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!

Seeds Matter – 2017 Seed Catalog Reviews – Seed Saver’s Exchange

Each year we review seed catalogs and pick our favorites who meet our criteria for supporting biodiversity, organic gardening, local communities and provide safe, non-gmo seed.

2017 Seed Saver's Exchange Catlatog CoverWhat’s not to love here?  Seed Saver’s Exchange is an easy place to start every year because they not only house the largest privately held seed back of open pollinated seed in the US, but also manage the largest seed exchange.  They carry heirloom, untreated, non-hybrid, non-GMO seeds.  They also have hundreds of certified organic varieties.

Reading their catalog is a walk through history.  Each varietal description is the short story of its history..

Chioggia Beet: “Pre-1840 Italian historic variety, introduced to the U.S. before 1865. Uniquely beautiful flesh has alternating red and white concentric ringrandpa-admires-lettucegs …”

Grandpa Admire’s butterhead lettuce: “From the family of George Admire (1822-1911) a Civil War veteran who migrated west to Putnam County, Missouri during the 1850s.  Bronze-tinged leaves form loose heads….”

trophy-tomotoNot hooked yet, check out Trophy tomato: “Introduced in 1870 by Colonel George E Waring, Jr, of Rhode Island. Sold for five dollars a packet (equivalent to eighty dollars today). Gardeners paid the exorbitant price hoping to win the $00 grand prize at the local fair.” …

In addition to these great stories come an amazing diversity of high quality seed.  Become a member and you have access to literally thousands of variety, all open pollinated, so if you save historic-emerald-gem-melonseed from the plants you grow, you know you will be the same variety from the seeds you saved.

Some of our favorite must have varieties are: True Lemon moonglow-2cucumber, Emerald Gem melon, Listada de Gandia eggplant, Christmas Limas, CiCicco Broccoli, St Valery carrot, Cherokee Purple, Moonglow, and Tommy Toe tomatoes to name a few.

Supporting Seelistada-de-gandiad Savers’ Exchange is one way to vote with your dollar in favor of preserving our seed heritage and biodiversity.  As we said, what’s not to love.

5 Simple Steps to Seed Starting Success

Fellow gardeners take heart that spring will come and the snow will melt! In the meantime, starting seeds indoors helps keep the winter blues away.

seedlings like light
Seedlings under lights

 

Here are 5 simple steps to successful start your plants indoors:

  1. Choose high quality seed from a reputable seed company. For a list of the companies I recommend, click here. See prior posts under Seed Companies for more on choosing a seed company.
  2. Pick crops to start indoors that transplant well like tomatoes, peppers, squash, melons and cucumbers. Read your seed catalogs or the back of seed packets to see if that type of plant is good started indoors.
  3. Use quality seed starting mix. Either choose an organic mix from a reputable company or make your own with peat, vermiculite and perlite.
  4. Give your seedlings lots of light and warmth. You can set up a simple home seedling rack with 3’ shoplights over a shelf that can hold 5 seedling trays. Building it yourself will save you money.
  5. Start your seedlings at the right time. Seed catalogs and packets will tell you when to start your seedlings. For example, cucumbers, melons and squash are generally started 3 to 4 weeks before they will be planted out. Remember to add in time for hardening off. For more on this, see my upcoming post.

Get Great Organic Garden Tips & a Free Workbook

grow your own plants
Homemade Seed Starting Rack

 

Do You Know Quality Seed and Where to Get It?

Seed Catalogs
Catalogs from some of our recommended companies.

The easy answer is to purchase your seed from one of the companies on our Recommended Seed Company List. This works great if you have come to trust our process of evaluating companies.

I am not an “activist”, it is has never been my interest or my bent, yet I do “vote with my dollar” and so choose to support companies who have the values I consider important. To that end, each year I research companies, read a pile of seed catalogs and compare varieties and plant lists of those folks I know and trust and those I don’t.

It has become clear that in addition to the current 13 criteria we use to evaluate a company, two more need to be added. Here are our additional criteria and why we added them. See the first 13 criteria.

  1. Does the company sell varieties that are owned by companies who engage in genetic modification of seeds?

One company in particular, who was on our list for years, has staunchly continued to offer a small percentage of varieties owned by Monsanto. Granted, most of these varieties were not bred by Monsanto, but were bred and owned by companies who Monsanto bought a few years ago. For those like us, who do not want to support companies who engage in genetic modification of seed, the act of buying from a company who buys from a company who engages in genetic modification of seed, is indirectly supporting companies who engage genetic seed modification. Prior Unity Garden does not support this activity. Therefore any company who buys seed from companies who create GMO seed will not make our list, even if they have signed the Safe Seed Pledge.

You may be thinking, but if they signed the Safe Seed Pledge, then they are not selling GMOs, right ? Generally speaking, you are correct, they are not selling genetically modified seed, but they can still sign the Pledge and sell seed that is not genetically modified from companies who make GMO seed. Doing this practice now excludes a company from being on our recommended seed company list.

  1. Does the company actually grow the varieties they sell?

Seed Packets from some of our recommended companiesThere are ‘seed houses’ who are resellers of seed only, buying seed wholesale and reselling it. They may grow some of it, but do not really have field trials, so are not really in touch with the varieties they are offering.

We have found the seed quality and reliability from these companies to swing wildly and these companies do not have people you can talk with about growing specific varieties they offer. While this may be fine for some folks, we find it frustrating when evaluating specific varieties for growing traits our clients have requested. In effect, you become the testers. Because we want to recommend the highest quality seed companies how offer the highest quality seed, we will not be putting companies on our list who do grow all or most of the varieties whey offer. These companies simply cannot support what they sell to the high degree other companies can.

In some cases, a company will offer seed from a variety of local farms and this is a practice we love seeing as it supports small local farms and seed. In this case, the seed house may not trial every variety, but their partner farms are growing seed and this practice has proven to be an excellent marker of quality seed, in part because the farm’s name is on the seed. These companies do make our list. Granted, most of them also test all or most of the varieties they offer.

  1. Who owned the company?

As large Agribusinesses buy out smaller companies, this question is becoming more important. It used to be seed companies be handed down through generations of a family. Now, it is good to know and sometimes difficult to find out. Often the Agribusiness does not want their ownership known.

Call the company, see what is written in the catalog and website. The point here is avoiding supporting agribusinesses who engage in generic modification of seed.

Companies who are owned by large agriculture businesses will usually sell varieties they own, so knowing what those varieties are, helps you discern if you want to support that business or not.

You can make the process easier and let us do the research for you. See our list of Recommended Seed Companies and/or the rest of our Seed Company Criteria.

 

Growing Your Health

Grow Your Health logo 2014One of the reasons to grow your own food is because home grown organic food is good for your health.  We don’t really know what genetically modified food will do to us over the long term, but for those who don’t want to chance it, home grown food can help.

This year and last year we were compelled to sponsor Grow Your Health, Gardening, Food & Wellness Festival because it is a great place for our community to learn about how gardening links with yummy food and good health.  All good things, right ? You bet !

This year at Grow Your Health, we will have a raffle at our table for winning prizes.  In addition we will have our new product line that includes our Seed Starting Kit, Laminated Companion Planted Garden Designs and Debby’s new booklet on seed starting and seed buying.  We will also have plants ! Yes, yummy spring greens plants to put in your garden.

Come by the Prior Unity Garden Booth at the Grow Your Health Festival and say hi !
Come by the Prior Unity Garden Booth at the Grow Your Health Festival and say hi !
Debby developed the Prior Unity Garden Seed Starting Kit as a seed starting system to insure your success growing plants from seed.
Debby Ward developed the Prior Unity Garden Seed Starting Kit as a seed starting system to insure your success growing plants from seed.

Debby & Russell will each offer a class.  Debby will talk about Growing Food in a Small Space, covering useful tid bits for containers, townhouses and small space gardening on a larger property. Russell will talk about how a good garden design, including permaculture design principles allows for productive use of your space so you really get what you want from it.

But we are only part of Grow Your Health, last year we had over 450 visitors and we expect more this year.

The event, which is Sunday March 23rd, from 11:00 am to 5:30 pm at Woodson High School, will have at least 21 classes and demos, many local vendors who provide services and products to help you not only grow food, but find local health foods, and improve your health and well being in several ways.   The food court will have local food vendors providing meals for most all diets (think vegetarian, meat lovers and raw foodies) along with food artisans of various kinds.

They even have stuff for kids !

For a crazy reasonable price in advance of $10 for adults and free for children under 16, this event is really a fun day of learning, good food and making new friends, along with the old ones you bring along to share the experience.

Stop by the Prior Unity Garden booth, say hi.. and maybe win something too !

Stop by and get your spring greens plants.  We will have kales, chard, lettuce and more.
Stop by and get your spring greens plants. We will have kales, chard, lettuce and more.

Seed Catalog Review: John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds

It may seem hard to follow Territorial with my glowing review, but John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds can take it.  I found this company in the last five years and am SO glad.  They, like all our recommended seed companies have taken the Safe Seed Pledge and they offer a really cool selection of seeds.  Many of our favorite variteties are here, along with a great selection of European veggies.  I found varieties from companies who have closed, I used to grow and loved in the 1980s here at John Scheepers.  They have been serving gardens since 1908.   They are geared more toward cooking so some of their variety descriptions will make your mouth water.

They do not have a huge selection, like Territorial, but what they have is often different and wonderful.  One new favorite is a tomato called Lynn’s Mahogany-Garnet, beautiful and yummy.  Another new favorite is their Orange Chiffon Chard, although it grows more yellow stems in our garden, the taste is so smooth and wonderful we don’t care what color the ribs are. If you want to find some varieties not offered in most of the other organic seed catalogs, check these guys out, they is worth it.

Catalog Pros:

  • Nice selection of standard favorites, loved older varieties and new ones.
  • Good descriptions on each variety
  • Excellent seed count for the price
  • Recipes

Catalog Cons:

  • No photos, but some beautiful drawings that give the catalog a bit of old fashioned feel
  • Minimal  how to grow advise

Do you know about the Safe Seed Pledge ?

It is a delineation of the Safe Seed Initiative by the Council for Responsible Genetics.  Companies who adopt this pledge do not knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered or modified seeds or plants.

Some people poo-poo the list because some of the companies who signed the Safe Seed Pledge had purchased some seed from Seminis seed house that was subsequently bought out by Monsanto – hence the perceived link between some honestly safe seed companies and Monsanto.  These companies responded and stopped buying seeds from Seminis, to be true to their Pledge and their values.

The other reason the Safe Seed Pledge is poo-poo’d is because of the phrase “we pledge that we do not knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered seeds or plants ”.  The word ‘Knowingly’ has been criticized as not good enough, but is used because of the possibility of contamination from genetically modified plants, by such situations as wind bringing pollen onto an organic farm, which is out of the control of the farm (and isn’t making them happy either).

Check out our recommended seed companies which genuinely care about you getting safe seed: http://www.priorunitygarden.com/pns.htmImage