Sunday, April 13, 2014

Top 10 Tips for New Gardeners

I was a new gardener once.  I was 5 when I first began to grow plants with my parents on our little sustenance farm on Guam.  We grew sugar cane, lemons, melons, guava, sweet potatoes, eggplants, Thai basil, chili peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, lemon grass and much, much more.  Now let’s fast forward to 2007, when I rented my first garden plot at MCGA.  I did not know much about growing food crops in the Pacific Northwest but I was an eager learner.  Here are my top 10 tips for new gardeners to the PNW and to MCGA, this is a compilation of some the things I have learned and taught myself through trial and error over the past 7 years.

1.  Grass and weeds are evil, remove as much as you can as they suck vital water and nutrients from your crops.

2.  Plan out your garden.  Do you want to build raised beds?  If you do make sure the beds are not so wide that you cannot reach the middle of the bed to weed.  It might also be a good idea to make sure you can reach all parts of your garden bed from the edges as well.  Next plan out your paths, even if you do not build raised beds make sure to plan for paths as it is not wise to step into your beds.  It compacts the soil and destroys its structure. 

3.  "Make" the best soil you can.  Add the best soil amendments you can afford.  Here are the names of some great things to add to your soil, some are free, some will cost you some change. These things are NOT the same as fertilizer although they do provide some nutrients. You do not have to add them all in 1 year, also follow the application directions.

a.  Compost, make your own or buy some.  (free and $)
b.  Sustainable peat moss for your blueberries at planting time ($$), pine needs as mulch (free).
c.  Earthworm castings ($$$)
d.  Lime in the fall. ($)
e.  Manure, steer, chicken, rabbit, etc... Beware that horse and cow manure contains the highest salts, use sparingly and make sure it has been aged 6+ months. ($$)
f.  Coconut fiber or coir fiber ($$$)
g.  Coffee grounds (free) 
h.  Leaf mold (free)
i.  Perlite or horticultural vermiculite, great natural products for heavy soils, they help with aeration but provide no nutrients.  ($$)
1j.  My favorite amendments right now re-mineralize the soil:  Biochar, rock dust and glacial rock dust, AZOMITE (wear a mask when you apply powdery amendments).

4.  Start your seeds at the right time, see seed packet for information.  Make sure the soil is wet before you make your furrow to sow your seeds. Tamp down the soil around your seed; many seeds need to contact the soil before they can germinate.

5.  Learn about cold crops and hot crops:  These crops are planted at different times at the garden.

Some example of cold crops:  arugula, lettuce, mache, radish, spinach, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, leeks, spinach, turnip, carrots, beets, garlic, onions, shrubs can be planted early in the season, asparagus, snow peas, sugar snap peas, parsley just to name a few.

Some examples of hot crops (usually like day temps 55F and above and night temps about 50F and above):  tomatoes, okra, eggplants, melons, beans, potatoes, cucumbers, peppers, corn, squash, tomatillo, basil, pumpkins, just to name a few.

6.  If you wish to plant starts, make sure they are hardened off before you plant them in the garden.  Do not assume they are hardened off when you buy them from the hardware store or nursery.  Hardening off means to get them ready or accustomed to life outside the cozy comfort of your home or the greenhouse.  Remember they have never felt wind, rain, direct sun or cold nights.

Here is a quick and easy guide to hardening off your starts:

a.  7-10 days before you are ready to plant your starts at the garden you should begin to harden them off.  If you have a balcony or a terrace, this is ideal!

b.  Reduce the amount of water and place them outside in the shade for 1-2 hours on day 1 to day 3.  Bring them in at night. 

c.  Gradually move them outside more and more, adding 1-2 hours at a time, they should be able to stay outside at night after days 3-5. 

d.  By the end of the 7-10 days they should be able to stay outside day and night.  Now they are ready to plant at the garden.

7.  The best time and condition to plant your starts are early in the morning and when it is cloudy.  I DO NOT recommend planting starts out on a sunny day, doing so often causes them to wilt dangerously.

8.  When planting starts in the garden, dig a giant hole, loosen the soil, add about 1 handful to 1 cup of vegetable fertilizer, depending on the plant.  Stir the soil and the fertilizer together.  Fill the hole with water, back fill as necessary as you place your start in the hole.  Water at this time again, tamp the soil around firmly and you are done!

(Exception!  For tomatoes and tomatillos, bury 1/2 to 2/3 of the entire plant in the hole, this practice encourages root growth along the buried stems and make for a stronger plant.)

9.  As you watch your crops grow over the coming weeks; weed often and water deeply.  I only water 1-2 times a week when it is dry.  I watch the weather report and avoid watering when we expect rain.  Avoid watering overhead whenever you can, use drip hoses or water right at the base of your plants.  Deep watering encourages stronger roots.

10.  Continue weeding and watering deeply.  Now it is time to control those pests who are enjoying your lovely crops.

Enemy #1 SLUGS

The slugs that do the most damage are the tiny ones.  There are many ways to get rid of slugs and I usually employ all methods! 

a.  Iron phosphate products like Sluggo and Escargo are pelleted, read the directions and avoid sprinkling directly on plants.

b.  Beer traps-set out a small container at soil level and fill with cheap beer, slugs will be attracted to the beer and drown.  Empty the container often.

c.  Sprinkle egg shells all over, this works only on the bigger slugs.

d.  Use copper tape to protect the really special plants, this tape is expensive.

e.  AVOID salt; this is not good for your soil.

f.  Hand pick at night when they are the most active.

g.  Place a wooden board or wet cardboard in the corner of your plot, when the slugs go there to hide you can get rid of them.

Enemy #2 RABBITS

These little guys love your greens, all greens and young sprouts.  I was so frustrated last year I had to put up a metal fence after they chewed through our plastic fence.

a.  You can put up a fence. 

b.  Buy some mink, fox or predator urine/feces and sprinkle around.  Believe it or not you can buy this online but it is stinky and expensive; NEVER spill it in your car.

c.  Build a small lettuce cage to protect your tender greens or sprouts until they are big enough to withstand a nibble here and there.

Enemy #3 VOLES

Voles are also known as field mice, they are small, like a small mouse and live mostly underground.  They are herbivores and love your crops.  MOLES are carnivores and eat only grubs and worms and NOT your plants.  Here is what voles look like:

They make underground burrows all over the garden but they also eat above ground crops as well.  See some underground and above ground damage.

Here is vole damage to beets, they love beets and carrots!

This really gets me boiling; they eat all the roots of the plant from underground. If you water and water your plants and they still wilt, check for vole damage.  If you water your plants and suddenly a giant sink hole forms in your garden, it is a vole hole.  The bad news is that we cannot do much, plant extra so you have more than they can eat up!