Take it from the Farmer…. Growing Tips for a Beautiful Garden, Part III
Part 3: How and What to Plant
Once your garden beds are ready… in April (or earlier)… it’s time to plant them! Many wonderful crops love the cold nights of late winter and spring and will produce wonderfully at this time of year. In fact, just about anything can be transplanted at this point except tropicals like basil, peppers, tomatoes and eggplants which will need some protection against potential frost or heavy rains (basil is incredibly sensitive to going below 40 degrees or having wet leaves for prolonged periods). Crops that do great now are all the leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, potatoes, peas, beets, carrots, many herbs, onions (they’ll be smaller than fall planted onions), and many more.
We highly recommend transplanting your vegetables into your garden. This allows you to baby them as seedlings on your window sill or in a hoop house or cold frame. But mostly, your transplants will spend only half their life in your garden (compared with all of the life of direct seeded crops) and therefore will have less time that they are exposed to pests and diseases. Transplants give stronger growth with fewer problems, plus you can grow more sequential crops with transplants since each crop spends less time in the ground than something that is direct seeded. In our experience you can grow anything from transplants!
If you don’t grow your own vegetables from seed, there are some very specific recommendations for where to buy your nursery starts. Big Box stores buy their nursery starts mainly from giant nurseries outside the county. These big nurseries grow the basic varieties that usually are not well adapted to our Sonoma County climate, but their names are easily recognizable to us consumers. The prime example is the ubiquitous Black Beauty Eggplant found at most nurseries in this county. This eggplant variety needs more heat and day length than you can get in this county unless it’s a particularly hot summer and you live in the sweltering Cloverdale or Geyserville areas. This eggplant is best suited to the central valley and Imperial Valley deserts!
Likewise, heat loving brandywine tomatoes do great in hot summers in Santa Rosa or Windsor or Healdsburg, but a brandywine in Sebastopol or another cool climate is often a real challenge (like the past two colder-than-usual summers we’ve had). Also take note that some of the nursery plants sold at Farmers’ Markets are sold by local nurserymen, not farmers. While it’s great to support these local nurserymen, not all of them grow their own nursery starts to harvest and fruition and therefore they may not know the qualities and appropriateness of the variety to our Sonoma county climate and local micro climates. But a farmer selling his or her own nursery starts is selling varieties that have been proven to work in their farm’s climate and they can tell you a whole lot more about the variety’s peculiarities, needs and appropriateness!
In one bit of Tomato advice… if you’re looking for a super early, full size tomato, look for russian varieties with the mention of “early” or “cold tolerant” in their description – many of these have performed exceptionally well for us year after year allowing us to bring full sized, field grown, heirloom tomatoes to market 6 or 7 weeks prior to other farmers! Pair these early tomatoes with some standard mid/late season tomatoes and enjoy fresh tomatoes from your yard starting in early summer and lasting deep into autumn. We transplant our early Russian varieties into the fields in late March and our regular tomato varieties in late April and May.
It is important to approach your garden as a living, breathing continuum, where plants are continually being harvested and transplanted. Many gardeners only transplant once in the late spring and harvest those plants until they’re done. But if you start early in March (or never stop in the fall/winter) you can continually produce healthy food from your own garden. For instance, a new planting of 6 to 10 lettuce plants every 3 to 4 weeks can provide a few salads per week for a family all year long! Likewise, follow a crop of February sown peas that get harvested in June with a July planting of broccoli to harvest in September followed by beets transplanted in September for harvest in February, etc.
In addition to sequential planting, also try Companion Planting. Traditional companion planting is often based on chemical interactions between various plants, but there are other interactions to be aware of (and take advantage of) as well. For instance, we love to transplant lettuce plants in between our broccoli plants (transplant them all at the same time with the standard spacings, 16” to 20” for broccoli and 6” to 8” for lettuce plants). We get twice the crop from the same area; the broccoli protects the lettuces from hot sun and wind making it more tender and tasty; the salad helps keep the broccoli weed free and maintains soil moisture by shading the soil more than the broccoli; the lettuce will harvest first before the broccoli fills out and covers all the soil with its shade. What makes them great companions is that both their root zones and foliage zones occupy different spaces thereby making them great companions rather than competitors!
Lastly, rather than mentioning front yard gardens just in passing, I’m going to make a plug for them: Front yard gardens make a bold and beautiful statement about your values. Rather than lawns or xeriscaping, think about local food production – right in your own front yard. Let your neighbors see what you’re doing. Share your techniques with them and learn from their experiences. Don’t hide your food in the backyard, show your children that you value the food you grow. Plant it in the front yard where you walk past or through it multiple times a day to and from school and every other time you step out your front door to go somewhere! Share in your bounty with your neighbors. Host weekend produce exchanges to share extra vegetables between all the gardeners in your neighborhood. Make your food production visible and celebrate it! And besides… it’s a lot easier to put delivered compost on your front yard garden beds than it is to wheelbarrow it all the way around to your backyard!
If you missed the other parts of “Take it from the Farmer…. Growing Tips for a Beautiful Garden”:
Part I click here
Part II click here
(c) 2011 Paul Kaiser
Paul Kaiser is a leader in ecological agriculture who was recently recognized with an international award for his work in biodiversity and pollinator conservation on his farm, Singing Frogs Farm. Paul served in the Peace Corps in The Gambia, West Africa. He worked with several rural agrarian communities to develop sustainable land use management systems, turning degraded lands into economically viable and biologically diverse and resilient farmland. Since then Paul has received dual Masters Degrees in Natural Resources Management and Sustainable Development from the United Nations University for Peace in Costa Rica and the American University in Washington D.C. In the last five years, Paul and his wife Elizabeth, have married sustainable land management with local food production at their biodiverse and family friendly Singing Frogs Farm in Sebastopol.