Gardening 101: how many plants?
Last week we looked briefly at where to locate your garden and how much space you'll need. This week we'll figure out how many plants you'll need of each kind. It is important to do this exercise when you start gardening. For my first garden I never did this and I planted seeds for okra plants. About 40 okra plants came up and I planted the lot, taking up more than a quarter of the garden. I got about a half million okra pods and at the time, I'd never made a gumbo! Of course, I got a lot of practice with all the pods and we had gumbo so many times that I've never planted them again.
If you make a lot of summer salads, you'll probably want to plant tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, peppers and maybe other greens. Unfortunately, nature arranged it that tomatoes only set fruit when nighttime temps are over 55 degrees, and lettuce grows best when temps are under 55 degrees. So you'll need to vary what you put in your salad as the season progresses.
Here's how I do it to get enough vegetables to feed a family of four. As early as possible in spring, I plant an entire packet of sugar snap peas, a packet of arugula, a packet of lettuce, and an entire packet of mixed greens. I also plant about half a packet of beets, turnips, and a packet of pak choy or other Chinese greens.
Frankly, I start my seeds under lights and move them to the greenhouse by mid-March to get an early crop and plant again outdoors in mid- to late-April to get two crops. Most beginning gardeners will only be able to plant outdoors. That doesn't mean that you can't start greens indoors under a shop light and transplant them outdoors to get an early crop.
If you want to start greens indoors, they are fast growing, therefore, you shouldn't plant them until about two weeks before you want to plant them out. That means planting indoors in mid- April and planting out in early May. The earliest you will be able to harvest greens is about mid to late May, far sooner than you'll get any tomatoes. But you will be able to have a nice green salad with the addition of a few herbs, some nuts, turnip and beet tops.
At 10-day to two-week intervals, plant a few more seeds (up to 10 or 12 seeds of each variety) of the greens to keep lettuce, spinach, arugula, and other greens coming into summer. As temperatures get hotter, you'll find that the harvesting window grows smaller and eventually ends up at one or two days before the plants bolt (get elongated and go to seed) and turn bitter.
By mid-May it's time to plant tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants outdoors. To get larger plants you can start them indoors six to eight weeks before planting outdoors and move them outdoors as soon as weather permits. They'll all take until mid-July or early August to give you harvestable fruits. Protect them from late frosts with "Walls-O-Water," or two panes of glass arranged as an A-frame over the plants. I use special clips to hold the glass, but a piece of wood with two slots cut in an inverted V for the top of the glass will do the same job.
If you want to grow other vegetables, you can either start them from seed, indoors, directly in the garden or you can simply buy plants at your local garden center. I like to start my own plants from seed to get a greater variety than most garden stores stock. In a future piece we'll look at starting from seed.
The only plants that should be directly seeded are root crops such as carrots and parsnips. For a beginning gardener, beets should also be sown from seed, as they do not like to be transplanted. More experienced gardeners may start beets in larger containers and do not disturb the roots when they transplant. If you like beets, you are unlikely to need more than one entire packet to start with and you can replant later in spring or summer.
Keep in mind that you may only see about half your outside planted seeds turn into plants. Mice, birds, or a late freeze can all take their toll. One year, a flock of birds descended on my garden and ripped just about every plantlet out of the ground. You can help to prevent animal depredations by placing a sheet of spun fleece over your growing beds. The commercial name for this spun fleece is Reemay.
So, how do you lay out your garden? I like to sow a packet of carrots next to the lettuce, that puts one plant growing upwards, another growing downwards and as you harvest the lettuce, the carrots get more space to grow. Plant a packet of spinach next to your beets. Harvest spinach and beet greens leaving some beet plants to mature. You'll only need a few parsnips, so sow about a dozen seeds. Sow a row of cabbages, spacing seeds about six inches apart. You can always move cabbages as they grow larger. Similarly, plant other brassicas - broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, kale and chard close and thin them out as the plants grow larger. Use the young plants for salads or side dishes.
There's a lot of other plants you can grow, all you need do is figure out how many you'd like, the varieties you'd like and grow them. Of course, you'll need to water them occasionally, too.