I’ve had several clients and new students ask about garden soil. It seems many folks that have tried to garden have wanted to quit because their garden didn’t do well. Most times it turns out it was their soil that was at issue.
Soil is the foundation of our garden and can grow our plants for us. I have put together a 5 Day Free email course on soil, so you can transform your understanding of good garden soil, to begin to transform your garden.
For Step 1: it is important to take time to document your garden vision, what goals you have, and your garden as you have dreamed it. Many folks don’t take the time to document this, so their dream garden becomes a vaporous ‘some day’ vague memory, vs actualizing the manifestation of their dream.
Step 2: Observation & Assessment
To avoid making a mistake on the type, size and location of the garden you put in, take some time to observe your space, light, water and other resources as well as your time. This way you can be sure the garden you put in not only is in the best place, but also fits into your lifestyle, and that is where Step 2, Observation & Assessment comes in. This is a critical step to be sure you get a garden that will work for you, and hence move you along that success pathway.
Step 3: Building Healthy Living Soil
Healthy living soil is the foundation of any garden, so building soil that will support your garden and grow plants for you is Step 3. You probably know that chemical pesticides and fertilizers kill your soil, but did you know that tilling does too? Tilling allows the carbon in your soil to be released into the atmosphere thereby depleting your soil of it. This is why commercial conventional growers add fertilizers, because they have, by their actions, depleted it from their soil. The soil becomes nothing more than an anchor for the plants, but it is the life in the soil, that grows healthy lively plants.
Step 4: Choosing Quality Plants & Seeds
Step 4 is choosing quality plants and seeds for your garden. Learn clues for buying plants, such as purchasing those with a USDA Organic tag or from small local growers you know are chemical free. Checking in on seed companies to be sure they have signed the Safe Seed Pledge, thereby committing to only offering non-GMO seeds, and belonging to organizations committed to organic growing and sustainable biodiverse practices.
Step 5: Garden Layout & Planting
Then, in the last step, it is time to layout where plants will go in our gardens and do our seeding and transplanting. Once you have done the other four steps, you can be confident that the garden you have built is the right one for you so those young plants and seedlings have the best chance of providing you the yummy home grown produce you desire.
They can cost a pretty hefty amount at the store and are really easy to grow here in the mid-Atlantic area of the US.
Blueberries are native here, so even if you choose to grow cultivar varieties which produce larger fruit like I do, you can be assured they like this climate.
Blueberries are beautiful in the landscape, having white or pink flowers in spring and bright red, yellow or bronze foliage in autumn.
There are two types of blueberries: high bush & low bush. Low bush are generally grown in northern climates like Maine and Canada. High bush are generally grown further south and the ones mostly grown in Virginia gardens.
A question I am often asked is: Should I buy them in a container or bare root?
Either is fine.
It is best to only have bare root plants shipped vs. container grown because shipping container grown plants is pricey.
Bare root plants are grown in the nursery for a few years (a good company will tell you how old the plants will be that you are ordering) dug up in the dormant months, kept cool and shipped in spring.
Container grown plants would be obtained locally.
Currently, we do not have a good source of container grown blueberries locally. The nursery we liked is going out of business because the owners are retiring. Many local nurseries sell blueberry bushes for short, limited time in early spring. Be sure and ask them if their plants are sprayed with
loads of chemicals that could kill your pollinators, including the neonicotinoids that have been so much in the news lately.
To get a great selection, we recommend ordering bare root from RainTree Nursery. They sell 2-to-3 year old blueberry plants that are good sized, at least 18” tall and bushy.
When buying blueberry plants, be sure to buy at least two varieties for pollination. Also check the ripening dates, choosing two bushes each of three varieties can extend your harvest and give you a very healthy crop.
Popular varieties include the old time ‘Jersey’, which has bright yellow leaves in autumn and ‘Bluecrop’ which has red fall color. Another yellow fall colored variety is ‘Bluegold’, which is popular with smaller space gardeners because the bushes are more compact at 4’ high. Most highbush blueberries are 6’ high. ‘Bluegold’ and ‘Earliblue’ can start your blueberry season off, then follow on with ‘Blueray’ for mid season and ‘Elliot’ or ‘Libery’ for late season fruit. We also really like ‘Patriot’ and ‘Northland’ as they has done very well for us.
Container gardeners might like to try the cute ‘Top Hat’ that only grows to 18”. You can choose a variety that grows to 4’ for container culture and use a larger container.
In ground, space your blueberries as far apart as their listed mature height. So, if a variety is listed as 6′ high, plant them 6′ apart, or a little farther, if you have room, for good aeration and light.
Three important notes about growing blueberries:
Choose a sunny location. Although blueberries grow in partial shade, they need full sun to produce lots of berries.
Plant them separate from your annual vegetable garden because they have different soil requirements. Blueberries want acidic soil, unlike your annual veggies. A good mulch for blueberries is pine needles.
Plant your blueberries where they will naturally get plenty of water because they are shallow rooted plants. You can dig swales to capture water for your blueberries in heavy rains.
One last note, invest in a few post and bird netting so you get your crop instead of the birds.
Hope this inspires you to try growing some blueberries at home, whether you want to eat them fresh or make summer blueberry ice cream, they are an easy and satisfying perennial crop to grow.
Make the most of your garden space by mixing flowers and herbs with your annual vegetables.
Pairing the right plants together, those that gardeners have observed grow well together, allows plants to do some of your garden work for you. This accomplishes several functions as we can see…
One classic example showing some ways plants work together is the native American corn/beans/squash combination:
Poll beans climb up the corn stalk, so the corn is the support, or trellis, for the bean. So the corn just saved you from building a pole bean trellis. The bean is a member of the legume family of plants. This plant family are what are called ‘nitrogen fixers’, which means they capture nitrogen and store it in nodules on their roots, making it available for other plants to take it in. Corn is a heavy nitrogen feeder, so in exchange for the support the corn gives the beans, the beans feed the corn. The beans just saved you from having to add something to feed your corn. The squash plants wind all around the base of the corn and beans, providing them shade cover to keep moisture in the soil longer for all of them. The squash just saved you from watering as much or putting down mulch to hold moisture in the soil. A couple nice additions to this already cool combo are:
Sunflowers in the mix to also support beans and provide seeds for humans and birds.
Nasturtiums attract a ‘beneficial bug’ called hoverflies. Beneficial bugs are so named because they prey on other bugs that like to eat your food, although, in a diverse ecosystem, all bugs are beneficial to maintain balance. Hoverflies like to eat bugs like aphids and thrips. Nasturtiums repel loads of critters who want to eat your crops including: cabbage loppers, worms and weevils; squash, cucumber and bean beetles and more. In addition, the leaves and flowers are edible!
Companion planting is a good way to design your garden beds. See what plants go together and plant in those combinations. Start with simple combinations and then get more complex over time. Good places to start are:
Another reason to use companion planting is it makes a beautiful garden, as these photos show, and remember, beauty is food too!
Container gardeners, you can do this too! The same combinations apply, either in the same container, or containers that are next to each other.
I’ll write more companion planting, so check back.
Container gardens can be a various sizes and shapes and tucked into or onto most any place, making they great for small space gardening. Even if you have a large yard, growing food on your deck is convenient.
Live in a townhouse where the sun is limited. You can move your container garden around from place to place to follow the sun, getting more or less light depending on what you are growing. You can move them under the eves in a big rain storm, or under the sky if they need watering.
Many people seem to not have much time these days, so having a smaller area to maintain fits with many people’s lifestyles and still allows them to eat some food from their own place.
You can get a huge yield from a well planted container garden. Amazing really how much bounty you can haul in. You can grow pretty much anything you would grow in the ground in a container.
All those crops that grow in fall and winter can grow in containers too, so you can four season garden !
As we enjoy the beautiful and bountiful time of fall, there are several things we can do in the garden during this time when the weather cools down.
Get your hoop houses ready for the coming frost. If you have not already, decide which beds you want to hoop over winter. If you are container gardening, choose what containers you would like to cover.
Cold frames and hoop houses used last spring can be cleaned out and used to put seedlings before they go into the ground, or, simply readied to take plants out to extend your season. Lettuces can grow past frosty nights if protected, so you can sow some now for baby greens this fall from your protected garden areas.
If you want to create a garden for next year, or expand what you have, now is a great time to begin that process so nature does some of the work for you.
If you have bees, this is the time to check and see how they are storing honey and pollen for the winter and, depending on your mindset, be feeding them. There are still some great stands of goldenrod around for them to gather from.
Fall is also the time to dig potatoes, beets, carrots and other root crops.
You can still order your garlic to plant in mid to late October.
As you harvest your pumpkins and winter squash, pull out your spent spring and summer plants, store your harvest and put all that green matter either on your compost pile or directly back onto the beds as mulch. If you had unwanted bugs on your plants, the heat of the compost pile next spring will kill any of their larvae that might be on the plant leaves.
And remember not to leave your garden beds exposed over winter, so pile those leaves on top and use them for mulch around the crops you are overwintering !
Companion planting in containers works the same way as companion planting in your garden bed. Plants are grown together or in proximity to each other so they can provide different benefits to each other.
Follow-on planting is choosing certain plants to be planted in the same space or very close to each other through the seasons.
In this photo there are two types of kale and one type of broccoli that were planted last fall. In early spring the lettuce was planted. Most of the lettuce was harvested by the time this photo was taken, althoguht one is in the right container. Other kales had been harvested to plant the lettuce. By harvesting the lettuce we made room to plant tomato seedlings, so …..
Fall planted kale – harvested in late winter and into spring made room for
Spring planted lettuce (and there were radishes too) which, when harvested made room for
Spring planted tomato seedlings
Once all kale and broccoli is harvested, put a few scallions, a basil, a marigold or more lettuce around your tomato
As your summer crops die back, are harvested or are no longer productive – plant kale again and start over !