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Thinking of growing your own produce now that spring is just around the corner? Here’s everything a first-time farmer needs to know.
Q: I’d like to start an organic vegetable garden. Is it too late to plant? I’m a beginner, so what would be the best (as in easiest) plants to grow? The garden is about 12 feet square and gets about 8 hours of sun a day. — Anne T., Croton-on-Hudson
A: It’s late to start seeds, and it will soon be too warm for plants like lettuce and peas, which prefer cooler weather to thrive, but you’re still in time for other vegetables. “Soil prep is very important,” says Al Krautter, former owner of Sprainbrook Nursery in Scarsdale, so enriching your soil is step one. As it happens, Krautter has published a book entitled 12 Steps to Natural Gardening, in which he elaborates on that subject and the other 11 steps. (It’s $24.95 at the nursery.) His recipe for enriching a new bed can be found at the nursery website.
Once your soil’s ready, Krautter suggests you choose decent-sized, sturdy starter plants — obviously things you enjoy eating. Almost foolproof tomatoes include Better Boy, Early Girl and the cherry variety, Sweet 100s, which are such prolific producers you’ll feel like an expert right away. I’d suggest the orange cherry called Sungold, if you can find them. They’re so sweet it’s hard to make it into the house from the vegetable garden without eating them all en route. San Marzanos are a favorite for sauce.
Most tomatoes need to be staked or supported in cages. “People like patio tomatoes because they stay shorter,” Krautter adds. “And everyone wants a couple of pepper plants. Squash is fairly easy, and so are cucumbers; you just need a place to let them hang over.” Cucumbers will climb — they have tendrils — so some gardeners (including moi) grow them up the garden fence. If you don’t have a fence, just drive a post into each end of the planned cucumber row and attach a length of deer fencing or chicken wire for your cucumbers to cling to. The plants take up less room if they’re not sprawling, and the cucumbers will be straight and more uniformly green. Kale, although it prefers cool weather, will survive the summer. Look for the Tuscan kind, which is best for kale salad.
Read More: Get Your Garden Ready for Spring
“Herbs are easy,” Krautter says, noting that rosemary, thyme and basil are most popular. There’s still time to plant snap or bush beans. I love Rolande, the long, skinny haricot verts type. Plant rows a couple of weeks apart, so you don’t get the entire crop at once.
Most plants need about an inch of water a week — a deep soaking that encourages roots to head downward is better than a little water every day. Krautter suggests you use drip irrigation, which you can put on a timer, but you need to organize that before planting. If you don’t have time this year, remember his other advice: “Water at the base of the plant rather than from overhead — no sprinkler.” It’s more efficient, and helps prevent diseases. Add organic mulch (straw is fine) to conserve moisture and keep weeds out.
Krautter is a fan of Daniel’s plant food. “It’s full of micronutrients,” he says. “The more organic material you put in, the greater the nutrient value of your vegetables.” Bugs, if you get an infestation, can be dispatched with his favorite control, Captain Jack’s Dead Bug, which contains Spinosad, a compound based on a bacteria discovered in the soil at an abandoned rum distillery in the Caribbean. Exotic as that sounds, it kills every insect that comes into contact with it, including bees and other beneficial ones. Think twice about using any insecticide, if you want to be earth friendly and truly organic.