The Organized GardenerGet a grip! Spring planting daydreams can lead to murderous thoughts about zucchini come summer's end. This season, plan a garden of measured delights. Here's how to plant with a purpose
Gardening may be on hold until planting season arrives, but that doesn't mean a gardener's imagination is at rest.
Inspiration is everywhere. Seed catalogs beckon with glossy photos of baby lettuce, supermarket produce displays challenge green-thumbed shoppers to dream of even better home-grown crops, and lists of new plants offer endless ideas. For anyone who experienced a harsh winter, the vision of a lush garden is dangerously compelling.
"When it comes to the vegetable garden, people design ... way beyond their means," says Robert F. Polomski, extension horticulturist at Clemson University, Clemson, S.C. Overly ambitious plans can sabotage a gardener's efforts, he says.
Before purchasing a single seed packet, develop a season-long plan, the best way to save money, time and energy. Here's what to consider:
For a vegetable garden, choose a spot that gets at least six hours of sunlight a day.
It should be in sight, so it's in mind, says Jennifer R. Bartley, a landscape architect and gardening writer who lives near Columbus, Ohio. "If you don't see it, you don't work it," says Bartley.
Do a reality check. Plotting a garden on paper is helpful, but actually measuring the space is essential, says Polomski, author of "Month by Month Gardening in the Carolinas" (Cool Springs Press, 2006).
A 10-by-10-foot garden is a good starting point. Set up stakes and run twine around them. Walk through the area and imagine a garden.
"This space will command your attention from spring through the fall," says Polomski. He says this technique can rescue an overly ambitious plan before a single seed is planted, "tamping the fantasy" of a large garden.
Can't decide between perennial herbs and flowers or annual vegetables? Cultivate two smaller plots. That way perennials will not be disturbed when it's time to yank out annuals in the fall, says Bartley, author of "The Kitchen Gardener's Handbook" (Timber Press, 2010).
Every seed packet looks mouthwatering in nursery displays. But "a vision of trying to feed the neighborhood might not be realistic," says Polomski.
Instead, decide what you want from your garden and focus on that.
If it's saving money, tomatoes (especially heirloom varieties), lettuce and herbs from seeds are great bargains. If it's feeding the family, "plant what you love to eat," says Bartley. List the vegetables you cook with most often and grow those. Spice up the basics with new varieties or assortments.
For an abundant return from a limited space skip spreading vine plants, such as squash and watermelon, and opt for carrots, onions, broccoli and leafy greens. If a short growing season is an obstacle, be sure to check with the local county extension service for the best produce for your region.
Sow and sow again. That's the new strategy for maximizing a season's harvest. You can use this technique to even out harvest times.
"It doesn't make much sense to plant all your beans at once and get a bucket full of beans," says Renee Shepherd, founder of Renee's Garden, Felton, Calif., which sells seeds to garden centers, nurseries and online.
For example, sow seeds for spring cool-season lettuce, arugula, parsley, chives, spinach and other leafy greens, after the last danger of frost and the ground can be worked. Save some seeds and sow more two weeks later.
Use a similar strategy for warm-season beans, cucumber and squash, starting when night temperatures hit 50 to 55 degrees. Add more seeds every two weeks, for a total of two or three plantings, until July, says Shepherd.
Succession sowing can bring variety to the garden and the table.
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