Spring Garden Planning & Prep
Happy first day of spring!
After moving into this house last April in the midst of the pandemic, I found a lot of joy in gardening in our small backyard. It was a whole new project and a world of possibilities after years of apartment living. I got a late start on spring planting due to the timing of our move, but I still learned a couple of lessons that will benefit me this year, such as where to place plants with various sunlight requirements, how to harvest basil seeds, and the fact that cabbage moth larvae will eat all of my kale and broccoli (alas).
To prepare for gardening, the single most important piece of information I needed to have on hand is my planting zone. With this knowledge there is readily available guidance online on what the climate can sustain and when to sow, transplant, and harvest (if you're growing veggies).
Knowing what will and won't likely survive in my zone helps when I'm making my wishlist of things to grow. Being outside of a certain plant's ideal zone isn't a deal breaker however, as sometimes what won't thrive outdoors can do just fine as an indoor plant. After I made my list, I consulted the internet for whether it’ll work in my zone and if so, when to start my seeds.
Making a list
My list of plants for this spring is a mix of what worked last year (tomatoes, thyme, basil), new experiments (parsley, rosemary, thai chilis, mint), and flowers for the front yard (cosmos, lavender, chamomile, ranunculuses). Our potted oregano plant has survived the winter indoors so I'll bring it back outside when it's warmer. I'm going to give kale and broccoli another go, this time planting them in pots and covering them with mesh netting to protect them from cabbage moths and other insects.
Here's my list for this spring, along with how I'll be planting them:
Cherry tomatoes in a grow bag
Thyme in a small clay pot
Basil in a large clay pot - it can grow pretty tall so a larger pot prevents it from tipping over in the wind
Parsley in a medium clay pot
Thai chilis in a grow bag
Mint in a medium clay pot
Oregano in a medium clay pot
Lavender in a rectangular concrete planter (leftover from the previous homeowner)
Chamomile in the ground in the front yard
Cosmos in the ground in the front yard
Ranunculuses in large clay pots on our front steps as well as in the ground in the backyard
Broccoli in a grow bag with a mesh covering
Kale in a large clay pot with a mesh covering
There are a few supplies that I have found to be really helpful in my plant mom-hood, a few of them specialized and some of them everyday objects.
Planters These can be anything: used tins, old plastic containers, jam jars. If recycling a household item, I would recommend drilling drainage holes if possible to reduce the risk of over-watering when the soil is still damp. As a potter, I know I should recommend specially made planters from ceramicists such as myself, and there really are beautiful options out there, but I would limit these types of planters to indoor use. You get the benefit of adding a decorative touch to your home this way, and they'll last longer in better condition since outdoor planters take a solid beating in the elements. In fact, stoneware planters risk cracking if left outside through the winter. For outdoor planting, I love terracotta pots, those super simple ones from Home Depot or your local nursery. They are affordable, allow for proper drainage, and can be easily replaced when needed. For veggies, I would recommend grow bags. These fiber bags are even better at circulating air to root systems than terracotta, and they are reusable from season to season. They are also lightweight, so a 5 or even 10 pound bag is much easier to handle than the same sized clay pot.
Big bucket A big metal bucket is one of the most used items in my garden. I use mine to hold and mix soil when planting. It also comes in handy for watering, and as a trash can for collecting weeds, dead leaves, and hedge clippings.
Takeout chopsticks Ever wonder what to do with all of those chopsticks that pile up from takeout orders because you feel bad just throwing them out? Turns out they are great as plant stakes. I also use them for poking holes in soil when transplanting seedlings and as cheap plant markers. Soil & composting
I like to use organic potting soil for potted items and garden soil when planting in the ground or a grow bag. We've also been composting in our tumble composter since last fall and I'm excited to mix some of that black gold into the soil for additional nutrients for all of my plants.
If you cannot compost for yourself, I would still recommend composting in general. It's amazing how much organic waste a household can generate, especially one that cooks often, and diverting it from landfills for the creation of a beneficial good is easily worth the (slight) extra effort. When we lived in the apartment, we would store compostable goods in a bag in the freezer and bring our bags to our local NYC Greenmarket every weekend, where they have a compost collection station. Your city may have a composting program (sadly, NYC's curbside compost collection program was shut down during the pandemic), or check your local farmers markets to see if there's some place where you can drop off food waste.
Plants, of course!
I like to grow my plants from seed rather than purchase nursery plants when possible. This means that I need to get an earlier start on my planning in order to allow time for germination and for the seedlings to grow to a large enough state to transplant. This is a personal preference, and doesn't make a difference in the success of a garden. I like to order my seeds on Etsy.
For me, seeing seeds germinate is really exciting, and I like the steps involved in making tiny starter cups out of newspaper, tenderly placing each seedling into a cup, and watching them grow in trays on my windowsill. This process is started in late winter and allows me to start dreaming of spring a little earlier in the year. Also, if I do have trouble growing from seed, I'll know early enough in the season to be able to purchase a nursery plant. For example, my basil, tomato, thyme, parsley, cosmo, and chamomile seeds have germinated nicely, but my mint, lavender, and rosemary seeds have yet to stir so I might consider purchasing these from the nursery if they continue to stay dormant for the next couple of weeks.
The gardening tools that I like to use are a cultivator, a spade, tomato cages (if growing something vine-y like tomatoes, sweet peas, beans, etc.), garden gloves (though I often just use my bare hands and get dirt under my fingernails even though they are kept super short for pottery), and garden shears.
I also have this paper pot mold that I use to make seed cups. It's fun to use and saves me money on starter cups. I reuse newspaper that I bring home from the studio wrapped around my finished pieces. I use a kitchen spoon to fill them and a chopstick to poke holes where I'll be planting each seedling.
I also have plant food in my garden shed, but I'm not great about knowing when and how best to use it. With the addition of our compost bin, I might sprinkle in some plant food when I next mix a batch of soil with compost and see if it makes a difference.
My method of germinating seeds is super simple and has worked well for me with all different types of plants. I take a rip of paper towel, dampen it (making sure it isn't soaking so the seeds don't rot), sprinkle a few seeds on it, and wrap it up in plastic wrap or a ziploc bag. Then I place the pouch in a kitchen drawer or on a windowsill, depending on the seeds' light requirements for germination as stated on their instructions, and wait. If using plastic wrap, the water will evaporate slowly so it's important to re-wet the paper towel about once a week.
Once seeds have germinated, as depicted above, I gently remove them from the paper towel for transplanting into my newspaper cups, which are each marked with permanent marker to remind me what's what. If the root has grown into the paper towel, I cut around it and poke the entire paper towel snippet into the soil and cover loosely, ensuring the sprout is above the soil.
Note that this method does not work for bulbs. I'm trying my hand at planting bulbs for the first time ever (those ranunculuses) this year, and I'll be planting a few directly into the ground and a few into pots to see if I can get them to grow.
Once seeds have germinated, I transplant them into the paper cups made with my cup mold. I then line these pots up in shallow plastic takeout containers for easy watering, and place them in indirect sun indoors until it's time to start hardening off the seedlings prior to moving them to their final homes.
For the paper cups, I use whatever soil I have available, either potting soil or garden soil, or a mix. I use a kitchen spoon to fill each cup and a chopstick to poke a hole for where I'll place the seedling. Once a tray of them is complete, I run them under the kitchen sink with the water at a trickle once a day to keep the soil moist.
I learned how important it is to harden off your seedlings last year. The shock of the outdoors, with temperature changes and periods of direct sunlight, can kill off plants that haven't been acclimated appropriately. I loosely follow the instructions in the link above, placing my trays outside the front door for a little while every day, then all day (taking them in at night), and finally 24 hours a day. Once they have reached this point, the plants are also typically large enough to handle without fear of breaking them when moving them to their final home, whether a pot or a spot in the garden.
Wish me luck!
Just before writing this post, I spent some time transplanting basil and parsley seedlings into paper cups, placing ranunculus bulbs into the ground in my backyard, and lightly covering the tiny chamomile and cosmo seedlings in the front yard. I watered each of these with my trusty big bucket, and have my fingers crossed for the health and growth of my plant babies this year.