By Constadina Zarokostas-Vasiliades
A number of people ask me how and when to prepare their garden, usually when it’s too late to start their garden. Although it’s February and the snow piles outside may not be very inspiring, this truly is the best time to start thinking about preparing your garden. This little article is here to help your prep, or at least get you thinking about your ideal garden. Produce has skyrocketed in price this past year, so starting a small vegetable garden that you can later expand may be something you might want to consider.
What kind of garden do you want?
First off, do you want vegetables and flowers? Do you just want to focus on starting a vegetable garden this year? Do you just want to make your garden area pretty with flowers? Make this decision first.
If you want a vegetable garden this year, think about vegetables you and your children like to eat. Don’t plant something and devote your time nurturing vegetables that you don’t intend to eat.
Do herbs interest you?
Also think about any herbs that you often use in your meals to add to your garden. It’s nice to see herbs mixed amongst flowers and vegetable gardens. Some herbs and flowers also help keep certain pests away from your vegetables. Gardeners call this companion planting.
Having said that, there are also some vegetables that do not grow well when certain vegetables are next to them. So be conscious of what you are growing, and if a certain vegetable/herb growing next to it will stunt its ability to grow. If you sign up to my mailing list, I can send you a copy of companion planting relationships. (Use the comment box or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for a list with ‘Companion Planting List’ in the subject line.)
Does size and location matter?
Start small, but leave room to expand the following year if you want to go bigger. You don’t want to overwhelm yourself on your first attempt. Decide where you want to put a small vegetable garden. Do you want to have separate grow boxes? Whatever you decide, your vegetable garden needs to be in a spot that gets a lot of sun throughout the day. Think about where the sun hits your backyard in the spring and summer the most, and aim for that area.
Note that you need to leave enough space around each vegetable to grow. Zucchini’s for example need a few feet apart from each other to grow and keep healthy.
Good soil for success
Your first year of gardening you are going to learn a lot about the soil in your backyard. Most of the time you will have to amend your soil. That means adding compost and other nutrients and minerals to making growing vegetables/herbs/flowers a success. In southern Colorado the soil is much different than the northern Canadian Rockies that I grew up around. Know that you will have to consult your local nursery to get an idea of what type of compost and minerals the soil in your area would need to have a successful garden. In southern Colorado, Cotton Compost Burr is usually incorporated into the soil to cope with the dry summer conditions. I swear by this compost in Colorado Springs.
Once your soil is amended, map out on a sheet of paper what vegetables, herbs and flowers you want growing next to each other. Don’t forget to consult the companion planting outline to prevent your vegetables from not producing or thriving.
Seeds or seedlings?
If you want to start everything from seed, you will have to start some vegetables/herbs/flowers indoors in February. Some flowers, like poppies, love to be in the cold before the spring and need to be planted outdoors in February. Otherwise you will have to aim for the following autumn season. At this point you need to figure out which seeds grow best indoors or outdoors, and when. Seed packets and nursery websites are great references.
March is when you want to start planting parsley, cabbage, broccoli and lettuce indoors by seed.
April is best to directly seed lettuce, carrots, spinach, cabbage, onions, and radishes into the ground outdoors around April 16th in Colorado. Pepper and tomato seeds should begin indoors. It’s best to check with your local nursery. Make sure you use seed starting soil, not potting soil.
If you want to begin your garden with seedlings from your local nursery, always check the weather forecast at least 10 days out. Weather should be above 45F at night to be safe to plant outside. May is generally a safe time to begin.
You can add seeds to your garden every three weeks starting in June. I’ve done this with carrots, lettuce, swiss chard and beets. Sometimes they just catch better later.
If at first you don’t succeed…
If your garden doesn’t do so well your first year, don’t give up too easily. Remember what grew well. Note where it was positioned. Write this down and keep your garden map to remind you of where everything was placed. Move things around the following year.
You may have to amend your soil again in the fall. Cover crops are great for adding nitrogen to your soil and keeping it in good condition until the next planting year.
Remember when you make a garden you are also contributing to the environment and sustaining local birds and bees for food and pollination. Just know that preparing early enough in the year will give you enough time to think and organize what you want your garden to look like. Every year gets better, and adding a little more each year will get your garden to that image you envisioned.