Monday, April 18, 2011

Tips for Planting the Summer Vegetable Garden

We've passed our last frost date here in southern New Mexico, so it is time to plant the summer garden! I'm excited for the year ahead, and hoping to have better success than last year (when I was plagued with drip system problems and consequently didn't have a very happy garden).  The keys to a happy garden are good soil, the right amount of water, and plenty of sunshine.

Plan it Out
Before I planted my first summer garden a few years ago, I drew up a little plan of my garden and mapped out where I would plant everything.  Then I actually planted things and learned that the "plan" was totally off. These days, I still like to do at least a bit of planning ahead for plant placement. I do the following:
  • Take stock of old seeds - If you've previously planted a garden, you may still have some old seed packets.  Figure out what you've got and what you still need for this year. I only had to buy a couple seed packets this year. 
  • Plan for companion plants - For instance, tomatoes will benefit from being planted near parsley and dill, and would enjoy the afternoon shade offered by sunflowers.  Basil likes to be planted near tomatoes. For more ideas, check out my post on companion planting with herbs.
  • Get a rough idea of plant placement - Make sure to find a nice, sunny spot for your plants.  To reduce pests and diseases, it is a good idea to make sure you don't plant the same type of plants in the same location year after year.  I also need to re-think plant placement a bit each year because my compost heap changes locations and other plants (like strawberries) have taken over more area in the garden.
Prep the Soil and Add Compost
Good soil is key to a flourishing garden.  The ideal soil will have plenty of nutrients for the plants, will drain away excess water to prevent root rot, and will also retain enough moisture to keep the plants from drying out too much between waterings. Even if you have great soil, at a minimum you'll still want to turn over the dirt in your garden annually. This ensures that the ground is not too hard-packed so that roots can easily grow.  It also helps to mix nutrients evenly into the soil since certain areas may have been depleted by previous plantings.

If you don't have very good soil, you'll need to amend it to make it better.  Overly sandy soil drains too quickly and the plants will dry out too much.  In some yards, there is clay soil which is problematic since it drains very slowly and is very compacted (which makes it hard for roots to grow). The best thing to use for amending your soil is compost!

Compost is basically decomposed plant matter, and it is full of nutrients.  Using compost is a great way to enrich the soil as it retains just enough moisture and provides all the fertilizer your plants will need to grow and thrive.  The ground in my yard is full of sand and rocks.  Every year I remove more rocks and add more compost, so over time my garden soil is getting better and better.

Compost is also great to use because it can be very cost effective. I have two large compost piles, and it is wonderful to put all of my vegetable scraps plus yard waste to such good use.  If you don't yet make your own compost, check to see if your local city has any available.  In my area, we can get compost for free at the city landfill.  You can also buy compost at the store.  Whichever compost you use, make sure it is fully composted before planting your vegetables in it.  My mom uses store-bought compost and finds it best to amend the soil and then wait 1-2 weeks before planting.

Get to Planting
Once your soil is ready, you can start planting!  Some plants, like tomatoes, get planted individually with plenty of space between plants.  Other plants, like corn, get planted in rows.  And then squash, cucumbers, and melons get planted in hills.

When transplanting tomato or tomatillo plants, it is a good idea to gently pull off a few stems from the bottom of the plant.  Then plant the tomatoes deep so that the bottom of the main stem (where you removed the stems) is buried in the ground.  This will give the tomato plants a head start as roots will grow off the main stem.

This year, the edible plants in my garden will be:
  • Tomatoes and tomatillos
  • Butternut squash, spaghetti squash, zucchini, and yellow squash
  • Cucumbers
  • Sunflowers, marigolds, and nasturtiums
  • Strawberries and raspberries
  • Green onions
  • Celery
  • Parsley, basil, dill, and thyme

Make it Beautiful with Flowers
I take a queue from my mom and always plant flowers in with my vegetables.  This makes the garden beautiful to look at, but it also aids the vegetables.  For instance, sunflowers can provide late-afternoon shade for tomatoes, marigolds can benefit strawberries, and zinnias can attract lots of beneficial pollinators.  Nasturtiums are also great to plant as bugs are more attracted to them than to your veggies. For more information on companion planting with flowers, check out the Extreme Gardening book.

Set up the Watering System
Where I live, we have an annual rainfall of only 8-11 inches so supplemental watering of the garden is absolutely required!  If you don't get regular rain in your area, you'll also need to supplement the water in your garden.  I know many people who like to use sprinklers or even water with the hose by hand, but my preferred method for watering is a drip system. Drip systems are wonderful for many reasons:
  • Drip systems deliver water directly to the ground around your plants.  This keeps the plants healthy and beautiful as many do not like having their leaves wet.
  • If you use a timer with your drip system, it will ensure that your plants get watered on a regular basis. This is a must for me as I can't be trusted to remember to water my garden all the time.  
  • Drip systems conserve water since the water goes directly into the ground where it is needed, instead of up into the air.
Setting up a drip system can be complicated or simple.  My drip system is part of the overall landscape irrigation system that we installed.  However, you can easily set up a drip system off the hose bib in your yard as well.  They even sell drip system kits at the home improvement stores.  If you want more info, check out this free irrigation tutorial site.  

Once you are done transplanting and your seeds have started growing well, it is a good idea to apply a layer of mulch to the garden.  Mulch helps to keep the ground from drying out too much, and it also keeps the plants off of the moist ground. Alfalfa hay is especially good to use as a mulch because it provides nutrients to the soil as time goes on.

Get the Kids Involved 
Getting your kids involved in the garden is wonderful.  It teaches them about the life cycle of plants, lets them feel responsible and confident, and gives them skills for their own gardening endeavors as they grow up.  Even very young children can participate, although when they are under 2-years-old their contributions will look more like getting filthy in the dirt. My daughter, who is now 4 years old, has had her own little garden space in my garden for the last couple years.  She helps me plant seeds and transplant seedlings into my garden, but she especially loves having her own space where she can plant anything she wants, however she wants!  And she is immeasurably proud when she gets to harvest food from her garden and watch us all enjoy it at the dinner table.

Watch it Grow and Keep a Journal!
Once your garden is planted, it's time to enjoy watching it grow until the foods are ripe.  A friend gave me the great idea to keep a gardening journal.  Each year, I record what was planted, when it was planted, and how it fared.  This helps me keep track from year-to-year on what worked best.

What are you planting this year?

This post is part of Fight Back Friday at Food Renegade, Pennywise Platter at The Nourishing Gourmet, Monday Mania at The Healthy Home Economist and Real Food Wednesday at Kelly the Kitchen Kop


Anonymous said...

I never know what to mulch with, but alfalfa hay sounds like a great choice!

Barb @ A Life in Balance said...

Great tips! I garden in the mid-Atlantic area, and of course, we usually don't have water issues like you.

I've never heard of removing the bottom tomato leaves before planting them. I usually just stick them in until about 2 inches remain above the ground, depending on how the plant is growing.

In our area, we're able to get free leaf mulch through our county. I built my beds with it, and now I add an inch every year or so, along with our homemade compost. Good stuff!

Sarah Smith said...

Oh, yes leaf mulch would be wonderful. Not any available here as there aren't many trees. Hmmm, I wonder if there is any difference between pinching off the tomato plant stems or leaving them on so long as you plant them deep?

Barb @ A Life in Balance said...

I doubt that it would be an issue. I don't think the leaves would get moldy or anything else while in the ground. So far, it's worked us, and it's easy. :-)

Sarah Smith said...

Oh, I wasn't wondering if it was an issue; rather I was wondering if pinching off the stems make them grow roots quicker or if it doesn't matter.

Danielle said...

I love that you plant flowers with your veggies! That would for sure make a plain-ish veggie garden a little more appealing. And, off the topic, I never read your "About" section very thoroughly before, but I'm really glad to hear that you are a sucker for a good spreadsheet, too. :)

Sarah Smith said...

Ha Danielle, yes I can't seem to get enough of spreadsheets. I have one for my daughter's chore chart, one for my own household chores, and many more. :)