Finding Ease: Tip #1

Tuesday, April 17th, 2012

The gardening season here in the ‘North’ is starting to ramp up which means that, as someone who works in the garden retail industry, my work hours are starting to increase and my work week lengthen. That’s great for the bank account but, unless I’m careful, will wreak havoc with my garden and all my plans for this season. So, I’ve decided to look at all the little ways that I can streamline my gardening…without losing any of the joy, of course.

Sweet Pea 'Matucana'; Grown 2 years ago without inoculant.

Sweet Pea 'Matucana'; Grown 2 years ago without inoculant.

Tip #1 is the ‘aha’ moment from yesterday when, while looking through my seed packets to determine what next needed to be sown inside, I came across some sweet pea and Brazilian verbena seeds. Either flower can be started inside or sown directly into the soil outside but both flower earlier and, in the case of the perennial verbena, are hardier when sown inside. The trouble is that sowing inside is more time-consuming (potting up and hardening-off are two steps not necessary when sowing outside) and I save my precious time for plants like peppers and tomatoes that, unless started inside, will not produce anything due to our short growing season. So, I decided the risk was worth it and I’ll sow them directly outside when the weather warms up a bit (can you believe we still have a bit of snow?).

To cover my bets a bit, I’ll inoculate my sweet pea seeds. Inoculant contains Rhizobia bacteria which helps the members of the legume family (such as peas and beans) fix nitrogen from the air which makes them more productive. This bacteria is less active in cooler soils and, since sweet peas are always sown in the early spring when the soil is just this side of unfrozen, a little more of the Rhizobia will only be helpful.

The Brazilian verbena, however, is on its own.

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Can I Get A ‘Do-Over’?

Monday, April 16th, 2012

I had to take a hiatus from blogging – started a new job with a steep learning curve – but you didn’t miss much in my garden last season. Spring was cold and rainy so the mosquitoes were horrendous and the aphids prolific. I put in the garden about 6 weeks too late so the tomatoes didn’t ripen well before the first frost. The slugs chewed up every broad-leafed vegetable I planted because I just didn’t have time to constantly troll for them. And it wasn’t just the insects and diseases my plants had to contend with – they also had to compete with each other for space and nutrients. And when it’s a battle between the zucchini and the carrots, guess who’s going to win?! I have to say, though, it’s impressive what my poor little neglected garden was able to produce despite my absence and the horrible weather.

2011 Season...Yes, I know it looks lush but where's all the fruit?

2011 Season...Yes, I know it looks lush but where's all the fruit?

So, despite my threats to turn to plastic plant gardening, last year’s little successes have encouraged me to get back in the garden again (and, hopefully, back to blogging) because, as we all know, gardeners are an optimistic lot – and there are so many things I still haven’t tried growing yet like strawberries from seed…and Brazilian verbena…and tuberose…and black radishes…and purple carrots…and there are some interesting new/old lettuce varieties…

Square Foot Gardening

Sunday, February 7th, 2010

I wonder why it sometimes happens that a topic or thought I’ve been utilizing suddenly starts popping up in unrelated places?  Have you ever had this happen to you?

Last week I pulled out my copy of Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew while planning our 2010 potager.  A few days later, a woman in my knitting group, out of the blue, asked me whether I’d heard of the book and what I thought of it.  And a few days after that, I pick up a new magazine called Urban Farm, only to discover that there is an article on square foot gardening methods in it.  On the off chance I’m being told something, I thought I should post about what I think is a pretty fabulous method of growing food.

For those who aren’t familiar with this technique, square foot gardening is the process of planning and planting based on a square foot grid system.  It was created by Mel Bartholomew after observing gardeners in his community garden in the 70’s.  It seems that every gardener starts out with good intentions and high hopes in the spring (I know those emotions well) but very few remain diligent enough throughout the season to realize the dreams they had in the beginning; vacation plans, barbeques, cocktail parties, and lounging in the shade seeming to be more important than weeding, watering, staking, and harvesting.  So Mr. Bartholomew set about to create a system that, in his words, would “be so simple and easy that anyone can enjoy a weed-free garden all year and produce a continuous harvest” (Bartholomew, Square Foot Gardening 2). 

Basically, the growing space is gridded, typically into 4 ft. by 4 ft. beds, although you could set up a 4 ft. by however-long-you-want (2 feet is the maximum distance an average person can reach into the centre of the bed from either side), and that 4 ft. by 4 ft. bed is further gridded into 1 ft. square increments.  Those 1 ft. squares are then each planted with your vegetable/fruit/herb choice, except in the case of some larger plants that might require 2-1 ft squares.  This is a highly efficient system that makes succession planting and crop rotation a breeze and, because you plant tighter than you think you should, you get more food from a small amount of space.

If you’re a newbie gardener, this is the best ‘grow by numbers’ system I’ve encountered to date, since, in addition to garden plans for 1, 2, and 4 person households, the book does a lot of hand-holding and details exactly when to fertilize, how much to water, when to harvest, and even has suggestions on how to eat the fruits of your labor.  If you are apprehensive about where to start, have a small amount of growing space, and/or are only concerned about gardening efficiently, this is the book for you.

As an experienced gardener and designer, I use the book differently.  Already possessing numerous books on French kitchen gardens before Square Foot Gardening found it’s way onto my shelves, I’d been looking at why North American food gardens were always planted in rows (has to do with the size of the machinery typically used), and I’d been experimenting with other types of garden layouts and sizes (edible landscaping and permaculture systems being a couple of the easily identifiable ones).  But the design schemes those systems generated didn’t satisfy my formalist (okay, I admit it, control) aesthetic.  I had a typical small urban plot of land that needed to be efficiently yet beautifully (as I defined it for me) planted and, when I started reading this book, I realized that it lends itself wonderfully to my kitchen garden style – a potager where beds are bordered with basil and lettuces and edible flowers, and plants are arranged with an eye toward complementary and contrasting color and texture pairings.  My beds revolve around the 4 ft. by 4 ft. dimension although I sometimes make them longer when I want to accomplish a design attribute like, for example, a strong axis, or I’ll lop off  a corner (as I did last year) to make a wider path.  When I pull this book off my shelf – which I do every time I start planning the coming season’s garden – it’s to refresh my memory on the spacing of the plants and seeds, which I plant in each bed in squares or rows as the design dictates.

Spinach and bush beans - planted using the spacing from the Sqaure Foot Gardening book.

Spinach and bush beans - planted using the spacing from the Sqaure Foot Gardening book.

That’s my contribution to the square foot gardening zeitgeist.