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Down & dirty: Once weather finally breaks, get out and garden

Down & dirty: Once weather finally breaks, get out and garden

Just get out there, get dirty and have fun
Down & dirty: Once weather finally breaks, get out and garden
Photographer: Shutterstock

There’s nothing more inviting after a long winter than getting down in the dirt.

For some, the melting of the snow and the warming of the sky means getting to work on that garden.

For those who’ve been doing it a long time and those who are just starting out, there are basic steps to follow, whether you want to just till around the soil and harvest a few tomatoes or whether you’re deeply invested in producing the ultimate victory garden.

GETTING STARTED

We know you’re anxious to get out there. But Northeast winters often take a while to completely move out, well after the calendar notes the first day of spring. All that snow has to melt, then all that water has to disappear. In the meantime you get slush and then mud. And then, if spring this year is a typical one, the rains will come along and spoil your plans. 

For our area, it’s not really safe to plant anything in the ground until the end of May, when overnight temperatures generally bottom out above freezing. Waiting until then gets us past any chance of a late frost killing young plants.

But just because you can’t plant anything outside doesn’t mean you can’t begin getting ready for your garden by planting seeds indoors and preparing the soil outside.

While you’re waiting for the snow to melt and the mud to dry up, you might want to start planting those seeds pretty soon.

Look at the package to see how long specific seeds take to sprout. Gardening experts advise not to start the seeds too far ahead of time because the new plants can get too tall and topple over in their containers. 

John Harpis, the lawn and gardening specialist at Lowe’s in Glenville, said in general, don’t plant seeds more than six to eight weeks ahead of the time you’re going to put them in the ground. 

PREPARING THE SOIL

If you want a successful garden, you’ll devote a lot of attention to the quality of the soil.

“All good gardens start with good soil,” said Allison Defibaugh, a member of the nursing staff at Kulak’s Nursery and Landscaping in Rexford.

Once the ground melts and the mud dries up sometime in April, you can start working on setting the foundation for your garden.

Pick a spot that gets four to six hours of full sun for vegetable gardens.

Harpis said if you’re just starting a garden for the first time, or even if you’re reworking an existing garden, get out there and turn over the soil deeply. Overturn it at least once or twice to really mix it up and aerate the soil.

You’ll want to mix in any decent brand of garden soil. For a 10-foot-by-10-foot-plot, plan on mixing in about 4 cubic feet of garden soil, about two of the big bags you can buy in most garden shops, Harpis said.

For starter plants, some recommend mixing your own soil in a wheelbarrow, using a blend of cured manure (more on that later), potting soil, sand and peat moss.

Defibaugh says you’ll also want to test your soil for pH, which measures the acidity and alkalinity of the soil. A level of 7 is neutral, while a lower number reflects an acidic soil and a higher number indicates an alkaline soil. Soils in our area tend to be acidic, especially where there are pine needles. But if you use a sprinkler on your lawn, salt added to reduce hard water can get into the ground and raise the base level of the soil. She recommends seeking a balance between 6.5 and 7.5 pH. 

There are any variety of testers available. 

Kulak’s will test your soil for free. Just bring a sample of your soil in a coffee can. You can also buy simple testers for as low as 99 cents to more complex testing kits that can cost up to $40.

After you know the pH of the soil, buy the appropriate product to either reduce the acidity or bring down the alkalinity. Lime, for instance, will help reduce the acid level of soil and add calcium and magnesium. To lower alkalinity, you can add aluminum sulfate, sphagnum peat, elemental sulfur or organic mulch. Either way, shoot for around 6.9 pH.

Another consideration when preparing soil and maintaining it throughout the gardening season, Harpis said, is avoiding contaminating the soil with lawn pesticides or other chemicals.

He recommends not applying lawn fertilizers within six to 10 feet of vegetable gardens. Chemicals designed to kill weeds in the lawn can find their way into your garden soil and damage or kill your plants.

If you’re going to install some kind of border around your garden, for decoration or to keep the grass and weeds from spreading, make sure you never use pressure-treated wood. Pressure-treated wood often contains materials like cooper and arsenic that are harmful to plants and to people who eat the plants.

“It will leach into whatever you’re growing, especially for edibles,” Harpis said.

OK, so you’ve got the soil tilled up, properly tested and enriched, and you’ve made it safe from harmful chemicals. 

Next up, the fun part.

PLANTING YOUR GARDEN

It’s early June, the threat of frost has passed, and you’re ready to get planting.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture publishes a plant hardiness zone map, which you can find online, that tells you what type of plants thrive in what type of climates.

For our area, we’re generally considered Zone 5. The further north you go, perhaps into parts of central and northern Saratoga County, consider plants that can survive in Zone 4. Seedling packets will tell you which zone is appropriate for which plants. When you buy plants in a local store, it’s unlikely they’ll stock plants not designed to survive in our area.

When you’re bringing out the seeds you planted inside or the plants you bought from the store, dig a hole about twice the size of the container. Break up and loosen any roots that have crammed together.

Defibaugh said to make sure you plant the plants at pot level. If you plant them too high, water will not be able to reach them. If you plan them too deep, stem will get buried and it won’t grow as well. 

Early on is the time to add fertilizer specific to the type of plants you’re growing. Use commercial fertilizer appropriate for the type of plants in your garden and follow the instructions on the bag to know when and how much to apply.

Longtime gardeners say the key to a successful vegetable garden is natural fertilizers. Yes, we’re talking about ... cow poop.

Always use cured manure (manure that has set for one or two years), because it’s easier for the plants to absorb and won’t burn them during the curing process, said one area gardener. Fresh manure will burn roots and make the soil too acidic. The curing process in aging manure also helps kill unwanted insects. Manure from cows and rabbits is recommended. Experienced home-gardeners say to try to avoid horse manure, which often contains seeds and can promote the growth of weeds. Also avoid inexpensive store-bought manure, which often has the nutrients burned out of it.

If you find the manure makes your soil acidic, follow the advice from earlier on treating acidic soil.

While you’re not likely to have this around from previous years if you’re just starting out, natural compost that you create in your own yard from discarded natural materials can help control moisture, protect against many pests, help keep the soil moist during dry periods, and add vital nutrients to the soil.

And of course, you’ll have to water your plants.

When watering, don’t overdo it, experts advise. Most plants, Defibaugh said, should be thoroughly dried out between waterings. And, she said, never water the plants themselves.

Yes, plants to take in nutrients through their leaves. And water droplets shimmering on green leaves sure are pretty.

But Defibaugh said watering the greenery can expose plants to what’s called “powdering mildew” and “rust,” which is any of a variety of plant-attacking fungi evidenced by tiny orange/orange-brown specks or spots on leaves. You don’t want that, so stick to watering just the soil and let Mother Nature rain on the leaves.

If you do get mold or rust, you can apply fungicides such as copper sulfate.

Some types of plant diseases can spread from year to year. Tomato blight, for example, will carry on from one year to the next. Plants with tomato blight should be removed so they don’t affect neighboring plants.

PROTECTING PLANTS

The animals that live around here -- squirrels and rabbits in particular -- love to feast on vegetable gardens. So you’re going to need two to three feet of one-inch chicken wire all around your garden to discourage them. Make sure it’s high enough to protect the garden above the ground and that you have enough fencing so you can bury it about 6 inches deep and at an angle to keep animals from digging under it. You can also fashion individual cages out of chicken wire to put around each of your plants. That’s particularly helpful for keeping deer from making a meal out of your garden. Make sure you make the cages big enough to give your plants room to grow.

COSTS

Maintaining a garden doesn’t have to be very costly, but it does come with some expense, depending on how elaborate you want to make it and how much effort you put into protecting your plants.

Fertilizer: Bagged fertilizer in the store comes in a variety of prices. A 3-pound bag of name-brand flower-and-vegetable fertilizer can cost about $6 to $15, covering a 12-by-12-foot area for two months. You can buy bagged manure from a big-box garden center for about $2 to $6 for a 40- to 50-pound bag, depending on what you need. A 50-pound bag of composted cow manure will cover about 12 square feet. You can also buy cured cow manure from local farms and some garden centers. A good website to help you find local farms is http://www.agrilicious.org. Just plug in your ZIP code for the farm near you. Cow manure can go for about $30 to $50 a yard. Some farms will deliver it with a minimum purchase.

Seeds: You can generally get a packet of vegetable or flower seeds at your local garden store for $1 to $2 each. Or if you want to stock your entire garden at once, go online and buy seed packets in bulk. For instance, you can go on Amazon and order a 30-pack assortment of heirloom, non-GMO, easy-to-grow vegetable, fruit, herb and flower seeds for about $30.

Chicken wire: A three-foot-high, 25-foot-long roll of one-inch chicken wire will cost you about $15 to $20 in most garden stores. A 10-x-10 garden will require about 45 feet of chicken wire to go all the way around, so make sure you get enough.

Borders: Gardeners can choose from a variety of stone, brick, plastic, metal or wood for borders. Prices can vary from $2 for an untreated 8-foot pine 2-by-4 board, to about $1.50 for a 16-inch section of scalloped edging stone, to $50 for 24 feet of aluminum garden edging. If you want to use the border to keep grass from creeping into your garden, remember you’ll have to bury the edging at least 2 inches deep. Keep that in mind when you’re purchasing border materials.

Tools: At bare minimum, you’ll need hand tools -- a trowel, a hand rake and a hand-weeder, which you can buy for $3 to $7 each. You can get garden gloves in the dollar store for $1 a pair. You’ll also need a minimum of a digging shovel, which you can get new for from $10 to $30; a hoe, which costs about $15; and a garden rake, which goes for about $10 to $25. After that, you might find yourself in need of a wheelbarrow ($25-$50), pitch fork ($25) and garden spade ($15-$25). If you’re a garage-sale shopper and you don’t mind buying your tools used, you can get great bargains for much cheaper than new.

OTHER TIPS AND INFORMATION

Defibaugh recommends keeping a journal to keep track of when you planted your plants, fertilized and watered them.

“You think you’ll remember, but you won’t,” she said.

Also, take advantage of local resources for information about planting, soil enhancements, composting, pest control and other gardening information.

Many counties, including Schenectady and Albany, have their own Cornell Cooperative Extension offices, which host websites that provide very detailed information about gardening. Some also have gardeners on hand to answer your questions. Just google Cornell Cooperative Extension and your county or community name to find the local Cooperative Extension website and the location of your nearest Cooperative Extension office.

Whether you’re a novice who just wants to grow a few tomatoes or someone who really wants to throw themselves into building and caring for a backyard garden, don’t let the season pass. Just get out there, get dirty and have fun.

Mark Mahoney is the editorial page editor for The Daily Gazette.

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