“A life in the country means something different to different people. For some it’s about the simple life and a slower pace, for others it’s about fresh air and lake views. But for almost everyone—both the fantasy and reality of country life includes a vegetable garden.
The formula seems simple: sow, reap, repeat. Essentially, correct but, I’m telling you, it takes a lifetime of digging in the dirt to get right. In the spring of 2017, we enthusiastically cleared and prepared our huge inherited patch only to find that within a few weeks, the weeds became oppressive, a full-time job to clear, shrouding our crops. In year two, we put down straw in between the rows to quash the weeds, but we didn’t actually know when to pick our crops, so our radishes were woody by the time we chanced it, our carrots never shouldered, our swiss chard thrived and withered, our tomatoes were too tart. We waited it out alongside the critters, eying each other in a race for the juiciest bounty, speculating the timing of ripeness v. scarcity. Ultimately, last year we probably only harvested twenty percent or less of what we’d planted.
This year, I’m leaving nothing to fate. I’m going straight to the source, with the legendary Vicki Emlaw of Vicki’s Veggies fame to tell us ‘all the things’ we need to know to properly grow and harvest from this beautiful land. Born and bred in the County, Vicki is my friend and my go-to for everything yoga or vegetable-related. She is totally in touch with your veggie garden’s place in the context of the universe and also a vessel for all the local wisdom in this field. She knows this stuff inside out and she’s here to give us the goods.”
— Lonelle Selbo, Editor
Planning Your Garden
When growing a garden for the first time or the fifteenth time, here are some good questions to ask yourself
- Why am I growing a garden? Is it for food? Health? A hobby? It’s a good thing to know yourself and your focus.
- Who am I growing this garden for? This will help you decide how much you want to grow.
- What do you and your people like to eat? This helps you figure out what to grow!
- How much time do I have to garden? This determines the size of your garden and how you garden.
- Do you have a good source of non-chlorinated water for your seeds, plants, and veggies?
- What kind of soil do you have? PEC is notorious for lots of rocks and not much soil.
See if you have a place where there is soil and NOT a lot of rocks. If you have never had a garden at your place before and you want one, go out with a shovel and see where you can put a shovel in the ground. Hope that place is in the sun from early until late in the day. Unless you are retired and will be spending a lot of time in the garden, start small and manage that for the first year.
Now that you’ve determined the size and location of the garden you want.
Sketch it out
Make a rough drawing of a potential garden. It doesn’t have to be fancy and you can refine as you go, but making a sketch will keep you on the path when you’re out there in the dirt.
If the area you’ve chosen was part of a lawn in the past, start early (like now) or when the snow is gone. A great thing to research before you start is a method called “Lasagna Gardening”. This approach saves the massive amount of time you will spend weeding and helps to conserve water.
- First, collect lots of cardboard and spread it on the lawn where you want your garden. Weigh it down with rocks or anything to hold the pieces in place and soak it.
- Next, get some compost and put a nice layer down.
- After that, add a layer of newspaper and another layer of cardboard. Make the layers nice and thick so that it kills the grass and weeds and nothing will grow through them.
- When you are ready to plant, cut a hole in the layers where you want your seedling to go, dig it in and water it.
- If you are planting seeds, cut a strip that’s the length you want, remove the paper and cardboard and plant your row.
What To Plant
Here’s some of the most common vegetables to start with. It’s a good mix of fresh greens, roasting veg, and flavourful herbs for every newbie gardener to master.
Plant: Start early indoors—if possible, in April, so at 3 weeks the seedling can be planted outside in early may when it gets semi warm. You can also plant seeds at the same time so that you can have lettuce come on at two different times. You can plant every 2 or 3 weeks until mid-September if you have the space!
Character: It can handle cool weather and it doesn’t like hot weather. It likes to be moist, it doesn’t like to be too wet or too dry.
Pick: Harvest leaves or heads (depending on how much you have in the garden) 3-4 weeks after planting.
Plant: Choose what you like, snow peas, sugar snap, pod peas, or dry peas. Plant by seed early in the beginning of May or depending on the year, earlier.
Character: They like cool weather. They like to be trellised if they are tall. Some grow up to 3 feet high and they grow better and are much easier to pick when they are off the ground. Bush peas are shorter and don’t need trellising.
Pick: They can be harvested when pods’ peas are big. Note: They must be harvested every day or every other day.
Plant: Plant by seed in the beginning of May or as soon as you can get into the garden. Remember, a seed should be planted three times as deep as the seed’s width. Carrot seed is very small, so not very deep, in fact, sometimes it’s best to put them in a little trench, then sprinkle sand or fine soil over the top. Some seed companies make a carrot tape. They put the seed on the tape and you just roll it out and bury it.
Character: If you have rocky soil (like most of PEC), they won’t grow long and deep, so if you must have carrots, get a short, stubby variety like ‘thumbelina’. All carrot seed needs to be wet for the first 10 days and weeded really well—they don’t like to have competition to grow. If you have a short garden and some old wooden boards, you can place them over top and it will keep the seed nice and moist and they will germinate and come up when you take the board off after 10 days. On the other hand, if you have nice, deep, rich soil, plant lots of carrots of any variety.
Pick: They will take 3 months to grow. Weed them often and plant in May, June, July for three harvests.
Plant: Start early in the greenhouse and plant out in the middle of May. Or start by seed in the middle of May in the garden.
Character: Don’t plant too thick. They like moisture, but not too wet.
Pick: 2 1/3 or 3 months after planting… depending on how little or big you like your beets. They can be planted every month—May, June, and July.
Plant: Seed can be started indoors in April and planted out three weeks later and/or seeds can be planted in late April.
Character: Kale likes the cold, it doesn’t, however, like hot weather, so you can also grow it as a great fall crop, putting plants out in late August. Some very curly varieties even love being under the snow and you can still eat it. Some varieties are very hearty.
Pick: Harvest at about 2 months. You can eat as big or small as you like to and some kale will live all winter.
Plant With bush beans, wait until the beginning of June, or when the apple blossoms come out. As one of my older gentlemen farmer friends said to me once), “If you can sit your bare bottom on the soil comfortably, you can plant out your beans.”
Character Don’t plant too many at a time, unless you really love beans or you’re going to pickle them—they are very prolific. You can plant them every three weeks after that until the end of July. Pole beans are the same, except they need trellising.
Pick Harvest your beans at about two months, usually early July if you plant in May.
Plant If you’re starting from seed, start your basil indoors in the beginning of May and plant outdoors in the middle of June. You can plant every two weeks until the end of July.
Character Basil likes the heat. I harvest the basil tops to prevent it from going to seed (flowering) unless I want it to go to seed, which starts to change the flavour of the basil and the length of life you can use it for.
Pick Basil usually comes on in July and you can keep harvesting leaves as often as you need them.
Plant Start in late March from seeds indoors. Plant outdoors beginning of June.
Character Don’t use too much compost with these plants or you will get a lot of foliage and not much fruit. They don’t need much maintenance, but they do need lots of full sun.
Pick Expect peppers for August, though a few might be early!
Oh boy, where do I start and where do I stop with this one? Tomatoes are my ‘jam’. People like big tomato plots, but before you dive in, decide how you like to eat your tomatoes. Raw, right in the garden? Tomato salads, sauce, stuffing, salsa, cherries in your kids’ lunch? Do you like high acid or low acid? Just red or no red? This will help you determine what varieties you want. Where do you live? How long is your season? There are over 3000 varieties of heirloom tomatoes at the height of tomato growing (I personally grow 300 different varieties each year.) The amount of space you have will determine how many to grow.
Plant Tomato seeds can be planted indoors around the end of April and the seedlings planted outside safely past the full moon after the long weekend in May—which is May 18th, the weekend of my Seedling Sale! Small plants need to be hardened off for a few days before planting (let sit outside in the full sun and wind to help acclimate it to outside.)
Q. Do you want determinate or indeterminate tomatoes? ‘Determinate’ means the tomatoes all come at once and they are finished all at once. These were the varieties they used in the tomato canning factories around here in the olden days, so they all ripened at once and only had to be picked a few times. The plants of this type of tomato are smaller. ‘Indeterminate’ plants ripen over a long period of time and the plant can grow very long branches, some up to 10 feet long in either direction. These varieties need to be pruned and trellised or you could end up having a tomato jungle. I know, it’s happened to me.
Trellising and pruning helps keep the plants from disease as they let the leaves dry out. Tomatoes like lots of compost. If you have lots of space, plant them and trellis them two feet apart. Dig a hole and put lots of compost inside, then fill the hole back in. Water well. If you water really well to begin with, the water will go down deep, then don’t water for a while so that the roots will have to work hard and grow deep to find the water. This way the plant can establish itself in the beginning (as opposed to a plant that is watered a little every day that will have shallow roots and dry up and maybe not survive.) If your tomato plants are tall and leggy, you can plant them as deep and/or bury the stem sideways along the ground to the stems so they don’t break off in the wind. Indeterminate tomatoes can be trellised like grape vines: strung up and tied to the strings or wire. To help the plants thrive, the suckers can be pruned as the plants grow (a sucker is a branch that grows out of the crotch of a branch on the tomato plant) if you don’t take these off you will have a lot of foliage and less or smaller fruit.
Pick It’s usually August before tomatoes are ready, except if you have early ones!
Putting Your Garden To Bed
Start to put your garden to bed in early October. Pull up any plants that have finished producing any food for you and you can make a compost pile in the hedgerow or somewhere out of the way for you, as when they decompose, they will have lots of nutrients in them that you can use to put back into your garden another year. You want to remove all the plant material from your garden to prevent bugs and disease for years to come.
Voila! Here are the basics for planting your vegetable garden. There are a lot of other lessons, but these notes will hold you in good stead until you’re ready to take your patch to the next level. Until then, pay close attention to your garden. Notice how things grow. Talk to your plants, sing, let them know how much you love and appreciate them. They are living breathing beings. On the under surface of every leaf are moveable lips—engaged in the daily devouring carbon dioxide and expelling oxygen, engaged in the miracle of photosynthesis, of producing oxygen and food for us. Welcome to the secret life of plants.