Pro Tips: Starting your garden this spring

With spring on the horizon, it's almost time to start planting your summer garden. A local gardener shared her advice for getting things growing.

Posted on March 18, 2014 at 8:54 a.m.

Laura Bruno is an organic gardener and food security advocate with a passion for edible landscaping, year-round harvest and herbal allies. Bruno helped organize Goshen's Share the Bounty Week, which focused on making locally-grown food more accessible to people around the area.

If you have questions for Bruno about gardening, leave them in the comments below. She has agreed to answer them between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. Tuesday, March 18.

1. Survey your growing space

Most fruits and vegetables require at least six to eight hours of direct sunlight per day, and sometimes even more for larger harvests. Your ideal garden space for summer staples like tomatoes and cucumbers would offer a southern exposure with dappled shade from the west for those hot afternoons, but see what you actually have. When looking at what's sunny in March, consider trees that might fill in with leaves and also remember that shadows will be shorter with a higher summer sun. If you can't find anywhere with enough sunlight, expand your perspective. Does your front yard offer any growing possibilities? How about containers on a sunny porch, patio or driveway? Could trellises, towers, raised beds or hanging containers bring more plants into the light?

2. Don't give up if you don't have enough light

You can't grow tomatoes, peppers and beans if you have just four hours of direct light, but many edibles do grow well in shade. I've had great luck with parsley, Chinese greens (bok choi and tat soi), celery and even broccoli. I've also grown nettles in an isolated shady plot, which kept them from taking over everything. They're an invasive weed, but they make fabulous soups, smoothies and provide tonics for just about anything that ails you. (Don't eat them after they flower. Actually cut them down when they begin to flower, or you'll have way more nettles than you want next year.) If you haven't sprayed your yard with anything toxic, then you can also eat those pesky dandelions! The leaves, roots and flowers are all edible and were originally brought to America by European gardeners. Other herbs like potted mint, lemon balm and anise hyssop also grow well in shade.

3. Grow up

If you don't have much sun or space, then you'll want to maximize the growing areas you do have. Vertical gardening letss you make better use of space, and it offers a chance for plants to climb out of the shady ground towards more available light. Metal, nylon or wooden trellises allow more airflow, protecting your plants from certain diseases, along with rabbits. Raised beds, especially tiered beds can also help with critter or space issues. A round design will let you grow more plants closer together by creating micro-climates and extra ways to reach for light. People make raised beds and towers from untreated wood, old tires, different size pots, burlap bags or from many commercial products created to look nice and safely house your soil. When recycling old materials, please make sure they're non-toxic if you plan to grow food in them.

4. Explore community gardens and yard swaps/rentals

Goshen offers lots of community and neighborhood gardens. You can find a list here. The Elkhart Local Food Alliance (ELFA) is a great place to start if you'd like to find a community garden in Elkhart. You can find more information about ELFA and Elkhart opportunities here. In addition to community gardens, ELFA offers workshops on topics like seed starting and building cold frames for extending seasons. Look around your neighborhood, too. Many people with sunny yards don't have time or the physical ability to garden, but they would gladly share their space in exchange for part of your harvest. Lots of people grow fabulous gardens in a yard besides their own. You won't know if you don't ask.

5. Start with good quality soil

Plants are only as healthy as the soil they grow in, so you'll want to prioritize a good potting mix for containers and a rich, well-draining, composted soil for raised beds or in-ground growing. Garden centers can help you decide what kind of blend would work well for your situation. If you have access to composted organic matter (compost), fish emulsion, rotted manure or worm castings (compost made by earthworms), your garden will reward you with stronger, healthier plants. If planting in the ground, I'd advise a soil test at least to determine acidity or alkalinity of your soil. A more specific soil test will tell you if you need any common amendments like lime, sulfur, magnesium or boron. Organic mulch from leaves, compost and/or untreated wood chips will feed your soil and help it to hold in valuable nutrients and moisture, which means richer soil and less watering for you.

6. Take advantage of free books, classes and gardening gatherings

Public libraries offer lots of books on gardening. Books by experts can save you years of disappointing experiments and mistakes. In Purdue Extension Elkhart County workshops, Master Gardeners offer their knowledge and skills to the community. Beginners and longtime gardeners alike benefit from sharing experiences. On March 22, 2014, Transition Goshen will host an Open Space event for anyone interested in gardening. The meeting will help identify specific opportunities to work together and grow community as well as food. Saturday, March 22, 1-4 p.m. at Goshen City Church of the Brethren, 203 North 5th Street.

7. Know your planting zone

Elkhart County is in growing zone 5b, which is ever so slightly warmer than zone 5. Lower numbered zones mean colder, and higher numbers indicate warmer climates. Plants and seeds usually list a range of zones. Make sure whatever you want to plant grows in zone 5.

8. Once you've found a space, choose your seeds or plants

Grow what you like to eat! If you decide to start plants from seeds, heirloom varieties can offer the best varieties for our specific region, as well as unusual characteristics like special flavors or colors. Maple City Market and John Sherck at the Goshen Farmers Market carry organic heirloom seeds known to grow especially well in the area, but you can also find seeds at big name stores or online. You'll need to follow directions for seed type. A dusting of cinnamon or spritz of chamomile tea helps protect young sprouts and seedlings from developing fungal issues, also called "damping off." If you'd rather purchase and transplant seedlings (young plants instead of seeds), the Farmers Market lets you purchase from local farmers so that you can directly ask them for growing tips on these particular plants. Many stores also offer seedlings closer to our last frost (usually May 10-15), but you will often need to do your own research about those plants.

9. Grow flowers!

Not only will flowers beautify your garden – they'll also make your own work easier. Pretty plants like borage, calendula, yarrow, nasturtiums and marigolds deter pests and invite in "beneficials" like bees, butterflies and bugs that eat the bugs that eat your plants. When your garden looks nice, you'll also derive more pleasure from the sights, smells and tastes of nature.

10. Involve friends and family, especially picky eaters

No store-bought produce tastes as fresh and delicious as fruits and vegetables pulled straight from the garden. Many children who "don't like vegetables" simply don't like eating something that traveled 2,000 miles before hitting their plates. Crisp, fresh produce nurtured from seed or seedling brings magic to children, teens and adults. There's nothing quite like a sun-ripened tomato or a just snapped pea. When people witness how food grows, they begin to connect with their food in new and exciting ways. When people garden together, they begin to connect with each other in deeper and more meaningful ways.

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