Pagan Gardening, Part Two (Long Post)

Welcome to Part Two of my series on Practical Pagan Gardening.

Your reward will be at the end of the growing season, in winter, when you pull that frozen/canned delicacy out of storage and taste your garden again. Hope you run for the seed catalogues again next winter with a full belly and lots of enthusiasm.

We are going to be talking about Soil Preparation, When to Plant, Getting a Jump on the Season, and Scheduling. Don't groan at me!!

Unless you have been adding compost to your garden and NEVER walking on it for the past three years, you don't have perfect soil. And if you were planting by traditional row methods, you have been walking on it.

Getting a Jump on the Season...ah...look at those grins...You want to run out right now and start digging, don't you? You can indeed get your hands dirty RIGHT NOW and be miles ahead of the neighbors in 6 to 8 weeks. Do you like that idea? Stick with me, okay?

Scheduling is something you can be doing right now too. How would you like to DOUBLE the number of carrots you harvest? Make a pumpkin pie from pumpkins you have grown yourself? (No, it is NOT hard!) It is all in the schedule.

Soil Preparation is probably the most labor-intensive thing you will do this season. BUT, once done using the methods I describe, you never have to do it again in that location. Fair dinkum?

First thing you need to do is determine your soil's PH. You could make a guess, but it is better to know for sure. Soil test kits are cheap and available at the nursery. Go get one, put on your coat, and go grab a soil sample. It won't kill you, but it will save you hours of back-breaking labor later!

Okay, we are going to assume you got it. Everyone remember their lessons from school? How 6.0-7.0 is fairly neutral? If your soil is acid, add some lime to your shopping list. If it is alkaline, add some sulfur to the list. A ten pound bag goes a LOOONG way, here, so buy a small bag unless you are feeding more than 6 people.

One thing you do not need to buy is fertilizer. Please don't! It is not a very pagan thing to do to inundate your poor organic garden with chemicals. Buy a good-sized bag of compost instead, or beg some off of someone with a compost pile. Your compost pile will be ready in six months to a year with care, so you can return the favor next year.

Here is a good, pagan-style formula for an organic fertilizer if you feel your soil is so poor that Mars has better:

1 part blood meal, 2 parts bone meal, 3 parts wood ash, 4 parts composted leaf material. (Yes, the ashes from your balefires will work, and so will that rotten pile of leaves you neglected to rake up last fall) If you are planning on growing heavy feeders like corn, add 2 parts more blood meal to the mix above.

Keep the mix in a plastic trash can (you can buy them at Wal-Mart or similar for cheap) and store it in the garage or shed for now. Don’t get cute and try to make do with a trash bag. The things deteriorate and then you’ll be sweeping up the mess.

While you are at the nursery to buy the blood meal and such, grab up 1 bale of peat moss, 1 large bag (4 cu. feet) of vermiculite, 3 cu. feet of sand, wood ash, 3 cu. feet of compost, and a small bag of lime, equal to about 4 cups.

Remember that number I made you hold? Where you take the number of members in your household and divide it by 2 and round down? That number is how many of the above you will need. Feeding 5? You need 2 bags of peat moss, 2 bags of vermiculite, 6 cu. feet of sand, and so on.

Now you are ready to dig! Dig a test hole in the area. Does it have rocks? Get an old window screen and be prepared to sift. Lay a tarp or old blanket near your chosen spot and dig, putting the old soil on the tarp. If you are lucky enough to have a big, deep wheelbarrow, that too will work.

Dig out a 4x4 block, measuring off if need be. Dig down about a foot if you have poor soil, and 6 inches if not. Whew!!! Dig however many blocks your "family number" is. I feed 5, so I did two blocks. I also did not kill my back doing all that digging in one weekend. One block a weekend is fine.

Okay, I confess!! The first year I did square foot gardening, I didn't believe that miniscule space of 2 4x4 blocks was going to feed my family. I had my whole 25'x10' garden area rototilled and had 5 blocks!! Boy, was I sorry!! Not only did I have too much food, but I also couldn't keep up with 5 blocks to weed.

Don't expect your family to help you. They will resent it highly. Even those who are volunteering now will be much less enthused in August. Use their enthusiasm now to help you get set up, but don't depend on them for anything more later.

Mix the peat moss, vermiculite and stuff in a trashcan or wheelbarrow. Yeah, you can use one of your present trashcans, especially if it has a locking lid. To mix, lock the lid and kick it around the yard for a few minutes. Wet it down a bit with the hose to dampen it a bit. Pour it into the hole you dug and level it out. Add more if necessary. Spray it with the hose now and then to help it level out. Your block is now ready for planting. If you have small children, this is where they can help the most. I threw all the stuff on a tarp, dressed my kids in bathing suits and had them play in Mommy's new dirt for a while. They mixed it well and loved getting sprayed down with a hose afterwards.

Take the old soil and use it somewhere else to fill in holes or level out a bad slope near the foundation of your house. Remember, do this right once, and you never have to do it again for that block!

Just a note: You do not have to do all of your blocks in one day or even in one weekend. Save your back. When we talk about scheduling, you will see you will have up to a month to do all your blocks. That is plenty of time. Time for you to make at least two trips to the nursery if you get two paydays in a month.

This is one reason why I am giving you your shopping list now, while the ground is hard and unworkable. Who says this has to break your budget? Twenty bucks a payday will get you all you need in plenty of time to work your soil. Keep in mind this is the biggest expense you will make for years!

Now, for those of you with either EXTREMELY poor soil or apartment/townhouse patios. Yes, Virginia, there is a Goddess for you too. It is called container gardening.

For all you container gardeners, the formula is the same. Drill little drainage holes in the bottom of your containers if they don't already have holes. Lay down a circle of shade cloth the same size as the bottom of your pot. Pour in a few rocks. Now put in the soil. You are done. See? No digging for you! And you thought you were unlucky to have only a patio....

Don't think you are deprived because you don't have an acre of land. You are actually luckier than those of us with a "real" yard. You don't have to dig! Your garden is large containers like half-whiskey barrels and strawberry pots.

Use the same soil mix formula I gave above. Your plants won't dry out as quickly as those in the ground, and some things like herbs in a strawberry pot can be taken indoors at the end of the season (if you haven't let them go to seed) for fresh herbs long after ours have died.

With a bit of extra effort, you can have supports attached to your containers and grow cucumbers and tomatoes right in a container! Peppers, chard, or any of the long-season, large plants do very well in containers. Experiment! A packet of seeds is usually less than $2, and transplants are nearly as cheap. A lot of plants can be packed in a whiskey barrel container.

Container gardening can be adapted to even those in wheelchairs. (I should know!) Don't let anyone tell you that you can't. It is the same as raised beds for the elderly or those with back problems. Raised beds also work, if you can get them.

In the book "Square Foot Gardening" there is a whole section just for "problem gardening". The one for the wheelchair/disabled gardener is my favorite. I intend to have one right outside my kitchen door, just for salad greens. The kids get a great kick out of being handed a pair of scissors and a basket and told to "go get the salad".

Low/no natural light? Florescent grow lights can be rigged with a bit of ingenuity and someone handy with a hammer. Do that, of course, indoors and grow herbs and small plants in containers. No, not THAT herb!!

Now, if I seem skimpy on details, remember that I am trying to cover an entire growing season! Give me a break, please. Again, I recommend buying or borrowing any one of the square foot gardening books.

My personal favorite is "Square Foot Gardening" by Mel Bartholomew. These books will have designs for all sorts of gardening problems, formulas for soil and fertilizer, and charts of all descriptions.

Before I go any further, I want to explain WHY square foot gardening is so much better than traditional methods.

Manageability. Ever heard the horror stories of the poor person who, enthused by spring, made him/herself a garden and by fall it was full of weeds? Square foot blocks are small, only 4'x4', and never over-planted. A couple of hours (no more!) once a week is enough maintenance time, so your enthusiasm doesn't wane with hot hours spent in the sun.

And it is not all weeding!! You practice crop rotation with a bit of work now scheduling, and there is always something new to harvest or plant.

Economy. A smaller, well-planned garden uses less seed, less fertilizers, less water. Square foot blocks teach you to plant only what you need, and save the seed packet year-after-year for use again and again.

The old method said, "Use the whole packet of seeds, then thin." What a waste of seeds and seedlings! You are only replenishing the soil in a tiny area, so you use less fertilizer/compost. (More xeriscaping again.)

Permanence. By using ALL FOUR seasons, you are getting more for less. And you never have to walk on the soil, so it never gets compacted. Crop rotation is natural and a breeze. Adding soil amendments is done in small doses at harvest of each individual vegetable and is never a chore.

In late winter/early spring, you are busy with your seedlings you start indoors, a process you will continue for some months. Early lettuce and peas are already in the ground, waiting for harvest, in those blocks you "put to bed" last fall.

In summer, there is a continuous round of harvest and replanting of seeds and seedlings. There are tomatoes to blanch and freeze for sauces and stews this winter. There are herbs to harvest, hang, and dry in the oven. Peppers get chopped and stored for freezing.

In fall, there are more harvests and some blocks to "put to bed" for the winter. There are pumpkins to use and store, and all those herbs to hang to dry over winter, when your house heat will do a great job with minimal work on your part. Don't forget to plant the onions and garlic!

In winter, there are wintering over plants like spinach and corn salad, covered with a tiny greenhouse you made yourself or a sun box, to brighten up those long, dark nights with fresh greens. You will pull out your harvestings out of the freezer for stews and sauces, and reap the rich tastes of your own labors. And don't forget to plan for next year!

Never let anyone tell you gardening is only for a short time. It is only if you let it be. Don't let "them" tell you it is expensive. It doesn't have to be. It doesn't have to be hot or back-breaking. By managing your time, water and resources, gardening is fun, not a chore. As with anything, "Do it right the first time."

Your blocks will be divided into 16 one-foot square areas. You can use lathes to delineate individual squares, or just string. Take a piece of paper and make a square. Now divide the inside into 4 rows across and 4 rows down. See? 16 squares.

The north row of squares is going to hold tall plants like tomatoes, cucumbers, and pole beans, using supports you drive into the ground just outside the square.

I suggest two strong, 6' pressure treated timbers, like 2x2's. Garden netting or even strings between your poles will allow you to support your tomatoes, beans and cucumbers easily. Just twine the tendrils in and around as they grow. As the famous master gardener Jerry Baker says, "Plant them and then run like hell, because that is the way they grow."

Set this up the day you plant your seeds!!! Do NOT wait until the plants have sprouted or you will procrastinate until it is too late. I did last year, and found my cucumbers and melons trailing all over the yard long before I was ready.

Even melons can be grown vertically. Ladies, save your old pantyhose to use as supports for your melons, like slings hung on the net. It works, trust me. Let the neighbors laugh. They won't laugh when your melons are not ground-rotted like theirs. WARNING!!! One plant is all you need for your vertical-growers. Do not be tempted to plant more "just in case". Boy, will you be sorry! One pumpkin plant took over my entire vertical frame and continued to grow all over anything near enough for it to "grab" with its tendrils, including the frame in the bed next to it! The only thing that made it all worthwhile was the delicious pumpkin pies, breads, and soups we had throughout the winter.

Your medium height plants go in next, just one square south of your verticals. Progress down in heights as you plan each successive row on your paper(s). The front (and southernmost) row should be the lowest growing plants, such as lettuces, radishes, oregano, nasturtiums, etc.

Now, here is where you have to put in a bit of research. Most of the books on SF gardening will tell you how many of each plant you can put in each square. 16 carrots can go in the same square. 4 swiss chard will fit in one square. Research. You will need to know this.

Note which plants will give you a continual harvest. For example, "cut and come again" types of lettuce, chives, nasturtiums and chard. This will figure in to your crop rotation as the most likely spots for your fall "put this section to bed" area, since they are planted in both the spring and the fall, while the weather is chill enough to make them sweet. Anything else is fair game.

Some plants are "plant some now, wait a few weeks and plant some more", like radishes, carrots and lettuce. You don't want to harvest them all at once or you will get very tired of them and waste many more you can't eat when they are ready. Radishes are nearly "instant gratification plants", harvesting not long after planting.

Okay, you have your list of plants, with notations beside each telling you exactly how many plants you will need to start in your peat pots. Love carrots? Two squares with 16 plants each is a lot of carrots.

Some plants like squash take up more than one square. Please make sure you do your homework and research. Be prepared to modify your map accordingly. After much mental "arguments" I decided to plant my acorn squash in my annual flower beds. Their flowers added beauty, the foliage was lovely, and I still got acorn squash without wasting space in my square foot gardens.

Now, I admit, I did all this planning long before I bought my seeds. Then I went and bought only what I was going to use. No impulse shopping here! I had a list that filled my garden. That is how I spent my winter nights, mapping and planning and shopping the seed catalogs. Now I order from the internet.

Want some URL's? Go ahead, drool...I did...and you can order the seed catalogues from the website. (short season plants for Colorado’s short growing season)

Ready to get out your calendars and do some serious planning? I remind you that I told you to find out your last frost date and your first frost dates for your area. Hope you did that.

Here are your weekly tasks. Water the squares with seeds with a fine mist from a spray bottle. Water the squares with plants, dipping from that ice cream bucket using a Dixie cup. Pull weeds in the squares as you water. I have a tendency to go "inspect" my garden early in the morning. I pull any weeds I see then, so the weekend weeding is much less of a chore. That bucket can come in handy to hold all the weeds, then the weeds get dumped into the compost bin.

Now, pull one seed packet from your seeds you have bought. It will probably say to plant it x number of weeks before/after your final frost date. It may also say, "Start indoors, then transplant at X date" or, "not suitable for transplanting, sow directly into the soil".

Count back from your final frost date (Hereafter referred to as FFD) and note on the calendar what it is you need to plant and how. Example: My Zone 4 garden in Denver had a FFD of May 15. Now we live in Florida. My Zone 8 garden has a FFD of right around March 1, conservatively. Quite a difference, isn’t it?

If you have noted something like swiss chard to be started indoors, now count forward and note the date you can transplant it to the outdoor garden. In the case of my chard, I’d better get those guys in the Dixie cups ASAP!

Some things like carrots are to be sown every two weeks. Note this on your calendar every two weeks. Don't depend on your memory.

Do this with every seed packet you have bought. Look how quickly your schedule fills up!! You can hedge a few days either way without too much harm, so don't get anal and freak if you can't plant on that day. The weekend closest will do.

If you have six things that must be planted on or near the same day, schedule yourself two or three days to do it in. If you get it all done the same day, great. If not, then you have allowed yourself some leeway.

Now, you may note that things get pretty hectic right around your FFD. Don't worry too much about it. Schedule the direct sowing on one day, and the transplanting on another. That will save you some steps.

For myself and what I have chosen to plant, one month prior to my FFD, I have something to do every week, as far as planting indoors, even though I will begin to put seeds in my Dixie cups very soon.

Now, look again at your seeds. Did you note some have a "double season"? Lettuce, radishes and carrots for instance. Go to your FIRST frost date, which should be sometime in the fall, unless you are lucky enough to live in someplace like Florida. Now count back again, and schedule yourself a second planting of these.

Don't get discouraged, it isn't as bad as it looks. Don't get overwhelmed. If you decide after your first harvest that you don't like radishes after all, then you don't have to plant that second harvest. Allow yourself some flexibility.

By knowing what to plant, when and how, you save yourself much grief. I admit, I have to restrain myself every year from planting too early.

Finally, getting a jump on the season the easy and cheap way. Okay, you've bought your seeds, triumphantly spread them out on the table, and noted in your calendar when to sow them. Good for you.

Are those seeds still on the table??? I hope not! Seal the packets in jars with good screw-top lids or in Ziploc bags and pop them into the fridge.

The fridge fools the seeds into thinking it is winter. They go dormant. You see, seeds need three things to grow: Light, warmth and moisture. They get none of the three in the fridge and will wait patiently for "winter" to end. Please note, we did not say the freezer!!

When it is time to plant each seed type, take only that one out of the fridge. Pull out of the little packet only the number of seeds you need right now. If you keep them out too long, all of them will think it is spring and get ready to grow!

I will not go into germination tests and all that hoo-rah now. Read about that for yourself for next year. You see, what seeds you don't use this year will remain dormant all year, still thinking it is winter in your fridge. Seeds don’t own watches and can’t read calendars.

Okay, you have pulled out X number of seeds. Soak them in warm water on top of your fridge where it is warm overnight. Now they have warmth and lots of moisture, just like a soaking spring rain. Their hard outer shells will soften and make germination faster.

The next day, fill that X number of Dixie cups with seed starting mix. Make sure it is heavy on the vermiculite or perlite. This mix is best for baby plants with thin, delicate little roots. (This is all assuming you are starting them indoors) Label each Dixie cup with what is planted and what day it goes into the ground. Mist them lightly every day.

Where you put your Dixie cups is dependent on the type of plant it will be. Some need only a light covering of plastic wrap and the top of your fridge. Some will need dark to germinate (don't ask me why!!). Consult your seed packet before you stuff it back in the jar in the fridge. Do not forget them up there!

Now, let us assume you are direct sowing. Grab that bag of vermiculite and head out the door with your "babies" that have been soaked overnight.

Tip: Mark inches and half-inches in indelible marker on your garden trowel. This will allow you to measure conveniently the depths you need your babies to be planted at. Consult the seed packet for this info before you step out the door.

Use the tip of your finger (or your trowel handle) to make a hole of the proper depth, plus a tiny bit extra. Drop some vermiculite in the hole, then the seed, then more vermiculite.

Remember to mist your babies every day until they sprout and get their second set of leaves. After that, once a week should be enough, unless the soil feels dry. Check your babies daily.

Oh! and do yourself a favor and get those nice, 10" or longer wooden garden label sticks. Mark on there what the plant is and when you planted it. Put a label in each square you plant. The shorter sticks may be cheaper, but you won't be able to see it once the plants start growing. Seriously. Those boxes of craft sticks may seem like a real bargain, but you will regret it. Get the big ones, take them home, and paint them with a good exterior paint so they won’t rot.

Don't EVER depend upon your memory, or little slips of paper that might blow away, AND NEVER use your seed packet as a label!!! You need that info! Especially in the coming winter when you will want to decide whether or not to plant that variety again.

Your garden labels can be used year after year. At the end of harvest of that plant in that square, paint over the writing and you will have a new label ready for next time you need one. (a can of spray paint will do)

Now, you have your schedule, your soil to prepare, and seeds to plant at the proper date.

Now you know what the Dixie cups are for, too, don't you? Dixie cups are cardboard. When your babies are ready for transplanting to outdoors, you can punch holes in the sides and bottom with a pencil and set the whole thing in the ground. The cardboard will decompose naturally as your plant grows. (If you are scared because of the wax coating, carefully cut it a bit with scissors.)

Peat pellets that grow into peat pots with soil already in them when you wet them with warm water work too. Just set them in a waterproof container and dump warm water in. They will swell right up in a few minutes and be ready for use. Personally, we haven’t had much luck with them. The mesh holding the peat together is stronger than my seedling roots.

That's all for now, folks. Go have fun setting up your schedule and fooling your seeds into thinking it is winter for now.


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