It's Planting Time!

There are always so many decisions to make when planting your garden no matter whether it’s an in-ground garden, pots-on-the-deck, or window boxes.

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The first question we usually ask ourselves is, “What should I plant?” This is mostly based on what we like to eat or at least hope to want to eat! However, there are other important questions to contemplate in order for your garden to grow, be nutritious, and bountiful. Here is some food for thought:

1.       How is the soil?

The condition of your soil or its health, along with water and sunlight, might be the most important factor in your garden’s vigor. Healthy soil is filled with bacteria and microbes (just like your intestinal tract) which are necessary for plants to grow. These microbes come from bugs and worms which eat organic matter in the soil then move through the earth adding nutrients as the matter passes through them. The waste matter from worms and other insects acts like natural vitamin supplements, supplying a steady stream of nutrition to the earth. Just like your body, plants need nutrients to grow and ensuring your soil is healthy and rich is one way to set yourself up for success. An added benefit to healthy soils is the it keeps carbon out of the atmosphere, allowing you to do your small part in preventing climate change!

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2.       How do I know if my soil is good?

For a nominal fee, you can send a soil sample to your local cooperative extension office or to a nearby university with an agricultural department. This analysis will tell you if there are toxic levels of lead or other chemicals in the soil, as well as what nutrients the soil is lacking. This is especially important if you live in the city where lead paint, when it was legal, was used and sometimes seeps unknowingly into the ground.

A soil sample will also tell you how much humus or organic matter is in the soil. Soil humus is like fiber in your intestinal tract, it helps absorb water and breeds good prebiotic bacteria. Plants, like people, have intestinal tracts too, and they need bacteria from the soil to thrive. This bacteria helps plants produce phytochemicals which are the colorful pigments and odors that are protective to the plant and healthy for us when we ingest them.

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3.       How can I increase the humus in my soil?

Add organic matter like compost from food, decayed leaves, or ground up twigs. Many cities now have companies where you can buy compost, or start composting your own waste. Since it takes time for compost to brew, you can always purchase organic garden humus from your local garden store in the meantime. Should you have a horse farm nearby, aged horse manure can be added to increase the humus in the soil.

 4.       To till or not to till?

Humus usually resides in the upper most layers of the soil. Some experts say not to till the soil because the humus layer is disturbed, upsetting the bacteria and microbes. If you are starting with a new plot, I recommend tilling the soil and turning under all weeds and dead debris. Let it set for a few weeks, then plant. Tilling the winter crop into the soil and letting breakdown naturally adds nitrogen to the soil, improving its health.

Pro tip!

If you hate spending a lot of time weeding and you have a plot that has been previously planted, cover the soil with a good breathable ground cover cloth or with newspaper (not colored); it won’t last more than one season, although it will add humus to the soil as it decomposes.

Cut holes where you want to place the plants. In each hole, mix a small handful of organic garden soil which you can purchase from a local farm or nursery,  a handful of worm castings (worm poop, yes they sell this!), and an organic fertilizer like Espoma Organic Fertilizer or Humboldt Nutrients.  Cover the paper or cloth with straw (don’t use hay as it has seeds that will sprout) so the sunlight that gets through does not encourage growth underneath. Plant seeds or seedlings, add water, and watch the garden grow!

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This is the first post of our Summer Garden Series! Get ready for upcoming blogs on How to Compost, Avoiding Pesticides, and Companion Planting.

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Judy Caplan is a nutritionist by day (founder of Go Be Full: Good Nutrition in a Nutshell) and co-founder of Field & Gown. With an excellent eye for style, her favorite hobbies include scouring antique stores and 'dumpster diving' for cast-away furniture and other odd-and-ends discarded to the side of the road. Field & Gown is a sustainable event decor and home goods company based in the Washington DC area.

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