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The Joe Lunchpail Garden

By Mike Thayer

RadishesIf you're the typical weekend gardener, then this is for you.

This is an article designed and catered for the not-so-serious but wants a decent garden kind of person.  This guide of sorts is not fancy, it lacks pages upon pages of beautiful garden pictures, but it does provide content, content, content.

Got Dirt?

Plan your successful garden at the kitchen table.  Sketch out your thoughts on a piece of paper while sipping on your favorite beverage.

Even if you've had an established garden for years, mapping out your garden and deciding on plant varieties can save you time and perhaps money come spring. I like to plan my garden out during the late winter months, when cabin fever takes hold and I'm suffering from football withdrawals.  I also like to check out the garden sites on the internet and the mail order seed catalogs around this time, getting ideas and buying a few things.  Buying in late winter helps ensure you'll receive your order in time for when that spring urge to start putting plants in the ground hits  you.

The first step if you don't already have an established garden is to select an acceptable site.  No weekend gardener/typically average Joe Lunchpail backyard is absolutely perfect, but you'll have a harvest you can be proud of if you locate your garden where it will get six to eight hours of sunlight daily.  The site should drain well, be "reachable" by garden hose, but not too close to the dog house, unless extra fertilizer is desired.

If you don't have a flat backyard, don't worry about it.  Slight slopes can be good thing for drainage, but steep slopes will require terracing and that means the weekend gardening thing just became a "take-a- vacation-in-order-to-make-a-garden-spot" major project.....    Unless you decide that's what you want to do, you may want to consider container or patio gardening.

Don't have room for a big garden?

Patio GardenHow about a couple small ones instead?  Have a little plot for your tomatoes, have another little spot somewhere for your onions, carrots and radishes.  Sow some lettuce seeds in a flower pot instead of those petunias and you've got yourself a nice salad garden, fresh from your backyard.  There are a number of tricks and things  you can do that will save you time and space.  Space limits may mean you can't have everything you want in your garden, you may have to pick and choose.  Too much in a garden or not having enough room to operate can lead to problems and a disappointing harvest.

Don't have a yard?  No problem, then a container garden can be created.  An apartment patio or balcony can host quite a few containers, adding a nice look to your space to boot!TIP:  Flower pots aren't just for flowers anymore.  If you've got a window ledge that just collects dust, put a little flower pot on it sown with parsley.  Down the road, you've got fresh parsley to top a dinner entree.  And don't think you'll be sacrificing beauty by swapping out flowers for vegetables.  A healthy bunch of parsley looks great and bonus - it's edible!

Zoning Your Garden - Picking the right plants, plotting your garden and prepping your soil

It's important to know what kind of plants are appropriate for the area.  You can find a "planting zone" or hardiness level on the back of most seed packets and on those little plastic tags stuck in the soil of starter plants.  Knowing what's "in the zone" will help you determine what kind of plant varieties you want for your garden.  Most stores that sell plants and seed packets are pretty good about selling what's appropriate for the area they serve, but sometimes a few varieties slip in that aren't appropriate or hardy.  As a weekend gardener, make sure you're buying something that is suitable for the zone where you live.

In much of the Midwest for example, you'll want to start planting what's considered "cool weather" veggies about a month before the last frost - plant around mid-April.  The "cool weather" veggies can handle a little frost, seed varieties like spinach, lettuce, peas and radishes. Other veggie varieties can be planted around mid-May where the Mother's Day rule applies.  DO NOT plant the following veggie seeds or starter plants in your backyard garden before Mother's Day:  Beans, corn, tomatoes, eggplant, squashes, cucumbers, peppers, melons.  Pretty much anything can be safely planted after Mother's Day, but don't wait much past early June though if you're planting seeds, as some plants won't have enough time to give you a full harvest before the first fall freeze comes around.

There's room to grow

No matter what size garden you decide on, there's more room to it than you might think.

Let's say you decide on a backyard garden plot of 18' x 7'.  It's a typical backyard Joe Lunchpail garden size but by doing what's called "Companion Planting" you can turn your garden into a better than average producer.  How do you do that?  It's simple really, don't plant everything in single rows.  Plant quick growing plants like radishes with slow growing carrots.  Inter-plant onion sets with broccoli.  Don't plant lettuce in a single row, sow your seeds in a six-inch wide row instead and mix up the varieties, it will make for a better salad.    Peas can be done in a similar fashion, plant a row that has edible pods and just six inches from it, plant a row that does not have edible pods or has a longer maturity date.  Don't EVER single row the onions, it's a waste of garden space, they can go just about anywhere there's some extra space, a couple inches will do, around broccoli, around tomatoes, around anything that takes awhile to mature.  You'll enjoy picking a few as table fare as you wait for the broccoli or whatever to mature later in the season.  Be creative, try to match up fast growing veggies with slow to mature varieties.  A fun one is planting pole beans with corn.  The pole bean climbs the corn stalk, it's a race to the top.

In general, try to plant your vegetable rows in an east-west direction.  North-south planted rows, start off OK, but as plants get taller, they can eventually shade each other out of needed sunlight as the sun moves across the sky.

Consider planting some flowers in your garden.  Marigolds planted around your border for instance helps to keep certain pests away from your soon to be delicious produce.  Certain flowers can also help attract the good insects that will help to pollinate your garden and make those veggies.  Frills and function!

Now Let's Talk Dirty!

Let's face it - fertile soil - that's loose and full of nutrients does not exist in every Joe Lunchpail backyard.  We've all seen those garden shows where the gardening "star" can be seen using a garden tool in the dirt as if it's a hot knife through butter.  Keep in mind that those show gardens have had years of compost, amendments and pampering put into them, so don't get discouraged.  Most soils while not perfect, will grow veggies and flowers and if not, the soil can at least be doctored up and done so inexpensively.

Having good soil is key.  A garden in clay will not be a very productive one for you.  Mixing in some sand and compost will go a long way towards improving matters, although means getting your hands a little dirty.......  but isn't that what gardening is all about anyway?

Amending the soil vs. Tilling

I'm not a huge proponent of tilling, unless you're breaking ground for a new garden or are adding amendments to a heavy clay soil.  For a new garden tilling is almost a must, it's a HUGE time saver and it's easier to amend the soil in getting that garden started.  Be sure to remove that layer of grass though, tilling it up with the soil will result in that grass trying to grow back in your garden among the veggies and flowers you planted. The reason I don't like tilling in an established garden is, 1.  You don't want to accidentally tear up any bulb or perennial areas and 2.  An established garden flat out doesn't need tilling.  Nature works great, a garden that's been properly cared for has all the air and nutrients necessary to start spring planting.  Any amendments to the soil can be sprinkled on, let Mother nature and water do their thing.

TIP: Renting a tiller can be more than a one person job.  Loading/unloading, picking up and returning - you might tag the spouse, son, daughter or a friend to help you out with that.  Also, keep in mind that when renting, a front tine tiller is arguably harder to handle than a rear tine tiller.  Things you can do before you 'til:  Have a pick-up truck or a friend that will let you use theirs for a couple hours? 

If you have a medium to large garden, a load or two of black dirt will do wonders for your soil.  You can find some quality garden grade soil at a local gravel/landscaping materials business.  A truckload of good top soil beats the heck out of buying a bunch of 40 pound bags of dirt at the local garden shop.  Buy plants there by all means, but the dirt, not so much....  Other items to consider adding as a top dressing before tilling that first season garden or heavy clay/packed garden: 

    • Epsom salts:  Plants love magnesium, they get greener, bushier and that's what the epsom salts give you.   Healthy plants fight off pests and disease better.
    • Sand:  If you've got a lot of clay in your garden, this will help break things up and improve drainage.  You can get sand at the same place you get that truck load of black dirt.
    • Pete Moss:  This is a natural, all purpose soil conditioner.  If you've got clay soil, it helps loosen it up.  If you've got sandy soil, Pete moss helps firm it up.  It also hangs on to those nutrients, helping plant roots to feed.

More gardening ideas and tips coming soon.....  

$pend Wisely My Friends.....

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