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plant vegetables

If you have four- to six-months’ lead time to start a new planting bed in your lawn, don’t cut sod! Rather, lay out cardboard in the shape of the bed, cover it with at least six inches of manure or compost, and let it cook.

Great news: You’re going to add a home kitchen garden to your yard next year! Wait: you’re adding to an existing home kitchen garden? That’s also great news! But I’m pretty sure I heard you mention that you plan to cut sod in the spring. Don’t do it!

I mean, don’t cut sod. Cutting sod to create a planting bed in the lawn is a time-honored ritual. So many people figure that to find soil they must remove the grass. But cutting and removing sod is back-breaking work, and the science of gardening is ever-changing. Coming into vogue is a method of creating new planting beds in lawns without ever cutting sod!

Lazy Garden your way to Next Year’s Planting Bed

Because you started planning now for next spring, you can take the lazy path and slow-cook a planting bed into your lawn. Then you won’t have to cut and remove sod in the spring. Slow-cooking is relatively easy. I learned about it from the Penn State University Cooperative Extension office, though I don’t think they called it slow-cooking. In fact, I don’t think they gave a name for it.

Slow-Cook a Planting Bed

Begin, of course, by selecting the location and dimensions for your new planting bed. I hope you’ve already thought this through carefully and have resolved concerns about sunlight, exposure to wind, drainage, and accessibility. My earlier post, Your First Small Kitchen Garden explores these concerns further. When choosing dimensions for a planting bed, consider whether you’ll need to walk in the bed; my blog post, Small Kitchen Garden Design Layout can help with this decision.

Lay corrugated cardboard on the lawn in the shape of the new planting bed. Cover the grass completely, overlapping pieces of cardboard to close all gaps between them. Cover the cardboard with six inches of compost or manure and wait until spring. A lot of good things should happen in the six months to come.

  • The weighted-down cardboard deprives the grass of oxygen, the grass dies (and the weeds in the grass), and the leaves and roots decompose into a mat of humus-rich soil.
  • Bugs and grubs in the lawn die or move out from under the cardboard.
  • Moisture from the grass, and from dew, rain, and snow break down the cardboard.
  • The compost or manure continues to decay, reducing in depth while it leaches nutrients into the cardboard and the soil under it.

You can use raw manure when you set up a slow-cooked planting bed. If you apply the manure in August or September, it has plenty of time to leach out salt and nutrients into the soil; it will be ready for planting in the spring.

By the time things thaw in the spring, you can dig right through the compost or manure and the cardboard into what used to be lawn. Typically, there will be virtually no evidence of cardboard by this time and what used to be lawn will be relatively soft and easy to work.

Turn Down the Bed

When you plant in a cooked-in bed, your life is easiest if you’re dealing with seedlings or potted plants. You can simply dig a hole for each seedling, set the seedling in the hole, and back-fill with the rich mix of soil and compost that developed over the winter.

If you’re sowing seeds, it’s a good idea to turn the soil within the row in which you plan to sow. Then rake out the soil, create a furrow, and set the seeds. Of course, you can till the entire planting bed: use a power tiller or a shovel to cut deep and turn over six-to-eight inches of soil. Then rake it smooth and lay out your planting zones.

 

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These pepper plants started from seeds some six weeks ago. However, for nearly three weeks they’ve lived outdoors where cool spring days have slowed their growth.

In the 14 years I’ve grown my own home kitchen garden, I had never started seeds indoors. It’s so convenient to buy plants that someone else has started from seeds and set them in the garden the day the frost stops. For most kitchen gardeners, this is an excellent approach. Who has the time, space, and appropriate gear to plant seeds and maintain them for four-to-six weeks before finally setting them in a garden bed?

The down-side of buying flats (packages of four or six seedlings) is that you have a very limited selection. Most local garden stores offer excellent plants but of no more than five to ten varieties. When it comes to tomatoes, you’re likely to find several of the beefsteak plants. Things labeled Big Boy, Better Boy, Bigger Better Boy (I made up that one), Better Girl, Early Girl, Beefsteak, Beefsteak Hybrid, and Big Steak are common. You might find Roma, and some type of cherry tomato… and maybe one uncommon heirloom variety such as Dwarf Grandma Black Vein Pall-Bearer (I made that up as well).

For broccoli and cauliflower, good luck finding more than one variety of each. And, if you want winter squash other than butternut and acorn, you’re simply out of luck.

So… if you want to choose what you plant from a broad selection of varieties, you need to buy seeds and start them yourself. For many plants in many hardiness zones, it’s best to start indoors four-to-six weeks before your last frost. This head start extends the growing season so you can harvest a bigger crop from your home kitchen garden.

My Indoor Starts

I decided to start my own seeds this year. For me it’s not about variety. We’re broke. OK, we’re not broke, but we’re trying to be financially conservative and seeds cost way less than flats of growing plants. There’s that, and I started writing lots of how-to articles about gardening; I coudn’t write about starting seeds without providing at least one example. No wait. There’s one more reason: a neighbor gave me tomatoes of a variety I’ve never seen anywhere else; I wanted to grow them, and that meant starting the seeds myself.

These pepper plants started indoors six weeks ago, but remained there until yesterday. They are many times the size of the outdoor plants, and already have flower buds about to open. The plants that remained inside are weeks ahead of their wilderness survival counterparts. Don’t rush to get your seedlings planted in the garden.

So, I set up low-hanging lights, bought peat pellets and planting soil, and bought seeds months earlier than ever before. I’ve had reasonable success, though some seeds started way faster than I expected while other seeds have taken as many as twenty days to send sprouts above the soil. The most interesting of these (to me) have been the pepper seeds.

A Tale of Two Peppers

I hate that subthitle; please forgive me for it. I filled a windowsill planter and two sawed-off gallon milk jugs with potting soil. I planted bell pepper seeds in both containers indoors under lights. After sprouts emerged, I moved the milk jugs outside to get the plants used to wind and changes in temperature. The window planter stayed inside under lights because some seeds in it didn’t sprout and I wanted to start more (peppers sprout best when the temperature is above 70F degrees).

For the three weeks I’ve had the milk jug peppers outdoors, it has been cold and rainy. The peppers have acclimated, but they’ve nearly stopped growing. In contrast the windowsill planter peppers have charged ahead. There are multiple branches on these plants, and flower buds have formed.

This brings me back to an observation I’ve offered repeatedly: Don’t hurry your garden in the spring. You can plant cold weather crops when the soil thaws, but if the temperature remains low, seeds you plant three weeks later may catch up quickly. Also, no matter how warm it gets in March and April, you could still have frost in mid May. Don’t risk your plant babies by getting started too early.

 

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