Digging your dinner


No matter the reason you’ve been itching to dig up some earth – from saving money to getting to know your neighbors through a community garden – we’ve sussed out the details to get you from digging dirt to harvesting your bounty.

Soil matters

One of the most important parts of the garden equation is the quality of your soil.

Jon Traunfeld, with the University of Maryland Extension, said to examine the soil where you have chosen to grow your garden and look closely at the top 4 to 6 inches:

– Hospitable soil will be dark, crumbly and drain easily. It also will be filled with soil critters like worms.

– Inhospitable soil will be compacted and drain poorly. It will have few worms and will be low in organic matter.

“If you put your seeds into the ground, chances are they’re going to grow,” said Jessica Babcock, seed technician for Seed Savers Exchange.

But if the soil is more on the inhospitable side, some options include:

– Bringing in quality gardening soil from your local garden center and mixing it with your existing soil.

– Having your soil tested to determine what nutrients are missing and then adding those nutrients in through soil amendments, like compost or lime, while tilling the hard, compacted ground.

– Starting a garden right on top of the grass, through a raised bed, or by using pots.

 Match the garden to your skill level

“Starting small is the key thing,” Traunfeld said.

“Small” might mean container gardening. “You could start just trying to grow some things in flower pots on your front porch,” Babcock said.

But if you’re ready for a ground-based garden, Traunfeld said the easiest way to get started is, before the grass starts to come in, “cover the area with whole sections of newspaper, and then put down something like compost, shredded leaves or any kind of organic material.” That will kill the grass so you don’t have to dig it up or rent a tiller.

“If you put compost on top, in the spring you can plant right in the compost,” he said. “If you plant tomato transplants you can take a trowel and cut through the paper and plant it right in the ground.”

Raised beds also work, but it will be more expensive since you’ll have to pay for the surrounds of the bed and bring in quality soil. But the benefit is an “instant garden,” Traunfeld said, which is really good if you have “cruddy” soil.

He also warned gardeners choosing this method to be wary of the soil you’re getting from your local supplier: “Look at it and smell it. If it smells bad you don’t want it; if it smells earthy, it’s good to use. You also can ask the company if they have any test results they can share. See if they know if it’s really acidic or alkaline.”

Do the research

“One general thing (about gardening) is don’t be intimidated,” Babcock said. “Lots of times people say ‘I’d like to garden, but I don’t really know how,’ so they don’t do anything.”

Here are some guidelines:

– Evaluate what you eat: A garden is of no use to you if you end up growing foods you don’t enjoy.

– Examine the light at your potential plot: Vegetables and herbs usually need “full sun,” which, according to Traunfeld, means 6 to 8 hours a day of direct sunlight.

That’s not to say you can’t plant a vegetable in partial shade. “Less sun means that plants reach for light and can become spindly; individual leaves may be larger; fruit production will be lower; and overall plant health is reduced,” he said.

If your garden has partial shade – 3 to 6 hours of sun a day – Traunfeld suggests growing leafy greens of all types, like lettuce, spinach, radish and Asian greens.

If you don’t have enough light – or space – in your yard for an in-ground garden, you could try container gardening. Many plants grow well in containers, which can be placed in the spot where light is available or you have room.

– Research what will grow well in your area: Some plants will not thrive where you live. Find your gardening zone at www.garden.org/zipzone/.

– Seeds vs. transplants: Traunfeld recommended starting with both seeds and transplants, depending on the plant. “Things like tomatoes, peppers and eggplant, if you want to grow those things, you really have to use a transplant,” he said.

These types of plants need to go in the ground when the soil is warm. So if you plant from seed in the ground, you’ll end up about six weeks behind plants grown from transplants.

“But for all the other things, like lettuce, beans, cucumbers, squash – then starting with seeds is the way to go,” Traunfeld said.

– Hybrids vs. heirlooms: Hybrids are plants that have been bred to have certain characteristics (flavor, heavy yields, heat tolerance, etc.). Heirlooms are plants that have been passed down through families for generations, so they’re particularly suited to where they originated.

“Hybrids are good because they’re pretty good standbys. … And chances are they’ll grow pretty well for you,” Babcock said.

– Compost this, not that: You always can buy compost, which may be the best option if you’re a rookie, Traunfeld said. But you also can create a small chicken wire enclosure or dig a pit in the garden and dump in herbicide-free lawn or kitchen waste. What shouldn’t you put in the compost pile? “Dairy, meat, cooked foods, stuff like that. No pet waste,” Traunfeld said.

Occasionally turn your compost pile with a garden fork. Your compost is ready to be added back to your garden as a fertilizer when it looks and smells like soil, and you can’t identify any of the individual items you added to your pile.


Common mistakes to avoid

n Too much, too soon: “The big one is biting off more than you can chew – trying to do a big garden the first year,” Traunfeld said.

– Pest control: Not just insects, but deer, birds, groundhogs and rabbits. As far as insects go, the Maryland extension office only recommends organic pest control on vegetable gardens. “The first thing you can do is … sweep them off into a bucket of soapy water or go through squishing them,” Traunfeld said. But he suggested getting to know other gardeners in your area to learn what insects are truly pests and which are beneficial.

– Weeding and feeding: “The second (most common mistake) is weeds,” Traunfeld said. These can crowd your plants and compete for soil nutrients. And “you’ve gotta fertilize; you’ve gotta water,” Traunfeld said.

– Improper spacing: Both Babcock and Traunfeld agree plant spacing is another very common error. “Really pay attention to what the plant tag says or you read (online),” Traunfeld said.

– Giving up too soon: “Everything is different every season,” Babcock said. “Just because something doesn’t work this year, doesn’t mean it won’t work next year.” Try a different location next year. Water more, water less. Or, try a different variety of the same plant. Consider your garden an experiment, and just savor every bite you’re able to harvest.

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