Where to start. Methinks that you are focused on food production although I’m thinking intently about perennials. You win; here we go.
Take a good look at your property. You will be positioning your vegetable garden where it will get the most sun, be close to a water source and near enough to your kitchen so that you can pop out to make a harvest for the meal at hand. Easy enough. Of course, I have failed on the third point. The vegetable plot is as far from the kitchen as it can possibly be. But there was a reason: it was the only more or less flat area with enough room for the greenhouse. There you have it. Do what you need.
Also, this is the perfect time to notice where the snow drifts are. Try really hard to find a spot that is not under the deepest snow. I know there are those of you who sprinkle wood ashes to hasten the melting process but, for some reason that I’m not sure how to articulate, I don’t do that. I let nature take its course. The snow will melt — those of you at higher elevations may be tearing your hair out — but, really, your crops will catch up to to those in town.
What about wind? We have a steady day breeze that most certainly affects the well being of the vegetable plot. I have considered this and that to slow the wind, but, in the end, I just let it blow. Where it has influenced me the most is against the east fence where I intended to espalier (train to grow flat against the fence) fruit trees. The wind usually comes from the west, hits that fence with remarkable intensity and whirls around like a dervish before dissipating. If there were fruit trees there they would be demolished. Plus it’s a marsh.
Ah yes, the marsh. If nothing else the native iris setosa and marsh marigolds thrive there. So that’s yet another consideration for you — avoiding wet areas. They are not your friend when it comes to growing food.
But you will need to water your vegetables so, if you have running water, try not to install a million foot hose. If you are hauling water, well, good luck. John has set up a catchment system that diverts water from our sump pump to a barrel with a pump. There is an on/off switch that controls the pump and a hose at the ready. This water is used exclusively for perennials. I don’t trust it for food. You can catch water off your roof — same idea. Storing it could be a challenge to be met.
I am a firm believer in raised beds. Ours are about 12-inches high by 3-feet wide and 12-feet long. For structural integrity they have support boards every 3-feet across. I love this because that gives me four 3-foot square boxes within the bed to organize the plants. And I do love an organized garden. John determined the width based on how far I can reach. I’m short and although I wanted 4-foot wide beds they wouldn’t have been practical. Think about that. They are spaced so the lawn mower can easily move between them and I can use the trimmer to make the edges super neat. Plus, you will only water the growing area and you won’t compact the soil around the plants because you won’t be stepping into the bed, allowing air to circulate around the roots. And you will only be weeding within the beds. Doesn’t all of that sound divine?
Once you have found your spot, lay down cardboard (go to the dump, there is lots of cardboard), water it well and pile topsoil on it. Really, that is all there is to it. The cardboard will kill the grass and whatever else is down there first. No, it won’t stop weeds forever, but will give you a good start. I really think grass is our most invasive weed anyway. Once again, if you have structure around your bed, life will be that much easier. We use rough cut and the beds have lasted about 15 years before they start to fall apart. Please start small. You are not feeding the town; leave that to the high tunnel people.
Now. You want to buy your vegetable starts. If you have been following this column this season (or since 1990) you will know that I am a proponent of buying starts. Check with our local excellent nurseries to determine their hours. They are accommodating our physical distancing, letting us order and using curb side pickup. Take advantage of this. Plus they will have sensible varieties for you. No okra for us, nor watermelon — think root crops and cole crops. There will be an excellent selection for you with knowledgeable sales personnel to assist.
I also realize that many of you have time on your hands and want to start seeds on your own. Well, mine are well underway. If you choose to do this, there are seed racks all over town. Choose what you and your family will eat. I think this is a common mistake. Really think about what you will use and how much of it. A seed packet can hold 300 seeds of cauliflower for instance. That’s a lot of cauliflower. Another reason to buy starts.
Your planting date, depending on elevation, is about the middle of May. This is such a variable. It all depends on snow cover; how wet the soil is (there is nothing worse than cultivating wet soil; you will regret this all season, so hold off until the soil dries); if we have a summer; you get the picture.
I do not buy starts. There, now you know. Starting my own seeds is something that I have always done, will always do, and I’m set up for success. The vegetable seedlings are in the greenhouse with our excellent lengthening daylight, supplemental heat and convenient water. Really, the only reason there is heat is to coddle the tomatoes that are cohabiting with the vegetables. It’s a very busy operation this time of year. Thankfully.
The permanent greenhouse residents: four kinds of tomatoes, basil, green beans and cucumbers are as happy as can be. They snuggled into their beds along with a short row of radish and four lettuce starts. I start each of these 10 days apart for a steady supply. The lettuce and radish thrive for the first planting in the greenhouse, but after that they need cooler temperatures and need to be outside, easily accommodated.
Please start small. The most common mistake is too much too soon. I don’t want you to be daunted by your vegetable garden. No indeed. I know that we are facing uncertain times, but there is a learning curve here that most of you need to embrace. Be patient.