Designing Your Spring Veggie Garden

Bak choi is a great spring crop
Bak Choi

A client of mine, Deanna loves spring greens yet was daunted by lack of success with her spring garden.  She realized she didn’t really know how much space different plants needed. She also wasn’t certain what spring plants grow well with each other.  She had grown Bak Choi successfully, but that was about all.  She wanted to add more greens and cool weather root crops like radishes, carrots, beets and turnips, yet she was not sure how to integrate them with the greens.

In previous years, the root crops ended up being small at best and the greens ended up rotting. She was tired of buying what she felt like was wasted seed.  She had tried a couple times and wasn’t happy with the outcome.  When she came to me, this was one of her major concerns to insure productivity in her garden. She was so happy when she learned that some simple adjustments could make a huge impact on her productivity.

Here are a few ways she improved her spring garden.

Plant Spacing

plant spacing for your spring garden
Lettuce sown too close together is overly crowded.

When you direct seed it is harder to get plant spacing right.  Many folks only direct seed because they do not have a setup to start seeds indoors.  This was Deanna’s situation. She was direct seeding all her crops.  Seeds are small and can be hard to handle, so folks at the seed companies tend to expect you to scatter all the seeds in a packet in a row and then “thin” them so they have room to grow.  This is one way to give your plants more space, but a wasteful one.

It is far better to seed with wider spacing.  My rule is to seed at about 1/3 the spacing listed on the seed packet as the final plant spacing distance. This allows you to harvest smaller root crops or greens as they begin to crowd and leave some to get larger. You also don’t waste seed this way and can have one seed packet often last for a couple of years. Very handy to keep costs down.

Avoid scattering seed close together and then leaving them that was as they get larger.  This is how Deanna had rotting plants.  Not only, were so close they could not get any air circulation and rotted, but they did not have the space to grow to full size and produce the yield you would want.

If you fingers struggle with small seeds consider these options:

Buttercrunch lettuce from Territorial Seed Company
Territorial Seed Co.

Buy pelleted lettuce and carrot seed which is much easier. Check Territorial Seed Company for a variety of pelleted lettuce seed.

You can also get an inexpensive hand seeder that will allow you to dispense smaller seeds a bit easier. These can be super simple up to more sophisticated. Territorial has a selection of these also. One advantage is they can be used for all kinds of seeds.

If you have the advantage of being able to start greens seedlings indoors, it is easier to give each plant the space it needs. I still tend to transplant a bit close together and harvest every other or third one as they begin to crowd each other.  This extends the harvest and allows the remaining plants to get larger for harvest later and fills in the space so you are not wasting space in your garden.

rows of well spaced letttuce insure a good harvest

Timing

Another key to spring garden success is timing. Granted this is trickier as the weather gets less predictable and computer models are unable to keep up with climatic changes, yet there are some tricks you can employ.

Succession plant every two weeks for extended harvest First is to succession plant.  This is where you plant a new batch of the same crop about every two weeks. This gives you a couple advantages and can be done with either indoor or outdoor seed starting.

Outdoors, if weather turns too warm/hot/wet/dry for a crop, you can try again. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, it is another way to spread out your harvest. This means you don’t harvest at once.  This is especially useful for root crops where you are harvesting the entire plant.

start spring seedlings indoors in winter

Valmaine Lettuce is great in all seasons
Valmaine Romaine Lettuce

Indoors, succession plant your spring greens and then transition to following those on with summer greens.  Some lettuces will take much more heat than others. A couple of my warm weather favorites here are Valmaine and Jericho romaines.  These can follow-on after cooler loving lettuces such as most of the butterheads.

Lettuces, cabbage and chard are cool loving crops and you’ll get an earlier harvest if you can start these indoors while it is still too cold to start them outdoors.  After you harden them off, they can be transplanted into the ground for your first greens harvest.  Spinach though, doesn’t transplant well so start that one directly in your garden.

As always there is trial and error in your specific microclimate and this is another reason for not scattering all your seed at once.

Companion Planting  

Spinach and beets are great spring companion plants
Spinach and beets are great spring companion plants

Another way to increase the use of your spring garden space is to interplant root crops with leaf crops.  Gratefully this is pretty easy with cool weather crops because most greens and roots combine just fine.

Lettuces are happy with all the cool weather roots.  Spinach and chard go well as they are in the same plants family.  Same idea with kale, cabbage, kohlrabi, turnips, rutabagas and radishes, which are all in the brassica family.

peas can feed the kale so they make great companions
Peas and Kale

Don’t forget a star of your spring garden – peas!  Peas thrive in spring so plant some of your pleasure be it snow peas, snap peas or shelling peas.  We love shelling peas best, granted they hardly make it out of the garden as I tend to just pick and eat them, fresh, raw and oh so sweet!! My favorites are Green Arrow and Alderman/Telephone Pole. Check the vine height of pea varieties to be sure they match your pea fence.  If you don’t have a pea fence, get one what doesn’t need support like Sugar Ann snap pea.  There is a reason why you may have heard “peas and carrots” they go tougher in the garden. Plant your carrots in front of your pea fence.

Pulling this all together

May people have asked me about how to design a spring veggie garden, so lets pull some of these tips together.

Choose your varieties and see when they will mature, if they can take some heat and how big they will be full sized.

Next use the companion planting tips to choose which plants to put in which bed.

Then decide how long you want to harvest each type of plant to create a succession planting schedule.  This will tell you when to start your seeds, be it indoors or out.  Remember root crops are all direct seeded.

Finally, choose a block of your garden for each set of plants for example, one for brassicas, one for peas and carrots, once of lettuce and radishes, etc.  Split up each block by how many rounds of succession planting you want.  So if you want three rounds, split it up into three sections.  Plant the first section, two weeks later the second section and three weeks later, the third session. Tada! You’ve designed your spring garden.

Get more resources on my Resources page

 

Companion plant cabbage and broccoli with root crops like carrots, betts, turnips and radish
Spring Boundy of Companion Planted Cabbages, Carrots, Beets, Brocolli and more!

Gardening with Natives & Veggies – Part 3 – From a Native Gardener’s View

My native gardening friends tend to prefer the “low maintenance” of native perennials for their garden. They love to feed the wildlife and so do I, to a point. My neighbor three doors down has a managed native meadow for a front yard and it is always fun to walk by and see what is blooming, or what birds are munching on the fall seed heads.  These are some of the delights of growing natives. They are not so picky about what soil they have, if you add compost each season or what native they are planted next to.

Yet, the low maintenance native garden approach leaves more time for other endeavors, and this is where the native gardener can grow a few things for them to eat.

swallowtail butterfly on queen anne's laceOne of the challenges a native gardener might have is all the wildlife they attract. This can be viewed as a problem, but it is my experience that an abundant mix in the right places gives everyone bounty. So here are my suggestions for native gardeners to add a few veggies for themselves without compromising their native gardens.  Native gardeners already tend to attract pollinators and other helpful insects to their gardens, which can give them an immediate advantage.

  • Containers on the deck: Adding one, two or a few containers on your deck is the first place I would recommend growing some veggies, or herbs as a native gardeners. This will not take up your native bed space, and be right out the back door for easy access. This is also the place least likely to be visited by larger animal critters.  You can grow anything you like to eat in a container, so choose a couple things you live to eat and start there.  You might want to give your tomatoes a screen to protect from birds, but small animals that would go onto your desk don’t tend to bother cucumbers, melons or squash.

    container garden on your deck
    Grow veggies on your deck away from deer
  • Let winter squash and pumpkins meander through your native beds. These crops are super low maintenance too.  They have a long “days to maturity”, meaning it takes a long time for them to ripen.   You can put in the plants, let them ramble and harvest them in autumn.  Then you’ll have some yummy squash in storage to enjoy all winter.

    large winter squash
    Let winter squash ramble like these Upper Ground Sweet Potato Squash next to native Asters
  • Add in a small fenced veggie garden close to one of your flowering native beds. Adding in a small veggie garden, with protection from wildlife can bring much joy and healthful food to your table. It is satisfying to sit at your table, eating some fresh picked veggies and watching all the buzz of life in your native garden beds. If you are new to veggie gardening, and want some tips, get in touch, I’d be happy to help!

    Native flower bed next to a veggie bed
    Native flower bed next to a veggie bed

Hope you have enjoyed this three part series on growing natives and veggies.  If you missed a part:

  • Part 1 covered three reasons to grow both natives and veggies.
  • In Part 2 we looked at the topic from the point of view of the veggie gardener, and
  • Here in Part 3, we saw three ideas for native gardeners to add some veggies.

Happy gardening, and if you have any topics you’d like me to cover, let me know.

Gardening with Natives & Veggies – Part 2 – From a Veggie Gardener’s View

Okay folks, lets look at gardening with natives and veggies from the veggie gardener viewpoint.  If you grow primarily vegetables and “savory fruits” such as tomatoes and squash in your garden, adding natives amps up your overall diversity as we saw in Part 1.

In addition there are several natives that can have direct benefit on your veggie production.  Lets look at a few of my favorites:

  • Blue Wild Indigo, Baptista australis: This beautiful 5’ tall native has beautiful blue-purple flowers in spring and is a member of the legume family of plants. Members of this plant family sequester carbon in the soil and the leaves can be cut down to add nitrogen to plants either around them or in your compost pile. Native bees love it, therefore attracting more pollinators to your landscape.

    bee visiting a wild blue indigo
    Wild Blue Indigo
  • Yarrow, Achillea millefolium: I love growing Yarrow, maybe because it is such a wonderful herb for stopping bleeding, but also because it will bloom all summer if you deadhead it and bring the flowers in for bouquets. The native common yarrow has creamy white flowers, cultivars have many others. Yarrow contains fairly high amount of calcium, which helps with the metabolic processes of plants taking up other nutrients. IT also help strengthen plant cell walls. High humidity, like we have here in Virginia, along with a cold winter can cause calcium deficiency, so plant yarrow, put the leave around your plants or in your compost to add calcium for your plants.

    Native White Yarrow
    Native White Yarrow
  • Joe Pye Weed, Eutrochium fistulosum: This beautiful tall, mid-summer flowering native is a pollinator magnet, and frankly, just darn beautiful. Its big puffy mauve flowers look wonderful at the back of a native flower garden bed, attracting so may different types of native bees and butterflies, you’ll want to stop veggie gardening and just watch the show. Perennial.

    Yellow Swallowtail butterlfy on Joe Pye Flower
    Yellow Swallowtail butterlfy on Joe Pye Flower
  • Goldenrod, Solidago spp.: Want to push the window on pollination into the fall. Then you want to add goldenrods to your landscape to attract those pollinators. This is really helpful if you love to grow fall peas like I do. Perennial.

    Goldenrod
    Goldenrods have cherry yellow flower in Autumn
  • Asters, Symphyotrichum spp.: Like Goldenrod, asters bloom later in the year, in autumn, thus they give you the benefits listed above for goldenrod, and give you more color in your garden as the weather turns cool. They also can make a nice cut flower for the vase.  Some are annual, some are perennial.

    purple aster flowers
    Native Aster flowers can be white, purple or pink.
  • Northern Maidenhair Fern, Adiantum pedatum: Got a shady area? Consider adding some of these ferns as they are a great toad habitat.  Toads eat bugs, so can help keep your bug population in balance and away from your veggies.

    northern maidenhair fern
    Northern Maidenhair Fern

So veggie gardeners, you can put in a flower bed of Blue Wild Indigo, Joe Pye, Yarrow, Goldenrod and Asters and have a beautiful garden area that blooms in spring, summer and fall.  Add some ferns to your moist shady spots and you’ve helped that native bee and toad population and your garden!

In Part 2 of this blog series, we looked at six native plants you can add to your landscape to benefit your veggie garden. There are many more, so I encourage you to add these and get in touch if you want more inspiration and ideas.

Check back or Subscribe to this blog to get notified for Part 3, when we look at the native, veggie gardening thing from the view of the native gardener.

Gardening with Natives & Veggies – Part 1, Three Benefits of Growing Both

Hey folks,

I’ve chatted with some gardeners who primarily grow natives and some who primarily grow veggies.  Turns out, there are folks who feel they have to grow one or the other.  Since diversity is one of the two top ways to help insure a healthy thriving garden (living soil being the other) I wanted to give all you gardeners out there some inspiration and ideas on how I like to grow both.

  • In this first part, we’ll go into the benefits.
  • The second part we’ll look at it from the veggie gardener point of view and,
  • in the third part, we’ll look at it from the native gardener point of view.

Garden panorama

3 Benefits of growing both natives and veggies:

  1. Diversity! Every critter that happens into or around your garden is part of the priorly connected web of garden life. Insuring you have a large diversity of plants in your garden is an insurance policy that not any one critter will wreak havoc on your entire garden. By including both a vegetable garden and some native garden beds in your landscape, you add even more diversity that if you have one or the other.

    Annual Flowers, Veggies and Natives
  2. Beauty. As I am fond of saying, “Beauty is food too”. Natives can add flowers and leaf shapes to your landscape and veggies can be grown in a pleasing manner, they don’t have to be in rows.

    Mixing Food, Flowers and Natives
  3. Food for everyone. Native gardeners tend to pride themselves on growing food for wildlife. Veggie gardeners tend to pride themselves on growing food for themselves and their families. Why not have some of both – everybody wins!

bee on flowers and gardener holding fresh harvested potatoes

In this intorduction, we took a quick look at three benefits for growing both natives and veggies.

Check back for Part 2, or subscribe at Right to be notified of the next post and to get some ideas for adding natives that benefit you and your veggie garden.

Mix it up! Companion Plant your Annual Vegetable Garden

Make the most of your garden space by mixing flowers and herbs with your annual vegetables.

Backyard Foodscape
Backyard Foodscape incorporates flowers and herbs along with 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:

  • tomatoes/lettuce/onions/marigolds/parsley
  • peppers/basil/marigolds/chamomile
  • peas/carrots/lettuce
  • bush beans/potatoes/flax
  • cucumbers/radishes/nasturtiums/dill
Squash & Nasturtiums. Nasturtiums are good companions for not only cucumbers, but also squash and melons.

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.

5 Garden Design Tips

using companion planted garden design
Using Companion Planted Garden Designs is easy !

Fall & Winter is the best time to do your garden planning.

Many gardeners just do the same thing they have always done, planting in rows, or adding the same plants to their container garden.

Here are 5 tips to help you get more from your garden:

  1. Plan out our garden spaces before you buy seed or plants to maximize your investment
  2. Learn what plants grow well together to avoid stressed or weakened plants
  3. Get professional tips on growing the plants you like to grow to boost your garden’s productivity
  4. Find out what varieties garden experts recommend to increase your success
  5. Start with quality organic seeds and plants from trusted sources

Want all that in one place  ? … check out our new Companion Planted Garden Designs at the Prior Unity Garden Store

Companion & Follow-on Planting for Containers

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.

Companion planted container garden in mid spring.
Companion planted container garden in mid spring.

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 !