By Thea Steinmetz
Talk to any gardener right now and they will tell you they have never been more eager for spring to come. Even the nongardeners want to start digging and try and get their hands down into the soil. You don’t need a crystal ball to see the future and a rise in sales for seed packets within the next few months. With the ever-escalating increases at the gas pump, you may as well stay home more and spend some time growing your own vegetables.
Today’s message is that if you have even a small parcel of land, consider getting involved in one of the best hobbies ever. Only yesterday a young woman told me that she was not a gardener, but loved fresh beets and wanted to grow some. It seems a novel idea to cultivate a green thumb only to start growing beets. She grew even more enthusiastic when I told her that the leaves were a healthy addition to a salad. As a vegetarian, this convinced her that growing a few vegetables might be worth muddying her perfectly manicured hands.
Start small and avoid getting overwhelmed as a beginner. It is so much easier to plan and maintain an undersized space. With a minimum amount of effort you can reap maximum pleasure. Before you start digging up half your lawn, think about what you can reasonably expect from a first-time effort. This is the best time to head for your library and read as much on gardening as time allows. Libraries also have catalogs on hand that can be a vast source of information for a beginner. Use them carefully as a learning tool only. Remember, they are trying to sell you everything, so don’t get lulled into believing that you can do it all. Even now, after many years of coaxing wonderful things out of the earth, I use catalogs as an informative tool, not believing every appealing word printed on the pages. After reading the promises, I am a strong believer in buying locally. As mentioned before on these pages, importing plants from exotic locations does not translate well to Ohio growing conditions. Yes, we like our out-of-the-ordinary appealing plants, but that is for another story.
After exploring these wish books, settle on some basic information materials. Even if you resolve what vegetables you crave to harvest, allow for some flowers to bring joy to the space. We are still weeks away from activating our shovel skills, so use your planning time wisely. Realize that everything starts with the healthiest soil. Perhaps you would not think of healthy and soil in the same sentence, but it is important.
Early on, I did not realize that I would not be satisfied with the crop cultivated in heavy clay soil. In my eager but uninformed mind, I believed that adding sand would be the most advantages additive to lighten the clay. With the first heavy rain came the revelation that this combination can almost turn into cement.
Our bearded resident garden guru, Rich Bartsche of Cahoon Nursery, shares some basic soil musts with our readers. His cautionary tale is that any amount of trying to improve clay will take a minimum of three years, perhaps even five. His advice when establishing a new planting bed is to dig up the grass or use Roundup to kill it. Then – and this is crucial – elevate the soil level by at least 10 inches with a high-quality grade bagged soil mix. Using only regular topsoil will not be sufficient. Having your own compost helps, but new gardeners are not into composting when beginning this process.
To save time and effort and not be disappointed in the results, it pays to do it right from the beginning. As much as 95 percent of locations are not well-suited to start a successful garden, especially a vegetable garden. Without elevating the bed, there will always be an issue with drainage that leads to a lack of oxygen for the plants. Wet feet will not produce a strong and healthy root system. The acid in the clay is an additional handicap.
I hear frequently of these miraculous vegetable harvests some folks achieve. Then, when you probe how it came about, it always goes back to the soil. Elevated beds and plenty of compost are the secret. Lacking abundant compost, a good soil mix will have to do.
Books offer good suggestions on the proper location for a garden, but not many of us have the luxury of selecting the perfect site. We know that deep shade is not the right site for a productive vegetable, herb or flower garden. At least six hours of direct sunshine are needed for optimum results.
Having offered this cautionary tale, get going, but not too early. Seeds or plants are an option. Tomatoes, because of our short growing season, are best cultivated with plants. Early harvest is found enjoyable with seeds of spinach, lettuce, peas and a few more selections. Micro greens are high on my list to be seeded early.
Proper watering is a skill that needs to be discovered by first-time gardeners. Once a seed has sprouted, it should never dry out. With our uncertain weather, it is difficult to say how often one should water. Look at the plant, feel the soil, especially if we have several days without rain.
One of the best recommendations I can make is this: Never hesitate to ask questions. Ask friends, neighbors and relatives with good gardening skills how it is done. Established garden centers will offer help, but be weary of what you are told at big box stores. Their help might not be trained enough to disseminate correct information.
Good luck, and I would enjoy hearing your story.