As you know from my last post, I grew up on a farm in Iowa. When many of my grade-school friends were spending their summer days at the swimming pool, I was working in our family’s garden (or as my dad called it, “building character”). Our garden was a nearly 1-acre (43,500 sq ft) plot that we planted, tended, and harvested entirely by hand. For as many years as I can remember, we sold our produce at our local farmer’s market. As I like to remind my friends: 1) no, I wasn’t raised Amish, and 2) we were organic before organic was cool. When I was in high school, my parents retired from the farmer’s market after being a top vendor for over 25 years. My sisters and I practically jumped for joy at this decision, as we would no longer be expected to spend our precious summer days working in the garden!
Fast forward to 10 years later when my husband and I were looking to buy our first home. Like most home-buyers, we had a list of prerequisites – one of which was “must have a yard large enough/with enough sun to have a garden” (the irony of this statement is not lost on me). We looked for several months, finding many beautiful houses, but most had small yards or too much shade to be practical for gardening purposes. We had almost given up when our realtor told us about a house in western Shawnee on a 3/4 acre plot, so we went to check it out. After seeing the yard – which already had a garden plot complete with a fence around it – the house could have been falling down and we still would have made the offer!
You could say that based on my upbringing, my “green thumb” is somewhat hereditary, however – I truly believe that anyone can grow a garden! This summer marks the third summer we that we have planted our garden. I’m no pro, but I’ve learned a lot and will be sharing some of the things I’ve learned with our readers over the next several months – complete with photos and tips!
If you’ve never had a garden, it can be hard to know where to start, as gardening books and websites abound and aisles of seed packets and plants in your local store or nursery can be overwhelming! One of the best resources for me has been our local Earl May Nursery and Garden Center. The staff knows just about everything from what to plant and when to how to improve your soil condition. I also love this website, which my super-gardener sister shared with me (thanks, Em!). A little reading and Q&A with a knowledgeable garden pro can go a long way when you’re just getting started.
Each year as I start to see snippets of spring, I get out my grid paper to draw up a garden plan. This helps me know how much space I have and plan what to plant where. We always plant what grew well/what we ate the most of the previous year, take out what didn’t work (we have at least one crop-fail every summer!), and add in a new “experimental” crop to try something different. I roughly follow the Square Foot Gardening method in terms of dividing up my space. Our plot is roughly 22’x16′, so I use stakes/twine to divide it into 10 different “sections” with a 2′ wide aisle in the middle. Our main garden is a traditional in-ground plot that is about 350 square feet; we also have a small raised bed garden for our strawberries that is about 25 square feet.
Every year, I buy all of my seeds and starter plants at Earl May, but another great website is Gurney’s – especially if you’re looking for something a little bit unique or if you need large quantities. In mid-April, we made one big “garden run” and got all of our seeds and starter plants in one trip.
There are basically three growing seasons in Kansas City: spring (cool weather crops), summer (hot weather crops) and fall (cool weather crops). Spring crops are very hearty and actually grow better in cooler weather. Even if it frosts or freezes, the plants still thrive. Spring crops include spinach, lettuce, kale, chard, peas, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli.
Summer crops are crops that love the heat and humidity! You can only plant them after the threat of frost and overnight freezing has passed … which sounds simple, but bear in mind that last year, it snowed in early May! Sometimes you just have to guess and hope for good weather! Summer crops include peppers, tomatoes, squash, zucchini, watermelon, cantaloupe, pumpkins, green beans, beets, and carrots. Fall crops are basically your spring crops planted again when the weather cools down.
Since the weather has been good (great!) this year, I planted our spring crops in late April, and just finished putting in our summer crops over the weekend. To me, planting is like reading a recipe: at first, you have to follow all of the instructions to a “T” to make sure you are doing it right. Then, as you gain experience, you can “fudge” on the details a bit. The back of your seed packet is the best resource as you are learning the ropes.
The 4 major things you need to pay attention to for planting are: light, seed depth, seed spacing, and row/hill spacing. Last year, I planted my green bean seeds too shallow and the birds ate them all before they sprouted (crop-fail)! Two years ago, I planted my carrots too close together (which is easy to do because the seeds are tiny) and my carrots didn’t get very long or wide (crop-fail). On the flip side, I have found that we have high enough quality soil in our garden (a mix of homemade compost, black dirt/compost mix “imported” from Iowa, Kansas clay, and gypsum) that I can put my rows of seed much closer together than what the package says (victory!).
Once I have my garden plan and my seeds/plants, it’s time to dig in the dirt! My husband uses a tiller to till our plot twice a year (spring to break up the soil and fall to till in compost and gypsum) and once that’s done, I use stakes/twine to divide it up into sections as I mentioned above. Then, the only tools I use to plant are a hoe/rake (to break up any large chunks of soil missed by the tiller and to level the ground), a small shovel, my hands (no gloves!), and a hose!
Here are a few photos of the planting process:
Left: I always plant peppers and tomatoes from plants vs. seeds, as I believe they grow better and produce faster. Middle: If all grows well (see what I did there?), we will be harvesting zucchini, green beans, butternut squash, yellow squash, watermelon, and cantaloupe from these (and four more) hills in approximately 75-85 days! Right: The whole shebang! What you can’t see yet are the crops I planted from seed in rows: carrots, spinach, red lettuce, and romaine lettuce.
In total, it took me two half-Saturdays to get our garden “in” this year. I got a farmer tan (complete with sock and tank top lines), a dirt-under-the-nails manicure, sore muscles, and the satisfaction that I will soon be feeding my family from our very own garden! Be sure to check back in June for my next Garden Mama post! We’ll check in on what has sprouted, maybe see a crop-fail or two, and we’ll hopefully be harvesting some of our spring crops! I’ll also be including some tips and tricks on garden care. For now, there’s only one thing left to say: grow baby, GROW!