Kitchen Garden - Plant Selection

In the first installment of this series on kitchen gardens, I suggested several things to consider before you start the actual work, such as your garden's climate, your budget and available time.

In this article I'll share tips on getting your soil right, how to make irrigation easy, how to choose the right plants and protecting your harvest from wildlife.

SOIL
One of the key elements to successful gardening of any kind is good soil. If you don't get the soil right, gardening will be a constant struggle with less than rewarding results. Most vegetable plants are rapid growers and heavy feeders so they need rich soil.

Most people are not going to have ideal soil already in place and this is where framed beds come in handy. You will recall from last week's article that a framed bed is a bottomless box that you place on top of the ground and then add your own soil mix.

Here is the recipe I use to create the perfect growing medium in my framed beds.
Framed Bed Soil Recipe - Blend together the following ingredients in these ratios:

  • 50% garden soil
  • 25% well-rotted manure
  • 25% compost or humus.

Fill the framed beds with this soil mixture to about 2 inches from the top of the bed, just enough room so you can tuck your plants in and add a layer of mulch. You can order soil, manure, and compost to be delivered by the cubic yard or for smaller beds you can use bagged material. One cubic yard covers about 100 square feet 3" deep. My raised beds are 4 feet by 4 feet or 16 square feet and 12" deep, so I used a little over 1/2 a cubic yard of soil for each bed.

PRIMARY NUTRIENTS
Good garden soil contains a healthy amount of nutrients and trace elements that help your plants grow. Now I don't want to oversimplify this, but generally the amount of food you give a plant depends on, among other things, it's age and the type of soil you have. Plants need large quantities of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Those are the 3 elements listed on the back of fertilizer bags, represented by 3 numbers. These 3 numbers tell you the percentage of each nutrient in the fertilizer. For example, a typical bag of all-purpose fertilizer will show a ratio of 15-15-15, 15% nitrogen, 15% phosphorous and 15% potassium.

The first number is nitrogen and it helps plants produce vigorous growth and lots of leafy foliage. Nitrogen is ideal for spinach, but not tomatoes, because your plants would produce an abundance of leaves and not much fruit.

The middle number is phosphorus, and that element is important in the production of blooms and fruit.

The last number is potassium. This is good for strong root and stem development and disease resistance.

WATER
Like people, plants are primarily made up of water. Water transports nutrients throughout the plant and plays an important role in photosynthesis and keeping the plant cool. On average, vegetable plants need about 1/2" to 1" of water per week. Moisture should be distributed evenly throughout the bed on a consistent basis.
Soaker Hoses
To accomplish this, I have found that soaker hoses provide the best results for the least amount of money.

Just snake the hoses about 18 to 20 inches apart through the bed. When you attach the hose to the water faucet and turn it on, the water "weeps" from the porous sides of the hose. This keeps the soil moist, and the water directed toward the plant's roots. An easy way to secure the hoses into place is use U-shaped pins made from wire coat hangers.

New soaker hoses can be hard to straighten out, making them unwieldy and difficult to control. Before you try to place them in your beds, stretch them out in the sun. The heat from the sun will soften them and make them easier to work with.

Additional Equipment
I also suggest that you get a timer for your watering system. This way you will not have to remember to turn the water on and off. Set your timer to water early in the morning. This allows plants to absorb moisture before the day heats up and cuts down on fungus problems.

If your region experiences frequent or intermittent rain it is also good to have a rain gauge on hand to help you determine if your garden needs supplemental moisture. Over watering can be just as damaging as under watering.

Mulch
To retain moisture and even soil temperature, apply a layer of mulch. It is best to do this after the ground warms in the spring. Otherwise your garden soil will be slow to heat up and many warm season vegetables will falter in cold soil.

Ground or shredded bark is a good choice of mulching material because it breaks down nicely in the soil. It can be purchased in bags at garden centers. It is a good idea to allow the bark to age for a time before applying it. A 2" to 3" layer is sufficient. Keep the mulch away from the plant's stem to prevent rotting.

If available, wheat straw is another possibility because it is relatively free of weed seeds. It works especially well as a path material because it is slow to decay. Check for bales at farmer's co-ops. Straw should be applied in a thin, even layer and checked frequently for snails and slugs because they like it, too.

CHOOSING THE RIGHT PLANTS FOR YOU
If you have ever browsed through a seed catalog then you know that there is a vast array of vegetables available for planting. There are so many varieties to choose from that it is hard to decide what to select. Fortunately there are a few guidelines you can follow to help narrow the field.
Growing Season
First, determine the growing season that the plant prefers. Vegetable crops can be divided into 2 basic categories - cool season and warm season. What this means is that some plants thrive in the cool temperatures of spring or fall and can survive light frosts, while others should be grown during the warm days of summer.

Now, cool season versus warm season is the broadest label you can apply to vegetables. These two categories can be further classified according to a myriad of other plant characteristics such as frost tolerance, days to maturity and whether it is an annual or a perennial. So after you determine the general growing season and look through the vegetables available for that season, select those that appeal to you and learn as much as you can about your choices.

Short Growing Season?
Here are a few tips that will help you grow warm season favorites, such as tomatoes, in cool northern climates.

Get a head start by selecting large sized plants rather than sowing seeds.

Grow vegetables in containers on casters so they can easily be moved indoors in case of late spring or early fall frost.

Select plant varieties with early maturity dates, such as 'Early Girl' tomatoes, which mature in 52 days.

Frost Dates and Maturity Dates
Knowing your region's estimated first and last frost dates will help you determine the length of your growing season. Once you have these dates worked out you can check the maturity dates of the plants you have selected to help you decide when they should be planted. Maturity dates indicate the estimated amount of days required until harvest. You will find maturity dates on seed packets and plant tags. It is the number between the parentheses.

Of course, maturity dates are not set in stone. They are just estimates. You also have to factor in your garden's individual growing conditions.

Space
You should consider the size of your kitchen garden when you are selecting plants. Certain vegetables, such as corn, melons and potatoes, require more space than others. However, there are varieties available that are tailored especially for small spaces. Look for terms such baby, dwarf and patio.

And don't forget vertical space! You can grow many vining plants on trellises and teepees to maximize space.

Hybrids
Hybrid vegetables are varieties that have been created by cross-pollination with the help of plant breeders rather than natural open pollination. Many people lean toward hybrids, but open pollinated plants can be just as rewarding. One of the perks of open pollinated vegetables is that their seeds will produce plants that are identical to the parents, whereas seeds from a hybrid plant will not reproduce true. I suggest that you experiment to discover what works best for you.

On many plant tags or seed packets you will see that the variety is an F1 hybrid. What this means is that it is a first generation hybrid and should be vigorous grower with good yields.

Heirlooms
Heirloom plants are varieties that have been handed down generation to generation. They are open pollinated and were developed before 1940. I like heirloom plants because it is fun to grow the same varieties that my ancestors, or even Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, planted. Plus, most heirloom plants have persisted through the years because they are high quality.

All American Selections
When you see a red, white, and blue shield on a seed packet or plant tag, it signifies that the variety is an All American Selection award winner. This means that it has been tested in trial gardens and found to be an outstanding performer for home gardens. AAS awards are given to vegetables, flowers, and bedding plants. You can find AAS award winning varieties that were introduced has far back as 1933.

AAS varieties are a good choice because they are likely to be successful in a wide range of conditions.

WILDLIFE CONTROL
One of the heartbreaks of vegetable gardening is discovering that all your hard work has been looted by the local wildlife.

For moderate problems you can hang area repellents such as bars of soap or bags of hair, but they are only temporary solutions. Once an animal realizes that such an object is not going to do it any harm, the repellent becomes ineffective. It is best to avoid commercial repellents that are sprayed on plants because the chemicals in them may be toxic. You can find non-toxic sprays based on hot pepper, citrus and oil of mustard. Vinegar may also work as well. Spray repellents must be reapplied every 7 to 10 days or after a rain.

An alternative to repellents is behavior modification. Simple electric fencing works well if you do not have children or pets. Another approach is to set up a motion activated sprinkler. The animals get shot with a dose of water when they enter your garden.

Now, if your kitchen garden is repeatedly invaded by foraging animals the best solution is to enclose it with a fence.

For deer, the fence needs to be at least 8' tall and constructed of a heavy gauge wire. They will push right through chicken wire. I also suggest planting a hedge of deer resistant shrubs about 4' away from the outside of the fence. Deer are excellent vertical jumpers, but they cannot cover much ground in a single jump, so the hedge will prevent them from leaping over the fence.

A shorter fence can be used if the wildlife is smaller, such as rabbits. Just be sure to select a material that they cannot slip through. To keep out burrowing animals, bury the fence into the ground about 2' below the surface.

I hope that I have given you enough information to get you started on your kitchen garden. It really all boils down to a few simple ideas - get to know your site, plant in good soil, be consistent about watering and learn as much as you can about the plants you want to grow.

For further reading I recommend that you purchase a copy of The Gardener's Table by Richard Merrill and Joe Ortiz. The information shared by these authors will take you from the garden to the kitchen with helpful guidelines and delicious recipes.

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