By Jann Wiswall
Gardening is the talk of the town these days as just about everyone with a lot or a little land, a patio with a flowerpot, or a porch with a hanging basket has greeted the growing season with long-awaited joy.
Getting those garden plots and pots off to a good start is the key to enjoying the fruits (and veggies and flowers) of your labor all season long.
Gardening does, of course, require physical labor and your attention, for certain, but remember that, in just a few months, you’ll be sitting down to a feast of just-picked vegetables with a bouquet of fresh cut flowers as your centerpiece.
As Sir Francis Bacon once said, “Gardening is the purest of human pleasures.”
And, because every gardener should also cultivate his/her sense of humor throughout the growing season, remember these wise words from columnist Dave Barry: “Your first job is to prepare the soil. The best tool for this is your neighbor’s motorized garden tiller. If your neighbor does not own a garden tiller, suggest that he buy one.”
Barb Kozlowski, one of Ellicottville’s master gardeners, says the most important thing you can do, whether you’re just starting out or are a seasoned gardener, is research. The Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) office in Ellicottville is a great place to start, along with the Internet, the library and bookstores. Read everything you can about gardening and then make a plan. Kozlowski also recommends keeping a garden journal. Sketch out your garden at the outset and what you plan to plant. Then take notes all season so you’ll remember next year what worked and what didn’t.
According to the CCE, your garden plot should be located in an open spot away from the shade of trees where you get at least six hours of direct sun every day. The plot should have good drainage. If you see standing water after heavy rains, you’ll want to re-grade the plot by adding or removing soil and keeping it level. Building raised beds or planting in terraces that run across a slope can work well to ensure good drainage.
Be sure to locate your plot close to a water source. Your garden needs at least an inch of water each week during the growing season, which is way too heavy to carry!
Kozlowski says that, for a brand new garden plot, your best bet is to contact the CCE office for information about testing your soil’s pH and nutrient levels. Western New York soil is rocky and clay-filled, which can be a challenge.
“You have to make sure your soil is workable — it needs to be loose enough that the roots can get established,” Kozlowski says.
Once armed with your soil diagnosis from the extension office, begin by loosening the soil to at least 6 or 8 inches deep. Then you can mix in any recommended additives such as compost, fertilizer or well-aged organic material into the soil. Once the soil has been leveled and raked smooth, you’re ready for planting.
If you’re a beginner, Kozlowski suggests you start with a small plot. There is nothing more discouraging than planting more than you can take care of. Next year, plant more of what you didn’t have enough of, and less of what was in surplus.
Map out your garden plan to help you visualize what it will look like and make the best use of space. As a general rule, give each plant 1 square foot of garden space. Plant tall crops on the north side of the garden so they don’t shade shorter ones. Give squash and other vining plants a little more room; peppers need a little less.
Group perennial crops together — those that come back every year such as rhubarb and asparagus — along one side of the garden so they will be out of the way. But give them a little more room every year — they spread in size as they mature.
Hate broccoli? Don’t plant it! As the CCE says, “Think about what you and your family really like.… Vegetables will go to waste if what you grow doesn’t match what you eat.”
Seeds or Seedlings
Growing from seeds is the least expensive route to a bountiful garden, but if you want an earlier crop, a head start or just a sense of instant progress, you can invest a little more by purchasing vegetable plants.
Most of the garden centers in the area have what you need. You might try Gardens in Thyme, the greenhouse at 5177 Baker Road in Little Valley that opened last summer, where a healthy and wide selection of vegetable and herb plants are ready for planting today.
Make the Most of Your Space
You can double or triple your yields by trying some vertical gardening techniques.
Mary Perkins, a CCE master gardener, wrote in a recent post on the CCE website that “vertical growing is simply getting [your vining crops] up off the ground and trained or tied to some kind of support. The supports used can be just about anything — cages, fencing, a teepee of poles, or strings tied to a building’s side. This method of growing is ideal for tomatoes, pole beans, peas, cucumbers, melons, winter squash and other vine type crops.”
Growing veggies and herbs in containers is another option, especially if you don’t have yard space. Tomatoes, potatoes, bush beans, herbs and many other vegetables do well in pots as long as they have drainage holes and are large enough for the plants’ roots (keep that 1-square-foot rule in mind). You can also use containers to decorate your patio with edibles or place some containers directly in the garden to create a tiered effect — they save space and you can plant lower growing vegetables around them.
If you’re only in Ellicottville on weekends, plan to travel this summer or just want to minimize maintenance, a new self-watering container available from Scott’s Landscaping in Olean could be a great option for anything you want to plant. EarthPlanters only need to be filled every three to four weeks. They’re made with recycled plastic and re-purposed carpeting right here in New York and come in many colors.
For all the answers to your gardening questions, visit the Allegany and Cattaraugus County Extension site at http://blogs.cornell.edu/ccecattall/ or call (716) 699-2377.