Ohhhhhh, the things I wish I’d known as an overly optimistic twenty-three year old when starting my first backyard garden. The soil I painstakingly turned, shovelful by shovelful, breaking up every clump into a fine powder with my hands (later wondering why the water seemed to just sit on top of the soil, eventually creating a hard, nearly impenetrable crust). Those poor, yellowed lettuces. RIP.
Even though I’ve had some sort of a vegetable garden most summers for 10 years or more, I still consider myself a beginner. And it’s a good thing, because each day that I attend my gardening class, my mind is blown by another instructor stating something that completely contradicts my gardening beliefs.
Here are some of the best (and most shocking) tips I’ve garnered over the first 9 weeks of instruction in the super-wonderful Portland Metro Master Gardener class.
1. Don’t dig with a shovel.
I know, right? I feel like such an asshole. A shovel is good at so many things, but preparing your soil is not really one of them. I mean, it’s okay at it, but a broadfork or a flatfork (sometimes called a spading fork) are much, much better. Unless you have an enormous garden, borrowing one of these tools for a day is all you need to do. You’re looking at an hour of work *tops* in an average city dweller-sized vegetable garden, which reminds me of another thing that makes the broad or flat fork superior to a shovel: it’s *so* much easier on your body.
Fork your garden beds about every 6 inches, rocking the tool back and forth lightly to loosen the soil just a bit. If your soil is hard and compacted, rock the tool more vigorously and throw a big handful of compost down into each crack that you create as you move along. Top your garden area with 3 or 4 inches of compost if it’s a new planting area or just 1-2 inches if you’ve used this area for gardening before. Viola! All you have to do now is remember not to step into this area and undo all of your soil-loosening work. Now let the rain come down for a few weeks and the worms and other critters will start to move towards your delicious compost and loosen the soil even further.
2. Don’t start your vegetables from seed.
If you’re like me, this was another mind-blower. Seeds are one of the first things available at gardening stores, and that makes them so tempting as winter is winding down. “I’ll just start some seeds in my sunny Portland windowsill!”, you say (now re-read that sentence and tell we what is wrong with it).
Even though your house may be technically warm enough, we just don’t have enough light to get seeds off to a good start here in the northern latitudes. I know what you’re thinking – “I’ve done this before!”, or, “I’m doing this right now – don’t rain on my parade!” I have done this before, too. Many, many times. And while you can definitely get seeds to germinate in a bright window, the starts will end up far weaker than those started under ideal conditions. Think of the newly germinated seeds as infants and the sun and warmth as nutrition – those that get the ideal amount of nutrition in the earliest part of their lives will surpass the others in terms of size and strength. I saw this first-hand in my own garden last year. I started kale from seed in February, transplanted it in April, and it was still runty and weak-stemmed in May (3 months later!). I finally planted some greenhouse-grown kale starts alongside. Three weeks later I was trimming leaves from the new kale, and it was still another month before my seed-grown kale was at a harvestable size. Nearly five months for some kale = does not compute. Long story short: Buy starts from your local nursery – you’ll save time and energy and end up with a bigger and better harvest.
*Of course you have the option of using grow lights or fluorescent bar lights and heating mats (which will definitely work!) for starting seeds, but the vast majority of us don’t have gardens large enough to support systems like this.
**Some vegetables do grow well from seeds – peas, cutting lettuce, and carrots come to mind – but those should be started outside directly in the soil rather than inside. Here is a slick veggie calendar for Portland.
3. Fertilizer is not optional.
Another doozy! I had literally *never* used fertilizer until a few years ago. For some reason I thought of it as cheating and as terribly environmentally-unfriendly. While I now consider it a necessity, it can be an environmental issue, so you need to know some basics.
Firstly, fertilizers come in both organic and synthetic forms. Synthetic fertilizers are stronger, but they have a higher environmental cost, both in their manufacturing and by the results of their overuse. Organic fertilizers are weaker, but longer lasting. So how do you tell the difference? In terms of organics, look for things that sound natural: bat guano, fish meal, blood meal, composted manure (all good choices, by the way) *versus* chemical: sulfur-coated urea, diammonium phosphate, ammonium sulfate, etc.
Next, fertilizers are labeled with a three-number system that denotes how much nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), and potassium (K) they contain, and the amounts are always listed in that order (N-P-K). The most important thing to know about nitrogen: plants need more of it than any other nutrient. The most important thing to know about phosphorous and potassium: They tend to be found in more than adequate amounts in most Pacific Northwest soils. I had my soil tested this year and found this to be true in my yard, so… I am using blood meal this year, an organic option with a ratio if 13:0:0. That means high nitrogen and no phosphorous or potassium. This way I get the plants the nitrogen they demand for good growth, but I don’t add unnecessary P or K to the soil that will just be washed away into the rivers.
One last thing about fertilizer: more is not better. Always follow the instructions on the package and even consider using the fertilizer at half-strength. You can always add more later.
Were you as shocked by any of this information as I was? I hope you learned something useful and that you’ll get outside and start digging!