Letter Re: Why a Practice Garden?

Mr. Rawles,
Tom C. wrote: “This plot of land 10 feet x 12 feet.” That is 120 square feet. That sounds like a nice patch for half a years supply of storage onions if you know what you are doing, or more swiss chard and radishes that your family will know what to do with, given that you water and succession plant. Lets start at the start with soil preparation. How wet or dry is the existing soil? Get out the shovel and turn over a small bit of your prospective patch. Is it hard as concrete or dry and crumbly or a wet ball or a shiny slice of clay ? Go look up what your soil type requires for initial cultivation. Also, how are you getting rid of the existing vegetation? Tilling in a lawn just make the grass happy to propagate further. Method A for starting a garden bed : in the fall, layer cardboard or 10+ sheets of newspaper on the bed area, water well, and immediately cover with chopped leaves, grass clippings, or straw, and some manure if possible, and water again. For good measure cover with black plastic or and old tarp anchored with boards, rocks or landscape timbers. Wait until spring when you will have a lovely garden bed you can easily turnover with hand tools. Method B for starting a garden bed. It’s Spring, the grass is growing. Go spray the patch with evil Roundup, wait a week and start digging with the spade, digging fork and broad fork. Some garden books show a man peeling back the turf with a sharp spade – yea, right, if your yard was recently sodded. Bags of topsoil? Try peat moss, manure, gypsum, sand and/or perlite depending on your soil. So-called topsoil is frequently a marvelous source of weed seed and less nutritious than pork rinds. Time-release granular fertilizer with a low first number or three numbers all the same is a good thing. It won’t hurt and it may be the only nutrition your plants get if your lawn is sod over subsoil from the basement excavation. On to planting and what went wrong “1st Planting list: Just to start the basic “easy” food stuffs. Corn, Navy, Red, and Black beans, Green bell peppers, Tomatoes and transplanted 2 Peach trees and 1 Blackberry bush. The Blackberry was chosen over Blueberry because Blackberries don’t require cross pollination.”

Unfortunately, corn is not the easiest, because it likes lots of water, nitrogen, little competition from weeds, plus corn, sweet or field in a small patch is a critters’ all-you-can-eat buffet : rabbit, groundhog, crow as it is emerging and deer and raccoon the night before it’s fit for roasting ears. Dry beans, navy, red, black: do you know when to harvest to not end up with a moldy mess? No, I don’t know what went wrong with the beans from the information given. Tomatoes and green peppers, beloved of back yard gardeners. Tomatoes are heat and sun lovers, but only to a point. Tomatoes also really like a low nitrogen fertilizer and water, plus being kept free of weeds. Green peppers on the other hand, don’t mind light shade and also like the same fertilizer and water regime. By the way, being in Georgia, when did he plant these “easy” crops ? If he is in the Atlanta area, about April 10 should be a safe planting date for corn and beans. Observe when the farmers in your area are planting corn and soybeans: go and do likewise. Tomatoes and peppers can go out about a week later, but be prepared to cover them if frost threatens. Peaches, yea, they should grow in Georgia J. Blackberries, sure. I’d be more worried about my soil pH than pollinators on blueberries. I haven’t a prayer of growing blueberries in my limy soil. I’ve tried the heavily amended soil, the pH lowering fertilizer – nope, not here. Ten peaches, the first year, really I am impressed. Must have been good nursery grown trees in pots. Blackberries, wait 2 years and they will take over the yard and hold the kids and dog for ransom. Any new fruit plantings take lots of extra water the first summer, even years with good rainfall as they lack the root system to take up the available water in the soil. Your first year with a fruit tree/bush planting is about establishing the root system.

Timing : “Soil Temperature: While we had warm weather after Labor Day, just two or three weeks later overnight temperatures dropped into the 40s.” Umm, did he mean Memorial Day ? Corn and beans should recover from 40 degree nights nicely. Peppers and tomatoes are heat and water lovers. The lack of growth on all four sounds like lack of water and/or nutrition – poor native soil, lack of fertilizer — or they were drowning in standing water. On the Three Sisters, beans fix nitrogen, not squash, also the Three Sister method takes a lot of room, at least three feet between hills of corn and careful cultivation until the squash member zooms out growing a month after it has been planted in warm soil, usually two weeks to a month after the earlier planting of corn, traditionally, when oak leaves are as big as squirrel’s ears. You’ll not get the best yield of any of the three, but the squash family member will be happy. 2nd Planting: June Carrots, Lettuce, Green peas, Cucumbers. The only thing that will grow well in this planting sequence is cucumbers. Carrots, lettuce and green peas all prefer cool weather of early spring. In the Atlanta area, you might be planting this trio as early as January 15, definitely by February 1. 3rd Planting: July Pie Pumpkin Yes ! third time must be the charm. Timing is right for a place with a first frost usually after November 1 for a Halloween pumpkin. The big mistake was relying on gardening information that is not local to his area. In the US, your state land grant university has trained thousands of people to understand local conditions and many of them have made a career in horticulture with some dozens in active advice practice : your local county extension. Even if your local county extension office has closed, or lacks a horticulture specialist, start web searching your state’s land grant university, extension service, vegetables, then start following links. Somewhere you will find planting calendars, variety suggestions and much helpful information. For example, here is a planting calendar for Georgia. – DirtDigger in the eastern Corn Belt

JWR Replies: Tom also mentioned: “The inexpensive top soil I bought turned out to me mostly chips of wood with some dirt.”  Beware that many types of wood and bark actually bind (“tie up”) nitrogen, in effect robbing the soil of nitrogen for many years until the wood fully decomposes. If you make this mistake, you can counteract it by adding nitrogen fertilizer, but it is best to avoid getting many wood chips or any significant quantities of bark into your compost and garden soil in the first place! Douglas fir bark, for example, has a carbon to nitrogen ratio of 491:1.