Planting red set onions. Set onions (little bags of seed onions you’ll find at garden stores now) can be eaten at any size, and the greens can be eaten at any time too. They’ll never get as large as onions you grow from seed but they’ll do in a pinch.
I thought I would give a bit of a primer on garden-starting, considering that we’re starting our school gardens from scratch (and have great plans for them soon).
Whenever you start anything, of course, there’s a bit of an up-front investment you must make in time and materials. Before that first seed can sprout, some earth probably needs to be turned. In our school garden’s case, we had a working garden: it produced pie pumpkins most recently, so the whole garden was covered first with weed-suppressing fabric and then a layer of woodchips. To start our beds, we needed to build the beds (each bed required (2) 2″x8″x8′-0″ boards and (1) 2″x8″x6′-0″ boards cut in half), rake away the woodchips, cut the fabric away, and do a bit of weeding. Our soil at school is rather nice, but raised beds are nicer: they warm up/dry out earlier in spring, they’re easier to weed and water, and–probably most importantly–are off-limits to little running feet! We dumped some semi-composted sheep poop and bedding onto the bottoms of the beds, then we filled each bed with about 4-6 loads of topsoil.
(The above steps assume you have: 1. a saw, 2. a drill, 3. a rake, 4. a shovel, and 5. a wheelbarrow. Having access to sheep poop is a bonus, and topsoil is the dream but not reality for many gardens: raised beds do NOT need to be filled to the brim, especially not with topsoil. Do what you can with what you have. I certainly do!)
We expect to end the school year with a Harvest Festival sometime during the third week of May. Our last frost date here in chilly Michigan is somewhere between May 1st and May 15th: and yes, I am expecting a harvest of goodies 2 weeks later! Am I crazy? Nope. I am simply working with things that don’t mind the cold. Some of these things I am starting from seed both indoors at school and inside the semi-warm confines of our home greenhouses. Many of the seeds, though, are being planted in the beds now: peas, carrots, beets, radishes, turnips, potatoes, set onions, lettuces.
Lettuce seedlings can take a bit of frost, and the smaller they are, the hardier they are.
Our garden’s focus this semester is Asia. Fortunately for us, many Asian countries grow things that appreciate the coolness of a Michigan spring, and have a very short (under 40 days) growing season. I ordered a large portion of our seeds for things like mibuna, pak choi, flowering Chinese broccoli, Napa cabbage, chrysanthemum greens, daikon radishes, etc. from the esteemed Kitazawa Seed Company in California: they specialize in Asian goodies AND have both a fantastic selection and really wonderful literature supporting each seed variety. At $3.50 a seed packet they’re running nearly double what you’d find at a garden center of your local big-box retailer, but the seed quantities are generous AND you can’t expect to find Oka Hijiki (seaweed mustard) on a rack at Home De(s)pot. But say you’re not that interested in Asian vegetables. You can still easily start your garden now by planting many of the other things I listed. And don’t stop at the big-box stores for sourcing cheap seeds! Get out of the city and suburbs and find a feed store in the country. Most farmers still have kitchen gardens out back and it is at their local farm/feed store that they often get their seed potatoes, carrots, and beans. Most feed stores sell seeds out of a bin, cheaply: expect to pay 40-80 cents for more carrots than you could ever eat in a year.
Your gardens needn’t be (16) 3′x8′ raised beds to be productive. A family of four could easily do quite well in trimming their grocery bill with four raised beds of such size. The key to a great harvest, frankly, is constant production. If I were such a family of gardeners, I would use approximately 1/4-1/3 of one bed as a seeding bed (i.e., using it to start seeds and then move the leafy seedlings around to other beds as they get big); I might even place an old window on top of this area to heat things up and hurry things along. Most root crops (carrots, turnips, potatoes) like to stay where they’re planted, so having a seeding transfer bed mainly helps leafy greens. To save space, tomatoes and pole beans can be trellised, as can certain kinds of vining melons and squash; going vertical does save lots of precious growing area for other things. There are many great get-started-gardening books out there: I would recommend Square Foot Gardening or Ruth Stout’s method of Lasagna Gardening to get you thinking about both how to maximize a small garden and how to garden without breaking your back. My absolute favorite beginning-gardening book is Barbara Damrosch’s Garden Primer: she’s very approachable, and she covers more than just veggies. I also worship her husband Eliot Coleman and have used his Four-Season Harvest to get my own greenhouses up and running.
Get digging, everybody! Spring is here in half the world, fall in the other: both are great times of year to start new garden beds.