Everyone fails at gardening one time or another. So much can go wrong: poor weather, poor seed germination, soil is off, wrong timing, wrong zone planting, or the chicken get in and eat all your ground cherries before harvesting.
So fear not the edible garden! I have had a garden most of my life, have had success about 80% of the time in a good year and 20% of a learning curve most of the others.
Whatever you grow, there are always basics. It can be very overwhelming to hear people who have been growing for years or educated formally in agriculture to discuss compost ratios, heritage varieties of seeds, open pollinaters, and growing zones.
In order to not get discouraged, we need to start with the basics. Trust me, hauling carrots you grew from a seed pack from Spencers Garden Center (no relation) is just as satisfying and seeing a loofah grow on a trellis companion planted with heritage beans !
Location, Location, Location
Prepare The Soil
Planning: Garden Plan
I want ALL THE SEEDS!
Where to Buy Seeds
Is it Time To Plant Yet?
How to Plant
Weeds, Weeds, Weeds….what’s a gal to do?
Harvest, Sweet Harvest
Keep Going or Take a Rest?
I’ll make it easy for you. We need to pay attention to zones for soil warmth. The seeds you buy will germinate when conditions are right: warm soil, nutrients water, and light, so buy the right seeds.
That’s all that is about
Don’t buy seeds for really warm climates that need a long growing time of you live on an island off the Atlantic Ocean. (That’s me ) You may fluke it but more likely than not they will flop. If you buy seeds from local areas though, it’s great because they are not going to be carrying anything too crazy. Any plant or seed for any other zone than 6, will need extra help or care. I, myself, am not into that!
The warmth of the soil is what matters, not the warmth of the air. Our growing season here in South West Nova Scotia is only 170 to 180 days. So whatever you plant has to be able to mature in that time. Unless you have a greenhouse, but we aren’t going there yet.
Where to Plant
You need to pick a location that gets at least eight hours of sun a day. Be mindful of wind if you are putting up a trellis or poles for vertical growing (sweet peas, pole beans, cucumbers etc.). I have put up trellis I thought was sturdy, had beans in mid season, topple to the ground in a summer storm . Broken vines, and lost produce is preventable if you are mindful (learn from me!)
Also do you have a lot of rocks in the area? Dig them up and pick them out. Or consider raised beds.
3 types of gardens I use:
In ground: tarp the grass, till and go, inexpensive usually
Containers:Require more watering, great for small areas and families
Raised Beds: Can be expensive to build, great for areas with poor soil/rocks, less weeds
Prepare the Soil
Get a soil test. This sounds complicated but its’ not. Spencer’s will do them locally for basics, the Dalhousie Agricultural College does them for a more comprehensive test for $22.43 plus tax and postage.
In this area, we lack selenium, and usually need to lower acidity in our soil. We do this by adding pelletized lime about three months before planting.
Every soil benefits from organic matter being added. This can be mulched leaves, good quality compost ( this is a whole course on its own), fish emulsion, worm casings, egg shells (dried and crushed), straw etc.
We compost manure and bedding from our animals , piled to ensure internal temperature gets high enough to kill weeds and aged long enough the nitrogen has broken down, so it doesn’t “burn” your plants.
You can buy aged manure and add it willy nilly, and it will always help. Until you get more familiar with plants and their individual needs, this is where you should start.
If you are planting directly in the ground, you may wish to till the soil. It helps with root development and aerating the soil especailly the first few years. After that it will get easier to plant directly, called a no till method.
You can rent tillers from hardware stores, or buy one. You may only use it once or twice a year so you need to weigh the expense of purchasing versus renting.
Once you till, let the grass or hard clumps dry up for a day, then pick them out, shake and compost away from the garden. Till again. Add your organic matter and work into the soil as you form your rows, beds or hills to plant in .
I have included an example of mine. It takes into account lots of factors but mostly it takes into account:
- How much we need to plant to get what we want
- Our family’s personal preference
- What grows well here
I will not spend a lot of time growing things for novelty. Every year I give the kids and the grandkids the seed book and they pick a fun thing to grow. But otherwise I stick to what I know our family will eat. Look at what vegetables you serve now, and get seeds or seedlings for those to start.
Potatoes (4 varieties)
Carrots (3 varieties)
Tomatoes ( 5 varieties)
Beans (3 varieties)
Cucumbers (3 varieties)
Peas (2 varieties)
Lettuce ( 3 varieties)
Pumpkins (1 variety)
Squash (2 varieties)
Summer Squash (2 varieties)
Onions & shallots
Grape vines (just started)
Various Herbs-Dill, Thyme, sage, mint, basil,
Some plants do really well with others. This is called companion planting.
I Want ALL the Seeds
Melissa K Norris is a great resource for garden planning. She uses a chart to break down how much produce you will use, all the way down to how many seeds or seedlings you need to plant for that (called the yield). Your yield will depend on weather, pest, soil nutrition and seed quality.
I usually plant 4 zucchini or summer squash plants from seeds. Some years they are so prolific I am literally giving it away, and others I have just enough to make zucchini bread all winter.
I always like to plant a little more than I need. You can always freeze it, give it away, trade it, or sell it.
Keep track of what seeds you have and what you need to buy. Seeds are not good forever so avoid stocking too many of them up. If you aren’t sure if your seeds are still good, you can do a germination test.
Where to Buy Seeds/Seedlings
This is important. You want seeds to grow where you live, which seems simple. However if you buy from a company that does not have a test garden in our climate, you will not be getting the hardiest seeds. They may or may not grow well here, and who needs to waste money and time on that?
Ones I like online :
Spencers Garden Center, Shelburne
Lavender Hill, Shelburne
Bob and the Boys, Bridgewater
L’Ouest Ville Perennials, Pubnico
Blueberry, and Strawberry plants- Lore’s U-Pick, Shelburne
Bakers Seed- this is an amazing company with amazing varieties from all over the world. Seed Dreams!
What kind of seeds to buy?
You have not even planted yet, and you are overwhelmed by all the seed packages!
Heritage Seeds- This means basically you can save the seeds from year to year, and as much as can be controlled the plant will be the exact same from year to year. Usually labelled as such.
Organic- these seeds have come from plants grown in organic soil, and with organic practices, usually certified. These may not turn out the same from year to year if you save the seeds.
Hybrid Seeds- These seeds come from plants that have been crossed with another plant to give a more beneficial yield or produce a better vegetable/fruit. This does not mean anything bad. Sometimes people associate hybrids with GMO but that is not true. It is actually pretty hard for a home gardener to get their hands on GMO seeds.
Annuals -These need to be planted every year. Most vegetables are annuals
Perennials- they come back on their own every year when Its time. Most have a 5 year harvest before they need to be replaced, some never have to be!
Seeds or Seedlings?
It really depends on your budget, time and of course the weather. Seeds are cheaper, but sometimes take longer.
If the weather is bad and our growing season is even shorter than normal, I will do seedlings for some things rather than direct sow seeds. Also sometimes I have lost seeds to a frost I didn’t plan on, so rather than lose more time trying to replant, I will grab seedlings to ensure we still get a harvest in time.
Seedlings are more expensive, but sometimes are hardier. And you can start them yourself once you get a few seasons under your belt.
However, there is nothing more satisfying than watching those seeds pop up from the ground!
Is It Time Yet?
It’s always time to garden! However there is a season for everything. Especially in South West Nova Scotia without a greenhouse.
Start with a traditional summer garden then you can research more about winter gardens, cold frames and greenhouses later. It’s important to not get overwhelmed.
Traditionally, there are some plants which go in the ground before the frost, thrive, grow and can usually be harvested in mid-late June:
They are :
It is important to remember that when sowing early seeds or seed potatoes, the ground is ready when it is “able to be worked” This means not frozen, no snow, and not too wet from rain either (you shouldn’t be able to squeeze any liquid from it).
It is also good to remember not to plant seeds if there is a big rain coming. All your hard work can get washed away in a heavy rain.
The last full moon in May/first Full moon in June is usually when other crops go in. This is when danger of frost has passed. If in doubt, read the back of the seed package or tag.
So Now You Can Plant
Each seed/seedling has instructions of how far apart to put the seeds, how deep, and when to thin if necessary.
Once they germinate (pop through the ground), and each one takes a different amount of time to do so, you can thin them if necessary when two leaves have fully formed.
Potatoes are grown by seed potatoes. Ask at the garden center for a bag of seed potatoes. Take each potato when you are ready to plant, cut it into pieces ensuring an “eye “ or sprout is in each piece. Plant in rows approximately 4 inches apart, 2-3 inches deep, hilling the soil up after each one.
Onions and garlic are grown with “sets”. These can be sown in early spring and bought from garden centers or online.
Some vegetables will need support. Do this as soon as you plant them. I tell you this from experience that is way harder to do it after the plants are coming up.
Now that the seeds are in, what could go wrong?? Well, plenty. The birds can be beautiful but deadly to your seeds, and plants. If you notice nothing coming up after a week or so, dig up a seed. If it’s gone, the birds got it. Replant.
If your fruit and vegetables are coming on beautifully, but the birds are eating it, figure out a scaring system ( pinterest is great to find something that will work for you. I use aluminum pie plates with string and sticks.)
Slugs can be dealt with by picking them off but I find burying a yogurt cup to the lip in the ground, filled with beer very effective.
Moths -Row covers can be effective to protect cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower. I get inexpensive ones at the dollar store.
Ants- Diamataceous Earth sprinkled around your plants (garden center) is a natural, food, and pet safe way to deter ants. Also crushed egg shells help.
Weeds, Weeds, Weeds…..What’s a gal to do ?
This is where people lose hope, even after putting in all the work to get here. The trick is to weed 10-15 minutes every day, and MULCH. Mulch between the rows with cardboard and straw or wood chips on top. Not only is this more attractive than a vegetable jungle, it just means you only have to do between the plants.
The more organic matter added to your garden, the less weeds you will have.
It can take years to get rid of weeds so stick with it.
This is when things pop up in your garden year to year that you may not have even planted this year! You can treat them as weeds or look at them like a bonus.
Look at the picture at the start of this blog post. That is my grandson Owen standing in behind a huge plot of ground cherries that I didn’t plant!! They are all volunteers from the year before and the chickens helped spread the seeds all around in the fall when I let them in to clean up the garden.
If you have let a plant go to seed, it may send off volunteer seeds into your soil which lay dormant until conditions are right.
Mint should be grown in a pot set in the ground as it spreads very well and will result in oodles of volunteers, if not contained.
Harvest, Sweet Harvest
Usually you will harvest early morning when the dew is dry, but the midday heat isn’t wilting or draining the plants. I however sometimes harvest by flashlight after work, and no one died. Harvest happens when is good for you and the produce is ready.
Plants put in in April, generally are ready in late June (think Hodge podge). You can replant these plants again if you would like for another harvest in September.
Plants sown in Late May will be usually be ready mid to late August.
Some plants like lettuce and spinach need to be watched carefully for “bolting”. This happens when the plant rapidly goes to seed in hot weather. Lettuce and spinach can be picked early (baby spinach !) and will keep growing for another harvest.
The more you pick beans, cucumbers, zucchini, tomatoes, and peas, the more they will produce.
Others, like potatoes, are done when you pick them. Potatoes should be picked or “dug” when the plant looks like it is dying after its flowered. If you have lots, you will want to find a way to store them. They should be cured for a few days to toughen the skin, then stored in a cold dark spot away from apples.
Onions are ready when the stalk is falling over after flowering and needs to be cured if being stored.
Some things are best left in the ground until after a frost (Parsnips, carrots, turnips) but most need to be picked before the first frost.
If your tomatoes are red, you can wrap them in newspaper and store until they turn red. Sometimes right into December!
I suggest pacing yourself as best you can preserving your harvest. If you need to just blanch it (google for how long) and freeze until you can deal with it. Great for tomatoes, berries, and lots of produce. But mostly you should process right away to the form you are going to eat it. Pickled, frozen, dehydrated, cold storage: there are so many ways to preserve the harvest.
And if you have nothing to preserve, that’s okay as well! There is nothing wrong with just growing what you eat, but I guarantee you once you start growing and growing things well, you will want to plant more to enjoy garden goodness all through the winter.
I hope you were able to gain some valuable information from my edible gardening experiences and I cannot wait to hear what you are growing in your own garden!
Melissa K Norris
Books: Veggie Remix, Year Round Gardener