Vegetable Gardening 101: Planning and Planting

Planning should be the fun part of garden prep work and for most it is. For me it is so stressful, I want to plant it all and even with acres I just don’t have the time or space. Planning my gardens usually start shortly after fall harvest, but really isn’t necessary until January/February.

Start with the basics, what do you want to have in your garden, what will your family eat and use. Once you’ve got the list then I start mapping where I want everything for the first time. When your drawing your garden map thinking about companion garden is a tool. For example, growing rosemary or thyme by cabbage will help deter cabbage moths, tomatoes grow well next to carrots and basil ect.

Another thing to keep in mind is plant height. If your corn is planted in long rows on the edge of the east side of the garden they will shade everything from the morning sun, plants like peppers love all the sun they can get.

As we discussed previously in  “Pots, Plots and Spots” your vegetable gardens don’t need to be in long rows like they traditionally have been. Your can plant a square of beans, a row of radish and plot of corn. Of course you can always do rows too. Be sure to leave enough room for each plant as well as walk-ways. If you pack as much as you possibly can into a small space you can end up with a smaller yield than you think, because the plants don’t have enough space to grow as they could. If you plan you small space carefully and don’t over plant you will get a great yield from your small space. Having a little extra space makes harvesting easier too.

Once you have a general idea of what you would like, how much and where, it’s time to decide if you are buying plants in the spring, buying seeds to start indoors or seeds to direct sow.  Buying plants in the spring is good for things such as tomatoes, peppers, and other vegetables that need a longer growing season. Depending on your location you will be limited to a small variety of plants. Buying seeds to start indoors is what I do. This takes space that not everyone has, (my living room and part of the dining room turn into a green house for a few months every year).  Directly sowing the seeds in the spring is another options and is best for most plants that don’t transplant well, such as beans and root vegetables.

Seeds that will be started indoors should be ordered by March in the Midwest. (Mine come in January because by that time I’m ready for planting… makes for a long winter sometimes). Your seed packets will usually give you an approximate “weeks before last frost” date to plant.

When starting plants indoors you can plant them in anything that hold soil, and water yet drains well. Be sure to think about how long the seedling will be in the “pot” of your choice. You can make “pots” by folding news paper really easily, they are practically free and biodegradable so they can be set directly in the ground. If your seedling needs to be in the “pot” for more than a couple weeks, news paper probably wouldn’t be a great idea because it could start to break down. You can plant in egg cartons, milk cartons yogurt containers and more household items. Peat pots, peat pellets, and plastic containers like the greenhouses use are all available for purchase as well.

I’ve used egg cartons, they work ok. They are small, so the plants roots can get root bound quickly. The folded news paper pots work good for short term, after 4 weeks mine started to break down and mold together which was not good. This year I’m sticking with all plastic Dixie cups. I can use them multiple years and they aren’t going to break down.

Light is another thing to consider. Even though you have a great sunny window, it may not provide enough direct light to grow your plants. You may need to look a growing light. I use 4 foot florescent lights hung on chains so I can raise them as the plants grow.

Growing seedlings indoors can often result in weak, spindly plants. To give your plants a strong start placing a fan on low near them will create enough of a breeze to force them to “beef up” and be able to stand up to the wind outside when it’s time. Don’t allow the fan to blow on them directly, it will dry them out and isn’t necessary to have that much force. I did this one year, it worked good. I found that rather than a fan, lightly brushing the seedlings with my hand a couple times a day works just as well as a fan. It doesn’t use extra electricity and doesn’t dry them out either. Hey, I’m constantly staring at them anyway.

Finally spring is here! You’ve got your soil all ready to go and your standing on the edge of the garden, wearing your big floppy hat, obnoxious flowery apron, brightly colored mud boots, bucket of seeds in one hand and hoe in the other… No? I can’t be the only one looking like this come spring. Well it’s time to start marking your rows and plots. I like to use my rake head as a measure, wood steaks and string to mark my lines in the smaller beds. This year I will be making what could be called a giant rake like my dad used to use. I can’t describe it so see the poor sketch below.


Using the rake north/south and east/west will give me 1 foot squares to match the map I drew.

Now, you probably won’t be planting everything the same day unless spring is very late. Cold weather crops usually go in first, roots and brassica family are good examples. Warm weather seeds should be sown once the ground has warmed. Most seeds prefer to germinate once the soil temperature averages 70 degrees. The seedlings you started indoors should be slowly adjusted to the outdoors.  Set them outside during the warmest time of day for a few hours. Each day increase the time spent outside. Hot sun can burn the young leaves and too cold can cause them to slow their growth considerably. Once the plants are well adjusted to the outdoors you can safely plant them in the garden too.

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Vegetable Gardening 101: Seeds – Hybrid and Heirloom


There are both advantages and disadvantages with heirloom and hybrid seeds. Personally I only use heirloom seeds. I will explore a few of the basic differences between the two.

Heirloom seeds are open pollenated which means the seeds can be saved. The saved seeds, when replanted will produce the same plant that they were collected from. Thus saving you lots of money every year if you decide to save your own seeds! Hybrid seeds are pollenated by “man” (this is a rather complicated process the link below explains it better than I can). You can save the seeds from hybrid plant, however the plant that may or may not grow from it will most certainly not have all the characteristics of the plant the seeds were harvested from. Some hybrid plants are bred to produce sterile seeds, forcing the consumer to buy new seed every year.

Heirloom seeds have survived the test of time, if you are able to do the research a lot of them have great stories telling how they made it to the U.S.. Hybrids, well, test tubes and labs just aren’t a great story to me.

With our dependence on grocery stores to obtain our fresh fruits and vegetables hybrids were developed to fit the bill. Hybrids are bred to grow produce that can be picked well before its ripe, stored for long term and gassed to ripen, then shipped. Produce picked before it’s ripe will be short a great deal of nutrition. Hybrids, even vine ripened, are lacking flavor and nutrition that it’s heirloom counterparts can offer.

The variety that heirlooms offer is AMAZING!! Tomatoes are often the first thing that comes to mind for people when they hear “heirloom”  and they are a great example. How many hybrid tomatoes do you find in any other color than red? Have you ever tried a black tomato? or yellow? or fire (yellow and red striped)? or green even when it’s ripe? Of those colors there are a ton of different varieties! Now look into peppers, potatoes, beans, onions and every other vegetable you want to plant. I now have to limit myself to 5 varieties of carrots- Cosmic Purple, Atomic Red, Danver 126 Half Long, Amarillo, and Lunar Whites. My kid will probly be the only one in his class telling the teacher carrots are purple!

Depending on your garden harvesting and storage methods having all your tomatoes ripen at once, as most hybrids do, could be a blessing or a curse. Heirlooms tend to ripen at different intervals, making it more manageable to can, dehydrate or process to freeze the harvest. Canning a bushel of beans a couple times is less exhausting than canning all six bushels in a day or two. Most hybrids were developed to ripen at the same time for commercial growers.

Uniformity is another difference between hybrids and heirlooms. Hybrids are made to produce uniform shape, and size, for ease of shipping and sale. Heirlooms will come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. This adds to the appeal of the heirloom as far as I’m concerned.

I used to think growing heirlooms took something special. Certain conditions in the soil, weather and who knows what else. I soon found this to be far from true, in fact growing heirlooms is just as easy if not easier than growing hybrids. They key to growing heirlooms is the same with any seed, it’s just a matter of finding the variety that grows well in your growing zone. There are a couple ways to do this; ask neighbor gardeners if they save seeds and they would be willing to share. Another way takes a little more work, research the origin of the variety you are wanting to grow. If it originated in the tropics and you are having a hard time getting it to produce in the Midwest you may need to rethink things; maybe a greenhouse or look into a different variety. Experiment with different varieties to see what you like best and will produce well for you.

This link has an easy to understand explanation of how hybrid are “made”.

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Vegetable Gardening 101: Pots, Plots and Spots


This article wasn’t a part of my original plan because it’s such a broad topic; but we chewed a pebble off a bolder when we talked about Soil so I will attempt to do the same here.

There are a lot of factors that can contribute to what you grow your plants in, everything from space to work with, physical ability, time or growing season just to name a few. Cold frames, low tunnels, high tunnels, greenhouses, raised bed, pots, vertical gardens and row gardens are all wonderful ways to grow

Cold frames tend to be structures low to the ground and usually made of more permanent materials, such as wood frames and glass tops. The are great for extending your growing season earlier in the spring, longer into the fall and in some locations through the winter. Plants are grown directly into the ground beneath. They work like a mini greenhouse; the sun heats the air and ground in the frame. These are great for cool weather crops such as broccoli, radishes, and beets.

Low tunnels are usually built low to the ground using a series of half hoops covered with a greenhouse grade plastic sheeting. The sheeting allows for the side to be tied up during warmer days for air flow, and watering, and can be put down for frost expected nights. Planting is done directly in the ground. These are also great for extending your growing season. In the north, they are great for growing peppers and other heat loving plants when the sheeting is left down through out the day.

High tunnels  have the same basic design and principal as the low tunnel with the difference being the height. Go figure, right. High tunnels are made tall enough for someone to walk in and tend the plants. Again the planting is done directly in the ground.

Greenhouses come in a wide variety of sizes and shapes. The basic concept of all are about the same. Plants are grown in containers or pots. (not always the case but generally).Greenhouse frames can be constructed from wood or metal (metal would be  more costly but much longer lasting with humid air). The side and roof have many options too, most popular are plastic sheeting, glass, Plexiglass or hard plastic sheeting. These too are great for extending the growing season. Depending on how well your greenhouse retains heat from the sun this could extend your growing well into cold temperatures.

Raised beds are beds or small garden plots that are framed usually by wood (railroad ties work well) or short stone walls. The frame can be lined on the bottom with a garden fabric that allows drainage and keeps weeds at bay. This is optional but if you do line it don’t forget to make sure it drains; you’re not building a pool here.  Then fill the frame to the top with good soil and or compost. Raised beds are a great way to conserve water because you will only be watering what you need. They are also great for those who hate weeding. I’m not saying you won’t have your fair share but done correctly there should be considerably less. I’ve had great luck with root vegetables in raised beds because the soil doesn’t get compacted nearly as much as in my traditional garden. I haven’t seen anything that doesn’t do well in here though.

Some people like to build their raised beds with a low tunnel over them. Another great growing option.

Pots and Containers are pretty self explanatory. A pot or container filled with potting soil (see “Soil” for the difference), then planted. These are great for anywhere! Windows, balconies, patios, even in the garden. With the wide variety of colors, shapes and sizes they add to the visual appeal.

Vertical Gardens another rather obvious title. These are garden the are grown vertically, whether its a pallet stood on it’s side and plants growing out between the boards, a tower of pots or all climbing plants. The space the occupy is up.

Traditional or Row Gardens these are the classic plants in the ground vegetables traditionally in neat rows and flowers amongst each other in beds about the yard. Maybe fenced or lined with field rock or maybe just soil to grass. Things were planted in rows because they were easy to tend as everything was quite accessible but also easy to cultivate using animals (horses, cows). The orderly rows are still a classic but now that most are not using animals we are seeing more and more “plots” in these traditional gardens; a square of green beans, a rectangle of spinach and patches of flowers throughout.

This is just a very basic explanation of the most popular garden types. All have more variations and can be used together in any combination. Feel free to get creative and make the most of your growing season!

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Vegetable Gardening 101: Compost and Organic Matter


Composting is purposely causing organic materials to rot, break down and turn into rich soil. You can collect your composting materials in a bin or just pile it some where not in your yard if you can help it. I keep mine in bins, my dogs (and raccoons) love compost materials and would have it spread all over the yard.

Compost bins can be very simple or very elaborate. I like to keep things simple. Mine is a wood frame with chicken wire mesh on the sides. You can use an old garbage can or barrel with holes drilled in the sides. You want air flow and water to  have access both in and out.

Once you’ve got your bin or pile site, just start adding your composting materials:
+lawn clippings (if there’s no seed, you don’t want to put grass seed in your garden)+leaves
+fruit and vegetable scraps
+coffee grounds and filters, tea bags too,
+egg shells
+wood ash (be careful with wood ash. We talked in “Soil” about how it will change the pH),
+plain cardboard, news paper (not the glossy print)
+manure (Chicken, Goat, Cow, Horse)

There is a difference between organic materials rotting to break down and organic materials turning rancid, then rotting and breaking down; because of this DO NOT add this:
-Meat of any kind
-Fats of any kind
-Diary of any kind (empty egg shells are ok)
-Vegetables or Fruit cook with fat or meat
-Cats and Dogs don’t produce manure, so don’t add “that”
-Glossy print paper
– The weeds you just pulled from the garden (do you really want them to come back with a vengeance?)

Now there is an exact science to composting but lets not over complicate it. You want your pile to be damp, not a sloppy mess and not bone dry. Give it a flip stir every month or so if you can and you will have compost in no time!

If you plan to use manure on your garden, do, it’s great stuff! There’s just one big thing with manure, it should sit for at least 6 months, a year is better. Following the cow around with your shovel, then throwing it in the garden immediately after will burn your plants and they will not fair so well.

Green manure is another great option. It works great for large plots, it may be more work than it’s worth for small ones but it will work. Green manure is planting a cover crop, usually alfalfa, oats, rye, or barley. Allow the crop to grow to almost full maturity, you don’t want it to go to seed. Cut the crop and leave it lay. After a few days, plow or till the crop under and allow it to turn to compost.

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Vegetable Gardening 101: Soil

Soil Sketch

There are a few essentials when it comes to growing vegetables, or any plants for that matter. Soil has many jobs in the life of a plant, holding nutrients, retaining just the right amount of water and supporting the plants by stabilizing the roots to name a few.

Soil is alive with all sorts of organisms. The four main organisms found is soil are as follows:
The Soil Crust- These guys live on the top the soil and are formed by living organisms and their by-products, creating a crust of soil particles bound together by organic materials. There are two types of crust, biological (what I just explained) and chemical/physical. Chemical/Physical which is an inorganic crust such as a salt crust or platy crust usually formed by trampling.
Nematodes- Earth worms! These are great little guys chow down on bacteria, fungi, and plants. Their “by-product” making excellent fertilizer. Their worm holes help to keep the soil from getting too compacted. They multiply when carbon is added to the soil, this happens from adding mulch, compost or growing a cover crop.
Bacteria- The presence of good bacteria keeps pests down, prevents plant disease and breaks down both living and non living matter into nutrients for growing plants. The benefits of good bacteria are endless.
Mycorrhiza- These are a fungi type organism who’s job is to help plants extract nutrients from the soil. They do this by growing into composting plants and animal stuff and convey their nutrients back to the plants roots.

Different types of soil are classified by the size of the particles that make them up. The goal type is “Loam” . Loam is neither too sandy or too clayey. This soil drains well but retains just the right amount of moisture. This type of soil can be achieved no matter where you live, it just takes time and lots of organic matter. Adding organic matter, every year between crops will improve your soil and in a few years you will have wonderful healthy soil. This is very important because soil feeds your plants and the plants feed you. Growing vegetables in nutrient void soil will result in nutrient void vegetables. You can purchase soil tests that will tell you if you soil is low on any of the main plant growing nutrients Phosphorus (P), Nitrogen (N) and Potassium (K) as well as the pH.

pH refers to the acidity and alkalinity of your soil. A good pH contributes greatly to a good harvest. If you don’t want to buy a pH test you can test your soil by taking 2 empty mason jars, fill each half way with soil and fill to the top with water. Shake to get everything well mixed. To one jar add a few tablespoons of baking soda, if this fizzes your soil is more acidic. To the other jar add a few tablespoons of distilled vinegar, if this fizzes your soil is more alkaline. If neither fizzes your soil is pretty well balanced. Adding some wood ash to your acidic soil will help to balance it.

Chemical fertilizer is usually a combination of P, K, N. It is water soluble, thus making a quick snack for plants. However, using chemical fertilizer over time will cause more harm than good. They tend to kill most soil organisms that produce plant nutrients naturally. Even though they are getting the three basic nutrients plants and humans need many different micro nutrients that are not available in a chemically fertilized soil. The chemical fertilizer, being water soluble washes away quickly and adds to ground water pollution as well.

Nitrogen is used by plants to build healthy stems and leaves. Plants lacking nitrogen will grow very slowly and be rather yellow-ish in color. Nitrogen is usually the first nutrient to leave the soil especially when crops like broccoli, cabbage and other brassicas as well as corn, are planted.

Phosphorus is needed for plants to grow a healthy root system and flower. This nutrient stays with the soil much longer than nitrogen and can be found in wood ashes as well as other sources.

Potassium is used by plants to resist disease, develop chlorophyll which allows them to convert sunshine to food, and strengthen their tissue. This too can be found in wood ashes as well as other sources.

Some plants use more of some nutrients and less of others by adding good organic matter and rotating your crops will ensure your soil to maintain it’s health and in time improve. Legumes could be considered  a bonus crop because most vaierties put more nutrition into the soil than they take out.

Weeds are another way of telling what’s going on with your soil. The weeds that show up in your garden can indicate the pH of your soil, how well your soil drains, if you have sandy or heavy soil, hard crusted or chemical/physical crust. Different weed prefer different soils.

So far we’ve talked a lot about soil types and soil nutrition, but lets say you live downtown and the closest thing to soil you see is what is in the pots of your house plants. Potting soil is a mixture of peat, humus and organic matter, in quantities that allow for good plant nutrition and drainage. Why people throw out their potting soil at the end of the season is beyond me! Adding some compost, compost tea or organic fertilizer is all it could be lacking. Plants with adequate water and nutrition will very rarely need repotting or get root bound. Plants send out roots for water and nutrients if what they need is readily available there is no need to go any farther.

A good rule of  thumb is healthy soil looks a lot like chocolate cake crumbs. Soil that is growing healthy looking plants (even if it just grass) is probably pretty healthy soil and with a little organic matter can produce some amazing vegetables.

I could go on forever about soil, but if I haven’t lost you already I would soon. This was just a brief overview of a very large subject. If you have specific questions I would be happy to do my best to answer them.

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