Intro to Victory Gardening - Before the Harvest (long) : LUSENET : TimeBomb 2000 (Y2000) Preparation Forum : One Thread

This thread introduces several before-the-harvest topics associated with starting a small vegetable garden. Check the archives for specific discussions of these matters and many others relating to gardening, and please ask questions if you cant find an answer! Any one of these topics could and should be its own thread as well.

There are several general rules of thumb that should help keep you focused on whats realistic to accomplish in the short time available before next years final exam:

Aim to supplement your family's food supply, not provide everything you need.

Select varieties appropriate to your location and growing conditions.

There is no such thing as too much organic matter or compost.

Good garden soil takes time to develop, so start those beds now.

Practice small scale projects this year while your mistakes wont matter so much.

Learn low maintenance techniques like mulching and soaker hoses.

Keep a journal (successes and failures; annual rotation plans; dates of seedings, transplants, harvests; suggestions for future seasons; etc.).

Read, read, and read some more.

Seek out or start a community garden program for information and camaraderie.

Essential gardening equipment. Sometimes the list seems endless. Buy the best quality - it wont be as likely to break and replacements may not be available. Make sure Santa knows what you want! And make friends with your neighbors so you can share the higher priced items.

Spading and composting forks - shovel - hoe - sharpening equipment - steel and bamboo rakes - one-piece aluminum trowels in different widths - 3-prong weeder - hand pruner - hoses, soaker hoses, watering wand, and watering cans - kneeling pad - wheel barrel, garden cart or flyer red wagon - supports sturdy enough for the job (e.g., rebar for tomato cages) - Reemay fabric (an extra lightweight spun fabric that keeps out bugs but lets in sun and water) - bird netting (keep larger critters out) - plastic tarps and buckets in all sizes - compost bin - fertilizers - shoplights

Gardeners Supply and Lee Valley Toolscarry a great line of supplies. (You probably never knew just how essential they were until you saw them in the catalog!)

In case gasoline or rental equipment is not readily available next year, consider renting or using those items now - like a tiller to prepare beds.

There are a number of Y2K-specific issues that are not ordinarily a problem, such as a greater need to hide the garden from public view, to place your catalog orders really early this year, to arrange for an alternative water source (e.g., rain barrels or a hand-operated well pump), or a way to provide your seedlings with adequate light when there is no electricity for shoplights.

Hybrid v. nonhybrid seed. Another basic Y2K issue relates to whether you order hybrid (open-pollinated) or nonhybrid seed. Hybrid seed can offer superior features like disease resistance (which could make or break the success of a new gardener). However, they do not breed true, so nonhybrid seeds become essential if disruptions in seed supply continue for more than a season, but youll need the skills to save seeds. Most seeds keep for at least a few years, so you could start out with hybrids, and switch to nonhybrids in later seasons. There may be a scramble for seeds this fall - order early and in abundance.

Seed should be kept cool and dry. If you arent sure about viability, test the germination ahead of time by placing a few seeds in between sheets of slightly damp paper towels. Some seeds like beans and corn kernels will germinate much faster if soaked overnight first. Whether inside or out, do not crowd the seeds even if you have extra - you will just waste time thinning them out. If you save seed, or reseal a seed packet, be sure your hands are clean so that you do not encourage growth of mold or fungus in the package.

Sources of nonhybrid seeds. The following companies are all highly rated and probably sell hybrid seed and other fun stuff too. Dont forget seed exchanges and friends! Hardware and discount stores are also a good source for cheap seed packets now that the growing season is drawing to a close.

Comstock Ferre, Wethersfield, CT

Fedco Seeds, Waterville, ME

Heirloom Seeds, W. Elizabeth, PA

Johnny's Selected Seeds, Albion, ME

Park Seed, Greenwood, SC

Pinetree Gardens, New Gloucester, ME

Seeds of Change, Santa Fe, NM

Seeds Blum, Boise, ID

Shepards Garden Seeds, Torrington, CT

R.H. Shumways, Graniteville, SC

Territorial Seed, Cottage Grove, OR

W. Atlee Burpee, Warminster, PA

Willhite Seed, Poolville, TX

Starting seeds indoors gives you a jump on the season for vegetables like onions and tomatoes.

An artificial light source will keep seedlings from getting spindly. Buy 40W 4 cool white fluorescent bulbs in bulk. Seedlings that will shortly be transplanted outside do not need the full light spectrum, so warm whites and grow lights are an unnecessary expense. (If you wish to provide a wider spectrum than just cool whites, pairing up one cool and one warm white would be an improvement.) A basic setup could involve hanging cheapo 4 shoplights from beams or garment racks over a card table. Keep the light intense. Position the bulbs a few inches over the seedlings (use chains so the length can be adjusted). 2 or 3 light fixtures across provides additional residual light. Aluminum foil placed along the sides will reflect light back.

Seedlings can be extremely fussy. The fungal disease "damping off" is a huge killer. Keep seed flats cool, with good air circulation (e.g., a fan). Use only FRESH soilless mix or STERILIZED dirt. (You can sterilize in your oven or microwave, but be prepared for the stench.) Sterilize all containers by soaking in a 10 percent bleach solution, then rinsing thoroughly.

Plants grown indoors must be "hardened off" by a week or two of gradual acclimation to full sun, wind, and temperature variation.

Starting seeds outside is appropriate for quick growing types that do not like to be transplanted or arent susceptible to frost. A light mulch (grass clippings) can help prevent seeds from washing away. Bird netting may prevent the seeds from being dug up. Cover tiny seeds like beets and carrots with a soilless mix like vermiculite that does not cake like dirt.

Understand your soil and growing conditions. You need to learn about your particular growing conditions. Most vegetables prefer well-drained soils in full sun. Are you confronted with sand, clay, or a loamy mixture? well-draining or soggy soil? extensive tree root competition? What is your growing zone (a reflection of frost limitations, but not necessarily how hot you get in the summer)? A cheap pH meter or home soil test may help you determine whether to add lime or sulfur (eastern soils tend to be acid; western desert soils tend to be alkaline). Have your soil tested for nutrients or potential toxins if you are not sure (lead paint). Whatever the problem, the answer is often to add organic matter or to create raised beds. You also need to understand that conditions are very different in different parts of the country. (Be forewarned that this article is authored by a New Englander with short growing seasons and acid soils.)

Soil/bed preparation.

Plan your garden plot ahead of time. Arrange your beds several rows deep (as far as you can conveniently reach in), not as individual rows. This is referred to as "intensive" or "square foot" gardening. (It may be more appropriate to grow crops like corn in traditional rows.)

You will destroy the soils crumbly "structure", including necessary air pockets if you work the soil when it is too wet or too dry or if you compact it by walking on it after it is prepared. Instead, try spreading your weight on planks.

Raised beds (either free standing or supported by boards) are recommended in northern, wet climates. The soil warms faster and drains better, so you can start your garden earlier in the year.

Do NOT use treated wood (CCA, creosote, railroad timbers) around vegetable gardens. The chemicals can leach into the soil.

You almost can't dig too deep or add too much organic material. Organic matter feeds the microorganisms, moderates a pH imbalance, retains moisture in excessively well drained soils (like sand), and promotes drainage in poorly draining soils (like clay). Other soil conditioners include green manures and cover crops which are sown at the end of the season. If you are preparing an area for perennials (e.g., rhubarb or jerusalem artichoke), then your best opportunity to improve the soil and work materials really deeply is at the beginning.

There are many kinds of mulch, and they serve many beneficial purposes, such as moderating soil temperatures, conserving soil moisture, preventing soil erosion, and discouraging infection of the plants by diseases lurking on the soil surface. Some examples - Grass clippings (although you would also do well to leave them on your lawn). Chopped leaves (whole leaves like maples form sheets that prevent water from being absorbed). Straw or salt-marsh hay (do not use regular hay - it includes weed seeds). Newspaper (black and white only; avoid the glossy inserts).

Tillers have their advantages and disadvantages. They can create a shallow "hard pan" (which prevents roots from extending deeper) and destroy the soil texture, but they may be the only way to prepare large areas, such as for corn or wheat.

If the effort involved in preparing a new bed sounds outrageous, then give Ruth Stouts "no till" method a try. First, mow to remove top growth, then cover with newspaper or cardboard, add organic matter (straw, leaves, compost), let cook for a season, then plant through the mulch. This becomes a raised bed.

Organic Gardening/Composting: A few comments on organic gardening. The idea is to "feed the soil, not the plants"! Heavy synthetic fertilizers may kill beneficial microorganisms and earthworms - use a slow release organic fertilizer instead. (For an excellent, technical discussion on why this may be so, check out Ediphos: Dynamics of a Natural Soil System by Paul Sachs, Edaphic Press.)

True compost is a balanced blend of carbon and nitrogen (e.g., brown leaves and green leaf clippings). You can add just leaves (chop up first with a lawn mower or a leaf shredder), but that does not supply nitrogen. Manure - a great source of nitrogen - should be aged for at least 6 months. Stay away from diseased plant material or lawn clippings that have been treated with pesticides.

If composting as a separate pile, build it 3 to 4 feet in height, at least 3 feet in width, and keep it aerated and just slightly moist. Make simple cages of chicken wire, snow fencing, or pallets. Garbage cans or large trash bags (with holes) will work eventually, but are not an ideal size for building up heat. Or just create an uncontained pile (it will dry out faster). Or avoid all the fuss by burying organic material directly in or over the garden at the end of the growing season.

Where to go for more information - Book & Magazines:

Organic Gardening magazine and anything else by Rodale Press

Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew (Rodale Press)

Growing More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible by John Jeavons (Ten Speed Press)

The New Victory Garden by Bob Thomson (Little, Brown)

Harrowsmith Country Life Book of Gardening Secrets by Dorothy Patent (Camden House)

Ediphos: Dynamics of a Natural Soil System by Paul Sachs (Edaphic Press)

The Best of Fine Gardening: Healthy Soil (Taunton Press)

Let It Rot by Stu Campbell (Storey Publishing)

Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth (Seed Savers Publications)

The Encyclopedia of Country Living by Carla Emery (Sasquatch Books)

Web Sites & Forums:

Brians Year 2000 Preparation Archive/"Growing Food" threads

TimeBomb2000 Archive/"Food" threads

Garden Web Forums

Square Foot Gardening

Square Foot Gardening

Non-toxic insect control

Christopher Verdants monster gardening site

Miscellaneous resources: Your library (a good way to review books you might want to acquire as permanent reference). Parents and friends! Printed seed catalogs (Johnny's catalog is an especially good source of cultural information), usually more so than the on-line versions.

-- Brooks (, July 19, 1999


WOW! Thanks! What is soil-less mix?

I didn't know you shouldn't use railroad timbers for raised beds!

-- Gayla (, July 19, 1999.

Wow! Really good job, Brooks. I really appreciate it. Thank you.

-- de (, July 19, 1999.

BTW, this thread is an outgrowth of one of the forum chats hosted by BigDog and reflects the input from quite a number of participants. I hope there will be many more in the future, and room for many more people to join in!

Soil-less mix would be pretty much any of the bagged, commercial seed- starting or potting soil mixes. Seed-starting mix is somewhat lighter than potting soil. Its main ingredients are usually vermiculite, milled sphagnum, and sometimes perlite. It's sterile, so it doesn't introduce any of the problems that can come from using straight garden dirt.

-- Brooks (, July 19, 1999.

I'll accept "facilitated" but hosted? Nonsense. I'm a workaday gardener at best (slave to Ms Big Dog). This is Brooks from start to finish.

-- BigDog (, July 19, 1999.

Lot of good work in this post. Thanks.

Minor typo that might cause confusion - it is non-hybrid seed which is open-pollinated - they can't let their precious hybrid parents free to do their own thing - they might (gasp!) open pollinate - miscegenation of the worst kind (shame). Plant hybridists are actually hard-core rascists in their own field.

Tip: to plant fine seeds (say carrot, lettuce) mix with five or ten times their own volume of fine dry sand first - spreads them out, easier to avoid clumps and bare spots. Also helps avoid soil caking over the tiny seedlings. Another or supplementary way can be to plant along with radish seeds - the radish comes up first, breaks the ground for the other seedlings, then you pull the radishes just when the other seedlings are going to need to start serious growth.

-- Don Armstrong (, July 19, 1999.

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