The first year I decided to grow food, I made the same mistakes that so many new gardeners do. When I walked into the nursery, I was like a kid in a candy store. Every plant interested me and I started to pile them onto the cart.
I also had sticker shock because in the low desert, many of our plants do best from transplants instead of seeds.
When I got home, I realized I didn’t have enough room for everything. What did this new gardener do? I planted everything I could too close and wherever I could fit it in. Others wasted away in the sun with no place to call home.
I want to help you avoid my mistakes.
PLAN WHAT YOU PLANT
So many people ask me, “What should I plant?” I tell them to plant what you will eat or want to share. Then add only one or two new things to the list that would be fun to grow or would be a new food you would like to try.
Another consideration is what will grow in the season. We are in the cool season planting time, so roots and greens grow best. Also broccoli and cauliflower are great. I am attaching the Maricopa County Master Gardener Planting Guide and the Agriscape Planting Calendar created by Justin Rohner, owner of agriscaping.com.
Consider how much you will eat. Don’t over-plant unless you intend to preserve the harvest. I grow quite a bit more than I will use because I love to share with friends and family. I also preserve some of the produce. I freeze broccoli and cure onions, garlic, and shallots. If you want to do that also, consider it in your plans. Harvest to Table prepared an article that will tell you estimate how much you need to plant per person.
If this is your first year, start with just a few kinds of vegetables and learn to grow those well. If you plant too many varieties, you won’t be able to focus on improving your results for the coming year. Choose a few, read about them, talk to other gardeners, and make notes to help you next year. You may also want to take one of my gardening classes! Sorry, I had to get that plug in there.
KNOW HOW MUCH SPACE YOU HAVE
Next, measure out your growing space then plan how much space you need for each plant. New transplants look sparse when planted but a small 2-3 inch broccoli transplant will grow to be about 2 feet wide. If you don’t leave enough space, it could kill the plant or cause disease because of lack of air movement and root space. Gardening KnowHow provides an excellent Plant Spacing Chart.
Also, consider what plants help one another and what should not be planted together. It’s good to companion plant because it reduces damaging pests and diseases and can invite beneficial pests and pollinators. For example, onions grow well with most other vegetables but are a real problem with beans and peas. I intersperse onions among many of my raised beds in the cool season because they deter pests. Pay attention to plant-to-harvest days. Bulb onions are slow growers and you will still be harvesting when you are planting your warm season garden, so plan your placement with that in mind. If you don’t want to be concerned about the balancing act, plant green onions instead. I have attached a Companion Planting Guide.
When selecting your space or building your raised beds, start small at first and consider your water source availability. Also, know your limits on time that you can spend on your garden. Most root vegetables are low-maintenance. Plant them in a good soil and compost mix, water and watch them grow. You have to baby your lettuce a bit because it can be fragile, although the rewards are amazing! I love to step outside and pick lettuce then have it in a salad within 30 minutes.
STICK TO YOUR BUDGET
The average six pack (of transplants!) will cost about $3 and a 4-inch pot per plant will be $2-$4. A typical raised bed (4’x8’) will take 8 broccoli plants comfortably, so it will cost you about $24-$32 for 8 transplants. You can plant fast-growing radishes in between them because the radishes will mature long before the broccoli is so large it takes over. (Broccoli averages about 100 days to maturity and radishes are about 50 days).
When you buy a plant, examine it carefully. Look out for bugs, spotted leaves, leggy stalks, and plants too big for their pots. The biggest plants are not always the best. Usually a full and somewhat stocky plant is the healthiest. Also, ask your nursery where the plants were propagated. If they can’t answer that, don’t buy. You want plants that have come from a similar climate as ours. If you want organic, make sure you are buying certified organic plants. Otherwise you may be starting that “organic” experience with a plant that was already sprayed with pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
Let’s talk return on investment. Growing broccoli will not save you money. The average head of broccoli weighs 9-12 oz. Currently, broccoli sells for about $2.50 a pound at a farmer’s market. Each broccoli plant produces one major head and then 4-6 small florets if you leave them in the ground after you harvest the main head. So, that is about a pound. You just lost $1.60 per plant if you purchased the 4” pots before you factor in water, compost and fertilizer. You will save a bit of money if you buy the smaller pony-pack plants. So why grow broccoli?
I devote one raised bed to it because it is fun to grow, great tasting and I can grow varieties that you just can’t find in the stores. Most market gardeners will grow one or two varieties. I can grow whatever variety I like.
For example, I challenge you to find Romanesco cauliflower any place but in those Facebook ads that tell you they will deliver organic meals to your door. The Romanesco is sought after by chefs everywhere because of presentation. The flavor is similar to any other cauliflower but it really shows off a salad or plate. It sells for about $12 a pound when you can find it! I have five of those growing in my garden right now. I usually give two away and friends fight over them. They are a high-value crop. So are other cool season vegetables such as lettuce, garlic, shallots, and herbs. So consider return on investment. Your ROI may be simply to harvest a beautiful head of broccoli. If so, it’s justification for the cost.
I don’t just garden to eat. I garden to exercise, to relax as I work outdoors among nature, to share with friends, and to watch plants grow. The food at the end is simply a value-added for me.
What is your return on investment?
PLANT YOUR VEGETABLES
If you are planting seeds, follow the information on the back of the seed packet carefully. Usually, you will plant a seed as deep as its size. That means that carrot and radish seeds are barely below ground. They need just a thin layer of soil over them. You will have to hand-water small seeds until they germinate and use a light shower or misting sprinkler head at the end of your hose so that you don’t wash away seeds. After they germinate, you can use your drip system.
Use the transplant spacing guide to know how far apart to install your transplants (see above). It is still hot from about 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. right now so plant in the morning or evening to lessen transplant shock. Dig a hole the depth of the transplant’s soil level. Gently press the soil around the plant – very gently. I like to leave a slight indentation surrounding the plant to drive the water toward the root ball. Then water immediately.
Lay mulch around transplants after planting but wait to do so with seeds until they germinate.
I can’t tell you when to water because it depends upon what your soil is like and what kind of plant you have. Simply test your soil. If it is dry near the soil surface, water. Make sure you don’t drown your plants, however. You want moist but not soggy soil. If water is overflowing out of your raised beds or between rows, you are simply wasting water.
Once you get the rhythm of when the soil begins to dry out, you will know what your watering schedule should be. This schedule will change again by the end of October when the temperatures drop, so monitor your soil weekly for changes.
Keep your garden maintainable, enjoyable, and fun! If you do that, you will love to garden for the rest of your life.
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