First, prepare the soil.
Seeds should not be planted in weedy soil; they will not be able to compete. Remove weeds by hand-weeding, hoeing, or smothering them with a layer of thick mulch, cardboard, or opaque plastic. Do not use herbicides like Roundup—in addition to their health hazards, they will inhibit the germination and establishment of your seedlings.
Tilling is often used to prepare a seedbed and remove weeds. It is a quick and easy way to get a workable seedbed. However, it will make the soil dry out faster, so beware if you are in a drought zone. It also can damage soil structure and the diversity of soil life. If you have a choice, chose a plow or spader over a rototiller. If you are using a rototiller, use a shallow setting and go slowly as possible. Never till perennial weeds that spread by underground runners, like Bermuda grass, quack grass, bindweed, or sheep sorrel. Every piece will root and make a new plant. Pull them or shade them out with cardboard first.
The traditional method of soil preparation is spading or forking by hand, and that is an excellent method. You want to loosen the soil enough to let in air and make the surface crumbly, remove weeds (or bury them) and incorporate amendments to enrich your planting area. Start at one end of your bed and work a shovel at a time from one end to the other. Then break up the clods with a rake or fork, and level the bed. You want a fine texture so seeds don't fall into cracks too deep for them to find the sun. All amendments should be spread evenly and incorporated into the top 4-6” of soil.
The best way to know what amendments to add is by getting a soil test. Another way is to ask local gardeners, farmers market vendors, or your cooperative extension service. The best all-round soil amendment is compost. It cannot burn or damage plants, unlike more concentrated fertilizers. Compost helps your soil retain the water, oxygen, and carbon to feed soil microorganisms and plant roots, as well as containing enzymes and plant hormones for quick seed germination and healthy root growth.
If you have acid soil (more likely in areas with rainfall over 40 inches a year,) you may want to add a small amount of lime or wood ashes. Depending on your climate and underlying rock present, your garden may have other specific nutrient needs.
Then sow your seeds.
Now the seeds go in. Consult the label on the packet and make sure you know these things: Where to plant—full sun, part shade, or shadier. When to plant—before or after your last frost date in spring or first frost in fall. How deep to plant—if in doubt, figure on twice the seed's thickness. But some seeds need light and should be covered only lightly if at all. Others need deeper planting to access moisture and have a strong anchor. (Corn & sunflowers are typical of the latter.) Last, how far apart to plant.
Some people (usually with larger plots) use the row system: you till the entire area and put your vegetables in single rows and blocks as needed, with no permanent paths. In that case, rows should be a 1 ½ times to 2 times as far apart as the spacing of plants within the rows. (Depending on how much access you need and how you plan to weed and water.)
Many home and market gardeners use the bed system. This has beds of a standard size, with permanent paths between. Within the beds, you can plant in lengthwise rows, crosswise rows, or staggered rows (a honeycomb pattern, which fits the most plants into the space but is harder to hoe.) Some grains and cover crops are sown broadcast, where you scatter the seed as evenly as you can and rake it in slightly, (using a short back and forth motion rather than a long sweep with the rake.)
To plant a row, use your hoe or trowel to make a furrow, by drawing the corner of the tool to make a line as deep as your intended planting depth. If you use drip irrigation, put your row next to the drip tape. Scatter the seed in the furrow, slightly closer than recommended spacing. Then use the soil from the uphill side of your furrow to cover the seeds. Water well, and keep moist until you see sprouts.
One reason gardeners often have too much zucchini, not enough, carrots, and bitter lettuce is that they forget to plan for how long each crop will last.
Some plants are only harvested once; carrots just give the one root for example. Lettuce can be stretched to several harvests if you cut leaf-by-leaf rather than the whole head, but the plants will start to get tough and bitter as they bolt to seed. To have good quality over a long period, you need to have new ones coming along at the same time your first ones are maturing. This is called succession-sowing. If you wait to replant until after you've harvested, it's too late.
For crops like this, you need to leave some empty space when you first plant, so there will be room for the second wave. You'll need more seeds for this type of plant than for longer-lasting ones.
Root crops, and many leaf crops fall into this category.
Other plants give many pickings. Some go all summer. One indicator of long harvest is a vining habit. For example, pole beans produce all season, while bush beans give a big harvest and quit. Determinate, or bush, tomatoes cover themselves with fruit and then stop. Indeterminate, vining tomatoes go on and on, bunch by bunch.
Below is a guide to which plants need replanting and which ones don't.
Plants that need succession-sowing: These will need to be planted every 2 weeks for a continuous supply.
Sow summer crops in succession through June.
Sow hardy crops* again starting in mid-to-late July for fall and winter harvests.
*arugula, bush beans, *beets, *heading broccoli, *cabbage, *carrots, burdock, *chicory and endive, corn, fennel, *lettuce, *Asian greens, *radishes, *spinach, sunflowers, determinate tomato, *turnips.
These can produce most of the summer from one planting: If you season is very long and hot, you may want to plant a second wave or a later variety to keep up quality and yield, but each plant will be picked over and over and produce many harvests.
Starred * plants are often planted in July for a fall crop.
Pole beans, *sprouting broccoli, chard, *collards, cucumber, eggplant, *kale, melon, okra, peas (replant once) summer squash (zucchini), indeterminate tomato.
These usually make one large crop, so they are planted once, (or twice for a longer harvest period.) Crops that are normally succession-sown can be handled in this way if they are meant primarily for storage--freezing, canning, drying, or fermenting. In garden planning, these will usually be succeeded by a different crop or a cover crop. For example, when corn is harvested, there will be no time for more corn to mature; the space will be planted to a winter cover crop or a fall vegetable.
Starred crops take a long time to mature but are winter-hardy and can be used slowly out of the garden over the winter, as they hold a long time in cold weather.
Dry beans, corn, winter squash, onions, *leeks, *parsnips, *storage beets, *winter cabbage, *rutabagas, grains
Living in drought-stricken California, I welcome additions and observations from gardeners further East, who have experienced heavy rains, flooding, or massive storms. My own experience with gardening in wet soil comes from the Alaska rainforest, where summers are very cool and rainfall is constant but seldom torrential. Here are some tips that have proved themselves in my gardens and for gardeners in the South:
The necessities for any garden are water, nutrients, air, heat, and light. These lead to biological activity which leads to plant growth. In wet or flooded conditions, the excess water crowds out air in the soil. Wet soil is constantly being cooled as water evaporates off the surface. (This may not be a problem in the south. Further north it is a major obstacle.) So the big initial challenges are to replace anaerobic soil conditions with aerobic, active ones, and possibly to warm the soil cooled by evaporation.
Smoke acts on growing plants in several ways, and the effects of smoke will vary depending on what else is happening in your area. Temperature, latitude (day length), humidity, and soil makeup will all change the effects of smoke to some extent. Some effects you can change, and some require you to change your expectations. Here is what we learned last year as we coped with the nearby August Complex fire--the largest in California history at that time.
This is a new area for most of the gardening community, and there are few guidelines out there. However, I will share my experience and observations along with what local farmers observed during past fire years.
Plants that have to ripen fruit did the worst. Tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant had delayed ripening. Plants with soft leaves, especially leaves you eat, were affected. Lettuce, for example. Squash, with its big soft leaves and need to set fruit, were adversely affected also.
Beans did better than other fruit-producing plants, possibly because I grow mostly beans that come from marginal environments and are adapted to hot, alkaline soils. Pellegrini romano did well. Rattlesnake, with it's tolerance for marginal conditions, did well. Round Valley (Covelo) beans, Nodak Pinto, Carol Deppe's resilient beans, Borlotto, and Yessica's Inca Beans all did well. Bush green beans were more affected. Dragon tongue did best, but was less juicy than usual. Provider and the Bush Mix bore poorly and were tough. The purple beans in the mix did better than the green or yellow ones.
Corn was delayed by falling temperatures and reduced light, but Carol Deppe's dry corns matured dry ears in spite of late planting and smoke. The longer ripening period made corn more susceptible to insect damage, but it did all right otherwise.
Sunflowers did well. Brassicas did well; the alkaline ash and reduced temperatures suited them down to the ground. I usually surround my cabbages with ash to deter slugs, anyway. And their waxy leaves resisted smoke damage. Those stalwarts, chard, arugula, and turnips did fine, as they always seem to. Endive also did well, probably because the leaves are more sturdy than lettuce.
I welcome comments from others. As we proceed into new territory, our shared observations are the only guide we're going to have for awhile.
Heat, drought, smoke, and flooding all affect your garden directly, and while we can't change or prevent these calamities, we can mitigate their effects.
Here are some specific things you can do, problems you can watch for, and varieties you can choose to help your garden heal and thrive.
What can you do right now?
What to be aware of for next year:
Recommended crops and varieties:
A nursery bed is like a magic trick--allowing you to harvest twice as much from your space.
Most gardeners now recognize that having a steady supply of cool-weather veggies through fall and winter is just as important as the summer garden. But where can you put all of those fall vegetables?
Many people wait until tomatoes and corn are over, so they have enough space--but by then it is too late and the plants never size up before the winter days get short.
Using a nursery bed is a trick that can give you two gardens at once--your summer garden still in the ground, and your winter garden waiting its turn. Because the plants in the nursery bed are young, they are spaced closer than they will be later, so they take much less garden space.
How to Make It
A nursery bed is just a piece of ground cultivated to a crumbly texture so that seedlings can grow well. Add compost, which contains substances that trigger germination and growth. Your nursery bed can be an unused bed in the regular garden, a raised box made of wood or blocks, or even a large tub. In hot-summer climates, afternoon shade is good, so either site it to the east of something tall--like a house, shed, or row of corn--or use shade netting.
How to Use It
You can use a nursery bed, or part of it, for starting seeds instead of in flats or pots. But where it really shines is to hold seedlings that are too large for the flat or pot and in danger of getting potbound. At that stage, when they are too big for their pots, summer crops are normally planted into their permanent places. In the case of winter crops, though, those places are already occupied by summer crops that we don't want to disturb. Instead, put them into a nursery bed, where they can grow until early fall. It turns out that many winter crops like cabbage and broccoli actually do better if they are transplanted a couple of times. Since they will be transplanted the final time when the weather is getting cold, mulch them immediately so they have warm moist soil to make a good root system.
Here's a step-by-step example:
Companion planting can be a fuzzy and confusing topic. Books often seem to parrot other books rather than either data or personal experience. Some purported companions, like tomatoes and carrots, are pretty much unworkable. (Don't miss Carol Deppe's hilarious attempt to make those two work in her book The Tao of Vegetable Gardening.)
But successful companion planting is something we see every time we walk in the woods or look at a grassy field.
Native prairies combine grasses with legumes and flowering plants in a community that fertilizes and defends itself. Traditional pastures do too. Farmers in many parts of the world grew crops mingled together, some by tolerating chance associations and some by design. A few groupings have been recognized and become standards.
A classic grouping is the Three Sisters of North and Central America--corn, pole beans, and squash (more on this one in the following post.) Traditional African farmers combined millet or sorghum with cowpeas and yams; again, there is a grain, a legume, and a broadleafed groundcover. In the best groupings, each offers a "service" to the others, such as shade, root exudates, nitrogen fixation, pest control, pollinator attractant, smothering weeds, or other benefits. But to be honest, we don't know many of the ways plants interact. Sometimes all you can do is what gardeners have always done--just try things out.
Plant pairings allow you to grow more in a given space mostly mostly by staying out of one another's way. Here is a checklist for making your own pairings:
Finding vegetables to match can be difficult. Herbs and flowers are easier to use as companions for vegetables than other vegetables are.
They demand less fertility from the soil (often less water, too) and provide the nectar for beneficial insects. In wild systems, the sheer diversity of plants protects them all from pest and disease outbreaks. In gardens, there are fewer kinds of plants, and those are less able to defend themselves. The compounds that help plants resist pests often make them inedible. By growing succulent leaves fruits or seeds for us, plants leave themselves more open to attack. So it is especially important to add lots of nectar-producing flowers for insects like lacewings, minute pirate bugs, hoverflies, parasitic wasps, and other predators to protect vulnerable vegetables. You can find seeds for often-used and effective herb and flower companions HERE
Here are some of the services non-vegetable companions can offer:
Permaculture is just now rediscovering the style of garden that fed North America for thousands of years. Native peoples grew all of their staple foods without either draft animals or mechanized equipment. Far from being a drudgery, Native American gardening was much less labor-intensive than the type of gardening we know now. It was based on plants that came from the Americas and love to grow here--corn beans, and squash. These main crops were called "the three sisters." Because the sister crops were the staff of life, they were the focus of legends, songs, and ceremony.
The sister crops work in home gardens today for the same reasons they worked for First Nations farmers: They produce big yields without mechanized equipment:
From time to time, articles appear about three sisters gardens. But they usually don't tell several important things that this sheet hopes to cover:
Corn is the basis--the older sister. You plant the corn first, and it forms a tall trellis for the beans to grow on. It's deep roots break up the soil for the weaker bean roots. And the sugars in the sap of the corn plant leak out an to the soil a little bit, giving other plants--as well as soil microorganisms--energy to grow with. In three sisters planting, you need a tall, sturdy corn that can handle the weight of the pole beans. To prevent lodging,(falling over) it is a good idea to plant the seed fairly deep (1”) and to hill up soil around the base of the little corn plants before you plant the beans. Planting in clusters helps with stability as well.
Beans are next—the giving sister. Planted after the corn is a foot high, they climb up the corn, so you can grow high-yielding pole beans without constructing a trellis. Beans have nitrogen-fixing bacteria on their roots, which keep the hungry corn from depleting the soil nutrients. Transpiration of moisture from the corn leaves allows the bean vines to be in full sun without so much heat stress. The beans are planted after the corn is 8” high, one bean per stalk.
Squash—the protecting sister--provides the living mulch that conserves moisture and keeps the sun from baking the soil. It's tangly, prickly vines and leaves make it harder for marauders (like raccoons) to get to the corn. The squash is planted 2-3 ft from the corn, since it is big & vigorous.
Sometimes there is a fourth sister. In fertile areas like the Midwest, it would be the sunflower. (You can grow beans up sunflowers as well.) In drier areas, basketry or ceremonial plants were added. I like a few zinnias at the edges. They contribute by drawing beneficial insects that eat pests. I have also added radishes under the squash leaves, where they stay cool and shaded. Their brassica scent seems to keep squash bugs from finding my squash plants so quickly. The key to adding other plants is that they need to fill a different niche and have a unique contribution to the whole.
Depending on how much space you have and how bright the sun is, you can choose from several ways of laying out your three sisters garden.
Step by Step:
In options #1 or #2 above, you start by making mounds for the corn clusters. Each mound should be 18 inches across and about 5 inches high (if you can bury some compost or kitchen waste under the mound, so much the better.) The mounds should be 5 or 6 feet from center to center. ( This is not terribly exact, so make it work with your space. The point is that they need about as much space as you take up with both arms spread.) Make the center lower than the edges.
In #1, the circular garden, the first set of mounds make a cross (in the four directions traditionally) with each mound 5 feet apart. The next set goes in the center of the wedges formed by the cross.
In option #2, just make the same 18” mounds down the center of your bed and 5 feet apart.
Now sow the corn: In the mounds, make four holes in a square pattern 6 inches apart. Put a corn seed in each hole, 1 inch deep.
In rows (option #3) plant your seeds 10-12” apart in the rows, and 1 inch deep.
Sow the beans when the corn is about 8” tall. Before sowing, hoe up some dirt to cover the bottom of the corn plants an inch deep. This will help them be steadier. Plant 4 bean seeds in between the corn plants, on the sides of the square in your mounds.
Layout #3, plant a bean seed 3” from every other corn plant around the edges.
When the beans have sprouted, its time for squash. Make mounds just like the ones you made for the corn/beans. Plant two squash seeds in each mound. You may need to hoe the entire area before doing this, because by now there may be weeds. Once the squash gets going, it will prevent weeds from coming back. Layout #1 and #2, place the mounds in between the corn clusters. Leave one side free of mounds for access.
Layout #3, the squash is in rows apart from the corn, to the south, east, or west, not on the north side. Plant squash seeds 3 feet apart in the row, with 3 feet between rows.