February 13, 2011

Take your mind off winter

Richard Gast: Cornell Ag Connection

---- — This certainly has been a winter to remember. I've talked to people who pretty much lost their cars in snow drifts and heard about one couple who lost their minivan when the weight of snow collapsed their carport. Then there was the couple that let their little dog out into the yard and he walked up the snowdrift and over the fence. They spent hours looking for him.

I recently had a friend say to me, "How can you be thinking about spring and summer when everyone is shoveling and snow-blowing and there's no end in sight," to which I replied, "How can you not be?" I can't think of a better way to take my mind off of winter than to start thinking about vegetable gardening.

Put winter out of your mind for awhile. If you haven't done so already, go online and order a seed catalog or two or talk to local nurseries and garden centers about lists or catalogs that they may have available. If you've recently received your 2011 vegetable seed catalogs, pick them up and take some time to dream. Take your time. Enjoy looking through those catalogs. Choose varieties recommended for this area. Make lists. If you are anything like me, you will have to narrow your list(s) down considerably before you're ready to start ordering your seeds.

Whenever possible, select and purchase quality seeds from dependable seed companies and/or buy starter plants from reputable dealers. You run the risk of losing your entire garden by planting inferior seed or by setting out bad or diseased plants. Starter plants should be healthy; fresh and stocky with deep green color. Never buy plants that appear yellow or wilted.

If you're new to gardening, there are several things you need to consider. Vegetable gardening is so much more than just digging up a piece of ground and planting. It can and should be a labor of love. Yes, a vegetable garden is supposed to provide, but more than that, it should be both gratifying and beautiful. A vegetable garden can be a point of interest and pride when entertaining friends and family. It can even be a place where children play, or where we can simply sit and appreciate a warm summer day.

Whether yours is going to be a large garden in the country, a backyard garden at your home, a raised bed, or containers outside of your apartment, it's never too early to start planning. Be creative. It's amazing what can come of some imagination and a little effort.

If you have a lot of time to devote to your vegetable garden, great. If not, keep it simple. Plan accordingly. A lot of knowledge is not required.

But understanding a few essentials is.

If this is going to be your first time out, start small. Plan to plant only enough for fresh vegetable consumption. You can always expand later or next year. First time gardeners often plant more than they can easily maintain and, because of this, they fail. Weeds and pests need to be controlled and the time and commitment that this requires, especially in large gardens, cannot be overstated. It's better to select crops that will allow you to produce more food in less space.

Keep in mind, too, that many vegetable crops mature within a few months. In fact, by providing the proper growing conditions, you can be eating a variety of homegrown vegetable crops within two months after planting. Several radish varieties, for instance, mature in 30 days or less.

And every year, I discover more and more varieties of short season lettuces that are both tasty and attractive. Since lettuce likes cool weather, seed can be planted early in the spring and again, late in the summer. The same can be said for several frost-tolerant varieties of spinach. Several varieties of easy to grow, high-yielding bush beans also mature in two months or less. And a few varieties of fast-growing beets will reach maturity within two months, as well.

In fact, if you carefully plan it out and start your first crop early, you can grow a succession of crops in the same garden space; one early, one later, and possibly even a third. For example, start with early season lettuce or spinach, followed by a crop of radishes, followed by a late season crop of lettuce or spinach.

Crops, like spring onions and carrots can be thinned out when they are young and the smaller ones eaten. You can continue harvesting and eating as the plants mature.

When considering a site, keep in mind that adequate sunlight is essential, if you want to produce healthy plants. A superior garden site will offer a southern exposure that receives full sun. But, since we all won't have the perfect site, one that receives a minimum of six hours of full sun, with eight hours preferred, will suffice. Avoid areas where structures, trees or shrubs will shade out your plants (Trees and shrubs will also compete for food and soil moisture). If this is not possible, plan to use varieties that are shade tolerant and hardy. Keep in mind that objects like trees that may not shade out your garden in June may cast a shadow on the garden in late August or September, when the sun is lower in the sky.

Good soil is essential, too. In fact, the quality of your garden soil can be the difference between thriving, healthy plants and sickly, struggling, unproductive ones. Areas of clay and waterlogged sites should be avoided. Loose, fertile, well-drained sandy loam or silt loam soil is best.

Perfect soil is rarely available, however, so gardeners have to improve, replace or avoid the soils that they have altogether. If you plan to add or improve soil, choose amendments that are rich in organic matter. Organic matter creates good texture, helps make garden soils more easily workable and promotes the biological activity that allows plant roots to take up necessary nutrients.

Ideally, a garden site will be breezy, but not windy. Good air circulation helps to keep foliage dry, protecting plants from fungal problems like powdery mildew. But too much wind can dry plants out, stressing or even killing them.

A garden also requires lots of water, especially when you're starting with seeds or transplanting crops. If it's at all possible, you should have an adequate supply of water at or near your garden site.

By drawing a garden plan, you can get an idea of just how big an area you will need to accommodate everything that you are planning to grow (and just how realistic or unrealistic your gardening plans actually are). Your garden can be any shape that you choose, but you must be sure that you've allowed adequate space for fully-grown plants. Spacing requirements can often be found on seed packages. Don't forget to figure in enough room for access and always plan to place the tallest plants (corn, sunflowers) at the north side of the garden. You can calculate the square footage required by multiplying the total length by the total width.

Some additional thoughts. You can't garden without at least some basic hand tools (and a good pair of work gloves). Select a trowel that feels comfortable to you. A good trowel can be used to plant, dig, weed, cultivate, edge, divide plants, even remove rocks. For large gardens, you will need a spade shovel, garden rake, garden fork or cultivator, and a weeding claw or weeding hoe, as well. Some sort of cutting tool, such as a pruning shears, will prove handy for trimming, deadheading, and harvesting.

A wheelbarrow or garden cart, although not essential, will make easy work out of what otherwise might be tedious or backbreaking. (In a pinch, a child's wagon may be used, instead.) Consider making your garden a family effort or planning a separate children's garden. Children are often fascinated with seed germination and the transplanting of plants. More often than not, they thoroughly enjoy and take great pride in growing their favorite vegetables. And they love to share what they've grown with others.

Last, but not least, plan to keep a journal. Notes about seed germination and the vigor of the plants that you choose could prove invaluable in the future. Note any disease or insect problems, should they arise, and keep a record of the time that you spend working in the garden and the results of your efforts.

For more information, contact your local Cornell Cooperative Extension office.

Richard L. Gast, Extension programs assistant, Horticulture and Natural Resources, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Franklin County, 355 West Main St., Suite 150, Malone, N.Y., 12953. Call 483-7403, fax 483-6214 or e-mail