Spring is just around the corner and spring fever is beginning to rise. After months of inactivity, there is a stirring, a desire to get outside and do something, to connect with nature. A great output for this extra energy is to create a garden. Not only does it give the outdoor exercise being craved after months being cooped up indoors due to cold weather, but also offers the promise of delicious summer vegetables and seasonal crunch often missing from a winter diet of comfort food.
However well intentioned, an idea can go horribly wrong at various stages of bringing it to life. To have a successful garden and a good harvest at the end of the season requires planning and thought as well as significantly more action than often expected, but a garden can draw you in, making even the toughest chore a joy and a pleasure.
The first step to a good garden is planning and ideally, this should be done well before spring starts. Besides, there isn’t much that needs to be done in the garden itself at this stage anyway. The key aspects to consider when planning are:
Where you put your garden is the most important decision you will be making during the planning phase. Most of the crops you will likely want to grow require 6 – 8 hours of full sun, so you may need to sacrifice your sunniest spot in the backyard to accommodate this requirement.
Another point to consider for the garden location is making sure it isn’t overshadowed by trees. They may not seem to present a problem now, but once the leaves come in, the sun may struggle to reach your garden. The other issue with trees is their roots can invade a nearby garden to take advantage of the easily available nutrients and regular watering. This may make it difficult for your crops to compete; even raised beds are at risk of this potential problem.
Don’t forget to find out where pipes and electrical wires run on your property, as accidently digging through one can not only be annoying and expensive but also potentially dangerous.
This may be limited by the space you have or by your willingness to dig, but it is a good idea to have a clearly defined area for your garden before the detailed planning begins. If you know how much space you have, it will help you to know how many plants you can grow. If you find that your desire to grow various crops outweighs the space you have, you have three choices: extend the size of the garden, grow extras in containers, or make the hard decision to postpone some of the crops on your wish list to the next season.
Now that you know the space available, the fun begins, choosing the plants. It is good to get the whole family involved, as they will be the ones eating the harvest. There is no point growing things nobody likes to eat. Make a big wish list of everything you would like to grow; then find out as much as you can about them. What conditions do they like to grow in? How much space will they need? How tall will they become? How long will they take to reach maturity?
The hard part comes next. With so many exciting crops to choose from, it is impossible to make a wish list that will fit even the largest garden, so a refining of the list is required. The easiest ones to cross off the list are the ones that don’t like to grow in the conditions your garden provides. As much as you would like to grow them, they will never do well so if space is limited, it isn’t worth trying. Consider the length of time a plant takes – could you use the space that would usually be taken by a long term crop for several quicker varieties instead? Decide which is more desirable for you in your garden.
Finally, you need to look at the space individual plants need to thrive. They have their own sense of personal space, and if they are too close together, they will have to compete for light, nutrients and as a result, become weaker specimens, vulnerable to pests. Another consideration is that the reduced airflow creates the perfect environment for fungal disease. Once you have decided what you want to grow, you need to work out how many of them will fit in your garden.
The first step of physically gardening is to prepare the soil. Since it is the foundation of the garden, it needs to be ready for your plants before they move in. All the weeds need to be removed, and most importantly, their roots. This is an arduous task, ideally done well in advance so you can leave it for a few weeks after weeding to allow any disturbed weed seeds to germinate and be weeded away. Covering the garden with cardboard to exclude light for 6 – 8 weeks can take care of most of the weeds. But if you don’t have that kind of time, then you need to dig, slowly and carefully and remove all traces. A little effort now will make the entire growing season so much easier.
Once the ground is clear, enrich it with organic material – compost and well-rotted manure - to provide nutrients for the micro-communities and the plants, but also to improve moisture retention. Slow release fertilisers help to provide sustenance, especially for plants that will be in for a long time. Once the soil is well prepared planting can begin.
Plants also have their own sense of timing often driven by temperature and day length, so there is no benefit from starting too early to try and ‘get a jump on the season’. Plants planted at the right time do better than those started too early in conditions too cold or even too wet. Gardening requires patience.
Bearing all this in mind, you can respond to the stirrings of spring with an action plan that will set you on the road to success with your summer garden. Let the planning begin!