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Spring is Coming! How to Plan Your Dream Garden

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Creating Your Dream Garden

A Garden PlanYou’ve browsed the seed catalogs and garden centers. Now is the time of year to roll up your sleeves, rake the debris out of your workspace, and figure out how to work with what you’ve got – what goes in the ground where, and when.

Consider your growing area. It should have as close to full sun as possible, with well-drained soil. Plan on at least 100 square feet of growing area for each person you plan to feed. And take into account any potential “visitors” to the area – children, pets, or creatures, and plan your defenses accordingly.

With many crops, it’s best to start with transplants. This can shorten the time to harvest by about one month, and especially in colder regions where the growing season is 100 days or less, crops like tomatoes or peppers won’t have time to fully mature if started from seed outside. Plus, if you are only planning on a few plants, buying a whole seed packet, though often cheap, can be sort of a waste. Some herbs like cilantro and dill should also be direct-seeded.

On the other hand, some crops don’t transplant well and are better started from seed, like root crops, beans, peas, corn, cucumbers, and squash. With salad greens, you can go through so many of them that it’s more cost-effective just to direct-seed them. Onions, garlic and shallots are usually planted from “sets,” tiny mature bulbs from the previous year.

Plan to rotate crops and crop families throughout the growing season and in successive years. Each crop takes different nutrients from the soil. For example, leafy greens absorb nitrogen, while legumes add it. The squash family, meanwhile, has much higher phosphorus needs than other crops. Alternating crops from different families also helps break up the varying pest and disease cycles that go with each. Some may be more persistent in the soil. Some tomato blights can stick around for a few years, so give your nightshades a particularly long rotation.

One good sequence for a section of your garden would be to start with legumes to build up the soil and add nitrogen, followed by leafy greens, which need a high nitrogen level, then crops from the tomato or squash family that need slightly less nitrogen, finished off by root crops and onions, which have the lowest fertility needs.

Rotating crops improves soil tilth, especially if you mix up shallow-rooted crops (like cabbage) and deep-rooted crops (like tomatoes). Different root structures and depths attack soil compaction in a variety of ways.

If the growing season is long enough, you should be able to get a spring, summer and fall crop from the same space.

Don’t grow horizontally what you can grow vertically. Viney crops like tomatoes, squash, and cucumbers, pole beans can be trained to trellises, stakes, cages or even a nearby fence, rather than sprawling over a large patch of ground. This can help maximize your space and increase your garden’s productivity.

Succession planting, sowing at 2-3 week intervals, can yield a continuous supply, and beans, corn, lettuce, turnips and beets are well-suited to this practice.

You can also enhance productivity by planning to interplant rows of early-maturing crops between rows of late-maturing crops. The quicker-growing crop can be harvested before its slower companions get too large. However, you need to plan carefully to avoid overcrowding, which can lead to poor air circulation and competition for water, nutrients and root space.

If you are concerned about the quality of your soil or it’s just badly suited to vegetable growing, try out raised beds. You can control the mix of soil that goes into them and concoct a superior blend to the native soil, usually with improved drainage, moisture retention and nutrient composition. Raised beds may also help you maximize space.

Raised beds are usually comprised of large amounts of topsoil and organic soil amendments. Loosen native soil to a depth of 6-10 inches, and add onto this about 5 inches of a mixture of 60 percent topsoil, 30 percent compost, and 10 percent soilless growing medium, ideally containing peat moss, pearlite and vermiculite. You can get over a foot of added growing depth from this combination of digging and adding soil mix, and the added mixture can be contained with small walls of boards, rocks, or chicken wire (or any other materials you may have on hand). If you can’t find a good source of topsoil, a 50-50 blend of soilless growing mix and compost can be used. Just make sure that peat moss makes up no more than 20 percent of any mix, since it’s extremely acidic.

Finally, make a to-scale sketch to plan out your space carefully. Note crops and amounts to plant, dates of planting and estimated harvest time, planting location and spacing between rows. Plan your space so that perennials get their own area, and tall crops get the north side of the garden so they will not shade low-growing crops. Rows should run north to south for optimal sun exposure and air circulation, and the area should be well buffered from strong or excessively hot or cold winds.

There are a plethora of interactive online garden-planning tools available, both free and for a small fee, and many help you along with planting and care guides. Take some time to experiment and find the planning technique that fits you best.

– Genevieve Slocum is a Contributor to The Free George.

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our new City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.

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