How to Jump Start Your Spring Planting

(This is the first in a 3-part series of posts on gardening)

This past winter, feeling the itch to start digging in the ground as soon as possible, as much as possible I suggested that my daughter’s Montessori school plant a school garden. Fortunately, the school was enthusiastic about the idea, and the head of school pointed out that it was just the sort of thing Maria Montessori was all about. Ms. Montessori, who pioneered a learning method that tapped into children’s natural curiosity about the world around them, died peacefully in a neighbor’s garden in 1952. She taught, among other things, that children learn a lot from observing and from being placed into an environment that naturally encourages them to participate and learn.

Months later, and spring came, and still no garden. But the enthusiasm remains. (we’re in the planning stages now…)

What if you find yourself in that situation, excited about the idea of unplugging for a while and getting in the garden to grow delicious fruits, herbs, and veggies, but you still haven’t quite gotten to the point of translating that enthusiasm into action? Or maybe the weather hasn’t quite cooperated – if you’re living in a climate like mine that’s cold one week and hot the next, rainy for two days in a row and boiling hot afterwards, then you may have to take a few extra steps this growing season. But there’s certainly plenty of time to still have a healthy, abundant harvest in as little as a few weeks.

If you want to go beyond planting just a thing or two to eat, or want detailed advice about how to grow food you can eat every week, even if you don’t have much space to work with, you can find out a lot more information in my second green guidebook, Go Green without Going Broke.

On the other hand, if you just want a few bits of advice, read on.

Plan ahead

This is an obvious one, but you have to think about where you want to plant. For in-ground planting, make sure the spot is obstruction-free and easy to get in and out of. If you have back or knee problems, you may want to consider a raised bed, which requires less bending and is generally easier to work in. Container gardening is also a good option for ease, and is great if you are short on space. You can easily grow most leafy greens, pole beans, tomatos, eggplants, and peppers in large pots. Be aware, however, that container gardening requires more attention, since plants in containers get dried out more often, and will need to be fertilized more frequently (because the fertilizer rinses out each time you water) Make sure that the spot you choose is also easy to water – there’s nothing more tiring than having to haul heavy watering cans back and forth from the hose or rain barrel to the garden, and sometimes (when adding fertilizer, or microorganisms to the soil, for instance), you’ll need to water from a can rather than directly from a hose.

Good soil is key to good gardens

A lot of people begin by sticking a plant into soil and adding water. While it’s true that you can grow things that way, they will likely be unhealthy and prone to diseases and pests, and they won’t produce nearly as much as they are capable of. Whether you’re planting flowers, herbs, fruits, or veggies, the very best thing you can do is give them a good start by taking the time to enrich the soil before you plant. Adding soil conditioner, worm castings or compost (and perlite for clumpy clay soil) can do the trick in a pinch. There are even better things you can do to enrich your soil and ensure an abundant harvest and longer growing season, which I have written about in an earlier blog post.

Light it up – or not

Before you plant, you should also observe the sunlight in the place you plan to grow your plants. How many hours of direct sunlight does it get? Is it in a partially shady area? Paying attention to how light and heat move throughout your space makes a big difference in how successfully your plants will grow. While most flowers prefer at least partial sun, some, like alyssum and bee balm, can tolerate shady conditions. Vegetables like chard, spinach, and kale grow best in shade, although I have had success with rainbow chard grown in either sunny or shady, warm, or cool conditions.

N-P-K and other nutrients

Photo credit: Obama White House via Visualhunt.com

Photo credit: Obama White House via Visualhunt.com

Aside from a good location, good soil, and adequate light, you’ll have to consider what kinds of nutrients your plants need. Again, here’s where you can take a shortcut for ease (but a less healthy, less abundant harvest), or incorporate a little more effort into your gardening routine for better results. Generic (whether synthetic or organic) fertilizer can get plants the food they need, but buying formulations specifically made for particular vegetables (like tomato food) will work better. On the package of whichever fertilizer you choose, you’ll see three numbers. These represent the Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium content of that fertilizer. Nitrogen is good for encouraging leaf growth and should be used to establish ample foliage. Nitrogen-deficient plants are usually small, develop slowly, and may be pale green or yellow in color. It’s best to apply a nitrogen-rich fertilizer in the spring and early summer for best results, as this is when the plant needs it most. Phosphorous is helpful for seed germination, enabling seedlings to develop a strong root system. It also aids with flowering, so use it for hearty blooms. Potassium helps plants fight against disease and enables them to better withstand harsh conditions (such as cold or drought).

Aside from the “macronutrients” N-P-K, there are also secondary nutrients and micronutrients that help plants thrive. Secondary nutrients consist of calcium, magnesium and Sulphur. Calcium helps create strong cell walls – when it is deficient, it can lead to a plant’s blossoms and buds dropping prematurely. Magnesium helps with the development of sugars, oils, and fats, and is an essential component of chlorophyll. Severe deficiencies in this nutrient (which can also be caused by excess application of potassium) will cause leaves to curl at the edges. Sulfur helps with seed production and is responsible for producing flavors, colors, and smells in brassica crops like kale, mustard greens, and cabbage, and other vegetable crops like onions, garlic, and horseradish. Similar to nitrogen deficiency, sulphur deficiency in plants often shows up in the form of pale leaves with stunted growth.

Plant with friends

Photo credit: pl1602 via Visualhunt /  CC BY-NC-SA

Photo credit: pl1602 via Visualhunt /  CC BY-NC-SA

Placing vegetable and fruit plants alongside their friends helps them to thrive. This technique is known as companion planting. In some cases, one plant adds nutrients to the soil that help its “companion” to thrive, while in other cases, planting one kind of plant helps keep pests away, or attracts the kinds of predatory insects that kill the pests destroying your crop. In other cases, planting one variety of plant next to another attracts pollinators to help produce the fruit or vegetable. There are too many aspects to companion planting to list here, but this detailed chart lists a number of plants and their companions, as well as the plants that will hinder their growth if planted nearby. As a general rule, marigolds make good companions for most plants, attracting pollinators and (possibly) masking the scent of your vegetables from garden pests.

Planting a spring garden need not be difficult if you follow these simple guidelines.

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