February 27, 2023
By Gardener Grandpa
This is the second installment in a series of informational articles for local gardeners. My wife and I were both raised on small farms in Ohio.
Our families grew large vegetable gardens, so we have been gardening our whole lives. After graduating from Pickerington High School, I attended Ohio State University where I earned a BS degree in agriculture.
Our gardening philosophy can be best described as traditional organic methods combined with scientific agriculture. We plant what we like to eat. We are not growing a show garden, so you will see some weeds. We hope that you find this series useful. Please add your comments and feedback to make this series a community effort!
Because of the unusually mild weather, the trees have taken on that slight tint that indicates that the buds have begun to swell. The crocuses and daffodils are blooming, the grass is turning green and displays of garden seeds are gracing department store aisles. March has arrived and spring is just around the corner.
If you have never tried your luck at gardening, this is the perfect time to get started. In this installment of the Garden Notebook, we will discuss selecting a spot for your garden and growing your own bedding plants.
Selecting a garden location
If you are new to gardening, you must first consider selecting a spot for your garden. Depending on where you live you may not have many options. If space is limited, consider container gardening or raised bed gardening. Containers can be located on a deck or porch. If you want to try container gardening, the University of Illinois Extension has a great webpage to help you get started.
If you have a little more space, look for a location that is well drained and receives plenty of sun.
Dig a few test holes to determine if the area has a good layer of topsoil. Some backyards have virtually no topsoil due to poor home construction practices and erosion. If you cannot find a location on your lot where the layer is thick, consider raised bed gardening.
You can treat each raised bed like a giant planter box and fill it with your own topsoil mix. If you are interested in learning more about raised bed gardening, the University of Missouri Extension Service website is a good resource. The site compares different styles of raised beds and provides instructions on how to build your own.
After topsoil, the next two things to consider are sunlight and water management. Most garden crops need full sunlight, so the best location is a spot that is not shaded at any time. If that is not an option, find a spot that is sunny for most of the day. Our garden gets some shade early in the morning but is in full sun until late in the evening when part is shaded by our neighbors’ tree.
The other important factor is water management. Your garden needs to be well drained because standing water will kill your crops. Our garden has a small amount of slope, so drainage is not as much of a problem as managing the runoff to prevent erosion. We do that by mulching with lots of grass clippings and by tilling the soil to create a rough surface.
If your garden has any nearby trees, they will remove the water from the soil causing problems for your plants. The roots of a tree can spread horizontally further than the branches.
Last summer, we dug a hole to replace a water hookup about fifty feet from the silver maple in our side yard. When we were digging the ditch for the hookup, we cut through roots the size of my arm. Keep your vegetable garden as far from the trees as possible.
Growing Bedding Plants
If you have not already done so, now is the time to start your bedding plants. Our cabbage and onion plants are up, and we will start our tomato and pepper plants by mid-March.
We use a large plastic box as a germination chamber. A heating pad placed under or on top of the box provides enough heat to maintain a temperature of 80 degrees inside. The lid prevents the soil in the seed flats from drying out. We germinate the cabbage, tomato and pepper plants in newspaper pots inside plastic containers that fit inside the germination chamber.
We put a thin layer of sand into the bottom of the containers for the pots before adding the newspaper pots. The sand provides drainage and prevents the newspaper pots from sticking to the bottom of the flats. Follow this YouTube video to learn how to make the three-inch, bio-degradable square pots from old newspapers.
We place one or two seeds in each newspaper pot so that they will not need to be transplanted. We germinate marigolds in seed flats and then transplant them into the newspaper pots.
As soon as the seeds are germinated, we remove the flats containing the pots from the germination chamber to prevent fungal growth which would cause the seedlings to die. On sunny days, we place the seedling trays on our deck where they get a few hours of sun that dries the soil surface which further helps to prevent fungal growth.
As soon as the bedding plants germinate, they need plenty of light or they will become tall and spindly which weakens them. After a week or so, we remove all but one plant from each pot then we transfer the pots into a cold frame located on the southern side of our house. By putting the seed flats on the deck for a few hours every day, we gradually strengthen the plants before putting them into the cold frame.
We close the cold frame at night. It contains a light strip which provides a small amount of heat on cold nights. If a nighttime freeze is predicted, we place a tarp over the cold frame for added insulation. We also put the sensor for a wireless indoor-outdoor thermometer inside that enables us to check on the temperature from inside our house.
Our cold frame is made from recycled bricks that we had after tearing out an old chimney. If you want ideas for building your own cold frame, just do an Internet search. One of our neighbors makes his cold frame each year by using six bales of straw to form a rectangle then covering the top with old windows.
What to Plant Now
As soon as our garden dries out enough, we will do our spring tilling and then we will plant onion sets, cabbage plants and sugar snap peas. Those usually go into the ground around the second week of March. From the middle of March until early April is also the time to set fruit trees, shrubs and strawberry plants. It is also the time to plant asparagus.
Be sure to check with your local cooperative extension service for their recommendations about planting times. The Ohio State Fairfield County Extension includes and ‘Ask an Expert” feature on its website.
When you till your garden, the soil needs to be dry enough so that the clumps of soil crumble apart when you squeeze them. If they are sticky, then the soil is too wet to work. Avoid overworking the soil. Remember that you want an array of different sized soil aggregates to provide the pore space that permits good air and water movement through the soil. If you work the soil into a powder, the first hard rain will carry the fine clay particles into the pore space and block them up forming a hard crust that germinating seeds may be unable to break through.
If you are new to gardening, be sure that the advice that you receive comes from reliable sources. I especially recommend websites and YouTube videos sponsored by the cooperative extension services and their Master Gardeners.