Growing a Food Garden
Select as sunny a site as possible, and not under the drip-line of any trees. Shade is okay if that is all you have, some plants such as lettuce thrive in shade, and the ‘Night Shade’ family (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant) obviously by their name, tolerate some evening shade. If you just don’t have a spot for a garden, look for one at a Community Garden Plot. In a small space with little or no access to good garden soil, it may be necessary to bring in soil and create a box, fill pots, or raised beds to have some depth of soil for roots to develop. Ensure the imported soil is from a reputable source and that the box is not built with chemically treated wood.
The best method to create a garden, rather than move an already depleted topsoil resource, is to use your own native soils. Rather than trying to roto-till sod, it is best to remove the sod, compost it, and use it later when it has decayed, otherwise it will start growing and become a weed when watering commences. After removing sod, dig in good compost or well rotted manure to ensure good microbial activity. It is a living soil that will nourish our plants, we don’t need expensive fertilizers if we have prepared our soil well. Lighten up clay soils with agricultural gypsum, manure and sand if it is available. If you can, make rows of raised beds which can be 5°C warmer, and allow for better root development and drainage.
It is a good rule of thumb to have the particle size in your soil to be no larger than the seed being planted. After soil has been prepped, it is a good idea to leave it for a week or two for the weed seeds to germinate so that they can be easily dealt with by gently raking to remove the fine white threads that would have become competitive weeds for those newly emerging seedlings (This is called a stale seed bed). For ease of weeding, space saving, and defining where seeds have been planted, it is best to plant in rows parallel to two borders. Another rule of thumb is to cover seeds with soil to a depth of twice their diameter. Use a string or straight edge to make rows by dragging a rake or hoe along this line, space seed according to crop and cover and firm soil with rake to ensure good contact between seed and soil.
Time of planting is also important, planting beans or corn, for example, in cold soil will only make them susceptible to fungi and they will likely rot. Planting frost sensitive crops too early in spring will only sacrifice them to frost. Check with other gardeners or farmers in your area to find out when your expected last frost dates are. Ensure adequate moisture on your newly seeded beds, small seeds like carrot or lettuce should be kept moist (but not wet) to prevent soil crusting. Plant radishes with slowly germinating seeds to keep soil from crusting and mark your rows.
In a good sterile potting mix, moisten soil, fill containers (either pots or flats), tap the side to compact the soil slightly. Make shallow or deep depressions into the soil with your finger, or some implement, depending on the seed being planted (remember seeds should be planted no deeper that twice the diameter of the seed). Cover the seed with a little soil and firm to insure good contact between soil and seed. Water carefully, being sure seeds aren’t exposed or washed out of their soil Keep soil moist but not wet as the seeds start to germinate. Seeds require warmth, moisture, and light in addition to soil to grow. Find a warm spot in the house, the top of the refrigerator or a sunny window sill to start your seeds. Some seeds need higher temperatures to germinate (peppers, eggplants) and you may need seedling heating mats with thermostatic control if you don’t have somewhere in your house with these warmer conditions. Once the seedlings have germinated, they need light. Remember to turn your plants every day or two so the light doesn’t bend the stems too far in one direction. Lightly water when the soil surface dries with room temperature water. Florescent lights suspended over the plants in a warm (21°C) location 5-10cm above the growing tips of the plants is the best situation unless you have a greenhouse.
Pot up seedlings when they have their true leaves into pots to allow for root development. Do not feed, over-water or over-heat these transplants, just ensure they are planted into a balanced organic potting soil and have sufficient access to even light. Harden off these transplants by bringing them outside during the day and in at night to accustom them to the outdoors for 3 or 4 days prior to planting into the garden. Don’t harden plants if it’s too windy or cold. Plant into the garden, in settled weather, into a shovel scoop hole filled with compost. It is helpful to ensure plants have sufficient micronutrients by watering in with fish fertilizer, liquid kelp, or something from the ocean which contains those necessary minerals and micronutrients which will help to sustain growth.
Beans Phaseolus vulgaris Snap or dry, bush or pole like to be planted into well drained soil, slightly alkaline, in compost and when the soil is warm to the touch, about 15°C. Dry beans, grown for their seed, usually take at least twice as long as snap beans to mature, some may be grown to harvest early as snap beans, and later as dry beans. Dry beans should be left to mature in the field when the pods turn dry and brown. Pole beans grow as a vine and benefit from some support in the form of a pole or teepee well anchored into the soil. Broad beans (Vicia faba) or Fava beans, are actually a different family and can be planted in cool soils. It is recommended that you don’t pick, weed, or work in amongst beans when they are wet, as this may damage the leaves, opening them up to disease. Snap or fava beans should be regularly harvested to maximize production.
Beets and Chard Beta vulgaris The beet ‘seed’ is actually a fruit containing several seeds, Chard is the same species and will cross if growing for seed. They are tolerant of most soils but like to be kept moist, especially when germinating. At Sunshine Farm we plant indoors in plug trays every couple of weeks, starting in mid April to transplant out in mid May to ensure a continuous harvest of baby beets and their leaves through the summer. nourishment and neutral pH. Beets and chard need sufficient boron to grow, it is often deficient in sandy soils and can be added with any soil amendment from the ocean (seaweed, fish fertilizer, etc.).
Cabbage Family Brassica This family includes Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, Cabbage, Kale, Kohlrabi and Cauliflower. Most of these, except for Kale, which can be direct seeded, are usually started in pots or flats in sterile potting soil 4 - 6 weeks before planting into the garden so that they are well developed and can withstand cool temps 3-4 weeks before last frost. They all do better in the Spring or Fall as they prefer cool weather. Cabbage family prefer a slightly acidic soil (6-6.5 pH) and can tolerate a heavier soil as long as it has good organic matter incorporated. Brassicas prefer a steady supply of moisture and about 1/2 meter between plants as they have large leaves. All Brassicas should be grown in good compost and benefit from the addition of a seaweed or fish fertilizer for the micronutrients they contain. They should be grown in a different area of the garden each year, to minimize pests and disease. We have found interplanting with cilantro, which encourages beneficial insects when in flower, will help to control aphids and cabbage worms. Many of the brassica’s will continue to produce smaller ‘sprouts’ after the main crown has been cut. Maintain the plants to produce ‘baby cabbage’ or broccoli sprouts until hard frost.
Carrot (Daucas carota) & other Winter Roots : Parsnip Pastinaca sativa, Salisfy Scorzonera sp.)Parsley Root, Petroselinum sp. Carrots prefer a light sandy soil in a deep seedbed, a neutral pH and can be planted mid April until early July. We have found that by planting later in early June, we can outwait the most serious pest ‘Carrot Rust Fly. Usually after this date, the breeding cycle has finished and adult flies will not be laying eggs. Carrots are best planted in soil which has had compost added the previous year as manure or compost will allow the roots to lanquish in the upper soil and not produce tapered roots. A too well fed carrot bed will produce hairy and mis-shapened roots. Carrots and these other winter roots benefit immensely from being grown in a stale seed bed. Sow thickly in bands, 3-4 seeds per inch, lightly cover seed. Firm with the back of a rake to ensure good contact with soil. Keep seedbed moist to ensure good germination which should occur in 10-14 days. Thin to 5-7cm apart when they are pencil thick, and used in salads or steamed with green beans (Other winter roots are similarly grown).
Celery Apium graveolensIncluding celeriac or root celery. Celery prefers constant moisture, lots of nourishment and neutral pH. Growoing closely (6"-8") together will help sdhade our weeds and blanche the lower stem. Sow seeds thickly 10-12 weeks before planting outdoors in sterile potting soil.Keep moist indoors and feed with fish fertilizer every 2 weeks. Select the strongest plants into large plug trays, or individual pots when 5-6 weeks old. Planting out too soon into the cool soil will result in bolting to seed. We like to plant celery into a 12” trench, 1/2 filled with good compost. Pull a little soil onto the compost to plant into, as plants get taller, fill in the trench with more soil to blanche and sweeten the lower stems.
Corn Zea mays Corn is best planted when the soil has warmed to above 18°C. Corn is a heavy feeder, and needs to be grown in lots of good compost in full sun and in a block of at least 4 rows to ensure good pollination. Grow corn on the North side of the garden so that it doesn’t shade other plants. Corn likes heat and will not grow well on days under 10°C and in fact, will not produce cobs with insufficient heat in the growing season. With some of our rare varieties, the seed is soaked in damp peat moss until they sprout, then planted in large plug trays 2 or 3 weeks before planting out. We sometimes combine them with pole beans and squash to create the traditional ‘Three Sisters’ Native American Garden, where the corn acts as a trellis for the beans and the large leaves of squash shade out the weeds and help maintain moisture.
Cukes, Squash and Melons Cucurbits These are all grown in a similar fashion. They all like to grow in good compost, well drained, and at least a meter apart. In poorly drained soil, plant 3 or 4 seeds in a mound and select the best two plants. At Sunshine Farm we start our plants indoors 2 - 3 weeks before planting out and plant out after hardening and beyond last frost. All cucurbits like sufficient moisture, but not so much as to open up to powdery mildew which shows up as a dusty leaf. Refrain from overhead or over watering. Cucumbers and summer squash (zucchini’s and patty pans) will continue to produce fruit if kept picked. If bees are absent, and fruit is not forming, hand pollinate by ’dusting’ the larger bulbous (female) flower with the smaller male flower after removing its petals. If no flowers are forming along the vines, clip back vines by 1/3 to encourage flowering
Lettuce, Spinach and Salad Crops Generally these are cool season crops and can either be sown in fall in a bed with compost incorporated into a similar bed in spring 4-6 weeks before last frost (the seed knows when to germinate, and is frost tolerant). Barely cover seed with soil and firm down with a rake. Thin to about 25cm apart and maintain moisture under the surface. Allow surface soil to dry between waterings, but don’t allow to dry out. This may cause flower stalks to shoot up (bolting) and usually go bitter. Look for slow bolting varieties, ‘loose leaf’ or romaine varieties tend to do better in summer heat. To ensure continuous summer harvest, start seed every 2-3 weeks in plugs in a sheltered shady location (lettuce will not germinate in temperatures above 20°C) and transplant carefully to the garden when well developed (6-8 leaves). New Zealand Spinach (not a true spinach) is a good summer alternative, as it does not bolt in summer heat, although it requires warmer temperatures to germinate, about 22°C. Other good salad crops such as arugula, mallow, salad mustards, cresses, corn salad and purslane are all early, fast growing greens and should be grown like lettuce and spinach.
Onions, Leeks, Start seed indoors 10-12 weeks before last frost in a sunny greenhouse or under full spectrum lights kept 5-10cm above the growing tips. Feed with diluted fish fertilizer every 2 weeks. Plant into the garden in a shallow trench with 5-10cm of good compost in the bottom, and native garden soil pulled back on top. Plant no deeper than where they were in the original pots. Fertilize after planting, then every couple of weeks until the summer Solstice. It is important to get lots of top growth until this time as this top photosynthetic activity will produce the bulbs. The shortening of the days after the solstice will trigger bulb formation. In late summer, when the tops start to fall over, hold the water and when 70% of the tops have flopped, bend the rest with the back of a rake, careful not to damage the bulbs. Pull and cure in a well ventilated area out of the direct sun. Clip tops and roots when they are dry, these will be ready for winter storage. Onions can also be harvested and eaten at any time after the bulbs have formed. Leeks should be planted similarly, although in a deeper trench 10-15cm with compost in the bottom and a little soil pulled over. As they grow, fill in the trench with soil to encourage ‘blanching’ or whitening of the lower stem. They should also be fed regularly and harvested mainly in the fall (unless specified as summer leeks) after they have been hit with a few frosts. This will sweeten them a bit as their starches turn to ‘antifreeze’ sugars in preparation for winter.
Peas (Pisium sativum) Peas are a cool season crop and benefit from growing in loosened soil with compost and neutral pH adjusted with a little wood ash or dolomite limestone powder worked in. Plant seed 2-4cm deep, as soon as the soil can be worked in spring. Thin to 4-5cm apart, and provide support such as trellis, netting, or branches to keep plants off the ground. Maintain good moisture levels as temperatures warm in June with mulch or frequent irrigation. Mid July to Mid August planting will also provide a fall crop, although growth will be slower as temperatures decline.
Radishes Radishes are a rapidly growing cool weather crop. They need loose, well drained soil, and can be planted as early in the spring as the soil can be worked. Sow 1 seed per centimeter, and maintain good moisture levels. for long rooted varieties, sow in beds with only moderate fertility. Radishes can also be sown in late August for a fall crop.
Starting Seeds Indoors Tomatoes, Peppers and Eggplant are all treated very similarly in their cultivation. All are started early indoors (see ‘Starting Seed Indoors’), potted up into large pots after developing true leaves, then transplanted out after danger of frost when soil has warmed to 20°C. Eggplant likes heat to germinate (25°C) and to continue to grow at 20°C. Full sun or extra light on transplants will help keep them vigorous. We start seedlings 10-12 weeks before last frost date to ensure good transplants and feed a dilute fish fertilizer every couple of weeks. Eggplants are tricky to be successful with and require a warm to hot growing season to provide a good crop. In cooler regions, some kind of soil warming mulch can be used to encourage production of fruit. Eggplant have moderate moisture needs and should not be overwatered. In late season, about 3 weeks before frost, pinch off blossoms that will not have time to produce fruit so the energy of the plant will go to the developing fruit. Eggplant can be grown successfully in pots if kept fed and watered.
Peppers also like higher temperatures for germination, hot peppers like 25-30°C for successful germination and sometimes take up to 3 weeks to germinate. Sweet peppers will germinate at cooler temperatures about 20°C and should germinate in 1-2 weeks. Peppers require adequate moisture to set fruit and will drop flowers if drought stressed. Other stressors include night-time temperatures below 15°C or above 23°C, or a lack of pollinators.
Compost We prefer to use compost to grow and nourish our plants. It contains valuable microbes which convert soil, air and water into nutrients for plants. If you don’t have a compost, you should make one or just have a compost heap which you turn regularly. If you can’t do a compost, buy from a reputable source, some manures could contain harmful herbicides and residues which will mutate the growth of some plants including tomatoes.
Use leaves, grasses, weeds, crop and flower garden trimmings as well as kitchen parings other than meat scraps (which will attract varmits). Turn every week to encourage microbial activity for a minimum of 90 days to ensure good quality product. If you can, use a termperature probe to check temperatures, and turn when temperatures fall. Cover if cold or wet, water if too dry. It should form a ball in your fist, but not be dripping wet. Use it to ‘innoculate’ your planting area and transplant holes.