In the Midwest, we like to combat winter cabin fever by starting our garden planning well before the mid-May last frost. Right now is the perfect time to get ready for the rapidly approaching growing season. Here are some tips to aid you in getting your spring garden off to a successful start.
Keep It Simple
Whether you’re planting your first garden or have been growing for years, there is always a new variety of plant, fruit, or vegetable that begs to be planted. This is part of the fun of gardening, so it’s okay to give in sometimes — just not every time! It’s easy to overestimate your enthusiasm and available growing space (both of which are in short supply in the heat of July) and waste money on plants and seeds that never find a home in your garden. Think about what worked last year — and what didn’t — and what you’d like to accomplish this year.
Last year, I planted far too many tomatoes. This year I won’t make the same mistakes, no matter how deeply discounted my garden center’s tomato plants! If you’re brand new to gardening, have an experienced friend come look around your yard and give you their opinion on your plans.
The keeping it simple motto applies to equipment and other supplies too. Before you buy trellis panels, bamboo stakes, or tons of bags of compost, see if you can plant vining plants near a fence, use small branches from your yard to stake plants, or make use of leaves or other yard debris to make your own compost pile.
Now is the time to begin starting your seeds indoors. There are many benefits to this — including a sooner harvest of your peas and greens!
Starting your seeds in a 72-celled flat and then potting them up into a 50-celled flat before planting them outside gives them a burst of new nutrients and plenty of room to grow – which means they’ll be plenty strong by the time they’re ready for their final planting outdoors. The time to move them from the smaller to larger-celled flat is when they have two sets of true leaves (the original set of leaves they send up when they first germinate will likely have withered at this point – that’s normal!).
Build a Compost Pile
This is one of the most satisfying things I do as a gardener. Composting is when you take food and yard wastes and combine them in a pile, where they break down and become a rich hummus that you can add to your garden. There are many different ways to compost, but the simplest way is the one I described above. If you put together a nicely balanced compost pile starting now, you’ll have a batch of garden-ready compost to help out your soil mid-season.
Consider adding red wiggler worms to your compost pile. One pound of worms will break down one half pound of food and yard waste each day! This will help your compost mature more quickly. When you’re ready to transfer your compost to the garden, save a bucketful of that pile to help populate your new one with worms.
Keep a Log
I confess, even though I’ve been gardening for years, I only starting keeping a garden log last year. I use it to jot down quick notes on what seeds I started that day, what was ready to harvest, when a vegetable plant stops producing, and anything else I think might be useful to remember. It’s helpful to look back over it during the off-season when I’m daydreaming about next year’s garden. Your log can be as simple as a big wall calendar or a blank book – or you can buy one ready-made just for this purpose
Surprisingly, I haven’t been able to find an app that will do what old-fashioned pen and paper will. There are, though, many useful gardening apps that work well with the notes you’ve kept and may help you figure out problematic patterns you’ve noticed, plan for future seasons, or identify a garden pest.
Spring is just the beginning! Keep in mind that many spring plants don’t like the heat of summer. Peas and lettuce are good examples – start these indoors and plant outside as soon as you can so you can reuse their space for planting sun-loving plants once the temperatures begin to climb.
Extend the growing season for your lettuce by shielding it from the sun. How? Sprinkle lettuce seed – sparingly – in the soil between tall, leafy plants such as tomatoes, sunflowers, or bush beans. The shade from these plants will help shield the lettuce from the heat.
Just Do It
If you’re a first time gardener who’s looking at all of this information and feeling overwhelmed, this tip is for you: just get out there and plant something. Sure, there are methods and best practices to follow. Of course, I would love to see you follow each of these tips. Keep this in mind, though: plants have a will to live. You’ll get to experience this when pulling weeds mid-season! If you have a desire to garden and the time and will to follow through, you will no doubt be successful – even if you don’t have the most bountiful garden your first year. Plant according to seed packet directions in healthy soil, water as directed, and enjoy the experience. Next year’s garden will be even better.
If you’re truly short on tools or time, you can “build” a raised bed quickly and simply. Lay a thick layer of cardboard, paper, and/or paper bags on the spot where you want to plant — no need to remove any grass that may be there. On top of that, apply a 6″ layer of potting soil. You’re ready to plant!