It’s Never Too Early To Start Planning Your Backyard Garden
by Liz Wertz
The skies are grey. The air is crisp. It was not too long ago that I was immersed in a holiday agenda full of parties with friends in crazy sweaters, a Hannukah dinner with fresh potato latkes and a few Christmas celebrations with gag gifts ranging from an expired canned ham to jade plants and a selfie stick. After I celebrated the New Year with a massive midnight balloon drop in the lobby of a 21-story hotel, it finally sunk in--2016 is officially here. While many might associate this time of the year with dedicating your lives to those New Year’s resolutions you made, making reservations for Valentine’s Day or planning your kids’ spring break trip, it is also time to start thinking about your spring and summer backyard gardens!
Now you may ask, “How did she know it was time to start doing some garden planning?” No, I haven’t been calculating moon cycles, I simply received my copy of the latest Johnny Selected Seeds catalog in the mail. Thank you USPS for reminding me that growing season is right around the corner!
This will be the third year I’ve grown produce in raised beds in the backyard of my Fall Creek Place house. After the end of each year, I’m always a little mad at myself that I wasted some important growing time by not being organized. Rather than take advantage of seeding cool weather crops in early (like radishes and carrots) spring or starting some warm weather loving veggies from seeds in my makeshift grow lab in my guest bedroom, I’m too overwhelmed with the mere task of organizing my brain to organize my garden. Have no fear! I am here to remind you that it’s never too early to plan. Even if you claim yourself as someone who “can never keep a plant alive, ever!,” I dare you (nay, double dog dare you!) to test your hand at gardening this year. Here are a few things I’ve learned in my minimal backyard gardening experience:
Dear Diary… Keep a Garden Journal. I dropped the ball on this my first growing season, but did a few entries this past summer. I dated each entry and listed what seeds I put in, wrote some notes about the current weather and commented on how each plant was growing throughout the season. This year, I’ll use my 2015 notes to determine what plants to grow again, which ones to ditch and change up the layout of my raised beds. This doesn’t have to be anything fancy, just something you can reference from season to season. Any notebook or pad of paper will do, but you should consider treating yourself to a handmade notebook from local artists that can be found at Mass Ave shops like Silver in the City and Homespun.
To seed or not to seed. Some things are worth growing from seed, others are not. If you’re a beginner gardener, there is no shame in buying starts (plants started by seeds from others and then sold once they’re big enough to transplant into the ground). Growing Places Indy, along with other vendors, will be selling a wide variety of starts at the Indy Winter Farmers Market, which relocated to the Near Eastside in the Circle City Industrial Complex (1125 E Brookside Ave, doors G10 and G11) in April. If you do want to dabble with growing some plants from seed, check out local places like Pogue’s Run Grocer, Good Earth and Habigs for non-GMO seeds. You can also buy seeds online. Growing Places Indy uses Johnny’s Selected Seeds and also recommends vendors like Seed Savers Exchange, Bakers Creek and FedCo.
· Note: For those interested in ordering bulk starts (25+) from Growing Places Indy, please contact Farm Manager Tyler at firstname.lastname@example.org by March 15, 2016.
Start small. The first season I grew veggies, I started with just a few plants (two tomatoes, one cucumber, one jalapeno, one kale) and some herbs. Gardening is great, but for beginners, can sometimes feel overwhelming. By focusing on just a few plants when you are starting out, your plants are more likely to receive the care they need and thrive by giving you a bountiful harvest.
Have fun! Will every single thing you plant in your vegetable garden grow and flourish? Probably not. Will you have fun, especially if you involve your family, planning, planting, pruning and picking said veggie? Yes!
With all that being said, let’s get started on what we should be doing NOW for those interested in growing backyard goodies this year.
1) Scout a sunny garden location. Whether you are ripping up grass, building a raised bed or simply using some containers, it is important to scope out what area in your yard gets the most sun.
· Note: The bare winter branches will have leaves that could potentially block sunny spots in the spring/summer.
2) Get good soil. Soil is a living, thriving community and is crucial for healthy plants. To determine if you can plant directly into the soil in your yard, it is important to do a soil test. These tests include sending a sample of the soil from your chosen future garden location to a lab where they will test for harmful chemicals like lead. It is important to amend your soil with plenty of organic matter filled with nutrients. Compost, leaves, manure and seaweed are all additions that will greatly help soil thrive.
· Note: Manure added to your garden needs to be appropriately aged so it does not “burn” seeds and starts and to kill potential pathogens. Cow, horse, rabbit and goat are the best and safest choices to use.
· Note: For more information on getting your soil tested in Indianapolis, here are some contacts Growing Places Indy recommends:
· Gabe Filippeli (email@example.com) from IUPUI’s Center for Urban Health
· Kevin Allison (firstname.lastname@example.org) Marion County Soil and Water Conservation District
3) Build your bed. Did your soil test come back lead-positive? Raised beds and container gardens are an excellent, lead-free option for growing vegetables. Raised beds can be filled with top quality, chemical-free soil mixtures that you mix yourself or buy from local landscaping companies. Raised beds can be created from a variety of materials: cinder blocks, big landscaping rocks, hay bales and wood. When using wood to build raised beds, it is important to buy untreated wood only. This ensures your wood has not been pressure-treated, aka there were no harmful chemicals sprayed onto the wood.
· Note: Laying down cardboard (plain, not fancy colored pieces) or newspaper is an efficient way to kill grass in the area you wish to grow your garden. Added bonus, the cardboard or paper will eventually decompose creating a layer of compost. Compost = happy plants!
· Note: If you are incapable of building a raised bed, or if you want to try out something new, consider doing a Google search for “lasagna gardening”. This is a layering process that Growing Places Indy uses at our U-Pick site located at the Chase Near Eastside Legacy Center and on our Public Greens site along the Monon in Broad Ripple.
4) Order your seeds. If you plan on buying your seeds online, you can start ordering them as early as now. Once you have a collection of seed envelopes, organize them by sow date. Sowing simply means planting your seeds in the ground. For reference, Growing Places Indy plans on sowing seeds (i.e. sugar snap peas, radishes, greens like kale, mustards and spinach) directly into the ground as early as the first week of March. If you want to dabble in growing your veggies from seed this year, this is also the perfect time to start doing that. For example, our GPI farm staff will be busy in the greenhouse seeding broccoli, cabbage, celery, leeks, herbs, fennel, and greens throughout the month of February that will be kept indoors, safe from the winter elements. Once the threat of frost has passed (usually around Mothers’ Day), these greenhouse seedlings will be transplanted outside.
While I am no expert, I hope this article helps all the wannabe future urban farmers out there to close your laptop, pause the Netflix binge watching, and silence your smart phones. It’s time to start planning your garden! Growing your own food is an affordable, therapeutic, healthy and fun way to bond with your family, neighbors and community.
“Growing food was the first activity that gave us enough prosperity to stay in one place, form complex social groups, tell our stories, and build our cities.” –Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Vegetable Miracle
Make sure you “like” Growing Places Indy and Indy Winter Farmers Market on Facebook to stay up to date on the gardening workshops we have planned throughout 2016.
Liz Wertz, a former Growing Places Indy apprentice, currently works for GPI and the Indy Winter Farmers Market as their social media strategist and Eat Well Coordinator.