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More Advice for Gardeners in Training

More Advice for Gardeners in Training

Q. Harry in New Brunswick writes: "My girlfriend and I are young gardeners on our third season, expanding every year. We listen avidly to your show, do research and ask family members who are long time gardeners for advice. Some of our family's tactics are old school and do not align with a lot of yours. Like tilling and using manure.

"We have two main questions.

"Number one: We did not have time last fall to do mulched leaf compost as winter came early and we were on the road a lot. We are musicians, and this year we will not be touring due to the Corona virus. So we are wondering how to prepare our beds for this season. The soil has received two seasons worth of horse manure compost mixed with our native soil. Could you suggest ideas on how to prepare these beds? Our family has suggested to add nothing and till, but I am reluctant.

"The beds are raised, but they are simply mounded; no frames. Sort of the French Intensive Method I learned from your show. Our Aunt also suggested this method when we first started."

A. This question raised a lot more questions, so I asked how big the beds were and what they expected to grow.

"The beds are 4 by 6 and 4 by 8 and around eight to twelve inches tall. There would be peppers, tomatoes, onions, lettuce, beets, peas, beans, herbs, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, zucchini, and carrots. We've also started a new bed this spring for corn and potatoes."

A. OK. The first thing you have to realize is that these are vastly different crops. Lettuce and peas will only do well in the spring. Lettuce will do even better in the fall, but timing a fall crop of peas is beyond tricky, even for experienced gardeners. Broccoli and Brussel sprouts are also cool-weather crops, but you can cut the main head off of your broccoli when it starts to get hot and the plant will produce tasty side-shoots in the Fall; a great trick that I don't talk about often enough.

Brussel sprouts are like escargot; proof that anything can taste good if you saturate it with enough butter and garlic. It's also a cool-weather crop but a weird one. It'll grow nicely in the Spring and the summer, but if harvested in the summer those spooky little heads will have an off taste. (I would sarcastically ask how anyone could tell but then I'd get all you BS lovers mad at me. Both of you.) The answer is patience; wait until after a few frosts in the fall and the mustardy taste will resolve into a pleasant sweetness. Or so I'm told. And the plants are super-frost hardy. Bend them to the ground and cover them with straw or shredded leaves when it gets really cold and you can harvest them through the winter.

Kind of the same with carrots. Harvest them young and small before the weather gets hot, then sow another run for fall, waiting to pick them until after cool weather concentrates their sugars. Carrots should not be fed strong fertilizers--even natural ones like your horse manure--and should be grown in your loosest, lightest soil; not in any place that's been walked on. Same for beets; loose soil and don't harvest in hot weather.

As we always stress, fruiting crops like tomatoes and peppers do not do well with horse manure alone. It's all nitrogen and will grow big plants with few fruits; good old yard waste compost is a much better bet. (But you can mix fresh horse manure with shredded leaves in the fall and make great, balanced compost.)

About horse manure: Like wood ash, it is a prime example of 'just because you have a lot of something doesn't make it right for your garden'. It would be perfect for your sweet corn, but only if it is completely composted; that means it looks like good soil, isn't warm to the touch and doesn't smell like poop anymore. If it isn't fully composted, it'll grow more weeds than food.

Same with tilling. Tilling destroys soil structure, releases nutrients, adds to greenhouse gases and uncovers and then buries untold weed seeds which, when sprouted, will bedevil you all season. One of the big advantages of a raised bed garden is that you don't step on the soil, so there's no need to till; just add two inches of compost a year to the surface. Do NOT till it in.

Don't waste a raised bed on sweet corn; it has a tendency to fall over in loose soil. It's the perfect crop for flat earth. And try growing potatoes in an above ground bin; more raised bed room for your tamatas.

"Question #2: We are planning to use our pond this summer to water our garden. It has Koi fish and frogs. We are wondering if we should test the pond water first? Or just make sure to wash the veggies well?"

A. Pond water contains fish poop and silt, which are exceptional for a veggie garden; better even than rainwater. And you always want to wash your produce, no matter who grew it or under what conditions.

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