Sightings of tomato plants on store shelves a month ago looked tempting, and no doubt triggered dreams of a new vegetable garden in the backyard. Now, with the cold and wet of March behind us, the time for dreaming is over and the time for action is now.
“It is amazing what you can grow off a small amount of land,” said Dustin Adcock, local foods specialist for the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service. For a city or suburban gardener – and especially one with limited time and experience – even a small plot 4 by 4 feet or 4 by 8 feet yields good results, adds Henry Owen, program director of Friendship Gardens, a network of 42 community gardens in the Charlotte area.
Last year, Friendship Gardens had 30 sites and produced about 10,000 pounds of vegetables for the meals-on-wheels service called Friendship Trays.
“We suggest gardeners start small, with fewer varieties ... and planting what you like to eat,” says Owen.
Make a plan that works for you
Starting small brings many benefits, these experts say. A modest garden is easier to prepare with the best soil possible and easier to tend, especially through the hottest weeks of midsummer, when weeding is miserable.
And nothing turns people away from gardening more than failing because they’re overwhelmed.
As skills build with success, says Owen, there is a desire to learn more, expand the palette of crops over time and venture into other seasons that offer more varieties.
With a small raised bed, says Adcock, you can focus on the priority of getting the soil right. He stresses the importance of a good soil test done through county offices of the Cooperative Extension Service.
This will aid in getting the fertilizer right as well as adjusting the acid-alkaline balance called pH. The goal is a reading of 6.5, which is slightly acidic.
“Make the soil as good as you can,” he advises. “You will never go wrong with organic matter.” This includes finished compost and decomposed mulch, both of which will loosen up tight Piedmont clay soil to make it porous, spongier and to help retain moisture without staying soggy.
The general rule is to put 2 to 3 inches of organic matter on top of the bed. then work it in.
“It is important for people to remember red clay is a good soil that holds nutrients,” says Adcock. However, walking on it is not good because that tightens it up even more.
For these reasons, small, raised, enclosed beds, about 6 inches high, make an excellent place to grow vegetables because you can tend it without stepping on the prepared soil.
That is why 4 feet is often the recommended width of a raised bed, with the length chosen to suit the ability and interest of the gardener. For example, Owen says, this year’s 4-by-4-foot garden may expand to 4 by 8 in a year or two.
Be patient, timing is all
When it comes to spring planting, “People tend to jump the gun,” Adcock says. “And you would be amazed at how many people do.”
Beautiful early spring days are very tempting to gardeners to set out hot-weather crops such as tomatoes and peppers. And so even though the air seems warm for a few hours in the afternoon, the soil remains cold well into April.
Tomatoes and peppers set into the cold ground, he says, go into a protective mode and simply don’t grow well until the soil warms up in late April or early May.
That is why Adcock believes around May 1 is an excellent starting date for summer crops such as tomatoes, peppers, squashes, cucumbers, and melons to be set out as young transplants.
Seeds of such crops as green beans, squash, cucumbers and melons can go in the ground a bit earlier because cool soil will not inhibit seed germination and earliest growth of seedlings.
“Just be realistic about what you can plant and know that it is better to have six tomato plants that you grow well than 48 you cannot take care of,” he says.
Diversifying the crop palette is something both Owen and Adcock advocate. “Try to grow a meal,” says Adcock, with tomatoes and small plantings of beans, squash, peppers, melons and even less well-known crops such as Swiss chard and New Zealand spinach. This makes gardening more interesting, which itself encourages success.
Adcock thinks it’s more efficient and effective to spend 10 minutes or so a day looking over a raised bed for problems such as weeds and insects, rather than spending hours at a time.
Starting small also means your equipment needs are fewer. Owen advocates use of rain barrels but believes the beginning gardener should focus on soil improvement and basic skills such as the use of an inexpensive watering can. As skill and interests expand, gardeners may expand their array of equipment or stick with such basics as a hoe, spade, trowel and watering can.
“There are always things you will be learning,” says Owen. “You want to grow yourself as a gardener grow your ability.”
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