Kitchen Garden Series: Planting

August 3rd, 2009


kitchen gardening 2nd in seriesSummertime’and the sowin’s easy. In the first installment of our series, we looked at the perfect seeds for summer planting. Now, it’s time to crack open those seed packets of greens, beets, radishes and turnips and get to work! These so-called “cool weather” crops actually germinate faster in warm soil. They grow more quickly in summer, too. Start this Monday, and you could be harvesting the ingredients you need for those end-of-summer salads and slaws!

Seeds sown directly in the ground now won’t need a lot of coddling; just tuck them into a bed of nutrient-rich, fluffy soil, keep ’em moist, and they’ll sprout in no time. Whether your kitchen garden is as big as your whole backyard – or roof! – or simply a window box on a sill, the recipe for success is the same: great soil and sufficient water.

Plants, like all living things, need air, water and nutrients to thrive. If you sow your seeds in heavy clay soil, they may germinate, but once they’ve sprouted, a heavy rain could leave them waterlogged, their tiny roots gasping for air. We turn blue in the face when we can’t breathe; oxygen-deprived seedlings turn yellow as they suffocate.

If your soil’s too sandy, on the other hand, it may drain too quickly and leave your little sprouts dry and droopy. Wilted stems and crispy, brown leaves are a sure sign that your seedlings have suffered a setback; you might be able to revive them with a good soaking, but why not keep your plants from getting too dry – or too soggy – in the first place, by fine tuning your soil before you start sowing?

Growing vegetables in containers lets you plant your seeds in the perfect lightweight potting soil, so that they’ll hit the ground running once they sprout. But if you’re planting right in the ground and you’ve got not-so-hot soil – too rocky, too clay-ey, too sandy, whatever – the best way to improve it is to add lots of organic matter.

Compost is your best bet, but there are other soil amendments that can help lighten your soil or make it more moisture retentive; a nifty little guide like Stu Campbell’s Improving Your Soil will help you diagnose whatever’s ailing your dirt and offers earth-friendly solutions.

Once you’ve prepped your soil, you’re ready to plant your seeds. As a general rule, small seeds need to be fairly close to the surface, say, about 1/4″ deep.

When it comes to spacing, resist the temptation to sow too thickly unless you are willing to sacrifice the surplus seedlings when most of your seeds germinate. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself with a bumper crop of spindly sprouts competing for your vegetable bed’s finite resources. Thin ruthlessly, and you’ll be rewarded with stocky, sturdy seedlings.

But do keep in mind that the spacing suggestions on seed packets are only a loose guideline. If you’re planning to harvest baby greens and root veggies, you can afford to sow your seeds a bit more closely.

Lastly, once you’ve got your seeds in the ground, it’s crucial to keep the soil evenly moist until they germinate. Seeds that are allowed to dry out may never sprout. Keep your seeds well-watered and your newly enhanced soil will start sending up shoots soon.

Next time, we’ll talk about how to coax those shoots into vigorous seedlings, and what you can do to protect your fledgling veggies from the various critters and crises that sometimes come with the territory. Your kitchen garden’s a great way to reconnect with Mother Natureand to be gently reminded who’s really in charge.

Kerry Trueman is an edible landscaping advocate who writes about real food, low-impact living and sustainable agriculture for the Huffington Post, AlterNet, the Green Fork, Air America, and EatingLiberally.org. Her latest project is Retrovore.com, a website for farmers, gardeners and eaters who favor conservation over consumption.