I recall it as “Eamon and the Enormous Turnip.” My mega-picky preschooler was on a farm field trip. He delighted in an opportunity to pluck a root—as big as his head—straight from the soil. The farmer pulled out a knife and offered a slice of raw turnip on the spot. My son tried it, loved it and declared he’d like to grow a garden of his own. Trouble is … I’m not a farmer, and our resulting haphazard backyard plot was a bust.
This time will be better. I’ve sought advice from professionals Carrie Engel at Valley View Farms in Hunt Valley and Peter Bieneman at Green Fields Nursery in Baltimore, and seasoned home gardeners Mia Walshe from Hamilton-Lauraville and Sarah van Tiem of Towson. These experts set forth goals we can get going on right now: Create a plan, start seeds and prepare the beds. I’ve compiled and distilled some of their terrific tips here.
Creating a plan
Greenfield’s Bieneman suggests concrete planning. “Think about what your family likes to eat, draw a map on paper, manage timelines on a calendar and keep notes on what works (or doesn’t) from year to year. Know your frost date! In the Baltimore area, last frost is around April 16. Count back from there for starting seeds indoors.” In general, most seeds should be started six to eight weeks before transplants can go outside. “Read the seed pack!” says Bieneman. Important information is found there.
“Be realistic and start small so as not to get overwhelmed if this is your first garden,” advises Carrie Engel. “The first year, direct seed things like peas, beans, radishes and other easy-to-grow crops. Use transplants for most of the rest.”
Sarah van Tiem notes one of her go-to resources is the University of Maryland Home and Garden Information Center (extension.umd.edu/hgic). She also loves seed catalogs. “They are wonderfully inspiring, and seeds are delightfully cheap! You can grow five pounds of carrots from a one dollar packet.”
Beware of Maryland’s clay soil, however, and stick to shorter varieties of carrots, or grow them in raised beds, containers, or soil bags. Bieneman suggests sharing or saving any seeds you don’t use. And though seed packs are dated, you may need to test leftover seeds on paper towels to see if they’ll still germinate after two years.
Tomato, pepper and eggplant seeds should be started indoors around St. Patrick’s Day, according to Bieneman. Those are also common plants to buy at a garden center, as household conditions may not always result in strong transplants. Cool-weather crops such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale and spinach can go outside in early to mid-April, so those seeds can be started as early as February. Engel notes that peas can be sown directly outside in March, and beans in May. Cucumbers, squash and melons grow faster, so you can start those seeds just two to four weeks before moving them outside in May. “Radishes are fun because they take just three weeks from seed to harvest,” Engel adds. That rapid gratification can help the kids interested when waiting patiently is hard!
Make gardening a whole-family activity. “I am amazed by how passionate children can be about the garden,” says Engel. Kid-friendly plant choices include cherry tomatoes, sugar snap peas, lunchbox peppers, blueberries, melons and Brussels sprouts. Bieneman cautions: “Kids always go for the pumpkin seeds, but pumpkins are space hogs in a bed! They can be trained up a trellis to save room.”
Preparing the beds
Before in-ground planting, Engel recommends a soil test (use a test kit or bring a sample to a garden center for evaluation) and add lime accordingly. Bed preparation can be done in winter or early spring. If we have an especially “soggy” winter, Bieneman says waiting until April may be a good idea.
Characteristics of a good garden space were agreed upon by all sources: weed-free; organic matter-added; effective drainage; about 12-inch depth; at least six hours of sunlight; support devices as needed; and fencing to help keep out hungry critters.
“Light is important, which is why we have a front yard garden. Who cares about grass? Veggies are where it’s at!” says Mia Walshe. “To prepare the beds, we used newspaper, cardboard, dirt, chicken poop (my son’s favorite part) and garden soil the first year. I preserve it over winter with cardboard and mulch, then add fresh soil and fertilizer about two weeks before planting.”
Raised beds are a great alternative to digging up the yard, and allow precise soil control. If space is an issue, container gardens are another option for smaller plants such as bush cucumbers and tomatoes (use potting mix, not garden soil). “Anything can be grown in a pot, as long as it doesn’t get too large,” says Engel. Hanging systems work well for herbs such as parsley, rosemary and oregano.
Plan a well-rounded garden: Host cold-tolerant choices in the spring; summer plants for warmer soil and longer days of sunshine; and cooler crops can reign again in the autumn. Spread out the yield with plant varieties that have different harvest times. Go wild! Embrace your inner horticulturist, and your family can enjoy homegrown produce from spring through fall. BC