An Ounce of Preparation is Worth a Pound of Tomatoes

Written By: Carrie Caselton Lowe For gardeners and produce farmers, it is the season of hope. Those of you who are gardeners know what we are talking about. The season of seed catalogs, with their colorful ink laden pages, beckon the grower to “try me...again”. Words describing vegetables could sell an adventure movie (cold hardy, excellent vigor, bolt resistant). The names of plant varieties themselves sound like terms of endearment. Sugar Buns, Honey Select, Luscious, and Temptation are all names of sweet corn varieties! It is not surprising that catalogs combined with those first warm earthy days of March, give even the most casual of gardeners hope.

So in this season of hope, how can you take that excitement and turn it into a successful and joyful growing season? One place to begin is knowing your garden square footage. Most of us have limited space in which to plant. This means you need to know how much space your plants require for optimal growth. Looking on the back of most seed packets will describe the plant’s space requirements as well as days to maturity, planting depth and other useful information. Now you can prioritize which plants to grow and how many of each. Note: You can ALWAYS plant things a little tighter than the seed packets suggest!

Gardeners also need to consider soil type and micro-climate of the garden space. With that information as well as knowing how many plants needed, you can begin to think about what varieties would be best for your situation. Choosing unique varieties for your garden can be part of the creative process, and it allows you to use the best varieties for your unique garden situation. The garden might be fairly shady or have a lot of clay. Whatever the situation, choosing the right variety can make a good vegetable amazing.

If you are planning to start plants indoors, first of all, way to go! Starting seeds is not for the faint of heart. It is very rewarding, even when things don’t work how you expect them to - which is the majority of the time. When starting seeds, it’s beneficial to have the right size containers for the seeds you are starting. Of course, you can always repot into larger ones once your plants outgrow their original containers, but each repotting causes an “adjustment” period that takes up growing time. Therefore, each repotting reduces the effectiveness of starting the plants early in the first place. A general rule of thumb is the larger the seed, the larger the pot or cell the plant will require. You can use anything from egg shells to yogurt containers to start plants. Onions, flowers and herbs, celery, kohlrabi, and greens can go in anything quite small like egg cartons (just support them since they will get wet). Cabbages, Broccoli, cauliflower, corn, eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes can go in a little larger container like the size of a 2 ounce cup. The larger, quicker growing and leafier plants like cucumbers, winter squash, and zucchini are better suited for something the size of a small yogurt container. Of course, these are only suggestions. No matter what you decide to plant into, it is critical to get the plants out of their pots and into the ground or larger pots before they become stressed. If starting seeds is not for you, check around with friends and acquaintances who start their own seeds. You can work with others who have the space and expertise to start the endearing and adventurous varieties you read about in the catalogs.

This is also the time of year to prepare for the maintenance, fertility, and upkeep of our gardens. Secure sources of soil amendments like manure, compost, and mulch. We all need to give back to our soil for all the complex work it does. So try to find a a diverse array of manures and composts to apply while you are preparing your soil in the spring. Also mulch, from leaves to straw to cardboard, is a great help in reducing weed pressure on your precious crops. Craigslist is a great place to look for soil amendments and mulches if you don’t know where to start finding them. It’s also easy to forget to take care of equipment issues until the implement, like a rototiller, is needed. Be sure to take care of any issues now, so things are in good working order when you need them.

Lastly, our crops only grow well if they receive approximately an inch of water per week. For the past several years, Wisconsin summers have been quite droughty with long stretches of time between rain events. Plan for drought by having an efficient irrigation system. Drip irrigation and soaker hoses are ideal for conserving water and directing the water right to where the crops are. Overhead irrigation is inefficient since a large portion of the water is lost to evaporation, especially during hot dry conditions. Overhead irrigation also waters the weeds, which don’t need any help growing even during a drought. Look into getting a timer for your irrigation system, that way you don’t have to spend time thinking and/or standing about watering your garden. Instead, you can spend your time weeding, harvesting, mulching, and simply observing, smelling, tasting, and enjoying the fruits of your labor.

In all the hopes and expectations of the early spring as a gardener, we suggest that you also hope for and expect some failures. Perhaps, lessons and opportunities are better words than failures. Our garden plans rarely manifest how we hope, but with an open mind and heart, every gardening adventure and misadventure is an opportunity to learn about so many topics including soil, climate, insects, plants, rabbits, and most importantly ourselves. We wish you a deeply rewarding growing season with a few lessons along the way!

Carrie is a farmer at Glacial Hills Community Farm, a Nourish Ambassador, and a member of Nourish’s Program Development Committee.