Every year around early summer, I begin to despair about my garden. Either the sun or rain has beat down on it for days on end. The birds and squirrels have dug up my seeds. My tiny seedlings aren’t growing. My bigger plants are full of bug nibbles.
Yet every late summer and fall, we have bountiful produce fresh from the backyard. And at the end of every year, I find growing my garden worthwhile. It brings our food miles down to zero, ensures my food is totally organic, stores carbon in the soil, creates habitat for animals, and is a wonderful way to bond with my kids.
But how do we go from those spring days to the (semi)-successful harvests? The whole process actually starts in the winter.
My gardening cycle begins when the first seed catalog shows up in our mailbox. Bright and colorful when the ground outside is brown, the pages tempt me with descriptions of delicious vegetables. We order from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, which offers organic and heirloom seeds cultivated for the Southeastern U.S. Other heirloom seed companies specialize in other parts of the country and world. Many places also have seed exchanges, where gardeners can share seeds they’ve saved from their own plants. This year, I sat down with my three year old and actually asked him what he wanted to grow. Together, we made a list and put in our order.
While we wait, we compost through the winter. While it’s too cold for our shredded newspaper, fruit scraps, and vegetables to break down, they wait in the composter patiently until spring. In the meantime, we’re not adding to our garbage.
Once the seeds arrive – usually in late February or March – we start our seed starting process. For seeds that must be started indoors – mainly tomatoes and peppers – we plant them in small pots. In our house, we mainly use recycled yogurt pint containers that I’ve punched holes in the bottom of. My older son is an essential part of this process – he loves plunging his hands into the mud. Afterwards, we place the plants under a home-built indoor growing set-up. While you can buy expensive sets from gardening catalogs, you can easily make your own as long as you have a shelf where you can hang a light fixture above it.
As the ground warms, we ready the plants and garden for planting.
As the sprouts get bigger, I separate them into new pots so they have room to grow. (Usually way later than I should!) Of course, we also make sure to water them every day. In theory, this is my son’s job, but I always make sure to back him up. He also enjoys “petting” the plants, which mimics the wind and toughens them up. About a week before planting the seedlings, we leave them outside for a little longer each day. Just like kids, seedlings don’t handle abrupt change well.
A week or two before the likely last frost (you can look this up in the Farmers’ Almanac), I start sprouting seeds using a second method. For big seeds like squash, beans, and peas, I find it very effective to pre-sprout the seeds before placing them in the ground. I place the seeds on top of wet paper towels, wrap them up, slip them inside of plastic zip-lock bags and store them horizontally somewhere warm and dark. (I usually put them on top of our fridge.) The plastic bags keep in the moisture, making it more likely the seeds will sprout in comparison to the variable weather outside. After 10 days to two weeks, I check to see if they’ve sprouted. Much longer and they’ll just get moldy. A lot of the time, they get moldy anyway. Despite the mold, I still have better luck with this method than planting them straight into the ground.
By now, there’s little else to do but water every day. I have to keep an eye on my three-year-old son to ensure he doesn’t eat the green tomatoes, but it’s mainly a matter of harvesting the vegetables as they come along. And fobbing the extra cherry tomatoes off on my co-workers.
While most people think of garden prep in the spring, the majority of mine comes in the fall. Besides the typical ripping out of dead plants, we also do all of our preparation of the ground for the next year.
I do what’s called lasagna gardening or layer composting. With this method, we mimic the forest floor by piling up layers of organic matter. Starting with a layer of cardboard to suppress weeds, we add newspaper, compost, and leaves to the entire garden. By the end, the entire thing should be a few feet high! There are two major advantages to this method: it builds the soil wonderfully and minimizes invading weeds. Despite having a yard full of aggressive weeds, we need to weed relatively little in our garden.
And then the cycle starts all over again. While the discouragement may come back around, so will the joy and eventually, the delicious vegetables.
Written by scientist, mother, and blogger Shannon Brescher Shea. Read more about gardening and parenting and her work at her blog We’ll Eat You up We Love You So.