The Most Important Thing To Plant First
There are any number of different claims of what you do first when you start a new garden - what is the first thing to plant. I believe most of those suggestions are off target; as you begin to invest your time and money in a garden, I would like to see you plant a chair. I am not kidding. Planting a chair helps make the garden a part of your life. Place it in the shade (if you don’t have shade, consider an umbrella and stand). This is where you’ll plan your garden and the more time you spend with your garden as a place of refuge, you’ll see problems before they become big problems. Make the garden a part of your everyday and your garden will show it. And you will benefit more than just fresh veggies!
Starting From Seed
Don’t cover your seeds too deeply! If you go too shallow, you’ll have to hill soil up over them; if you go too deep you’ll never see them again.
Keep your seeds moist. This might mean you have to lightly water them twice a day or so. The watering meter I use is my right hand index finger. Soil should be moist up to the first knuckle.
Follow a planting chart for your area - in Southern California, we can plant year round, but there are plants that do better in heat and others that do better in cooler days. Find out what works for your area. You can find a garden in your neighborhood that looks good, ask that person! Gardeners are friendly folks. If you are in Southern California and near the ocean, here’s a shameless plug for my own cheat sheet.
If you put down too many seeds, use the scissors on the Recruit Swiss Army Knife to cut the excess out - if you try to pull them, the roots will be intertwined and you’ll pull up plants you don’t intend to. If the leaves can be used in salads, wait until they grow enough to be noticed and put them in salads.
If you keep the soil moist and you have fresh seeds, you should see little guys popping up in a week (cooler weather will take longer). Remember, patience for humankind is a virtue, for gardeners it’s a necessity!
Planting your garden from seed is more economical, offers a much larger variety from which to choose to grow, and you’ll be so much more proud of your efforts that you “grew it myself!” It even tastes better, I guarantee!
While all plants can be grown from seed, sometimes your schedule won’t let you, or your still too scared to try, transplants work for many of our food plants (you cannot plant root crops like carrots or beets with good results). One of the most transplanted of all our plants are tomatoes.
Do not try to plant summer crops like tomatoes and peppers too soon. Tomatoes especially will not forgive you for giving them “cold feet!”
Bury tomatoes deeper than they were in their container - you’ll get more roots and more roots mean more tomatoes, even remove all but the top leaves and bury the rest of the plant deep but keep the top leaves above ground.
Space your plants according to their needs - not yours. Some tomato plants are the size of a small tree and they need support, some tomatoes are two feet tall and very polite. Know which one is which and space them far enough apart that the big ones will not cover the little ones. This data should be on the tag when you bought it.
Do not plant the same plants in the same space year in, year out. This is true of most plants, but most importantly for tomatoes. Tomatoes have a number of diseases that can ruin your soil for tomatoes and relatives (eggplants and peppers and others). Rotate your plants and do not grow tomatoes etc in the same place as last year. Try to never plant tomatoes following beans and peas - all them podded plants add Nitrogen to the soil - and for most plants that’s wonderful! For tomatoes, it's not good news - the tomato plants will grow green and huge and completely without tomatoes until the Nitrogen is used up. Then it will produce tomatoes - if you are in SoCal, it’s not a big deal because, after all Summer is endless there, but if you have a cold fall or winter, the fruit will not get ripe in time.
Watering - General Tips
While many of you will water with a system and a timer, I prefer to hand water with a hose. Students in my classes on gardening are only allowed to water with a hose and a fan sprayer nozzle. Watering your garden builds a relationship that timers do not. Watering makes you aware of your gardens’ needs on a regular basis. Using a fan sprayer, with a pressure control lever, is the best way to water because you control the water pressure at the end of the hose - you can even turn it off at the watering end which saves water and we need to save water as the precious key to our lives that it is.
It is preferable to water in the evening so that water has the chance to percolate into the ground deeply enough to not be evaporated.
If your plants are prone to mildew (a whitish powder like substance that invests many plants) you’ll need to NOT water in the evening, but water in the daytime. This is less desirable than watering at night, but you will lower your losses from that ubiquitous fungus. The earlier in the day, the better - the sun will evaporate water on the leaves and help your plants survive. If you are close to the coast, or are humid for other reasons, you will get mildew on your plants. Try to grow several crops, each a few weeks apart. That is not a bad idea even if you don’t have mildew.
All gardens should never have bare soil on top - take time to cover the ground with an organic mulch. This keeps water in the soil from evaporating (and we all have to worry about water!) and also cuts down on the number of weed seeds that sprout.
Twelve Keys to a Successful Organic Garden
Use less fertilizer than you are told. By half. (I don’t use any fertilizer at all, but I don’t have the space to give you the whole system - your plants don’t need all that you are told they need.
No pesticides. Yes. You will lose some plants. It’s OK. If you spray, you’ll kill more beneficial insects and you are set up to have to sprag again. It is a lose/lose situation. You can kill with your foot or hands (yuck), but no chemical pesticides - and that includes organic pesticides.
Continuous cropping. In most of California that means plants in the garden 12 months per year. But in your growing climate, unless you live in a really short warm season, you can get more than just two or three crops. Maximise your production by interplanting and replanting as much as your seasons will allow.
Compost everything you can. Makes a good product to add to your garden (in place of fertilizer) and keeps stuff out of the land fill!
Mulch. No bare soil - every inch of it should be covered with an organic mulch like wood chips. Lots of benefits as it slowly breaks down - and another product not in the landfill!
Protect your pollinators. Remember those insects we mentioned above? These are the insects you do not want to kill and therefore the ones you want to thrive. In fact, learn what other things they eat and proved that and water for them! Work with nature, not against her. (Note: she never loses either.)
Plan for diversity in your garden. It is the mono-culture that is the real enemy. Nature doesn’t grow in a mono-culture. Be like her. Interplant one crop with anther. Experiment. Like broccoli with garbanzos or lentils between the broccoli plants.
Grow your own plants from seeds. Better and more choices. Start them when you want rather than depend on corporations’ time schedules. Grow new releases first on your block.
Save seeds. Many are very easy and you begin to build a supply of seeds that you know on a personal level. You won’t understand it until you do it how magical it is. It will enchant you.
Preserve and share your harvest. Once you’ve grown it, you will quickly find that nature is generous to a fault! Rather than waste it, learn how to preserve it (dried, made into jams or pickles) or give it away. Too many tomatoes? Make tomato sauce in 2 or 4 cup amounts to freeze and eat over the winter soups or in pasta.
Grow what you want to eat! Prioritize learning to grow the expensive stuff - skip onions, but grow shallots! And test the rules - “they” say garlic isn’t a good choice in my garden. “They” didn’t try it, I did and my garlic in my garden has been a smashing success.
Don’t ever get to the point where you think you know it all. Mother Nature will quickly force you to disavow that idea. Keep learning. Be willing to try new varieties and study the seed catalogs for varieties that might solve a problem or two. Take my classes and when I get a book published, buy it. Thank you.