Saturday, May 2, 2009

Successful gardening starts with a plan

Plant your favorites in a square or a row. Still too early for many vegetables

By Mary Beth Breckenridge
Beacon Journal staff writer

Published on Saturday, May 02, 2009

You've done the hard work of creating a vegetable garden and figured out what you want to grow there. Now comes the fun part: planting.

It's a legitimate excuse to play in the dirt.

Before you dig, it's best to have a plan, said Geri Unger, director of education at Cleveland Botanical Garden and the coordinator of its Green Corps youth-gardening program. It needn't be anything elaborate, just a rough sketch to help you figure out what will fit and where.

Note the spacing recommended for each plant and its eventual height, information that's on the plant tag or seed packet. And consider your garden's orientation to the sun. Position taller plants in the northwest section so they won't shade smaller plants as they grow.

One planting method Unger likes is square-foot gardening, which involves plotting a raised bed in one-foot squares. You plant one type of vegetable or fruit in each square, making it easier to tell desirable plants from weeds and curbing the temptation to plant more than you can use. If you like, you can plant squares of a single crop over successive weeks to extend your harvest.

The catalog retailer Gardener's Supply Co. has some garden plans based on the square-foot method on its Web site, It also has a garden planner that lets you plot out your own garden online, and the software even tells you how many of a particular plant will fit in each square. Click on the tab marked ''Learning'' to find those planning tools.

Another good resource is the Square Foot Gardening Foundation's Web site,

The more traditional way of planting is in rows. There is some merit to that method, because it makes it easy to tell newly emerged plants from weeds, said Denise Ellsworth, a horticultural educator with the Ohio State University Extension in Summit County. If all the seedlings are in a straight line and look the same, you know those are what you planted, she said. If something looks different, you can tell it's a weed.

An easy way to plant seeds in rows is by making seed tape out of toilet paper, Ellsworth said. Start with a strip about 3 feet long, fold it in half lengthwise to make a crease, and then open it back up and spritz it with water. Use the crease line as a guide to spread out the seeds, spacing them according to the instructions on the seed packet.

Then fold the paper in thirds lengthwise, spritz again, and just plant the strip in the ground. The paper will decompose as the seeds sprout.

When you're planning your garden, don't think just horizontally, Unger advised. You'll make better use of your space if you train some plants to grow vertically on trellises, stakes or other supports. It's also a great way to disguise an unattractive chain-link fence, said Tamara Mitchell, a personal chef from West Akron who also coaches gardeners under the name Green Thumb Diva (

Tomatoes are an obvious choice for vertical gardening, but other plants are good candidates — squash, pole beans, peas and cucumbers, to name a few.

You might even take a tip from the Native Americans: Create a natural support by planting corn, beans and squash together in a mutually beneficial arrangement called the Three Sisters. The cornstalk supports the beans, and the broad squash leaves shade the soil.

You need to plant several rows of corn for adequate pollination, though, so this is a method that requires a good bit of space. And to Mitchell, fresh corn is available so readily in our area that growing it isn't worth the effort. ''I really wouldn't waste real estate on corn for food,'' she said.

If you'll be walking in your garden, create paths, Mitchell said. They'll help you limit how much of the garden gets compacted underfoot — a significant problem that inhibits plant growth.

Whether you plant your garden from seed or transplants depends on what you're planting and how soon you want to eat it. Many plants are best sown directly from seeds, but plants such as tomatoes, peppers and eggplant have such a long growing season that in our climate it's better to start them indoors and transplant them outside when the weather warms.

Nurseries sell transplants, often in multiple packs. But some will sell individual plants — a good choice for small households or gardeners who want to plant several varieties of certain vegetable.

Don't be too eager to plant, Mitchell cautioned. Some cold-tolerant plants such as lettuce and green onions can go into the ground early, but she doesn't plant vulnerable plants such as tomatoes until Memorial Day, when the danger of frost has passed.

Those plants won't grow anyway till the soil warms, noted George Willoughby, owner of Manchester Garden Center in New Franklin. ''The late gardens catch up with the early ones,'' he said.

If you're planting from seed, follow the directions on the package. Heed the instructions for thinning the seedlings, too, which means pulling out some of the baby plants as they emerge. New gardeners are often reluctant to do that, Ellsworth said, but too much competition results in a poor yield.

And don't limit your garden to fruits and vegetables, she suggested. Flowering herbs such as catmint, lavender and thyme or even flowers grown for cutting encourage pollinators and serve as food sources for beneficial insects.

After you've planted, mulch with straw, leaf mulch or some other organic mulch. It suppresses weeds and slows the evaporation of water from the soil, and it feeds the soil as it breaks down.

As your garden grows, you'll need to visit frequently to keep it healthy. Weed at least weekly, because weeds compete with your food plants for water and nutrients. (Mitchell recommends a circle hoe, which lets you get close to plants without damaging them. Order one at

Keep an eye on rainfall, too. A garden needs about an inch of precipitation a week, Ellsworth said. If plants start to get dry, water them — but give them an occasional long drink rather than more frequent sips.

Water near the roots, Unger said, and don't blast the plants. Don't overwater, because too much water can be as harmful as too little, she said.

A soaker hose is another good option, Ellsworth said. It's inexpensive and requires little work.

Unger judges her plants' need for water by whether they look and feel dry, but Ellsworth prefers to rely on a rain gauge. You don't need to buy one, though. A straight-sided can, such as a tuna or cat-food can, will work fine, she said.

Just set the can in the garden and check it weekly to see how much rain it has collected. Then dump it and start again.

Keep an eye out for pests and signs of disease, too, the gardeners said. Books and Web sites can help you identify problems, and some counties have master gardener hot lines that can help. With experience, you'll come to learn good bugs from bad.

Before the season ends, make a note of what you planted where, or take a picture of your garden once everything is in, Ellsworth said. That will help you remember the layout next year, so you can avoid planting crops in the same places. Otherwise bugs and diseases that prey on specific types of plants will keep returning year after year.

Those tiny predators aren't all that can ruin a garden, though. Deer, rabbits, groundhogs and other types of wildlife are notorious for nibbling before the humans can harvest.

If possible, Ellsworth suggested fencing your garden to protect it from the type of wildlife that frequents your yard — a very tall fence for deer, a fence sunk into the ground for groundhogs and a fence of small mesh for rabbits. Mitchell said it's a good idea to check with your local government or your homeowners association to make sure you stay within the rules.

Then just try to be patient till the harvest comes in. It'll be worth the wait.

Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or

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