On starting new gardens

3408013991_7a179fc0e5Planting 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.

3408764690_5723b3109eLettuce 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.

20 responses to “On starting new gardens

  1. El, we all need to get involved in a school garden somewhere. They may be our ultimate salvation.

  2. Excellent! I’m just about to start a new garden, so it’s always nice to see how someone else does it.

  3. I have enjoyed and use the same books you just wrote about. I also use Rob Proctors books, since he writes for Colorado in lots of his.


  4. Thanks so much for the good advice–this is very, very helpful.

  5. You have a wonderful blog. I love the progress of your lettuce in the raised beds. THANK YOU FOR SHARING your hard work. I have your blog on the top of my favorite list!
    Happy Spring!

  6. I enjoy buying the basics from the feed store. I have two favorite feed stores -one I have to avoid at this time of year, because they offer a buffet of peeps. I could easily drive home with many more than my neighbors would appreciate. The other is a bit safer, except that they know me well, and if they happen to have a few chicks, they mention that if I don’t adopt them, they will likely end up in someone’s stew. I often shop with a chaperone and never with my gardening child.

  7. Great advice, especially about leaving part of the space open all the time as a seed home, ready to be moved around. I am starting to transplant out now, so that is something I’ll be sure to do. And of course, I’m taking lots of notes on the childrens garden!

  8. Pingback: Welcome, People Readers | The Slow Cook

  9. I love this post and your pictures! Last week my husband built me a 4×12 raised bed of cedar. I spent the morning today filling it, and I plan to put in some seeds tomorrow: spinach, snap peas, onion sets, and turnips.

    Can we really put in potatoes right now in SW Michigan? I have two trash cans that are going to be repurposed for growing potatoes – one for russet and one for red. I thought I read somewhere we have to wait until after the last frost to put in potatoes – but I am probably mistaken.

  10. OH! And would you mind sharing which feed stores you like to shop at for us local folks? The only one I know of is Tractor Supply and I have a feeling that’s not the one you are talking about.

  11. Wow…you truly do learn something new every day. I’m a huge Eliot Coleman fan as well, and had no clue that he and Barbara Damrosch even knew each other, let alone married to each other! Time to crawl out from whatever rock I’ve been sleeping under!

  12. You’ve convinced me to do a small garden again this year! I had tucked beans, zucchini, a tomato or two and some Swiss chard in amongst my flowers last year and it was a big success, but I was having doubts about doing it again until I read your post. Gonna try those Shallots, for sure – does it work with sprouted garlic, too? I live in northern California.

  13. All great advice, El. Hope we get many people to start food gardening – and keep at it. And the younger they start, the longer they are likely to keep at it. So , yeah for school gardens.

    and OMG, it’s lovely soil you’ve got in there!

  14. I also meant to thank Thank You for the link the Kitazawa Seed Company. And heartily second all your books recommendation.

  15. I’m inspired by your cool shoes and red socks. Do you usually garden in such stylish rags? I’m impressed.

    I also think it’s cool that Asia is a gardening focus… It’s funny how kids who hate vegetables *love* them when they’re served in clean, fresh ways as in many Asian dishes.

    (I’ve missed you. I’m surfacing again after a hard winter. I celebrate the life in your heart and in your garden. Carry on!.)

    ps: Kitazawa Seed Company claims a big space in my garden, too.

  16. Ed, so true. Plus, children have so much to teach us!!

    Taylor, congratulations! I think you will learn so much especially from your CSA friends: that’ll shave a good 4 years off the learning curve.

    Linda, I think it’s entirely appropriate to seek out local writers, especially if you live in someplace somewhat arid like Colorado. It makes sense and helps you avoid some mistakes.

    Susannah, hi! Anything to help a Minnesota gardener 🙂

    Bren, happy spring right back at you! Doesn’t it feel like it’s 2 months overdue after this winter? I am glad you like the work I do; it doesn’t seem like much work though if you love it so much, you know?

    Pamela, yes, the feed stores really don’t budge much beyond the basics but for most folks not interested in seaweed mustard that is just fine. Oh and I know exactly what you mean: goodness, we picked up two more Bantam chicks at the feed store on Thursday. Small child dancing excitedly from foot to foot in front of the watering tubs where the 100s of chicks peeped and scratched…

    MC, how great you can go and plant out now! Yay.

    Hi Jen! How great. Repurposing those trash cans sounds like a great idea but our love of potatoes would mean we’d need a fleet of them 😉 Nope; not too early, except if you have nasty clay soil like me (where I worry that lots of rain plus the cold will encourage rot more than sprouts). They can handle a bit of frost and it’s even okay if the leaves get frost-killed. Now are you in South Haven, or are you still in Kzoo? I know there’s an elevator (grain) in Bangor that sells feed. One of the best feed stores around is in Lawrence: Southwest Michigan Feed; that place is lots of fun. But the thing of it is, you shouldn’t need to drive too far around here to find a feed store. I go to the fruit exchange in Watervliet for seed potatoes. If you google “feed stores south haven mi” all kinds of results turn up that will lead you to Bloomington or Holland so just get in the car and go on an adventure!

    Blaithin, no rock; I don’t think they make it terribly obvious that they’re married to each other; they don’t mention names in the two books I listed. What a match though. I would be afraid to go near the veg garden if I was married to such a person though.

    Hiya Zoomie! I have used sprouted garlic before: I got lots of little sprouts from it and kind of let it naturalize in the corner of a bed: I would just pull the cloves up at will for a green garlic treat (because you never can have enough garlic you know). Anyway, I think vegetables are enormously pretty and work quite well in beds with flowers and the like. The upside to using veggies of course is (besides eating them) they’re annuals so if they’re less than pleasing you don’t have to put them there next season. Glad to hear you’re giving it a try: with your climate you can probably go nuts!

    Sylvie, isn’t it nice soil? Kinda clay-ey but certainly nice and dark and crumbly. I hope we do convince a few folks to give veggies a try. Goodness knows their tastebuds should direct them to gardening quicker than anything you or I can say…but sometimes it helps to have a push in the right direction, don’t you think? And you are being so thorough too! But yes Kitazawa does make living in the boonies a bit easier to stomach: I am two hours from the nearest Chinatown and 1 hour from the nearest Indian or Japanese restaurant.

    Hi Cathy! But no, I wouldn’t garden in such finery, that’s my friend Michele. What a winter you have had: I am sure you are just as eager for spring as I am. Spring though is a time of renewal so hopefully your garden heals and grows great things this season. And I am glad to hear you love Kitazawa too: aren’t they great?

  17. sometimes isn’t it easier to buy seedlings instead of growing them from seed.

  18. hkki, Yes, and it is easier to order take-out too.

  19. Do you think I could plant my white onion sets outside in a pot at this time of year? you don’t think the cold will bother them in a pot do you?

  20. Hi Lindsay. Yes, you can, without a problem. They just really want to grow! Don’t crowd the pot too much: take the advice on the package and plant them about that distance from each other. Otherwise you could just use them as greens and skinny onions.

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