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!

Process & Budget Tips to Get Ready for Seed Starting

seedlings in trays on seed rack Sometime in January or February I really start honing in on starting seeds indoors for my spring and summer plants.  It occurred to me, the steps I take to get ready to start my seeds could be useful for you, so here we go …

I start by deciding what I want to grow in the spring and follow-on for the summer.  Make a list of what you want to grow, using variety names where you know them.  Also make notes about what you’d like to try that would be new for you.  Include any types of crops you would like to replace because they did not do well. This could be a type of crop, like broccoli, or it could be that a variety that didn’t do well, so you want to find another one to try.

image of seed inventory spreadsheet page
Your seed inventory can be in a spreadsheet, notebook, jotted on a peice of paper or on your phone.

At some point in this process, do an inventory of your seeds and see what gaps you might have between what seeds you have and what is on your list of plants to grow.

By Mid-January I have received most of my seed catalogs, although there are a couple stragglers in February.  Once you have your list of what seeds you need, then you can go through your catalogs and see who has what you want.

When looking for a new variety, compare not only different choices in one catalog, but in more than one.  If you think you have found a variety you want to try, see if any of your other seed companies carry it and read their description also.  More information on the variety helps you hone in on the best variety for you to try based on your goals.

Seed Catalogs
Seed Catalogs

Granted, I tend to go through each catalog when I get it and then multiple times thereafter.  I’ll put a tick mark by anything that looks interesting and I might want to get.

I make a photo copy of the order form so as I start to hone in on what I want to get, I can use the form while looking at the catalogs. That way I am not constantly looking in each catalog for where the order form is.  I don’t send the forms in, I will call (first choice) or order online, but having the list makes the ordering processing faster, simpler and easier, plus I can calculate any tax or shipping for budgeting. I can also check my list against the packing list when the seeds come in.

I’ll fill out the forms in pencil, so when I see the total cost of them all, which is pretty much always more than I want to spend, I can go back and erase what I cut out to stay in budget.  Alternatively, I’ll star the items I am not going to order, or erase the price, so  it does not end up in the total. This way I have the list of everything I wanted to grow in case my budget allows for another seed order later.

dollar and months graphicWhich leads to another budget tip. Spread out ordering from your preferred companies.  Order from the ones who have the first seeds you need to start and order last from companies with varieties you can start later.  I will sometimes adjust who I am buying what from for this purpose. If I see something I want to grow in the fall, I will often wait to order those varieties until June when I’ll be needing to get them started.

Enjoy a cup of tea and browsing those seed catalogs!

Not sure the best companies to buy from – Get My List of Recommended Seed Companies – Its Free! 

Build Your Own Seed Starting Rack

Hi folks, I friend messaged me this week asking if I could recommend a seed starting rack.  She is in Wisconsin, so getting started now with her seed starting.

I confess I have little experience with pre-made seed starting racks and systems. I have been gifted with one, but I don’t like it as well as the one my sweetheart made.

Here is the Materials List:

  • Found plywood, 2×2, 2×4
  • Shop lights
  • Chain
  • Hooks
  • Screws
  • Wire
  • Switch box/s
  • Timer
Know your soil – Free Soil Course 

General process to build your own seed starting rack:

  1. Decide where you want to put your rack. It is best if you can place it in front of a window that gets good light as this will enhance the productivity of your rack.  I can also say, it is really nice if you can place it in a permanent location.  Ours was built with screws so it can be taken down an reassembled, but frankly, since I am four season gardening, I just keep it up.
  2. Consider how much space you need for seed starting. Small scale home gardeners may not need much. My rack holds 14 seed trays and that is not enough for all I grow.  Most folks can get away with one bank of lights which will cover two to four standard sized seed trays.  A double bank will give you space for four or five seed trays.
  3. I prefer to use found wood instead of buying new since so much is thrown out these days. We used wood found in a dumpster in back of a store, and some left over from a job.
  4. Build the thing. It can be as simple or complicated as you make it. I have the advantage of having a partner who is a contractor, so he built and wired switches for me.

The best way to show you how we build it is in photos .. so here you go …

DYI Seed Starting Rack
My homemade three tired seed starting rack – front view.  The rack has three shelves and uses old shop lights. We found some of these in the trash, some were from a friend who was getting rid of them.  Each shelf has two banks of two lights.  I use old fashioned ones to have the heat for summer seedlings.  One cool and one warm in each bank which is less expensive than “grow lights”.
make your own seed starting rack
Outside corner of the rack.
build a place to start seeds
Inside corner.
seed rack height
We used hooks and chain, attached to a bar on the outside of each shop light to raise and lower the lights to accommodate different height plants.
put your seed rack next to a window for more light
Inside where the chain is attached to the rack.
The top bank we just had lights so made a really simple holder.
grow plants from seed
The top bank we hung from the ceiling.
Wiring for switches. We have a switch on each side so we can turn on one set of lights on each bank. This allows us to put the trays in either direction for growth or saving electricity if we don’t need both sets of lights at once in a bank.
how to start seedlings
Bottom who shelves filled. I will sometimes put trays on top of the lights until they germinate to make more room, as in this picture.

Know Your Soil – Free Soil Course 

Sow True Seed – 2017 Seed Catalog Reviews

sow true seed 2017 catalog We love these folks more and more each year.  Every time I open their catalog, it makes me happy.  Their mission statement sort of covers why: “.. to preserve our shared botanical heritage and grow a new era of sustainable culture and ecological wisdom. We support independent, regional agricultural initiatives that foster vibrant, sustainable economy, and true food sovereignty.”

They carry only open pollinated varieties that ‘grow true from seed”, meaning when you save seed and plant it, you’ll get the same variety. Although they are not 100% organic, they support small farms who cannot afford organic or biodynamic certification. They provide seed from their network of skilled regional growers and independently-owned North American seed producers. That often means you are supportingsow-true-seed-custom-seed-packets small family farmers when you buy seed from Sow True Seed.

Want custom printed seed packets for your special event, business or fundraiser?  You can get them from Sow True.

Sow True Seed has an impressive, very well rounded section of seeds, red pimento pepperswhich can be hard to find from companies who don’t carry loads of varieties for each plant.  It is obvious they really take care in varietal selection.  This is a standout aspect of Sow True.  They could easily be your only seed company and you’ll have a great garden.

Some of our favorite selections include: Jericho lettuce, Ashe County, Red Ruffled and Tangerine pimento sweet peppers, Hearts of Gold Ronde de Nice summer round squash melon, Red Acre cabbage, Snowball self-blanching cauliflower, Ronde de Nice summer squash, Blue Hubbard winter squash, and Bush Pickle cucumber which is great for containers.  They also carry Tam Jalapeno, a variety we grew years ago to make salsa for those who can’t take much heat.

hearts of gold melon Sow True Seed also has a fun selection of Seed Collections for those just starting out or wanting some inspiration. Their catalog provides useful information on throughout, including companion planting information, making the catalog a valuable resource.

Please support these folks, as they are a wow of doing the future right. Plus how awesome is there name?

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.

 

3 Reasons to Start Your Veggies from Seed – Foundations of Organic Gardening Info Series

Ok, I have been getting such a great response to this series of posts, I’ll keep going into August ….

Are you someone who has hesitated to start your own plants ? Here are three really good reasons to try it.

1. Save money. Really, you do save money by starting your own plants.  A seed packet that can last you for years can cost the same amount as one plant.

2. Variety diversity. Think about how many varieties of tomatoes you see in the store.  How many from your local farmer’s market.  Consider this, the Seed Saver’s Exchange Member catalog  has about 4000 tomato varieties– that is variety diversity. You won’t get bored,  you get to try loads of cool stuff and eat a much more diverse yummy diet – what is not to love about that ?

3. You control what happens to your garden plants. Most people I work with want to know their plants are not grown with GMO seed, are not given chemicals as infants and given proper organic nutrition as they grow up. Unless the plants you buy are certified organic, or you know your local plant grower well, you are taking your chances.

Spring Green Seedlings
Spring Green Seedlings

Growing from seed is not hard, especially the crops most people love like tomatoes and cucumbers. Some plants grow really easy from seed right into the garden, like lettuce.

Want more Foundation ? Consider the Foundations Course.  We start in August, so sign up soon so you don’t have to wait anther year for garden success !

2nd Quarter Moon Phase – start really early seeds

The second quarter moon phase extends through Monday  – so if you want to get an early start on seed starting, now is a good time so seeds germinate quickly.

What do we start now … tomatoes if you want to set them out in walls-o-water to get a jump on the warm weather (although this year we many not need to 🙂  We also start marigolds from seed, because they love hot weather and take a bit of time to get big, starting them now will give you a longer marigold season.