Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A year in the life of my garden - April through May - Early Crops and Summer Plants

I would suggest that if this is your first year starting a garden that you start really simply. Don't go out and invest a fortune on specialty equipment. A hoe, a shovel, a garden rake, a really nice pair of gloves and maybe some garden shears. Tomato cages, and maybe a bit of fencing and a few fencing stakes. You can easily throw a few tomatoes or cucumbers in a plot of land, but it is not going to produce as well as a well planned out and spaced garden.

Be sure to take your time thinking out a plan that will work for what you want to grow. Sketch it, think about it, dream about it! Think of planning a garden like arranging furniture in your house. You do a lot less work if you have a picture of it, at least in your head before you start.

If this is your first year, on April 1, you don't have the things I planted in February and March. What you might have are some seed starts of tomatoes and peppers that are almost ready for planting. You might also have purchased some bush or pole beans, zucchini, yellow squash, spaghetti squash, acorn squash, cucumber, herb, cantaloupe, corn and watermelon seeds that you are aching to plant. Don't do it! Not yet!

By April, I have great big teenage tomato plants that are just aching to move out on their own and start their reproductive cycles with the bees and the butterflies. But I don't bother planting tomatoes out until at least April 15th and only then if the weather is being cooperative. If it is a cool spring, it will not hurt to wait until late April and even into Mid-May. On warm days throughout March and until I plant them, I "harden off" all my started plants by placing them outdoors in a sunny spot during the day and as the evening cools. I bring them back in before bed time to protect them from early spring's chilly nights. I have a second floor porch and it stays a few degrees warmer at that height. On nights when the weatherman says it will be in the mid-forties, my porch is perfectly safe for my 5-7 week old tomato plants.

By the end of April, I begin harvesting the spinach and lettuce I planted in February. Spinach and leaf lettuce are able to sprout new leaves and grow as long as it is not too hot and a few leaves are left on the plant when harvesting.

By the end of May, these plants are beginning to look a little unhealthy and sometimes a few bugs have begun nibbling their leaves. I don't like spraying these plants for pests, even with organic spray as I have read that their tender leaves and roots absorb quite a bit of what is used. So when the bugs start biting, I harvest the whole lot. We eat a lot of salad in May and I may blanch the spinach and freeze it for later use in recipes. I try to replant leaf lettuce near tomato plants as they provide shade as they grow and you can have some salad in the heat of summer as well.

Below: Late April, 2010. Baby Spinach near ready for pruning.

When I am very sure all the frost is gone, (usually late April or the very first week of May) I start my Zucchini, Yellow Squash, Cucumbers, and Melons from seed directly in the garden when I plant my tomato plants. All these seeds I plant in hills with 4-6 seeds per hill. Pepper plants are planted at the same time as tomatoes, so now is the time to buy those plants too, or take your started plants and put them out.

Growing vining plants like cucumbers, some types of squash, and melons is fun, but you need to give your vining plants plenty of room to trail and grow. You can train the vines back into the garden as they grow so you don't have them growing out into the yard. You can also trellis some vining plants like cucumbers to save a bit of space.

Below: May, 2010 - this picture shows my three garden beds in early May. The long bed on the left contains volunteer pumpkins, volunteer sunflowers, onions, potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, Brussels sprouts, green beans, and about 15 tomato plants interspersed around the bed (but not near the potatoes). The middle bed contains a really annoying and hardy tree, loads of tomatoes, and peas. The bed on the right contains a particularly persistent poke weed, spinach, lettuce, green beans, asparagus, carrots, and parsnips.

In early to mid-May, I plant green beans and corn. Both of these types of seeds need warmer soil to germinate and if you don't wait until warmer weather, you waste a lot of seed. I plant corn in a row, placing the seeds only a few inches apart. Corn silks need to brush against one another for proper pollination. This way they develop full ears of corn. Each seed is fertilized and it gets sweet, fat, and juicy! Beans are also planted in rows. I usually plant bush beans because they do not have strings like pole beans. I love the flavor of yellow wax beans, green beans, and there are even some purple varieties that are delicious.

About three or four weeks after planting, I give my tomato plants a bit of a boost with some liquid fertilizer and the whole garden a spray down with a liquid fertilizer about every three weeks after that. More on fertilizer later!

I also start my sweet potato plants around mid-may in a spot I have reserved out in the garden just for them. I take whatever sweet potatoes I have leftover from last year's harvest and out them into the soil. I cover them with about two or three inches of soil. They take several weeks to begin sprouting. I will provide more information on planting the sprouts in the next blog post.

By the end of May, my potatoes have begun blooming and giving new potatoes. My onions are the perfect size to make a tasty green onion treat! My tomatoes are really tall, needing staking, and usually have a lot of blooms and a few small fruits. All my plants have established deep roots. Either mother nature or I provide water every day.

Next up... June and July!

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