Friday, June 10, 2011

Lessons From a Plant Murderer

I've applied for the Master Gardener's program here in Philadelphia. If accepted to the program, I will come out with enough knowledge to serve on many of various community programs that help Philadelphians better connect to their land, food, community, the local ecology, and environmental awareness.

Since I've gained a little knowledge about gardening over all the years that I've killed my own vegetable gardens (in-ground and rooftop), I'll share what I know now, and when I'm done the program I can compare, look back, and say "Wow, I really knew nothing!".  I encourage responses, (whether critiques or kudos) to this blog as some of my friends are incredibly knowledgeable about farming, DIY, urban farming, conservation, and gardening.  I stand to learn a lot, but also have some to give, so here goes.  This will mostly pertain to veggies.  A lot of this stuff is common knowledge or can be readily Googled, but I will still share.

The first most important thing, is to know your climate. Also, don't plant invasives or you will be marked as an A-hole by all of your wiser neighbors. You will never have success trying to grow tropical fruits or plants in a temperate climate unless you have a greenhouse.  The plants know, and will make you look like a fool, so don't even try.   It's like Donald Trump or a Rick roll. Fail.

Second way to mess up = Soil.

Prepare your soil, and by this, I mean, make sure you've added A LOT of compost (you can make or buy this) Maryland leaf grow is a great bagged compost that is a state project for leaf waste recycling in MD, and they sell it at garden shops around here (not at Home Depot- which I'm not a big fan of for gardening). Do not dig a hole and poop in it to use as compost next year. That's gross, and dangerous. Rabbit poop is actually really good fertilizer, so get one of them, or their poo. Same with chicken shit. If your soil is sandy, you might have a really hard time gardening without enriching your soil quite a bit. It drains great, but doesn't hold any water or nutrients for when plants need it. Clay soil makes it really hard for plants to grow their delicate little rootlettes, which is a word I made up. 

Also prepare your soil by ripping out all weeds (especially thistles, which will be a forever problem if you don't visciously go after them before planting your veggies). If you're a tough-guy, you will do this without gloves like I used to. It's idiotic, just use gloves, dummy.  Dirty nails looks good on no one and thistles and prickly pear thorns suck for a very long time. You can compost the weeds, but if you leave them around, the will reroot and/or send out seeds so that you will have gazillions of weeds as the season goes on.

Know the basic soil pH and look up what plants grow best in what pHs. In the NE we generally have a slighly acidic soil which is great for lots of veggies. Any pH extreme has serious implications on nutrient availablity for your plants. Pretty acidic soil (like if you've added peat moss) is great for azaleas and hollys.  Lot's of calcium in the soil is great for tomatoes.  Lime is sold in great big bags will alkalize your soil, my sister suggests pouring a box of baking soda in your garden. I haven't tried this yet, but hey, I can let you know next year after I experiment on a patch of garden. You can pH test your soil, a place in the area, Hillside Nursery, offers 1 soil pH test for $1, the more space you cover, the more samples you should get analyzed. Note: Their customer service leaves a lot to be desired.

Just don't do it. This is something I will learn a lot about in the MG class, but basically unless you want to throw off your entire soil chemistry and possibly do more harm than good, add compost, not fertilizer. This is especially true if you have some plants that are starting to look a little sick. The LAST thing they need is chemical fertilizer. At the end of the class, I will literally be the person you call when you have sick or infested plants, and I'll help you get them back on track without fertilizer.  Nitrogenous fertilizers can promote lots of leaf growth with very little fruit/veggie growth, and that is basically the extent of my knowledge.

Still learning about this one too.  I think better drainage is one great benefit of raised beds vs. in-ground beds. In container gardening, make sure you drill holes in the bottom, add large rocks or other spacers and then the soil so that water doesn't pool up in the bottom, and water-log plants.  This will kill them in a terrible way, and I've done it myself.  The only plant I rescued from this, I actually had to re-plant in dry soil and it was really hard to save- it was a big old aloe. A good drainage material is peat moss, but it is a no-no environmentally (It also acidifies soil). A better alternative is coconut fiber which can be bought in large bales, again, you'll have to go to a real gardening store, not Home Depot. Worms really help aerate soil and add lots of little holes for water to drain/pool in. Worms are awesome for gardens, and they make a great snack if you get hungry while out weeding.

You can order some pretty awesome and unique seeds online rather than being limited to the ones they sell in stores.  I buy from Gurney's, I'm sure you can buy from Burpee or any other number of sites with great results. My friend Earth Mama, hosts a seed sharing project in which you can give and get local, unique, organic seeds. Message me if you're interested in contacting her.

 Plant them, just do it! Get soime potting mix, (it's disease free, and light enough for young seedlings to thrive in).  Plant them early, stop putting it off. I'm not at all careful about planting depths, and mine usually all sprout. I water the soil, make an indent about the depth of my index finger from tip to first jont, thn plunk in 1 or 2 seeds per hole. If both sprout, as painful as it is, you will need to remove one (the weaker one) to let the other thrive. I keep the soil really moist, and keep inside th house until it gets warm out.  If you start really early, you'll need some artificial lights in your house. They will grow "leggy" or tall and not very leafy or strong, if kept without enough light when young.  After the frost date, (April 15th ish?) you can start putting things outside to harden. I killed a lot of seedlings this year jumping the gun on the frost date.  Corn, tomatoes, peppers, cilantro, basil and some other stuff quickly died, while the peas and  beans, carrots radishes were fine. The chard and beets were damaged but survived. Harden off a little at a time. the wind movements outside stress the stalks of your babies so that they slowly replace tender tissue with the plant equivalent of scar tissue, a necesary thing to do before planting outside for good.

Obviously different plants have different optimal palnting times for our zone. Do it early, but not too early. Plant in the evening, and then water generously.  You can plant by moon cycles for best results, I have my moon chart for this season, but admit I haven't followed it. I'm sure my farmer goddess freind Lala is appalled that I would plant so stupidly!

I don't know much about this one either.  I know to water in the early AM not the evening except for that first planting.  Why? Diseases love water to stick around on leaves and stalks, so if you water in the morning the sun will dry the plants, giving them a better change to remain disease free. I know soaker hoses are best and most environmentally friendly. Watering two to three times a week is great, and that no plant likes to be soggy or dry all the time -barring cacti (you freaks). Not watering your veggies regularly can turn tomatoes sour (from experience) and leafy veggies bitter (yuck, also from experience). Lots of herbs and lettuce will go to flower or seed if you let them dry out even for a day. Heat I think also plays a role in this.

Masquerade bugs love kale, broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage. I need to Google how to get rid of them. Aphids love tomatoes, but can be controlled by lovingly (but not sensuously) sponge bathing your plants in soap water (soap water mixed w/ olive oil for a more aggressive approach), and/or by hosing the plant off vigorously, or by inviting ladybugs to your garden.  Ladybugs are very social, so they might not have time to stop bye.  Don't be offended, they meant to RSVP. Birds  are good for your garden bug control, but if you're like me and have thirty million cats, or stray cats in your area, this isn't going to work for you.

A little shade can be a really good thing even for plants that say "full sun".  The best area of garden I have, has a little tree shade for some hours of the day. Don't over or under water- easier said than done. Weed religiously so those little parasites aren't sucking the good stuff away from your prized rutabagas. Make sure to thin seedlings, or none of your plethora will thrive. If you don't want weird looking carrots, make sure you don't have lots of rocks or weds in your garden. You can abuse the hell out of rosemary, sage, marigolds and thyme. Forgot to water? No problem! Cat chomped on most of the leaves? No problem! Planter knocked over in the hail storm last night, and plant is splayed out on the deck like a fish out of water? Replant- It will be fine! You know who won't take any abuse? Cilantro and basil.  Don't F around with those guys. Give peas something to climb up or they will turn brown and die. Give pumpkins, 40 square miles per plant to grow, because those suckers are HUGE. Don't let fruits/veggies sit on the soil, bugs will get them from below causing a lot of sadness when you go to harvest. Harvest often to keep plants producing. Clip chard leaves around the outside when there are 5 or more leaves, or trim at base and test your luck. Lettuces can be trimmed often and will keep producing.

So that's what comes to mind right now about my gardening failures.  I hope you have some tips for me as well as an incredibly successful garden.

Happy planting!