Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Gardening For the Enthusiastic if Not-So-Green Thumb

Are you one of those avid, super organized gardeners that starts their planning in January, leafing through seed catalogues or sourcing out on line what to plant this year?  Me neither!  In fact, I don't get around to thinking about the garden until I can at least see it.  Buried under a mountain of snow from November to March (and this year most of April) stirs not a single iota of interest in the garden but, once visible, there is a definite itch earning to be scratched.  This year, it took forever for Spring to arrive; here it is, the middle of May and the ground is still on the chilly side. There are certain crops, such as carrots and peas, that don't mind a little cool weather and, let's face it, nothing will be poking through the soil for 10 - 20 days at any rate.

Some folks like to take a very scientific approach to gardening, measuring soil PH and adding nutrients accordingly. 
There are others that find the nearest load of rotted manure which not only come high in nutrients but in weeds.  I'm far to lazy for that.  Being in an area of hard clays has advantages and disadvantages.  I don't have to do any irrigation but, by the same token, I do occasionally add a bit of peat moss and have, for the last couple of years, composted everything in sight.  When we are cleaning up grass, leaves and debris, we take every bit of it and work it into the soil.  In our previous home,  we used grass clippings and straw for mulch, which not only cuts down on the weeding and the need for outdoor watering but eventually breaks down and fortifies the soil.

Throughout the summer, I dig trenches between the rows and bury all of my kitchen waste -- vegetable and fruit peelings, seeds, pits, and sometimes even the odd bits of paper products.  It doesn't take long for the leavings to disappear and you might even be surprised what grows from your compost.  Last year, I harvested a half dozen hills of potatoes, 30+ spaghetti squash and a tomato.  And this spring I found a half dozen green onions.   This fall, we purchased one of those large  rotating composting barrels and built it on a stand so that I can simply wheel my cart under it and dump the compost.  Considering the severity and the length of this past winter, it did amazingly well and I'm guessing it should be ready for the garden in early fall.  I try not to remove anything from the garden but the produce itself.  All the rest, such as carrot tops, onion peels, roots, etc. can be spread in a thin top layer to promote drying, after which it can be worked back into the soil.  It has taken a few years but our soil is finally beginning to show the results of our labour.  Not only are we getting some decent crops, the soil is much lighter, making it far easier to work in.

I only keep a few practical rules when it comes to laying out the garden.  First, run the rows north to south to make the best use of the sunshine and, second, put the tallest crops on the north end of the garden.  For ease of maintenance, place bush crops, such as beans and peas between two skinny rows, such as carrots, onions and radish.  Exactly how you plant your garden has much to do with personal preference and space.  My old aunt had a tiny garden plot in the city.  Every weed was hand picked and disposed of so that, after a few years, they had a virtually maintenance free garden.  Cauliflower and broccoli were carefully interspersed within rows of carrots and onions to maximize space.  I am much less organized and I like to mix things up a bit.  I love the look of rhubarb, with is massive veiny leaves planted in one of my shrub beds, along with a few daylilies.  I use chives and herbs as a border plantings.  

If you have the space, there is no better way to grow a garden than in the ground if for no other reason that it vastly reduces the amount of maintenance requirements but container gardening is getting more and more popular, especially if squeezed for space.  For most folks, that conjures up visions of multiple traditional plant pots and boxes but it doesn't have to be.  Last year, a friend recycled old livestock water troughs to create a raised bed garden. 

Some apartment dwellers have found creative ways to maximize space, using old shipping pallets.   While I haven't quite wrapped my head around how it all stays vertical, it certainly looks cool.  Another idea is to cut the bottoms off of pop bottles, and string them together along an old curtain rod.  Not only does this allow the container to drain, it's a smart use of water.

We often hear a lot about pest control but, honestly, I haven't found this to be problematic.  I keep an eye out for unhealthy leaves and when I see them, I remove them, not only from the plant but from the garden altogether.  The concept of companion planting is also part of the arsenal of natural pest control.  Marigolds garlic are my garden's best friends.  I also have a patch of raspberries and a couple of nanking cherry trees.  While I sometimes have to fight the birds for the fruit, I never fight the birds for the bugs. . . I'm thinking it's not a bad trade-off.

At the end of the day, while the garden is a bit of added work, it's also very satisfying work.  While I have no desire to become my mother, planting far and beyond anything we could possibly consume, spending copious hours in the kitchen canning and freezing, I am proud to say that our produce keeps us going well into the winter we finished off the last of those those volunteer spaghetti squash only a month or so ago.  Every year, I learn a wee bit more.  Last year's lessons was not to plant everything at once. . . all the peas and beans to pick at the same time was more than I wanted to do.  The big epiphany was recollecting that my mom always planted these at about 2 week intervals.  Smart woman! 

I'm off to throw in a few seeds.  If you have any tidbits of knowledge to share, I'm all ears!