By Brooke Geery
The old idiom about waiting until after Memorial Day to plant a garden here in Vermont, doesn’t have to apply if you start your garden indoors!
In this uncertain world, there has never been a better time to get your hands dirty and plant a vegetable garden. Even minimal success will provide you with some joy (and additional food security) over the coming summer, and homegrown veggies just taste better. In addition to the obvious benefit of edibles, gardening is a great activity for your mental and physical health. It gets you outside and in touch with the natural world in a way you may otherwise miss.
All you really need to garden is some soil, water and a sunny spot. Don’t have a yard? No problem! Vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers and even potatoes can be grown with great success in pots. In this region, it is still too early to plant most things in the ground. However, it’s not too soon to get started and set yourself up for success.
Starting seeds indoors.
Certain vegetables have a long maturity cycle, so to fully take advantage of Vermont’s summer months, it’s important to get them started now. This includes things such as tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and squash. You will need a light source— seedlings require 16-18 hours of light to properly germinate and grow. This can be accomplished using official grow lights or any full-spectrum bulb, even the one in your fishtank! Use a nutrient-rich potting mixture and small pots to start. You’ll want to establish a decent root system before moving things to the ground in a month or two (depending on your location). Another option is to purchase starters from a nursery, although this can quickly get expensive.
Preparing your soil
Again, you will want to wait to plant things until the ground has warmed up some. However, it is not too early to till the soil and add fertilizers to get it ready. Step one is to clear the area. If there hasn’t been a garden before, clearing involves digging out all the grass and “native” plants (weeds). You can hire someone to come and till the garden and get deliveries of top soil. For a small area, a spade will work and you can buy bags of garden soil and compost at the local garden supply store. Before tilling, pick up any brush, twigs, branches, rocks, or other debris and get them all out of the way.
For a garden that’s been established, it’s just clearing, turning the soil and raking, then add soil amendments or plant foods. If you live near a farm (especially a horse farm), you may be able to get a a load of manure, but it should be dried for at least a year. Otherwise, just add bags of manure (Moo Doo is a great local brand from Middlebury). Use all purpose organic fertilizer according to planting directions.
Things you can plant directly in the ground
Many plants do not like to be transplanted, or sprout and mature quickly, so starting them indoors is unnecessary. This includes peas, lettuce, radishes and other root vegetables. Radishes are a personal favorite of mine as they can handle colder temperatures and mature quickly— time from planting to harvest can be under a month. You can use the bitter greens in salads or as a quick cooked side, and the peppery radishes are a great addition to salads or even guacamole!
When you can plant really depends on the location of the garden, drainage and exposure to the sun. Plan on mid-April for colder-season plants, and you can plant earlier if you’re using plastic coverings (I have lettuce coming up, peas, carrots and beets planted). You can also plant onions, potatoes and cabbage out in the beginning to middle of May if the days are sunny. For tomatoes, squash, and other heat-loving plants, wait until the end of May. If you’re in a cold location, such as Killington, you should probably wait until the first week in June.
Gardening is as much as art as a science, so don’t blame yourself entirely for lack of success. Trial and error is a great method, and over time, you’ll learn what likes it where and what you have the most luck with! Happy gardening.