The Indecisive Gardener

by Sandy Swegel

Making decisions about where to plant things in the garden is one of my biggest challenges.  Hard to imagine when I spend most of my time in other people’s gardens. But because I rent, my own garden is a blank slate.  And that makes it really hard for me to know what to plant where. I know what the plants need but I can’t decide who should live next to whom or even make simple decisions about succession planting.

 If you’re an indecisive gardener, whether you’re a new gardener and aren’t sure where things go, or because like me there are so many possibilities you just can’t decide, here are a couple strategies I use:

Vegetables
Square Foot Gardening is the friend of new and indecisive gardeners.  You can just make the garden squares and plant whatever happens to be in your hand at the moment.  Mel Bartholomew who invented the idea of square foot gardening has simplified plant spacing in his latest refinements of the process.  Each square is still a 12-inch square.  Little plants go 16 to a square, medium plants 9 to a square. Large plants 4 to a square and really large plants 1 to a square.  I can just fill a square and move on to the next square.  Hardly any decisions except to remember to put the tomatoes to the back of the garden where they don’t block the sun.
http://www.squarefootgardening.org/#!__top10faqs/vstc20=page-4/vstc100=gardening

 Herbs
I love herbs but worry about where to put them so they are in the right conditions and so that the perennials ones survive without taking over. In my mind, I divide the herbs into categories: Mediterranean herbs (thyme, rosemary, oregano), invasive herbs (mint, lemon balm), and tender herbs (basil).

 Mediterranean herbs go in the hottest driest part of the garden with more sun and not so much water because the flavors of these herbs are best if they aren’t pampered with too much good water and soil.  Invasive herbs go next to concrete…either a wall or a sidewalk….somewhere there is a natural limit to how far they can spread. Tender herbs go in the vegetable garden.

 Perennials
These are the most difficult ones to decide on. Many a perennial has languished in its tight pot waiting for me to decide where to put it.  I learned from another indecisive gardener that the perfect place is a “Nursery Bed.”  The nursery bed is for the plants that are young and need extra attention and for the ones that don’t yet have a home in a permanent bed.  They’ll eventually graduate to the grown-up garden, but now they at least have a home in the ground in the nursery bed where they get some extra attention too.

 Don’t let the desire to have a perfect garden or the fear of making a mistake keep you from having a great garden.  Set some simple rules like these. And if that doesn’t work…then the whole yard can be the “nursery bed!” 

 

Photo Credits:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Square_foot_gardening

http://www.mamamia.com.au/social/what-can%E2%80%99t-you-decide/attachment/indecisive/

 

 

Two Tips for Starting Seeds in the Ground in Spring

by Sandy Swegel

 

Two weeks ago during a warm spell I had a little seeding frenzy and made tiny rows of lettuces and Micro Greens in a community garden plot along with the usual St. Patrick’s Day peas.  Every thing is coming up now (OK with their weed friends too).  There are two things I do whenever I put seeds directly into the ground to make sure I’m successful.

Here’s my basic process for seed starting that works for me.

Weed and smooth soil out.
Water soil with a soft sprayer if the soil is dry.
Sprinkle seed over the soil
Pat the seed lightly with my hands so there is contact between the seed and the soil.

TIP #1
ROW COVER
I lay a sheet of row cover loosely over the seedbed.  You want it loosely so the plants can grow and the row covers lifts with them. I use some heavy rocks (of which there are many in our soil) to hold down the row cover so it doesn’t blow away.  The row cover helps the seeds stay moist enough to germinate and raises the soil temperature a few degrees so the seeds germinate faster.

Water with the soft sprayer. Note…I water right on top of the row cover.  It’s permeable so the water makes its way through.

Sometimes there are seeds that are slow to germinate.  That’s when I use

Tip #2
PRE-SOAK AND PRE-GERMINATE the difficult seeds.
Seeds like peas or carrots respond well if you soak them overnight, drain them, let them sprout in a baggie with a damp paper towel for a day, then put them in the ground.  The peas get cute sprouts.

 

I get a high germination rate even from difficult seeds when I use these two tips.  Which means I get more plants per packet of seeds and save a little money.

It’s Spring!  Enjoy playing in the Dirt!

Photo credit: http://frontrangefoodgardener.blogspot.com/
http://www.organicgardening.com/learn-and-grow/row-covers?page=0,1

How to Get all the Seeds you Want and Not go Broke

by Sandy Swegel

My happy group of gardening buddies first got to know each other because of our great avarice for more seeds. We had all joined a local gardening email list so we could talk more about plants and gardening, but the more we talked with each other, the more seeds and plants we wanted.  Every time someone mentioned a new variety of tomato or annual flower or ground cover, we had to have one of those.  The first year, we decided to meet in person and share seed packets.  Armed with dozens of recycled envelopes, we doled out tiny seeds to each other, taking home three Cherokee purple tomato seeds or six cosmos seeds.  This quickly became confusing and chaotic and required so many tags in our seed trays.  So the next year we decided to become more economical.  We’d each buy a packet of seeds and grow out all the plants…and then swap plants.  We definitely got more plants than we would have grown on our own and we each had unusual varieties you can’t buy in stores.

But the third year of our avarice proved to be the year we figured out that we could get as many seeds as we wanted…and they practically paid for themselves.  All we had to do was start our seeds and sell 2-month-old plant starts to each other and to the other greedy gardeners who envied our ever more diverse gardens.  We learned that anyone can sell healthy organic heirloom tomato starts, especially if you have pictures of last year’s garden.

You can try your own mini plant exchange and sale. We price our seedlings cheap ($1 or $2 at most).  I can afford all the heirloom tomato plants I want if I just sell three seedlings for $1 from each seed packet.  Throw in some herbs and flowers and soon the plants barely fit in the car. Our little group now has a giant plant sale every May where everyone brings their plants to sell to each other, but thanks to free advertising on Craigslist and neighborhood electric poles, we also sell our humble little plants to the public.  Avarice never ends, of course, and now we have to grow more plants so we can make money so we can afford backyard greenhouses. Last year our small group of about 12 home gardeners sold some $4000 worth of plants that they started in closets and on top of refrigerators just two months before. Not enough to get rich, but enough to buy more seeds, build hoop houses and season extenders, and have a load of precious organic sheep manure delivered to our gardens.

So enjoy your seed shopping and think about swapping some of the plants you start with others.  We learned that while there is no end to avarice among gardeners, there is also no end to generosity. It is a great joy to have an abundance of little plants to share with friends and strangers.

http://dirthappy.blogspot.com

Sow Your Poppies Now!

Every year, there’s one packet of seed I always spread.  More important than tomatoes or basil, my two favorite vegetables, I never forget to sow a pack of poppies.  I use the Parade of Poppies mix liberally in a couple of different areas…one is a long fifty foot long, six-foot wide wildflower area along the road that’s minimally watered.  I love the bachelor buttons and asters and columbines in the wildflower area…but I always want more poppies so I sweeten the poppy mix each year by overseeding sometime between Winter Solstice and St. Patrick’s Day, preferably the night before a big snow so the snow can hide the seeds from birds and mice and the melting snow will hydrate the seeds and cause them to sprout.

I sprinkle some of the poppy seeds in the perennial bed where the daffodils and lilacs grow mostly untended.  The poppies bring bits of apricot and red and pink color that make the beds sparkle.

My favorite poppies are the Icelandic, alpine and Shirley poppies for their color and elegance and especially for how some of them will follow the sun through the course of the day, just like sunflowers do.

The California and Mexican poppies are the hard workers of the summer garden, putting out oranges and yellows even in the rocks along the hot sidewalk in August.  I’ve let them spread themselves in the xeric garden on the edges of the purple Russian sage where they always make me smile.

Try some poppies in your garden this year. Later, after seedheads form, you can collect the seeds from your favorite colors and spread them in hidden spots in your yard so they’ll surprise you next year.

Seeds in the Garden

by Sandy Swegel

Now that we’re at the peak of summer, you’ll start to notice that your garden is likely to have more seeds than it has flowers.  The heat and long days of summer have stimulated seed formation in most plants and this is a good thing.  Don’t just deadhead the seeds and compost them… there are lots you can do with flowers gone to seed.

Collect the seeds to grow again.

Once seedheads have dried a bit (turned brown) and the seeds are loose, you can collect the seed…either to save in paper envelopes for next year or to spread around the garden now where you’d like them to grow next.  When collecting seeds to grow next year, pick the healthiest plants with the best color. You probably know that some plants are hybrid and don’t necessarily come true from seed…but sometimes they do, so I like to risk it.  This year we let a squash grow in the compost pile even though everybody knows squash don’t come true, but it was cute…and now we’ve been eating great acorn squash a month earlier than the garden’s because the plant didn’t know it wasn’t supposed to be good.

Eat the seeds.

This is especially yummy before the seeds mature when they are still green and tender.  Green herb seeds and cool season vegetable seeds are little flavor powerhouses.  It’s time to nibble on broccoli flowers or herb seeds – cilantro, dill, fennel, anise, even basil.  All the flax in my wildflower patch has gone to seed.  I’m gathering them to sprout and either put on salads or dehydrate into crackers.

Gather the dry seeds for birdseed in winter

Sunflower and flax seeds are some of the seeds that birds like, so I gather extra dry seed to put out in January for the chickadees. I leave most of the seed on the ground for them… but sometimes it’s hard for a tiny bird to find seeds through a foot of snow.  Besides, if I put the seeds in the bird feeder, I (and the cats) get the pleasure of watching through the kitchen window.

Let the seeds be.

You can grow perennial beds of annuals.  There’s a phrase to get your head around.  The plants don’t overwinter but by letting the seeds drop, they replant themselves.  Let the cilantro and dill and parsley and leeks seed themselves around and you never have to start those seeds again.  The little seedlings will produce good plants for you this fall and some will wait for Spring to grow.  I love it when Nature does all the work.

The Joy of the Garden Routine

by Sandy Swegel

Rifling through the garden in the early sunrise hour this morning, I paused to look up at the morning sky that looked just like the ones in Renaissance paintings.  Following the beauty to the earth, I saw for the first time this year my garden in full growth and fertility.  I got a glimpse not just of weeds and tiny seedlings but of orach in its vibrant purple color and arugula in bloom.  Peas and favas are reaching for the sky and putting out delicate blooms.  Re-seeded larkspur will probably open in just a few hours.  I did pull a few weeds and start some more chard seeds on a blank patch.  But I got bundles of fresh greens for my morning juice, leeks to put in the crockpot for dinner, and magnificent lettuce for an evening salad.  The garden today has begun to return much more than I have put into it.  Tomatoes are still in walls of water and many plants are tiny, but the lovely routine of the season has started.

From now, I’ll settle into my 15 minute morning routine, slightly amended with today’s revelation.

Look up at the big sky. Look at the vitality of life between the sky and the earth.
Pull the big weeds.
Harvest the food for the day.
Fill the empty spots with new seeds or plants.
Water what is dry.
Look once more in gratitude and wonder at the big sky.

There will be times I spend more time in the garden because it’s fun or an ambitious project is taking hold.  And there may be times when I’m not keeping up with the pests or weeds that sneak in and there will be some remedial work.  But for the most part, if I am consistent in my 15-minute daily routine, my time in the garden will never be a chore but will be invigorating and full of nourishment and inspiration for the day.