Starting a New Garden – Cool Weather Planting – Instructions for Success

Q.  I have a 1000 square foot veggie garden in Coastal Mississippi that I have been very unsuccessful with in the past 4 years. We have clay soil and Iam a lazy gardener. I don’t think about the garden much … until it is dried out and infested.  I plan on changing my ways!

I want to start a garden this weekend. My husband will till the ground and remove the grass (again).

My questions are: What seeds can I plant this month? I don’t want to buy plants. I would like to plant spinach, butternut squash, cauliflour and broccoli. Where do you get those seeds? My local big box retailers don’t have seeds anymore.

My husband wants to lay soaker hoses on the garden rows and cover the entire garden bed with black plastic. Is this a good idea?

A.   A 1,000 square foot garden can grow a tremendous amount of produce IF YOU DO IT RIGHT (how about 5,000# of tomatoes)!  If left alone, or done haphazardly, however, it will be a big disappointment, and you’ll grow weeds instead, so “changing your ways” is definitely important.

You can always buy seeds from Burpee, Park, Harris, Gurney, or one of the other seed companies on the internet.

Clay soil is NOT a problem if you will create slightly raised, level, ridged beds as described in the Mittleider gardening books and in the free e-book at www.growfood.com in the Learn section.  And be sure to use the recommended natural mineral nutrients as instructed!

Lay out and stake your garden with 18″ soil-beds, and aisles at least 3′ wide.  Use 4 2″ X 2″ PAINTED stakes per soil-bed.  Depending on your dimensions you can have 11 – 20′-long beds with 3′-wide aisles.

I would only plant 1/2 bed of cauliflower and 1/2 bed of broccoli, for the following reason.  Single-crop plants mature all at once.  This means that even with only 10′ rows of each you will have 20 heads of cauliflower and 20 heads of brocolli all mature at virtually the same time, and THEY’LL ALL NEED TO BE PICKED AT THE SAME TIME.  Otherwise they get bad, and they attract both bugs and diseases.

Whenever you plant a single-crop vegetable, plant only what you can use, give away, sell, or store in the 1-2 week ideal harvesting window.  If you want them all season you MUST do several small plantings – spaced at 2-week intervals.

It’s for this reason, as well as to get the most from your gardening efforts and limited space, that I recommend growing EVERBEARING crops like tomatoes, cucumbers, pole beans, peppers, eggplant, melons and squash.  And I recommend you grow everything vertically using T-Framse or stakes!

Be CERTAIN that your garden is totally weed free, including a 4-5′ periphery, at the time of planting.  And use a 2-way hoe to quickly and easily weed again about 10 days after planting, or as soon as the weeds begin to show their faces.  NEVER WAIT for the weeds to grow bigger!  They’re most vulnerable when they are tiny, and they are very easy to eliminate.  You might have to do this two or three times, but then you will have a healthy, weed-free garden all season long.  It will also reduce your problems with bugs and diseases!

Growing seedlings in a mixture of sawdust and sand in a 2 to 1 ratio, using plastic trays, is the best way to start the plants you are describing, with the possible exception of the spinach.  They will grow faster and will be healthier than what you grow in the ground from seed.  The seedlings must have constant sunlight to thrive, just as when they were in the garden.  Growing seedlings is very rewarding, and is a simple process, but you MUST follow the steps accurately and consistently.

You can learn to become very competent at growing your own seedlings by reading Chapter 22 of The Mittleider Gardening Course – available in the Store section at www.growfood.com.

If you decide to grow from seeds in the ground, make sure your seed-bed is soft and smooth.  Scratch a SHALLOW furrow on both sides of the bed near the ridges the full length of the bed (or as far as you are planting that vegetable).  For very small seeds mix seeds with sand in a 1 to 100 ratio, and sprinkle carefully the length of the row, as evenly as possible.  Then cover the seeds WITH SAND rather than the clay soil. Meanwhile, remember that only ONE OUNCE of small seeds like tomato seeds includes TEN THOUSAND SEEDS, so don’t plant too many!

Which crops you should plant depends on the temperatures in your growing area.  Most places cannot grow warm-weather crops like tomatoes, peppers, beans, melons, and squash in the winter months.  I suspect Mississippi is no exception.  Wait to transplant those into the garden until daytime temperatures are 65-70 and night-time temperatures are 50 or above.

Cool-weather crops like cauliflower and brocolli, and even spinach, beets, and the like, can be planted when it’s colder, but don’t plant if you have frosts at night, and remember that even these hardy plants need daytime temperatures above 50 degrees fahrenheit to grow.

Using black plastic is generally NOT a good idea when planting seeds.  The open space needed for seeds to emerge and grow successfully leaves room for weeds to grow as well.  And weeds from all around the opening will find it and choke out your tiny vegetable seedlings as they emerge.  Meanwhile, the plastic makes it very difficult to weed thoroughly and successfully.

Black plastic can be used successfully when growing seedlings, but it is not a cure-all, and I believe is less desireable than leaving the ground bare and weeding properly.

Using soaker hoses for watering is much less than ideal for several reasons:  The holes are easily plugged; weeding around the hose is difficult; the hose is easily cut when attempting to weed around it; water quantity is uncertain and often inadequate.

The best and easiest watering method I know is the semi-automated method taught in chapter 16 of the Mittleider Gardening Course.  This uses 3/4″ Schedule 200 PVC pipe drilled with 3 #57 holes every 4″ running down the center of the soil-bed, and lifted off the soil about 2″ by small 2 X 4″ wooden blocks.  Water is controlled by an inexpensive ball valve placed at the head of each row, and the whole garden is plumbed together for fast and accurate watering.

If you can’t or don’t want to automate your watering, simply wrap a large rag around the end of your garden hose, then place the hose in the soil-bed.  If your beds are level the entire soil-bed will quickly receive the needed 1″ of water.  And whichever method you use, remember to water daily – especially in warm weather – unless it rains.

Successful Gardening!

Jim