Early spring is a wonderful time to plan and prepare to grow your own food! Our vegetable garden expert, Dan Alexander, discusses how to prepare the soil, choose plant combinations, design tips, and troubleshoot to get your garden ready.
Webinar Outline: Planning Your Spring Vegetable Garden
Resources: sfbaygardening.com, Pam Pierce, Golden Gate Gardening
Square Foot Gardening
Dan Alexander, on staff at Sloat Garden Center on Miller Avenue in Mill Valley
Webinar Shopping List:
- Sloat Organic Compost
- Chicken Manure
- Steer Manure
- Loam Builder
- Tomato/Veg fertilizer
- Cultivating fork
- Steel rakes
- Sloat Organic Potting Soil
- Seed Starter Mix
- Cow Pots
Welcome everyone and thank you for your participation in this webinar about planning your spring vegetable garden This is part of Sloat’s series of webinars on garden topics of general interest. The next webinar will be March 6 on the topic of waterwise gardening, which may be particularly pertinent this year.
Today we’ll talk about planning your space, preparing the soil, planting with starts or seeds, when to plant various crops and a few bits of this and that as they come to mind. This will be an overview and of course, any bit of the topic could be broken down and discussed for hours. Here’s a bit of old guy wisdom that I hope will be helpful. Gardening and cooking make good analogies for each other. When starting out, a cookbook and following a recipe can be very helpful. But with time and a little experience one may obtain better results and more satisfaction by using the recipe as a guide while adding and subtracting depending on one’s own style, techniques and tastes. So with gardening, recipes abound, but each gardener has their own “terroir” and may adapt the recipes to their circumstances. Success can include failures; trial error is our friend.
Planning your space
Start small, have success, then expand your farm empire.
How small? A 3 to 4 foot square or diameter plot is perfect. That is about 12 to 16 square feet. You can reach every part of the garden easily and there is enough room to grow 2 or 3 different crops. A raised bed or pot 11 inches deep will suffice for most vegetables. Exceptions include tomatoes, zucchini, potatoes and artichokes which need more depth. Among the easier and satisfying crops are lettuces and kale. Fresh picked leaves of a variety of lettuces of different styles and colors with a few fresh arugula leaves added, make a much more interesting salad than does a head of even really good romaine from the market. Most lettuce growers pick leaves as the head grows and never pick a head. Exceptions might be the relatively new Salanova lettuces that make a whole head of baby lettuces at once. The easiest vegetables to grow from seed are radishes. The seeds are relatively large, sprout readily, and are generally ready to eat within a month.
I used to recommend that Root crops such as carrots, radishes, turnips and onions be started from seed in place in the garden for fear of breaking the roots when transplanting. Now they are often sold in six packs with many sprouts in each section of the six pack. It can seem impossible to separate and plant. Here’s the trick: put the entire six pack in a bowl or bucket of water for a while, swish it around until the individual sprouts separate, then transfer them to a planting hole about twice their depth. You don’t want to break the root on carrots or you’ll end up with deformed roots that break when you pull them out of the ground.
What Kind of Soil?
If using a container or a raised bed then use pre-mixed potting soil with a little added fertilizer for the first crops. Trying to make your own potting soil will likely lead to a mix that becomes too compact and drains poorly over time. A well engineered potting soil contains particles of different sizes, some of which absorb moisture, some that mainly improve drainage and some that provide nutrition. Bagged potting soils are “soiless” mixes that contain no mineral soil, but different kinds of organic matter, sand and rock and often organic fertilizer elements like bat guano or kelp meal.
Your soil in the ground at home may be native soil, or may have been imported at the time the house or area was developed or sometime later, or a combination of types. Areas built up behind retaining walls may contain soils of unknown origin. I have a garden bed behind a retaining wall that seems to have been filled with construction debris including concrete and old drywall scraps. I have added some purchased soil but have seen a number of shrubs die when their roots get below the added soil. Trial and error are allowing me to know what will grow well.
When refreshing the pot or bed, add compost and chicken or steer manure in the ratio of 1 part manure to 3 parts compost. Add about 1 to 2 inches of the compost/manure mix and mix it in thoroughly. Also add some more fertilizer.
If planting in the ground, first remove weeds and any large rocks. How to remove the weeds will depend on the weed, but if you give it a tug and it resists much, then it probably has a tap root that looks a bit like a carrot, and you want to get that out intact if possible, or the weed will just grow back from the root. There are many methods to prepare soil, but here’s what you are trying to accomplish: decompaction, added organic matter to improve texture, added fertilizer for fertility, aeration, weed control.
Soil Prep Tools: Shovel, turning fork, steel rake, hoe, trowel.
The shovel is for the first turning of soil that hasn’t been gardened previously. Compacted soil is turned to allow it to be made more friable. “Double digging” means removing the first shovel depth of soil and digging the second layer, adding organic matter, then replacing the first layer and adding organic matter to it. Although undoubtedly beneficial, double digging is not vital and I do not recommend it for beginning gardeners, many of whom may be repelled by the amount of effort needed.
Once the first shovel-full is turned in the area, it is time for the turning fork. It is usually 4-tined and tines are flat, it is not a pitch fork with long sharp tines used to throw hay around a barn. The turning fork works wonders for breaking up the dirt clods, much better than the shovel. But you can’t turn the compacted, hard earth with the fork, that is the job for the shovel.
Once the clods are fairly broken down, spread 1 to inches of the compost/manure mix on top, sprinkle about 4 big handfuls of fertilizer for each 4 x 4 foot area and 4 handfuls of either kelp meal or Azomite for trace minerals, and turn that all in with the fork. Then smooth the top out nice and even with the steel rake which is also a helpful tool for breaking down the last large clods.
If you are sowing seeds, plan out your areas. You are not using a farm tractor or a team of oxen, so no need for long rows. Think in square foot areas and if helpful mark off one square foot areas using string. See the Square Foot Gardening book. You can fit a lot more into your garden if you think of it as a series of squares. Some crops, like radishes and carrots and onions, will have many plants in each square foot. Larger plants like broccoli might need a square foot each. Peas, cucumbers and beans can climb up a support at the back of the bed or on a tepee made of stakes. Squash or melons can wander about between the other plants.
What Can I Plant When?
Early spring crops when the nights are cold and days are under 60 degrees (February and March)
- Cabbage family crops
- Carrot family crops
- Woody herbs
- Arugula, arugula arugula
- Peas, edible podded and shelling
- Parsley and Cilantro
When can I grow tomatoes?
I recommend buying your tomato plants relatively early in the season but not planting them in the ground immediately. Buying early means you will have the best selection of variety at reasonable prices, and the plants will be fresh. But the ground is too cold for the tomatoes to thrive. The solution is to plant them into slightly larger containers, keep them a bit sheltered, and then plant them out in about a month when it’s warmer. Most tomato plants at nurseries will be in 3.5” or 4” pots early in the season. I like to plant those up into 1-gallon pots. In the pots the roots can warm up and the plants will put on good growth until they go into the ground as toddlers, not infants. By mid April you can plant out the tomatoes into the ground.
When can I grow peppers, eggplant, melons, squash?
These vegetables all need even more heat than the Tomatoes. The end of April is good guideline for planting them in the ground. In containers or raised beds you can cheat a couple of weeks if the weather has been good.
When can I grow basil?
Basil can be very disappointing if the weather is too cold or damp. The plants are susceptible to various fungal and bacterial attacks at the soil line. So be patient and you will have lots of basil all through the summer. If you have the taste for basil that has more of the camphor component, kind of like Thai basil, then there are perennial basils that can handle more cold (but not freezing). They have names like Magic Mountain.
Meso America is of course famous for the Three Sisters, maize, squash and beans that have been grown together for eons. The beans, being legumes, have the ability to take nitrogen from the air and fix it in the soil, and as a result, share the nitrogen with the other plants. The beans use the maize stalks to climb up. The squash covers the soil under the maize and beans, shading it. At harvest, the foliage of the maize stalks, bean and squash vines are returned to the soil. I have to admit I have not spent a lot of energy on companion planting. There is a lot of information available about companion planting, much anecdotal, some has been tested in a more rigorous way, including advice on which plants like to be together and which don’t. My father always said avoid planting watermelons and pumpkins together or you’ll get punkermelons.