Planning a Garden

Planning a Garden

I love to garden. The dirt caked under my nails, the smell of dampened soil, transplanting tender seedlings into a garden bed. There’s nothing quite like bringing life to a previously silent patch of earth. But it wasn’t always easy for me. Despite being from Florida, I held these conventional expectations for what should be planted when. And, year after year, my family’s sad gardens wilted under Florida’s deafening heat.

But then I spent a summer working on an organic, biodynamic farm in Maine. Talk about a total revolution in my gardening life! The farmers up at Blue Barrens were masters of their craft, teaching me veganic, organic farming methods, composting, drip irrigation, and the relationships between plants. And despite how difficult my body found the stooping motion of scooping berries, I consider that job a major success, because I learned how to keep a successful garden. Each year is a new opportunity to improve on the last. And even though it’s late in the season here in Colorado, there’s a bounty of planting still to be done nationwide.

If you’re looking to start a July garden, the first thing you have to do is get to know your planting, or hardiness, zone. The USDA has a great interactive map that lets you determine which zone you live in. After that, the internet is your friend; looking for what can grow in your zone is as simple as this calendar generator from Mother Earth News, which tells you when to plant indoors and out, month by month. Once armed with this knowledge, head on over to your local nursery. Most often, they host a wealth of knowledge on idea planting cycles and pairings particular to your region. When I moved to Boulder in 2016, Harlequin’s Gardens had a handy planting calendar for me, as well as knowledgeable staff. Local nurseries tend to have specialists who know exactly what a garden needs in that region, and can help you through most questions. If possible, find a nursery that is neonicotinoid-free, especially if you’re buying flowering seedlings. Supporting somewhere committed to combatting colony collapse disorder is important for all gardeners. If that’s not possible in your area, buying organic seeds from your nursery is a great way to support sustainable practices in your town.

It’s worth noting that if you’re working with limited space – and who isn’t – an essential part of plotting is looking at companion planting, or plants that work well side by side. Mother Earth News comes in handy once again, this time with their comprehensive list of plants that work in tandem to help each other thrive. Why does this matter? Different plants deter different pests, and often work together to keep their companions safe from aphids, beetles, and other destructive bugs. On top of this, different plants release different nutrients back into the soil, helping keep their neighbors nourished. Diversifying plants not only helps keep your garden bed healthy, but certain herbs like basil are said to impart better flavor to its neighbors as well. Sign me up!

Equipped with season-appropriate seeds or seedlings and a grasp on companion planting, you’re ready to get plotting. And regardless of whether you’re a Coloradan, ready to plant some spinach, arugula, kale, or carrots for an autumn harvest, or a Floridian starting some delicious nightshade plants – the plotting remains the trickiest step for newcomers.

And I was lucky to have a little help. My first year living in Colorado, I had the privilege of living with Kate Weiner, creative director of Loam Magazine and certified in Permaculture Design from the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center in Sonoma County. Needless to say, my gardening know-how skyrocketed with her advice. And our apartment had the invaluable perk of a garden bed. Our garden was wonderful. She taught me some crucial tips for veggie gardens in a small space, and I’m eager to share them all with you.

Although it seems fun to dive right in and plant a row of this, a row of that, the truth is that the best garden arises when you’ve sketched it out, accounting for your space available, companion plants, and the sunlight needs of each seedling. In small plots like the one Kate and I shared, a key I learned is building upward. Having cucumbers, tomatoes, and beans climb up poles or fencing not only looks nice and conserves space, but has the double benefits of giving a higher yield for tomatoes and providing shade for more delicate summer plants like certain lettuces. Building a wall of vines that block midday sun helps the lettuces stay cooler through the worst of the heat, and their root systems aren’t the kinds that compete with one another.

This mindfulness around root space is another integral part of planting in a garden bed. Be sure to plant things whose root systems vary in depth. For example, try planting root-heavy plants like carrots and beets alongside upward growing plants like greens, beans, and cabbages to maximize a limited space – without detracting from your yield.

While all this is well and good, what about those of us without gardening beds? My first year in Colorado, I didn’t have the luxury of a plot of land. Nevertheless, the thawing spring called to me. And I did have a balcony. So, I got to planting. And if all you have is a balcony or a sunny window, you can do it too. My balcony garden took shape in old rice sacks, holiday popcorn tins, and five-gallon containers arranged on the back porch. This season, I planted tomatoes and basil in a decommissioned toilet. With diligence, water, and proper companion planting techniques, you can have a porch yield to be proud of. One way to maximize these ultra-limited gardens is to seek out mini varieties of vegetables. Mini carrots, for instance, work well in container gardens – plus the pride you reap from a balcony-harvested root vegetable!

Regardless of if you’re using a garden bed or a balcony, remember to incorporate organic compost – veganic if available – to help nourish your soil and boost yields. Local compost is best, and you can coordinate with local farmers or services when available.

Gardening is a fulfilling and empowering way to spend time outside, and put your land and food into your own hands. Head down to your local nursery today and get planting! What grows best where you live? What’s the first thing you’ll plant this summer? Let us know in the comments below!

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