Friday, February 9, 2024

The Rookie Mama: Plots and plans for a fabulous garden party - I dig it

By Michelle Cote

As we turn the corner to longer days and amble our way through February throes, take in these frigid temps moments to close your eyes and think spring.

Michelle Cote 
Let that distinct scent of melting snow, freshly unearthed dirt and budding greens manifest in your mind to take you to the happy, green place.

It’s garden prep time, folks, and I invite you to dig in with me.

Growing your greens is a fantastic way to eat more nutritiously, save tremendously on funds, and – just as beneficial – pass down life skills to your little two-legged sprouts.

Like raising little ones, the venture into gardening is often best when you start small.

My husband and I have expanded our growing escapades considerably through the years, through much trial and error and humble beginnings.

Today, we manage a greenhouse, an indoor potting room with shelves of grow lights and camp kitchen-turned-potting bench ­to harvest goods year-round, an outdoor orchard and several raised beds and trellis arches, but we started with little more than a few pots, decent compost, and snippets of a pipe dream.

Gardening sprouted in our mind initially from curiosity.

Wouldn’t it be great to pick our own dinner, farm-to-table style?

The concept intrigued us, but we hadn’t been exposed to it as kiddos ourselves.

For all I knew, grocery stores may as well have been the stork from which carrots and lettuce heads came into existence.

Still, the notion of freshly harvested, nutrient-dense goods that could conceivably save us green as we produced our own continued to prod at us in adulthood, more aggressively once we began raising boys with healthy appetites, rendering us knee-deep in the lengthy grocery receipts.

So here we have it.

Plotting our garden plots takes work, a meticulous grid system, and a touch of math skills.

It’s not square roots, but root vegetables that we’ve got our eye on for a grand ol’ yield.

If you’re enthusiastic to try growing greens for size, consider the vegetables, fruits, and herbs you like best.

Shop your local greenhouses and peruse varieties of seed packets and seedlings, taking into account growing time and other instruction needed for each.

Research which of these plants can be grown together as companions and draw up your plans.

While planting rows are most traditional, my husband and I turn to the square foot gardening method, which is exactly as its name suggests and makes the most of given spaces. Raised beds are divided into square feet – commonly 4x4 or 4x8 – and each foot is individually reserved for various amounts of seeds or seedlings, dependent on that plant’s eventual growth size.

For example, one can plant 16 radish seeds in a square foot, because they don’t take up much space at harvest time, but only one tomato plant may be planted in that same space, because they grow large.

Square foot beds aren’t ideal for vining plants, such as gourds, but with care, one can vine them up a trellis or fencing.

Bountiful online and book resources abound with ways to design and space your plants in a square foot garden.

These raised beds have no built-in walking paths, so no space is wasted on good growing soil – Your garden beds’ compost will also remain loose and untrampled this way.

Leaving out spaces between traditional rows also limits unnecessary extra weeding.

These gridded plots produce high yields with minimal maintenance – We mitigate weeding by tucking in our own dry grass clippings atop the soil to tamp down weeds’ attempts to rear ugly heads, and we pre-line our beds with a highway system of drip irrigation set to timers which helps conserve water and, let’s be honest, allows us to be totally lazy and avoid manual watering.

A garden’s initial planting is a commitment.

For our family, we had to arrange for childcare when the babes were wee ones so we could really dig in and get the garden party started.

And though my husband and I are avidly into composting now – which comes with virtually no monetary cost – this incubation process takes time; to start a garden one must purchase ready-made gardening soil, which can be costly.

And carving time for maintenance is critical, for as orderly and best-intentioned these gardens may be, they’re bound to evolve into something one can cultivate but not truly control.

Ah, nature.

It’s like something that begins looking like a New York City-street map design of intentions and winds up like Boston.

Gardening is trial and error, always.

It’s understanding we can’t control the outer elements, from deluge rains to scorching droughts to freak hailstorms that increasingly serve as recurring characters in our changing climate.

But oh, how sweet it is to watch my often-picky little ones reach for a fresh bell pepper straight from its stalk and eat it like an apple while weaving about our raised beds and trellises.

Make this time of year the season to research what can work best for you and your needs in your hardiness zone – a quick Google away.

Where is your property’s optimal growing area that makes best use of the sun?

Are you able to start seeds indoors by a sunny south-facing window, or is it more reasonable to pick up seedlings from your local farm stand, ready to plant when the time comes?

Whether you’ve got the landscape to plant an entire orchard, or if you’ve got space to tuck a pot on a front stoop, it’s baby steps.

I’d be remiss to not mention the wonderful bonus mental health benefits offered up by spending time with plants. Studies show gardening helps lighten moods and lower levels.

As the saying goes, gardening’s like therapy and you get tomatoes.

So, if I can dig it, you can dig it.

Gardening’s one of my favorite frugal living tips.

Start small and dream green, so come spring you can roll up your sleeves and take in the harvest as you watch your produce bill go down.

– Michelle Cote lives in southern Maine with her husband and four sons, and enjoys camping, distance running, biking, gardening, road trips to new regions, arts and crafts, soccer, and singing to musical showtunes – often several or more at the same time!


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