My top ten steps for starting a new veggie bed…maybe it will help a few dreamers?

Beginning any new task is very daunting for me.  I like to know what I am getting myself into and I like to know all the steps before I begin.  I don’t mind adjusting on the fly, but flying blind is not for me. After writing about a few of our successes, trials and plans in seeding, gardening and lighting I received a request for a specific post – How do I get started on a small veggie garden without getting overwhelmed?  I am certainly no expert in this area – but this is how I started laying down roots, how I dreamed and triumphed and of course how I could have done it better.  I hope it helps a bit.

MY TOP 10 STEPS FOR STARTING A NEW VEGGIE BED

10 – SUCCESS! Site Selection – The soil in my yard is quite heavy with a lot of clay.  I also have a lot of trees that cast weird shade.  We started by finding a flat site and staked out a 10×20 foot square.  We watched where the shadows were throughout the day and adjusted the location of our square to make sure we had as much sun as possible throughout the day.  We also made sure the hose and sprinkler would reach. I use a lot of planters on the deck and patio and fill them with veggies – even my 2×2 planters produce a pile of tomatoes and chard and are very pretty when planted with a few annuals or herbs for a splash of colour. Added bonus – planters can be hauled inside during summer hurricanes!

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9 – FAIL – Could have done better….Soil Preparation – The first year, we dug out the sod (we needed it in other places anyways…), pulled as many big rocks out as we could and turned the “soil” (it was really clay) with shovels.  We added bags of peat moss and compost and had 2 yards of garden soil dumped in the back of our truck and dug that all in too.  I did buy a soil test kit and a pH tester, but I am not sure they were ever very accurate and never repeated the process out of laziness and distractedness.

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The start of year 3.

What we have since done better – in subsequent years of expansion we borrowed and then purchased a root-tiller to till the original plot – soooo much easier than hand-bombing it with shovels. We also lost the rock and clay battle and chose instead to have more garden soil or triple mix delivered to “build up” our soil.  Instead of cutting out the sod, I laid cardboard down in the area to become the garden.  We then dumped 10-12 inches of soil on top of the cardboard.  By the end of the summer, the cardboard had broken down the sod and the garden soil was much more productive than our natural soil even with the amendments.

Better still – 2 years ago we bought composite raised bed kits.  We placed a few inches of crusher dust and gravel underneath the boards to level them, lined them cardboard and then filled with garden soil and triple mix. Each bed is 4×8 feet and 12 inches deep. They were much more expensive, but by far the best approach for us.  After we clean up the gardens in the fall, I cover the beds with straw to keep weeds down and turn it under in the early spring with a fresh top up of organic fertilizer and compost – less weeds, more yield and no boulders to be dug!  SCORE!

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A lot of work to set up, but so worth it!

8 – SUCCESS! Hilling my rows – We get a lot of rain and I found that in the main garden, I lose less soil and seedlings to run off and drowning if I create hilled rows. I mark where my rows should be (they are pretty set now after 6 years and it reduces work and soil compaction by keeping my rows in the same places.) I make my rows approx 2-3 feet wide by 10-12 inches high with a hoe so I can plant a few rows of treats in each hill or plant in clumps.  The water runs off into the lower paths between rows and it seems to keep the roots watered while keeping puddles in the actual rows to a minimum.  This doesn’t apply to my raised beds as the drainage is really good and we don’t walk in them anyways.

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7 – SUCCESS!! 2 foot paths between rows – just enough space to kneel in and get the wheelbarrow through! Enough said…

6 –SUCCESS!!! Weed barriers – I HATE WEEDING!!!  We almost plowed down the dirt and seeded the plot with grass a few summers ago because the weeding was becoming all consuming!  They were shading out veggie babies, providing hiding spaces for slugs and bugs and smothering everything edible (as well as smothering my desire to garden anymore….) With two busy girls, a full time job and the desire to do something other than pull weeds every non-scheduled waking moment, I caved and bought weed barrier. AND THE ANGELS SANG – AHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!! (That was supposed to be angels singing in harmony with the sun shining brightly and me frolicking in a long shimmery dress with flowers in my hair! Yup, the result was that good!!)

The cost is not prohibitive – less than $60 per season.  I place cardboard or wet newspaper between the rows, then place black bio-film over my prepped rows as tight as I can, staking it with ground stakes or rocks.  I then cover the newspaper or cardboard with clean straw (not hay!!!) In order to seed, I use an exact-o knife to cut slits or small holes and plant seedlings or seeds through the holes.  The black film does triple duty – it heats the soil, prevents run off and SMOTHERS THE WEEDY INVADERS!!!!  It is the rock star of my garden.  I haven’t had to use it in my raised beds yet because the soil was relatively weed free, but I will as soon as I get overrun again.  The prep work is a lot more but last summer I spent less than 10 hours total weeding the veggie beds.  FREEDOM!!!

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5 –Success, partially –  Electric fencing.  This was a must for us.  The deer were eating the veggies faster than we could grow them.  A simple electric fence made for small animals was cost-effective, not too unsightly and keeps the deer out magnificently! It does not keep out racoons or rabbits….that is a battle for next summer….If your garden is small, a fence would be ideal.  Mine is 40×24 and it would far too expensive to do a pretty fence.

4 – SUCCESS (after a few years) – Bird netting, frost blankets and hoop tunnels – These little beauties did not come until 2 years ago, but I wish I had started from the get-go with them.  They can be easily thrown up quickly and protect veggies and berries from animals, frost, hail, winds and sun.  I found frost blankets at the Dollarama last year – JACKPOT!

Hoop tunnels are just 6 foot long sections of 3/4 inch PVC pipes. I slide them over 1 foot rebar stakes that I pound into the ground on each side of the row. They act as mini greenhouses and allow me to plant much earlier and later than the frost dates. I use 4 hoops for a 14 foot row.  As a cover, I bought 6 mm vapour barrier plastic, laid out 18 feet of it (it was 8 feet wide) and stapled 14 foot decking boards down the two long sides.  I rolled the boards in the extra plastic (since the hoops were 6 feet wide – the extra is nice as it keeps the staples from being pulled out).  Hubby helped me carry the boards and plastic to the garden and laid a board in each path on either side of the row, with the plastic resting on the PVC pipes. I can easily lift one board up and over the hoops to uncover or recover as necessary for picking or airing out. I found green plant clips at the dollar store that clamp the plastic to the hoops nicely. Niki Jabbour’s book, The Year Round Vegetable Gardener has some easy instructions for making these.

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3 – FAIL – High quality sprinkler – cheap ones just don’t cut it. I have spent more in cheap sprinklers than I would have had I sucked it up in the first place.  In ground drip irrigation would be lovely….someday maybe!

2 – SUCCESS! Strong vertical supports – for peas, poles beans, tomatoes, cucumbers and squash.  I use everything from cages to bamboo to saplings.  Vertical supports make the garden interesting, pretty, save space and keep produce off the ground.  Plus there is nothing neater for a little kid than a pole bean teepee or a squash house to hide in!

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AND MY NUMBER 1 STEP FOR STARTING A GARDEN….drumroll please…..

1 – Minions for planting!!!! The more hands, the better!  Little hands are capable of so much and bring so much joy, excitement and fulfilment to the garden, as long as I am willing to have a few crooked rows and a few surprises!

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I have made lists of veggies that have worked well for our family in Nova Scotia.  I use calendars to remember when to plant what – you can find them in O-Seed-D if you’d like to take a peek.  I found the best way to decide what to grow is to figure out what we will actually eat and ask other gardeners around me what varieties  have worked best in our area.  Nova Scotia is full of great resources, I only listed a few in Borrowed Wisdom, but I go back to them all the time – I learn something new every time I read the same old books!

If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” ~Marcus Tullius Cicero

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Day Maker

I didn’t have the best day ever today, but when I opened the mailbox my heart warmed up a few degrees!  In my mailbox was a beautiful little card, filled with Black Plum tomato seeds that I had been looking for to plant in my wee girl’s purple garden this summer.  The card is made from natural fibres with seeds woven into it that can be planted, how neat is that? Needless to say, this extremely kind gesture and the lovely note made both of our days especially sunny!

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Very happy little hands. Her face was even sweeter.

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How neat is this paper?! I will have to “plant it” in the spring and see what happens!

Thanks so much to Marguerite from http://canoecorner.blogspot.ca for the Day Maker!!

But for now, we wait…

imageSooooooo…..The garden plans are set.  The new seeds are mostly ordered.  The calendar is marked up. The early seedlings are started and some seedlings have already passed on to greener pastures because we forgot to water them. Ooopsies… More little seedlings are poking up every day.  My wee girl’s flower babies are growing bigger everyday and are slowly inheriting names as she decides what suits them (I will admit that I cannot possibly remember them all.  2 years ago she became particularly attached to her tomatoes that we started far too early – it was a very awkward affair when we started to eat “Isabelle’s” babies!!!) I guess perhaps I should make some new name tags for the Coleus clan. There is not a whole lot more to do right now.  A few more trays of marigolds, zinnia, ganzania, snapdragons, tomatoes, cucs and squash will be started in 2-4 more weeks (doesn’t that seem like an eternity!?).  It would be really nice to get outside to start some prep work…

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Isabelle, Gracie and Tinkerbelle. In March…Ooops. Sorry about the picture quality….

Buuuuut…..(insert large sigh, the baited breath and the big exhale here…) The gardens are covered in about 3 feet of ice and snow.  I guess if it is truly a “poor man’s fertilizer”, then Nova Scotia gardeners have struck it rich this year! BINGO?!  It has been a bit warmer, but the forecast is not warming up by very much anytime soon and as a bonus we are still enjoying many great days of skiing. Last year we had a massive storm on March 27th, so it is entirely possible that we will be waiting for quite some time yet to get our hands dirty outside. But on the other hand, the year before I had the veggie beds roto-tilled, composted, tunnels set up and cool weather veggies seeded by the 30th of March. It is hard to believe when I look out the back windows and I can hardly see where the raised beds are buried that in less than 1 month we could actually be starting the garden for this year! Fingers crossed…

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Early beds poking up in April of last year. Frost blankets are an amazing tool for gardeners…ahem..me..with very little patience!

I don’t want to wish the winter away because I love the snow. I love sledding with the kids and skiing as a family.  There is nothing quite as satisfying as a full day in the fresh, crisp air, filled with fun, adrenaline and true time spent together.  (Well maybe the glass of wine in front of the fire when every, single muscle and joint is worn out is almost as satisfying…) I love the lack of lawn mowing in the winter and I really love the lack of bugs in the winter! More than anything, I love the lack of weeding.  Yup, I said it.  I hate weeding. I will do just about anything to avoid weeding. I will pawn it off an anyone else who can be suckered, administer it as a punishment, convince myself weeds are pretty, figure out if I can somehow make tea, wine, jelly or find some redeeming use for them, you get the point…boy…do I hate weeding.  Unless it is with a flame thrower or a roto-tiller, both of those tools can be incredibly therapeutic!  But I digress.

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If you can’t beat the snow……

Spring can even make me a bit sad.  As a mama, the coming of spring and summer means two more birthdays, 2 little girls getting a bit bigger, 2 little girls who need me just that little bit less…BUT WAIT!  Because they will be a bit bigger, a bit tougher, a bit stronger, it also means they can pull a few extra weeds!  They will be able to drag a heavier bag of compost, and best of all – maybe this year, just maybe, my big girl will be able to mow the lawn!!!  Bring on the Spring!!!

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Chives are usually the first herb to say hello in my spring beds.

But we have no control over Mother Nature.  We can knock on wood, cross fingers, pray really, really hard and do all the spring fling dances we like, but in the end, it is a waiting game. For now, all we really have are some pretty forced Forsythia and apple blossoms to give us hope that spring is on the way. Maybe some forced spring bulbs will finally pop and there are always the pictures from last year to swoon over. I guess I could head to the freezer and pull out some apples and berries from last year and make some of Grandma’s recipes with the girls- maybe that will be next week’s post! Mmmmmmmm….Blueberry grunt…. But for now, we wait…

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Nothing like tulips to brighten the winter!

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“Lemony Sunshine” – Our little lemon lady comes inside for the winter and keeps us smiling with her little lemon babies!

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Hope for what is to come!

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I love to force Forsythias and Crabapples in February or March – just a nice little “Pop!” of life!

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A lone forced Daffodil my big girl planted last year – it opened on Easter morning!

“God has perfect timing; never early, never late. It takes a little patience and faith, but it is worth the wait.” ~ Unknown

Obsessive Seeding Disorder (O-Seed-D)

IMG_2000Hello, I am a gardner and I have a problem. Whew, what a relief to get that off my conscience!  But I actually do not want any help getting over my condition, in fact I hope it is contagious! I wouldn’t call it an addiction, per se, I could stop if I wanted to (ha!), more of a vice (because I choose to spend many hours during my week thinking about seeds).  My husband refers to it as my obsession.  Obsessive Seeding Disorder. Guilty!

Because our growing season in Nova Scotia is roughly 20 weeks frost-free, a lot of thought has to go into what seeds I will plant, how and when they will be started and where they can be planted without getting devoured by wild life once outside.  Thankfully, Nova Scotia has a fairly large collection of gardeners who share my O-Seed-D affliction and there are many good resources to help with the daunting task of picking the right variety of seed!  I have found kindred spirits and had great conversations in the church nursery, at my daughter’s basketball games, over a glass of wine at bonfires down the street, during “meditation” time in yoga class and even during the odd moment of down time at work (I would say don’t tell my boss, but I think he is part of the club).  I have been surprised by some of the people that speak up when the topic of seeds pops up – there are many closet gardeners you would never suspect!

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My seed box and seeding journal…sigh…so beautiful!

Seed planning for this year started with seed planting last year.  I have a small journal that I keep notes in from year to year with planting dates and techniques used.  I track germination rates, successes and failures.  I make notes about what I started far too early, too late and which varieties were a complete flop so as not to repeat the same mistake twice.  Einstein proved his brilliance when he said “The definition of insanity is doing the same things over and over and expecting different results…” That said, I often forget this quote and black out a bit when I pull out my trays – my obsession takes over and it seems entirely reasonable to start 100 tomatoes when I can only actually fit 20-30 plants in my garden! I also have a specific seeding calendar (one of the many charity ones that come in the mail) for tracking planting dates for inside and out.  I find this method using the calendar a quick and easy way to keep myself on track without too many fancy spreadsheets or by trying to keep seed packets sorted by starting dates.

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Annual Family Seed Organizing Event – (my gardening minions get to vote and veto what they didn’t like last year). Only the favourites get to go into the box and on the list for this year!

I am not a psychologist or geneticist, but I am quite certain that this condition is genetic.  My grandmother always had far too many seedlings for the amount of pots she could plant and my girls are exhibiting the same quirks to which I simply cannot say no.  Just last weekend my wee girl and I were going to seed just 12 jalapeños and 12 munchkin broccolis so they would be ready to plant out in the early tunnels. Fail.  I gave her the scoop and seed starting mix, turned my back to bleach few more cells left over from last year (to make sure there were no diseases to spread) and before I knew it I heard her counting “22, 23, 24, 25…” of each!  Some celery also managed to find it’s way into trays, and some lavender, and some columbine (because we saw those at the store and thought we may not be able to live without them any longer), and some chamomile (because we weren’t sure how we managed to live without them until now), and some Black Eyed Susans (because how could we go on living with such an unfulfilling ditch)……….you get the picture. Just one more reason to add to my list of the thousand reasons I love that little girl!

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See?! I am not alone! Thanks for the support Green Sparrow Gardens!

Selecting the variety of seed can be overwhelming – this is where seed catalogues and a support group come in.   I try to use Canadian seed as much as possible, and preferably grown by sources from the maritimes to ensure the best chances for my Nova Scotia garden.  Each catalogue has planting guides and friends who have been in “the club” for much longer than I have shared their wisdom and extra seeds freely. I have discovered some delicious veggies that I would never have tried myself simply by spreading my roots and soaking up any borrowed wisdom that comes my way.  Somehow, even reporting back how a new veggie is doing has strengthened some great relationships with truly wonderful people.

I select seed for many reasons – storing, freezing, drying, overwintering, canning.  It all started as a small summer garden in my first house and over the years has grown into…well, alright, I admit it, an obsession!  Anyone who wants to join my club is more than welcome, there is always room for more in my garden, even if I run out of space under my lights!

This is the seeding guide from Halifax Seed  and my calendar and for this year:imageimageimageimage image   

This is my veggie list for this year (sorry about the printing):

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These are my new picks (so far) for this year:

Veggies:

Peppermint Swiss Chard (Halifax Seed) – Thanks Niki!

Sub Arctic Plenty Tomatoes (Still looking…) – Thanks Brenda!

Green Envy Cherry toms (Burpees) – Thanks Wendy!

Black Plum Tomatoes (Still looking) – thanks Margeurite!

Sicilia Violetto Cauliflower (Suttons), Tonya’s Pick Pod beans (Annapolis) and Purple Sun Carrots (Suttons) for the “Purple bed”

Celebration Squash (Veseys)

Gonevese Basil (Gusto Italia)

Market Express Baby Turnip (Halifax Seed) – Never thought of turnip tops before last year – Thanks Deborah!

Flowers

Rudbeckia – Just for Debbie! (Hope Seeds)

Columbine – thanks for posting that picture last year Selena! (McKenzie)

Climbing vine and Ladybird Cream Purple Spot Nasturtium (McKenzie)

German Chamomile (Burpees)

Perennial Dianthus (from our own seed)

Have a look at the Borrowed Wisdom section for my favourite East Coast Resources

” An addiction to gardening is not at all bad when you consider all the other choices in life” ~ Cora Lee Bell