useful information. If you want a plethora of gardening information, go to “davesgarden.com”. Don’t forget to ask for opinions about seed companies from other gardeners.
Hardiness Zone: What hardiness zone is your garden in? Each type of seed has an assigned hardiness zone that is indicated on the web and on the seed packet. Normally, the seeds in that packet perform well in the indicated zone. Durango is located in the Plant Hardiness Zone 6a according to the U.S.D.A.
*Before you choose your varieties, you need to decide whether or not you are going to plant certain crops consecutively or successively.
Consecutive Planting: Consecutive planting is when you plant the same crop at offset times, separated by a certain amount of days. Normally, early and late cool weather crops seem to offer more opportunities for consecutive planting in Durango’s growing season. Cool weather crops such as radish, green onions, peas, spinach, and lettuce respond well as consecutive crops and can support light frosts. Let’s use radishes as an example. You’ll need to know the number of days that your radish takes to mature. Radish seeds are planted directly in the soil, so you’ll need to add the “days to germination” and the “days to maturity” to get the total number of days needed to produce that radish. Choose a variety that can be grown in cool weather. In the early spring, according to the instructions on the seed packet, sow your first batch of seeds, then, ten days later, sow another. This pattern can be repeated until the weather warms up and the variety that you chose no longer has the cool whether temperature that it needs to grow well. How much radish seeds you sow per batch depends on how quickly you or your family can consume them. In the fall, when the weather cools down again, you can continue your consecutive planting. There are varieties of radish that support warmer weather so you can change varieties when it warms up, thus, producing radishes into the summer. Start this variety again in late summer and then switch back to the cool temperature variety once again when the weather cools down.
Successive Planting: When you plant a crop in the spring (or overwinter a crop such as garlic) and if that crop is harvested mid-summer, you still have time to plant a second, different crop in succession. The second crop is planted in the same place as the first crop. Take “garlic” for example. You plant it in October. It over-winters and is harvested in July. After harvest, that bed is empty. Your choices are to prepare the soil, mulch it and put it to sleep until October when you could re-plant garlic again, or, you could prepare the soil and then plant something like carrots or winter cabbage right away which would give you a carrot or cabbage crop ready for harvest in the fall. Successive crops of peas, turnips, winter cabbage, beets, radish and some varieties of lettuce could be planted as well.
Durango’s Growing Season: Local weather dictates what and when you can plant in an exterior garden. According to the National Weather Service, the dates for Durango’s average last frost and first frost for 2017 are June 2 and September 21 respectively. These dates give us an average frost-free growing season of around 118 days. There are crops that tolerate cold temperatures which means that we can extend the 118 days both at the beginning and end with plants that can be sown in cold soil or plants that benefit from cold weather before they mature. Using covers that insulate can also extend the growing-season.
Amount of midday sunlight: Different plants need different amounts of direct sunlight per day. In most gardens, different beds may have different amounts of sun exposure per day. Here are some typical vegetables and the amount of direct sunlight required on a daily basis.
- Crops requiring at least 8 hours of midday sunlight (Full Sun): Asparagus (perennial), Beans, Brussels Sprouts, Cantaloupe, Corn, Cucumbers, Eggplant, Garlic, Goji Berries (perennial), Honeydew, Okra, Peppers, Pumpkins, Rhubarb (perennial), Squash, Strawberries, Tomatoes, Turnips, Watermelon.
- Crops requiring at least 6 hours of midday sunlight (Partial Sun): Beets, Broccoli, Cabbage, Carrots, Cauliflower, Collard Greens, Kale, Leeks, Onions, Peas, Potatoes, Radishes, Rhubarb (perennial-can also grow in full sun), Swiss Chard.
- Crops requiring at least 4 hours of midday sunlight (Partial Shade): Asian Greens, Herbs, Lettuce, and Spinach.
Choose a Variety: Seed variety is like different models of cars that come off the assembly line. They are all Fords but different models. A carrot is a carrot, but there are different varieties. Each variety has different characteristics. Varieties have different climate needs. Some perform better in the cool spring/early summer temperatures, some like the summer heat and some like to be planted later for a fall harvest. Certain varieties have different shapes and sizes. Some are sweeter than others. Some are better for juicing than others.
Let’s say that these are your needs: you know that you want to eat a carrot; you know that you want an organic carrot; you have chosen three seed companies that you like that sell organic carrot seeds; you know that you should select carrot seed that is compatible with your plant hardiness zone; and you know that you want consecutive plantings of your carrot crop.
Now you need to pick a variety that suits your needs. Go to one of your organic seed companies and check out the carrot varieties. Let’s say you’ve chosen a Danvers Variety from High Mowing Organic Seeds. The “days to germination” is twenty and “days to maturity” is seventy. This seed will take ninety days before you can eat a mature carrot. You know that you have an average of 118 frost-free days. The packet states that you can sow this seed as soon as you can work the soil in the spring and that it prefers loosened soil in a raised bed. It sounds like this variety can be planted consecutively, probably ten days or two weeks apart in three or four plantings.
Guessing when to plant the first crop in Durango’s spring can be tricky. You may be tempted to plant too early. You don’t want to plant and then have the soil re-freeze for two weeks. This is when you need to have conversations with gardeners in your area. Follow their advice; they have been through carrot planting before. They will know or have a good idea when the time is right for planting your first crop of carrots. The bottom line is to have patience and play it safe.
*****Seeds or seedlings: Seeds present more options than you'll find available as seedlings. It's easier to grow some crops such as lettuce, radishes, beans, carrots, squash, and others from seeds. Here in Durango, where the growing season is short, purchasing seedlings will give you a head start. If you are an inexperienced gardener, opt for nursery-grown seedlings instead of trying to start them yourself.
Design your garden bed: Many gardeners orient their rows north to south. That way, the plants get maximum sun exposure as it moves from east to west. You should have an idea by this time of what will go where in your bed. Make a sketch of your garden bed. Measure it. Do you have enough room to plant all the vegetables on your dream sheet? Have you calculated where each consecutive planting of radishes will go? Where will you put tall plants, short plants, wide plants, fast maturing plants, slow maturing plants. Have you considered companion planting? Which plants will shade others, as they grow taller? Is that to your benefit or not. Do you have enough room to accomplish what you envisioned? Does your design work?
Using vertical space creates opportunities for plants that vine and climb. If your garden lacks room for sprawling melons or beans, try giving these plants sturdy supports and some guidance, and they'll clime. Consider building vertical arbors for other crops such as beans, cucumbers and tomatoes. Keep in mind that the climbers will shade other plants.
Once this process is done, you can begin ordering your seed varieties from the companies that you prefer.
Keep records: Keep records on your spreadsheet schedules of seed orders, local purchases, planting dates, harvest dates, etc. If things don’t work out, you will know where you went wrong and can change it up next year. This also allows you to track and compare prices year to year.
Benefits of companion planting in a vegetable garden
(Go to: “vegetablegardeninglife.com” for a complete companion planting chart)
Shelter - larger plants protect others from wind or too much sun.
Support - Some vegetables can be used as physical supports for others. As an example, pole beans planted with corn use the corn as a trellis.
Beneficial Insects - attracting beneficial insects such as bees help spread pollen.
Soil Improvement - some vegetable plants improve soil conditions for other plants. For example, members of the legume family (beans etc.) draw nitrogen from the atmosphere and add it to the soil around them.
Decoy Plants - there are plants that emit odors that aid in masking the odors of insect desirable vegetable plants.
Companion planting is not the same for everyone, everywhere; it will require experimentation to find what works best in your area.
The solution to every plant's health and every garden's vigor is in the soil.
Creating healthy soil should be a gardener’s most important task.
Healthy soil: Healthy soil is porous, allowing water, air and nutrients to move around. A healthy bioactive soil should be loose, rich in organic matter, and drainable. A healthy, bioactive soil is approximately 25% water, 25% air, 45% aggregate and 5% organic matter.
Improving soil: An adding amendment such as compost is the best way to improve your soil. Adding compost improves the condition of any soil whether it’s texture is clay, sand or silt. Adding loads of organic matter such as compost to your garden helps the soil soak up water and stay moist longer. Compost also pushes apart tiny clay particles, allowing for more air space. Water drains more freely and plant roots grow more readily. In sandy soils, compost allows the soil to hold moisture during times of drought, making nutrients available for a longer period before they leach out of the soil. Compost also helps the soil hold better, reducing erosion.
No matter what type of soil you have, higher levels of compost increase the bioactivity. Microorganisms and macro organisms work to break down organic matter, releasing nutrients for plant uptake. Some beneficial microorganisms in the soil also attack plant diseases, helping your garden to stay healthier. Use a broad fork to mix compost into the soil at the beginning and end of the growing season. This process also fluffs and loosens soil, allowing air and water to reach plants' roots.
Mulch: Spread a thin layer of aged manure, chopped leaves, compost, or other plant material over the soil between plants in the summer to help keep the soil moist. This will promote plant nutrients, air and water to circulate and will keep the surface of the soil from drying out and compacting. In a hard rain, mulch will prevent soil nutrients from being washed away.
A 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch in the winter insulates soil and plant roots from extreme temperatures, prevents erosion, and attracts earthworms.
PESTS AND DISEASES
Monitor for signs of dysfunction: Perform a visual exam or use sticky cards.
Identify problems: Pests and diseases cause vast symptoms. Google “garden pest and disease identification”. You’ll find colorful pictures for identification and threads to treatments.
Control problems: Use the least-toxic solution first. Leave room for air between plants, keep the garden tidy, remove spent or damaged plants, pull weeds while they're young, spread mulch, maintain a healthy soil and water your garden in the morning.
Maintain healthy soil: Keeping soil healthy is the first line of defense against insect pests and diseases. Healthy soil produces healthy plants that are better equipped to fight off bug attacks and disease. A healthy bioactive soil has the ability to combat soil born diseases. It is important to monitor your garden closely to catch problems early. If you wait, you can run into infestation that results in stronger, perhaps chemical, remedies.
Homemade remedies: Don’t be afraid to remove insects by hand when you see them. Put them in a can and remove them from the garden. The same goes for their eggs. Look at the underneath of the leaves. Wear some nitrile gloves if you are uncomfortable about touching them. Most eggs will drop off when hit by a stream of water. There is an abundance of helpful sites on the Web. Google “garden pest and diseases, organic remedies”.
Handouts including Seed Coding Guide, Buying Starts, and Garden Design
Past workshops with Keoki and also on garden basics:
Soil and Compost Workshop with Keoki Moore
Fall Soil Care & Broadforks w/ Keoki Moore
Garden Basics (GREAT RESOURCES LISTED) w/ Brooke Frazer