April 7, 2009

Dreaming of Bountiful Gardens

It is a chilly April day here in Maine. After a couple days of April showers, any hints of sun are welcome and in contrast to the the gray of the sky, the grass is becoming bright green. Although its still early for planting, its not too soon to order seeds and make plans for a garden. Since a few people have asked me for some suggestions for planting a garden, I thought I would share some ideas for getting started. I'm sorry I don't have a picture of the beginnings of spring to go with this, but I hope that you can look out your window to see something of new growth and blossoming life.

It seems like many many people are interested in gardens this year which is fabulous. Though the farmer's market can provide an abundance of delicious local food, it is hard to beat walking out your back door and biting into a tomato that is still warm from the sun or brushing the soil off a carrot and crunching into its sweet, earthy taste. Its one thing to know where your food comes from, its another to know that you grew it yourself.

Starting out can be a little daunting. There are so many different ideas, theories, and techniques ranging from double digging to no-till sheet mulching. But don't be overwhelmed -- you don't have to do it perfectly. Plants want to grow, seeds are meant to sprout. To me, it is one of the most mysterious and beautiful things on earth -- that you can take a tiny, hard, odd-shaped seed and give it soil, water, warmth, light and with some nurturing it will become fragrant basil, a juicy cucumber, hardy kale or a flower that reaches for the sun. This doesn't mean that every single thing you plant will grow and flourish. Such is life. But when you start out it doesn't have to be complicated. You will learn as you go and add more and more over time.

This year I will be growing vegetables at a community garden which will be donated to local food pantries. Since I know this will be a busy summer I am not planning to have my own garden, except for an abundance of containers on our porch which I hope to fill with lots of flowers and vegetables. I look forward to sharing some of that here. Whether you are ready to start planting or still watching the snow melt, here are some suggestions and resources for those of you who are new to gardening to help you begin your endeavors.

Test the soil
This one is really important. Near old houses or in urban areas it is crucial to test the soil to make sure that it does not contain lead which can be absorbed by the plants that you will eat. Soil tests can also reveal what your soil might be lacking and what amendments you might need to add to help your plants grow better. You can get test kits from your local university or cooperative extension. If you do have lead in the soil, you can garden in containers, build raised beds or use a barrier and bring in new soil so the plants roots can't reach the contaminated soil, or try lead remediation techniques (which will take a few years).

Start Small Its hard not to dream of large bountiful gardens, but growing vegetables does take work and it should be fun. Start with what seems manageable to you, if you try to do too much it will be hard to maintain all of your plants and they will not do well. Grow a window box full of lettuce, a few pots of herbs, or a small garden bed with whatever vegetables you most want to grow this year -- next season you can do more. You do not have to start all of your plants from seed, either. Its fun to grow your own seedlings, but if you don't have time or space, seedlings grown in greenhouses are usually bigger and hardier to start out. Local nurseries or farms can probably supply most of what you are looking for. Tomatoes and peppers, for example, need a lot of heat to germinate well so they should be started inside and then planted outside as seedlings. Lettuce, carrots, beets, beans, peas, cucumbers, squash and more can be planted as seeds right into the ground.

Find Local Resources A community garden, local nursery or farm, organic growers organization or a master gardener can be immensely helpful in starting these endeavors. Maybe you have a friend or neighbor who has been gardening for years and can share information or answer your questions. It is best to use resources close to where you live and grow because every climate is different and the soil in one place will differ from another. If you don't know anyone close by, Kitchen Gardeners International is a collection of people growing food near their homes and has a lot of useful resources and discussions to help you with questions.

A few other things to do: Composting is an invaluable way to nurture and grow your soil and to recycle your food and yard waste. There are tons of different methods and techniques which are worth looking into and figuring out which works best for you. Keep Records of what you grow and what works best. If you plan to continue and increase your garden, you will really appreciate being able to look back at what you have done before. Have Fun and enjoy what you are doing, let it happen and learn from your mistakes. Even if your garden this year is like a tiny sprout compared to a fully grown plant, your knowledge and ability will grow over time.

Other Resources: Seed Companies in the Northeast: Fedco Seeds, High Mowing Seeds, Johnny's Seeds Useful websites: Rodale Institute, City Farmer, National Gardening Association, American Community Gardening Association. There are so many books, many of which you can probably find at the library which can answer questions and illustrate techniques. I will have more updates here as the growing season happens.

When you plant seeds you are taking part in something miraculous! Planting a garden is an investment in the future, and act of hope and faith in life despite the successes and failures that will surely happen along the way.

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