Get Your Garden On

Garden beginnings by Beth GibsonGardening season is gearing up in our community gardens! Although technically we have only just recently breached our first “frost-free” date in Missoula – generally May 21, the time when it is considered safe to transplant warm-weather crops such as tomatoes and peppers into the ground – it has felt pretty “frost-free” for several weeks now. Many sprouting seeds and flourishing transplants are showing up in garden plots all over town. As I walk around the gardens I love to check out the variety of crops being planted and all the different ways gardeners design their plots.
This is my third season tending my own garden in my backyard, and it really wasn’t all that long ago that I potted my first plant (broccoli) on my balcony in Baltimore. I still feel myself clamming up at the beginning of a gardening season and thinking to myself – “Where on earth do I start?!” Even though I’ve been at it for a few years now, starting my garden still isn’t second nature to me.

For all of you new community gardeners out there, or semi-seasoned ones like myself, here are a few tips that have helped me get over that initial intimidation factor. I hope they can help you as well!

Brush up on gardening info. Every season I warm up my gardening brain by re-reading a few sections of some gardening books and looking up information online about how to get your garden started. This year, I attended the garden planning workshop taught by Ingrid, a leadership committee member and garden mentor at the Northside community garden.  Listening to Ingrid’s tips about garden planning was very helpful and the workshop helped me find my garden game again. These annual refreshers are a fun way to ease into the season, give me more confidence to start the planning process, and even spark some new ideas each year.

Take it slow. Gardening is a life-long adventure where you continue to learn something new every year. The amount of information that is available about gardening can be extremely overwhelming. I found it best to concentrate on understanding the basic essentials first, then learning something new each season. For example, learning where and how to plant seeds and transplants and how often to water are pretty essential. From there, a lot of other information you read will start to make some more sense. Once I got that part down, I began to understand plant spacing a little more, and now I’m focusing on learning about soil nutrients and how to build my soil.

Make some easy decisions first. It’s easy to think about what types of veggies you like to eat – so why not start there when planning your garden? Determine which crops to grow by making a list of what you and your family enjoy eating (and that can be grown in a garden plot in Montana, of course).

Some other things to consider are: how much space a crop takes up and how much it will produce (this information is usually available on the seed packet, a seed catalog, or online. Missoula County Extension is a great resource). Ingrid also suggests trying something new each year – so if you’ve never eaten a homegrown tomato or tried kale, give a go in the garden this year.

Once you’ve decided what you want to grow, you can determine the layout of your plot. Ingrid shared three basic planting options for a community garden plot: Single Rows, which will create many paths and work well for crops such as tomatoes, green beans, and peas; Wide Rows, as wide as three feet, which work well for salad greens, root crops, and herbs; or Blocks (three to four feet each) that can be reached from all sides. Block beds would work well for crops such as peppers, eggplant, bush beans, and bush squash.

Next, decide what to put where. Then all that is really left is to plant and water, and voilà – you’ve gotten over the initial hump!

Talk to fellow gardeners. One of the best things about a community garden is the community! Take advantage of being surrounded by so many gardeners and ask your garden neighbor, a leadership committee member, or a garden mentor those questions you haven’t quite figured out yet (leadership committee and garden mentor information is located in your garden’s tool shed). I’ve already learned a number of helpful gardening tips from various community gardeners.

Perhaps most importantly – don’t take it too seriously. Gardening should be fun and relaxing, so don’t put too much pressure on yourself to get things “right” the first time, or even the second or third time. One of my favorite things about gardening is that there is no one “right” way to garden, so you can be creative and take your time to figure out what works best for you. For example, at the workshop Ingrid revealed her brother’s secret gardening method when they were younger. He would spread a bunch of seeds in the ground, and then water them in by peeing on them. Now, neither Ingrid nor I are condoning public urination in any of the community garden plots, but you can see that there are a variety of ways in which plants will grow! Have fun with yours (just not too much fun…)

I look forward to seeing how everyone gets their garden on this season! Please do tell me how it goes right here, in the comments.