Urban Gardening 201: get to work!
Is gardening 201 too advanced for you? Take Gardening 101: How to Plant, the pre-requisite!
Now that you’ve decided where and what to plant, it’s time to figure out how to actually do it!
In the same way that a great meal starts with the best ingredients, a successful garden starts with great soil. Whether you’re a backyard or balcony gardener, you need the right balance of nutrients to make your plants grow well. No wimpy tomatoes for you this year!
“It’s important to have a soil that’s very rich but also light and fluffy, so we recommend at least 30% compost and 30% peat moss or coconut fibre, and the rest an organic gardening soil,” says Tereska Gesing, co-owner of Urban Seedling, a Quebec-based one-stop-shop for seeds, seedlings, soil and pest control advice, complete garden installation, consulting and maintenance. In her initial soil mix, she also adds chicken manure, Acti-Sol, an organic fertilizer. If your garden doesn’t retain moisture well, you probably need to add peat moss, but that’s very acidic, says Gesing, “so you need to add lime to adjust the pH each year. It says on the bag [of lime], but we add 35 lbs per cubic yard.”
When planting, she also tosses worm castings into the hole. As flowers appear, she adds a kelp fertilizer. Then, at the end of the year, she adds a fish emulsion. “It’s important to add nutrients back into the soil at the end of the year or at the beginning,” she says. Then, at the beginning of year two, she adds a layer of fresh compost and soil.
When to plant
If you’re starting plants from seeds, they typically need to spend between six and eight weeks indoors. So if you haven’t started your tomatoes or peppers yet, it might be best buying seedlings or choosing quick-growing cherry tomatoes. But for anything you’ll be planting in early June (e.g. radishes, kale, lettuces and other quick-growing, cold-hardy plants) or later in the season, there’s still time.
Baby it’s cold outside
You also don’t want to plant anything outdoors until night time temperatures are above 2˚C or 3˚C. “Then you can plant things like lettuce, spinach, kale, chard, carrots, radishes, leeks, peas, arugula,” adds Gesing. “To add the more sensitive plants like tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and beans, you need nighttime temps above 10˚C.” Turns out you can actually plant earlier in cities than rural areas because of the pollution and concrete creating a heatsink. And if you’re in a warmer climate with no risk of frost (lucky you!), plant anytime. To find out more about planting dates, check out the Farmer’s Almanac, basically the bible of planting (but with recipes!).
Seedlings you’ve grown yourself need to be hardened off, which means getting them used to the colder temperatures outside by bringing them out in the day and back in at night. If you buy plants at an outdoor market, you can skip this step, but if you store them inside for awhile before planting, they could use some more hardening off. For more info on transplanting and starting plants from seed, check out The Spruce and Planet Natural.
Don’t plant in wet soil
The soil should be moist but not soggy. To test it, grab a handful of dirt. If water trickles out, it’s too wet. But if only a few drops come out, it’s perfect. If you have a raised bed, your soil will drain faster, so you won’t need to wait as long after it rains. You can also plant earlier in the season because a raised bed will warm up quicker.
How to plant seeds
Plant three times the depth of the seed. “Acommon mistake is to plant seeds too deep,” says Gesing. “Lettuce seed is super small, so we just sprinkle it on top of the soil and sprinkle a little soil on top. And for beans or peas, we push it down a half-inch.” It should take seven to 10 days for the seeds to germinate. “If you’re starting them outside, cover them with a sheet of plastic, a window frame or a glass to create a greenhouse effect until they germinate,” says Gesing.
Plant the seeds, then cover them up gently
How to transplant
Dig a hole large enough to cover the roots of your seedling. Add some chicken manure or other organic fertilizer into the open hole then add the seedling. Nutrient-guzzlers like tomatoes need a good sprinkle. Don’t worry about burning delicate plants like lettuce – using too much fertilizer won’t harm them, says Gesing. “It’s just a waste of money.” Here’s a video to walk you through the transplanting process.
Then, be careful to disturb the roots as little as possible. “Ease the seedling out of the pot and hold the entire root ball – the hunk of dirt containing the roots after you pull the plant out of the pot,” says Gesing. “Because if you crush the stem, the plant is finished. And don’t shake out the soil from the plants.” Then fill in the hole, trying not to pack the soil too tightly, and water the soil at the base of the seedling, avoiding the leaves.
Room to grow
Plants want their own space as much as the rest of us, so follow the guide on the seed package for the required space between plants and rows. “It’ll say thin to six inches between plants and you need to respect that amount,” says Gesing. “Lettuce seeds are really small and it’s hard to plant lettuce seeds one per six inches, so if you have a bunch come up in one area, you need to remove the weaker ones and leave the strongest. You can move the others, but if you’ve planned for ten or 12 lettuce plants and four come up in each area, then you have way too many lettuce plants. I suggest cutting them for salads.”
Weed control, parasitic wasps…and flame throwers
“Our favourite tool for weeding is a flame thrower,” says Gesing. Should you happen to not own a flamethrower(!), the best weed defense is a good offense. “Invite beneficial insects into your garden to create an eco-system that sustains itself by planting perennials, flowers and herbs,” says Gesing. “We have parasitic wasps the size of poppy-seeds that attack caterpillars that attack your plants.” Other options include mantis, grub-attacking nematodes and aphid-eating lacewings.
Once weeds appear, though, a little elbow grease is required. Here’s a video on how to weed. Weed early and often, says Gesing. “Weeding tiny little weed seedlings is easier than weeding a jungle. Remove broken branches and diseased leaves. Keep an eye out for slugs and beetles. But the most important protection for your garden is your presence and going out in the morning or evening for 15 minutes and watching, looking, observing and learning what a happy plant looks like.”
This garden is ready to rock n' roll!
Pruning and suckers
By suckers, I don’t mean people who buy tomatoes instead of growing their own; I mean the little would-be-branches on basil and tomato plants that grow at the intersection of pre-existing branches and the plant’s stem. “It’s very important to pick off suckers because each sucker becomes its own vine. We grow our tomato plants up a trellis and we fit 2 or 3 vines on a trellis and remove the others, because otherwise your garden becomes overrun with vines and you end up with bushels and bushels of unripe tomatoes at the end of the season since our season is shorter.” If your season is longer, however, you can let those suckers grow! Here’s a video of how to prune tomato suckers.
A popular natural insecticide is a combo of crushed garlic, hot sauce, soap and oil. “Leave it in the fridge for 24 hours, drain out solids and dilute in water,” says Gesing. “But I don’t suggest any kind of insecticide, natural or organic or not, because as soon as you start unbalancing the garden, like all the aphids are killed, your garden is vulnerable.” If your garden has everything it needs, she says – a minimum of six hours of sunlight per day, enough nutrients, natural, organic fertilizers and fluffy soil – your plants will naturally be resistant.
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