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Fall and Winter is a great time to start gardening. Waiting ’til Spring will be too late to have a terrific first-time garden. At that time there are too many pressures, so relax and get started now, slowly.
Here are a few easy steps that involve some dreaming, a little planning and a light amount of elbow grease. However, simple as it seems to start, gardening requires that you have to stay on task as you would in training a puppy dog or a kitty cat.
In fact, your garden soil will train you (if you watch and listen) how to water, what grows best, etc. I use the 4 R’s (Reuse, Recycle, Repair, Repurpose) to keep my garden expenses from becoming more than tomatoes cost at the store. Unfortunately, I grew up with the “waste not, want not” maxim hanging over my head. Fortunately, it is now called sustainability. So, I look around at whatever I have before running to the store.
Dream: Conjure up two or three vegetables that you really like to eat raw, two or three that you like to cook, and two or three that you like canned, frozen or dried. These are where to start. Keep It Simple: Don’t try to grow everything in the first year. But, each year try something new. Have fun experimenting with different plants, different techniques. Remember, there are many ways to skin a cat, as my grandfather said about gardening methods. He was an old-fashioned, natural gardener. My father was the new chemical gardener who both poisoned his soil and himself. Now, I am my grandfather’s son.
Plan: Draw a map indicating places with the most sun, most shade, imagining or remembering how it is in early spring and late summer. Then draw in the places/beds for the early veggies, such as lettuce and peas (which do okay in shade), then the hot weather ones, such as tomatoes and peppers. (Speaking of peppers: find some sweet Italian peppers that hang down into the foliage and don’t sunburn. Bell peppers will sunburn unless shaded.) Maps are the best way to keep track of where you plant things so you can rotate crops year by year, and keep track of the perennial herbs that sometimes shut down in the winter and look like weeds. I’ve made the mistake of pulling out a weed-looking herb.
Fence: Essential to keep out rabbits, squirrels, your or your neighbors’ dogs and in many places, deer. The one I use is the 6′ deer and rabbit wire fence. It keeps out most critters but not the bugs, sadly. To be a productive gardener, we have to learn about bugs, and pit good bugs against harmful bugs.
Compost: Compost is your own cheap fertilizer. There are many ways, but composting over the winter gives you time to practice and study how to do it better next year. Compost is simply piling all your kitchen and yard waste together and letting it rot. It’s recycling waste. There are techniques to speed up composting, but wintering over works.
Cover-crop: This is the easiest way to grow your soil, especially if your garden area hasn’t been used and/or is compacted red dirt. Cover crops become green manure. The way I plant my cover crops is to water the area, throw out handfuls of the seed mixture, rake it in and wait. In the Spring, I mow and leave on the ground for a few weeks until dry, then I plant directly into the dry mat, which becomes my mulch. You can get cover-crop seeds at Wyntour Gardens or Peaceful Valley Garden Supply or through many seed catalogues.
The Learning Curve: No one can “teach you how to garden.” You have to learn it yourself. One of the best ways is to go around your neighborhood and search out the best gardens, especially the year-round ones. Go to your neighborhood gardeners. Observe their techniques and layouts, ask a few questions, and offer to help out if needed. Learn by doing. Another way is to attend a workshop or two at the Community Teaching Garden. And, if you are a book person, buy or get one out of the library. Online information can be useful as well. Two of my favorite books are The Practical Organic Gardener by Brenda Little and Organic Garden Basics by Bob Fowerdew.
You can have fun gardening. Try it. It is so satisfying to pick a vine-ripened tomato and eat it right there in the garden.
Please stay tuned for our upcoming January/February workshops, covering fruit tree pruning, grafting, soil preparation and starting your organic garden.
Wayne Kessler, is a local organic farmer, nurseryman and activist for local food security. He is the owner of Shambani Organics nursery in Manton with his wife Laurie. Wayne is a technical advisor to the Community Teaching Garden.
Dig This! is a regular biweekly column offering ecological wisdom and garden advice. If you have questions or would like Jim and Wayne to address a particular issue you may contact them at the Teaching Garden by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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