Gardening Tips

Why you should start a garden!

There are plenty of good reasons! Gardening has been proven to have a wide variety of health benefits. Getting outdoors, increasing exercise, and even getting your hands dirty are all good for your health! Studies have shown that gardening can improve the immune system, reduce stress and depression, and even lessen the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, dementia and Alzheimer's! 

 

Gardening encourages healthy eating. Food grown from our own backyard encourages us to eat it because it’s fresh, and we know that a lot of hard work goes into producing what we have on our plates. It's also a great social activity, as you can involve the entire family in different aspects of planting, weeding, watering, fertilizing, and harvesting the produce!

 

How does gardening improve emotional, mental, and spiritual health? Contact with soil and a specific soil bacterium, Mycobacterium vaccae, triggers the release of serotonin, a natural antidepressant that strengthens the immune system. Even a few moments of gardening each day can make a big difference. Getting our hands in the earth, literally connects us to the web of life. Feeling the connections we all share, having hope for new plants and seeds, and practicing patience and flexibility as nature shows her hand in unexpected ways. These gifts enhance our resilience and connection to the ebb and flow of life.

 

Gardening is also good for the environment. It impacts everything from the air we breathe to the minimizing of carbon footprints we leave behind. Growing a garden can create habitats for smaller life forms like birds, insects, aphids, ants and other species that thrive and reproduce in the ecosystem. Each creature plays an important role in helping the environment!

 

If you have an area to plant in, even if it’s simply containers on a deck, take advantage of the space and reap the benefits of gardening!

 

When Should I Transplant My Seedlings?

It's important to know what plant hardiness zone you live in to understand when, on average, different types of plants can survive the climate. In Iowa, we are in Zone 5. This means our average last frost in the spring is around April 30th and our average first frost in the fall is around October 1st. Some plants can tolerate frost and even prefer cooler temps, so you can transplant them in April once the nighttime temps get no lower than 28-30 degrees. Other plants love the heat and won't really thrive until the daytime temps reach 75+ during the day and 50+ at night. These types of plants should not be transplanted until at least early to mid-May.

 

What does all this mean? Well if you're like me, you've probably always bought your plants and planted them all at once. This is not the best idea because the cold weather crops won't survive very long in the heat and the warm weather crops could be damaged if you plant them too soon. So for best results, spread out your planting over several weeks in the spring. You can also try succession planting by planting another round of the cool weather crops in September and harvest them well into October!​         

      Cool Weather Crops

  • Broccoli/Cauliflower

  • Cabbage/Swiss Chard

  • Brussels Sprouts

  • Kale/Spinach

  • Peas/Carrots

  • Spinach/Lettuce

  • Turnips/Radishes

  • Onions/Potatoes

  • Garlic/Leeks

  • Asparagus/Artichokes

      Warm Weather Crops

  • Tomatoes

  • Peppers

  • Green Beans

  • Eggplant/Okra

  • Cucumbers

  • Zucchini/Squash

  • Melons/Pumpkins

  • Sweet Potatoes

  • Sweet Corn

  • Most Herbs

 
 

What is the difference between determinate and indeterminate tomatoes?

All tomato plants fall into either a determinate or indeterminate category. Depending on the amount of space you have and the amount of effort you want to put into staking and caging, it's important to know what type of tomatoes you should choose to grow.

  • Determinate Tomatoes are more compact, sometimes bushy, and don't take up as much space. These tomatoes grow to a certain size (usually 3 or 4 feet) and then stop growing. They tend to produce all of their fruit at one time and after that, they won't produce much more. For this reason, determinate tomatoes are great for canning since you'll have a lot ready to harvest at the same time. It's good to use cages with determinate tomatoes, but they generally don't need staking up in the garden. These types are also ideal for containers - use pots that are at least 18" across and 24" deep or a 5 gallon bucket with holes drilled in the bottom. Remember to water your containers daily during the summer or the plants will be damaged and more susceptible to disease.

  • Indeterminate Tomatoes continue to grow through out the season and will produce fruit up until the first frost in the fall. Because the vines keep growing, these types must be staked or trellised for best results. These types of tomatoes generally grow to about 6 feet, but could get as tall as 12 feet high. If you have room, be sure to plant a few indeterminate tomato plants so you can enjoy BLTs all summer long!

 

What soil should i use in a raised bed garden?

One of the advantages of raised bed gardens is that it's easier to maintain good quality soil. Once you have your raised bed established, you can simply amend the soil at the beginning of each season to ensure optimal growing conditions. If you are just starting out with a new raised bed, you'll need quite a bit of soil to get started. But rather than spend a lot of money on expensive bagged  "raised bed garden soil", it's pretty easy to come up with a good mix on your own.

 

You definitely don't want to fill the entire bed with cheap all-purpose top soil. This is generally very low quality, dense, may contain debris, and won't have much in the way of nutrients. However, it's fine to include premium top soil, which is still very inexpensive, as a filler along with other ingredients. 

 

Peat moss is another important ingredient in your raised bed soil mix. It is fairly inexpensive and makes a great addition to any garden soil, as it helps retain moisture, provides good drainage, and improves airflow around the plant roots. If you don't have peat moss, vermiculite, perlite, and coco coir serve the same function. 

Compost is the key! This is rich organic matter and is an important component that will hold moisture and provide nutrients to your plants. If you can make your own compost pile, it will be free, but if not, it is worth the investment to buy it. If you can find it in bulk, that is the best option, but organic bagged compost works great too. Other ingredients you might want to add in with the compost include worm castings, chicken manure, kelp meal, or shredded wood mulch. Each new season, you will want to add a good amount of compost to refresh the nutrients in your soil.

A good ratio for your raised bed gardens soil is 40% top soil, 20% peat moss, and 40% compost, with some good organic fertilizer mixed in. Not sure how much soil you need? Try this handy calculator to find out.

 

How far apart should I plant my veggies?

I'm using pots - How Big Should My containers be?

As you make your plan for this year's garden, you'll want to factor in how much space your veggie plants will need. 

 

For tomatoes, you should plant them 18-24 inches apart, depending on the type of tomato and whether you are going to stake it up to grow vertically. You you will want to make the rows far enough apart  that you can walk through to harvest, weed, and maneuver, so plan 24-36 inches between rows for a walkway. Peppers don’t get as tall or as large as tomato plants, so these can be planted 12-18 inches apart.

 

Allow 2" to 3" spaces for carrots, bunching or green onions and radishes. Bush beans should be planted 2" to 4" apart. Cucumbers can be planted 2" to 3" apart if you are going to grow them up a fence or trellis or 8" to 10" apart if they will be growing on the ground. Beets, garlic, leeks, spinach, onions and turnips need 4" to 6" of space between them on all sides, while celery, leaf lettuce and Swiss chard require 6" areas. Allow 10" to 12" on all sides between head lettuces. Corn does best in blocks for pollination purposes and should be planted about 12" apart in raised bed blocks or rows. Potatoes, sweet potatoes and cabbages need roughly 15" to 18" of space. Zucchini and other summer squash require about 24" to 36" to spread out, while vining crops like pumpkins or winter squash prefer 36" to 60".

 

 

To save garden space, consider growing some of your veggies in containers. In general, the bigger the pot the better so that the roots have plenty of room to grow and there is more moisture in the soil. Make sure your containers have holes in the bottom so the roots don't drown. In large pots, filling the bottom with several inches of gravel will improve drainage. Green onions, lettuce, swiss chard, radishes, and herbs can be grown in smaller pots, at least 3 gallons or 10" deep. Most veggies like peppers, cucumbers, broccoli, eggplant, beans, potatoes, regular onions, and carrots can all be planted in 5 gallon containers or pots at least 14" deep. Tomatoes will do best in a larger pot, around 16" to 18" deep. Using a small trellis with peas, cucumbers or squash will add space for the plant to grow and it looks really nice too.  You can even grow strawberries and cherry tomatoes in a hanging pot.

 

How do I choose a Fertilizer?

When choosing fertilizer for your garden, you will notice that there are 3 numbers on the label. This indicates the % of each nutrient present in the mix. The nutrients are Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium. This is also known as NPK ratio.  Nitrogen will always be the first number. It helps stimulate the stem and leaf growth. This makes the plants greener and increases the amount foliage of the plant. Phosphorus is the 2nd number and this nutrient helps with root development,  and encourages flowers and buds set. Phosphorus is important for overall vitality of the plant. Potassium, which comes in the form of Potash, is the 3rd number. This improves the overall vigor of the plant and improves immunity from disease. For most plants, something balanced like a 5-5-5 is good, but depending on the type of plant you are growing you might consider a different make-up.

 

Veggies that are grown for their leaves like lettuce, spinach, and kale, like extra Nitrogen, so something like a 6-4-4 is ideal. But with plants that that you want to develop flowers and fruit such as tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers, more Phosphorus is better. If you have too much Nitrogen, you will get a beautiful bushy plant but no flowers or fruit. Also, veggies that have edible roots like carrot, onions, and turnips, do better with more Phosphorus, since it stimulates strong root systems. Thus, for most veggies something like a 2-6-4 or 5-8-6 is best.

 

As far as how often to fertilize, container plants should be fertilized every 2-3 weeks and garden plants about once per month. There are two types of fertilizer. Granular fertilizer is easy because you can just shake it out on soil around the plants. This type of fertilizer slowly breaks down over time and lasts longer. Liquid fertilizers release the nutrients more quickly and provides immediate benefits, but you have to reapply it more often. Also, liquid fertilizers are usually concentrated, so be sure to read the directions when mixing with water.

Proper feeding of your veggie plants is one of the most important factors in a good crop. Along with water and sunlight, the nutrients in fertilizers combined with good quality soil will make your plants very happy and productive!