Your destination for gardening tips and tricks
from Strong Family Farm Master Gardener, Dan Gallagher.
I will be honest, I have always had a heavy hand when it comes to watering, especially at the germination and seedling stage. I am learning that the less heavy-handed, the better the plants seem to be doing. I first noticed this when I sat in on a seed starting workshop at the greenhouse tour at the University of Rhode Island when I went to pick up seeds from the Rhode Island Master Gardener program several years ago. The problem was I had some success, but now my plants are looking much healthier. They don’t look like they just finished a long-distance swim.
I will sit in on any seed starting workshop or presentation, as I usually learn something or confirm that I am becoming a better seed-starter. I’m hoping to get to the point where I can just say “go” and they grow. The point I am trying to make is that plants also need air, and too much water lessens the amount of air available to the plants. I now know the plants’ bottom leaves yellow when there is too much water or a drought situation. The first thing to go in both o these stress situations are the root hairs.
Gardening with Compost
A long time ago I was told that every great gardener has a compost pile and yet never has enough compost. I have yet to find any part of that statement that isn’t true to this day. There is nothing more horticulturally magical than well-made, homemade compost. If you master one gardening skill, this would be the one I recommend. (Watering comes in second.) Finished compost should have the smell of good earth – instinctively we know that smell.
Compost can be used as a soil amendment when finished, with great results. Seldom will it have an NPK rating of a fertilizer, but has nutrients and trace elements – especially if tree leaves were an ingredient and kitchen waste added in the process. Unfinished compost can be used as mulch, and as it composts further it will add additional nutrients. Please don’t make the mistake of thinking you don’t need a soil test if all you add is compost. You can be adding something in overabundance even though it is all natural. You should always start with a soil test and then the next year do another solid test to make sure you know your methods are keeping you within the parameters. If within parameters, you cans kip a few years if no tell-tale signs of nutrient imbalance show up.
I also want people to know there is no quick method of composting, especially if leaves are a major component (browns). The compost you are making now might be able to be put on your garden beds this fall to winter, but it can take a year or more to make well-made compost. The good new is if you start your pile today, you are loading the pipeline so next year you will begin having a never-ending supply – never enough, but a good supply.
Vegetable Victory Garden
I was going to talk about sun, water, and soil temperature, but this morning I opened up my weekly email from the National Gardening Association and it had a link to a video by Charlie Nardozzi (you may have heard him recently on Where We Live). This video is about Vegetable Victory Gardens and is done for beginning gardeners because of the renewed interest in vegetable gardening due to Covid-19. So I thought it would be nice if you got some gardening instruction from someone other than myself. In time you will gain the experience and knowledge to develop a gardening method that works for you. So my advice will always be to get your gardening information from as many sources as possible.
Pests & Helpers
Encourage beneficial insects to call your garden home. There are plants, flowers, and herbs that encourage the good guys to visit and stay a while. Some are food and some become habitat. What you need to grow to encourage them will be dictated by what you like to grow. I use no pesticides at The Crazy Half Acre and haven’t for over 15 years, but that’s my choice. Learn all you can about the pests you are trying to control by first identifying them and then, as a last resort, use great caution when applying any pesticide. One other thing to note: bug zappers for the most part kill more beneficial insects than they aid you in controlling whatever you are trying to control. Many, if not most beneficials come out at night as they are predatory, especially ground beetles.
For beetles, Asiatic Garden, Oriental, and Japanese, I leave a half-filled 5-gallon bucket with water in the area and when these beetles are out and about, especially around basil, I find several specimens in the morning trying to learn how to swim that I then teach how to dive.
Something else I think you should know: Wasps feast on caterpillars. So, if you can exist side-by-side, they will be a benefit to your immediate environment and garden. Just be mindful of the Bald-Faced Hornet. I’m not saying they are aggressive, but they think it is their yard. Keep a social distancing of 10 feet in mind with these pugnacious creatures.
When I garden, I need all the help I can get, and two of the best helpers are earthworms – of several species – and bumblebees. If I have these two in goodly numbers, I should be ahead of the curve, production wise.
A Garden Starter
To garden or grow edibles successfully, the list of what you need is rather short: sunlight, soil, seed, and water. Today I am going to focus on soil and seed.
There is no one best way to garden. There are good ways and there are better ways. If you examine the way you garden each year, hopefully you should become a better gardener with slight adjustments as you go. Much is dictated by the ecology and the environment you garden in. No gardening seasons are the same two years in a row. Gardening is a life-long educational endeavor. A true garden enthusiast/gardener will never know everything or even know enough to want to stop learning. This year we will be (or hope to be) lightyears ahead of last year because, if I am honest and evaluate my own performance, I learned so much last year and maybe it will show through this year.
The raised beds should be heaping full of a rather good mis of this year’s Collins Compost and last year’s topsoil. The depth of this year’s mix will allow just about anything to not only grow but thrive. As with most of the universe, in soil, space takes up a good portion. Up to 50% of it. What! Yes! Mostly space for air and water. 5% Soil Organic Matter (SOM) and 45% geological/physical. Rather than go into dissertation mode, I will link to this Old Farmer’s Almanac article to start the process of understanding soil health or if you have healthy soil to begin with. At the bottom of this article are other articles I hope you will also read, as I could spend this entire gardening season just talking about soil. It is important to know the texture of your soil; it has part in the Cation Exchange Capacity and will also be a factor in buffering (more on this later). pH is important as it sets which nutrients will be accessible to plants, and SOM aids in water and nutrient retention along with buffering. (This is a simplification, but a beginning.)
Next up is seeds and seed-starting. Any seeds that say 4–6 weeks before last frost date can be sown now. Believe it or not, better later than early – even pepper and eggplant; they will have diminished production, but enough to be prudent to grow. Tomatoes might be on the small side but will probably catch up to plants started earlier come August. Hold off on cucumbers and squash, those can be started in a week or so, around May 1.
I want to share a Youtube Seed Starting video that just came out this week. It is done by John Lorusso, the Windham County Master Gardner Coordinator. He is teaching the Tolland County Master Gardeners this year, doing double-duty while overseeing the People’s Harvest garden. I hope you enjoy the video and realize that seed-starting should be fun! Pay attention to the back of your seed packets, for there is a wealthy of information on most of them and hold on to them so you know the variety, days to harvest, and spacing.
I hope you will consider keeping a Garden Journal this year: what and when and how, any unusual weather patterns, things that did well, things that didn’t, and anything else that might cross your mind while in the garden. It may help in January when you are planning next year’s garden.
Sometimes people ask me when is the best time to start a compost pile, and my answer is always, “a year ago, but today is the second-best time to start one.”
The basics are: know your greens and your browns. The problem is greens are usually wet, and browns are usually dry. Greens, being nitrogen, and browns being carbon. By volume an duding a 5-gallon bucket: one bucket of green to two buckets of brown. A third bucket of brown will only make the process take slightly longer, but cause no real problems. You want your compost pile, for the most part, to stay aerated and without foul odors. (This time of year, Ocean State Job Lot has compost aerators for $5.00 – you can’t go wrong.) Foul odors are caused by too much green/nitrogen or too much water causing a lack of air and your pile to go anaerobic. Again, the water thing: moist/damp, but not soaking wet. Just like soil, the compost microbiology needs oxygen to thrive and hasten the decomposition.
Sheet composting and lasagna gardening are basically the same thing. So when is the best time to start a lasagna garden? Last year. But, lucky for you, today is the second-best day.
Lay down cardboard or newspapers as your first layer of brown, after they have been thoroughly wetted like a good neighbor, and you basically layer the greens and browns right where you are going to garden. It is not a bad idea if you are going to enlarge your garden or add a raised bed to plan a year ahead and start prepping it now. Maybe even grow a cover crop in it first to get the soil microbiology revved up, primed, and ready to go for next year. Good gardening is always enhanced by good planning. You can take that to the bank (not the lobby right now, but the drive-up window)!