Gardening in advance
April 3, 2010 1:21 PM   Subscribe

What can I do now if I won't have access to a real garden until August?

I love gardening. When I lived at home, I was meticulous with my flower beds and vegetable garden. But now that I've moved away from school, I'm living in an apartment (actually a duplex). I've been able to plant a few container gardens, but I don't have an actual backyard and I do have neighbors that let their dogs roam, making quick work of anything that I've planted. But there is August, I'm moving to a house. There are some old, overgrown flower beds out in front and a small area in the back that was enclosed as a dog pen that I'm planning on cleaning out and using as a vegetable garden (to keep the dogs out of it). I'm good with how to care for the plants after I've got the space set up- it's that setting up that is the problem.

What's the best way to turn the dog pen area into usable space and/or turn the sad pathetic flower beds out front into real flower beds? (They obviously haven't been used in a very long time- they're more like outlined areas of leaves and weeds). I've only ever planted in raised beds. Should I treat them like raised beds and buy soil/fertilizer from the store, or is there something I can do with the pathetic dirt that's there? Am I better off just building a raised bed in the enclosed area?

What I'm most interested in are things that I can start early in starter pots, containers, whatever and transplant when I move- and how early to start them. Also, any recommendations of things I can plant in August, especially veggies, and still be viable.

Oh, and I live in Florida (Tallahassee, so kind of northwest?) doesn't get crazy cold, but from early December to early March it does get kind of cold-ish...into the 40s, occasionally into the 20s, if that's relevant. I'm from SW Florida, so I'm not used to it getting this "cold" for this long. The fenced in area recieves probably 6 hours of sunlight a day (but areas of it are a bit shaded) and the area in the front of the house receives direct sunlight for all but an hour or 2 every day.
posted by kro to Home & Garden (6 answers total)
A lot of the things that do well in early spring will also be good late-summer-into-autumn crops: lettuce, spinach, arugula, peas, radishes. These you'll probably have time to direct-seed when you get the house in August. Hearty, leafy plants like kale, chard, mustard, and m√Ęche, and even cabbage are all good for cooler weather, but you should start them in containers a few weeks earlier (they also are things you can probably keep going over the winter, with some added protection).

The main thing to worry about with the dog-pen area is probably soil contamination. I know there are soil quality test kits available, which you might look into, but I've never used one so I can't really give you good information about them. To be on the safe side, it'd probably be a good idea to make raised beds with purchased soil there. The flower beds are probably fine, though, for the soil contamination perspective (especially if you don't plan on growing veggies for eating there).

And for building up the soil in both beds - compost compost compost.
posted by bubukaba at 1:54 PM on April 3, 2010

Re-dig the flower beds yourself, to check sub-soil. A lot of "beds" fail for lack of drainage, being merely pits into clay sub-soil. If that's the case for those flower beds, you can try making them raised beds, so that drainage will occur to surface grade, but that generally requires some construction of bed borders, to retain the raise. Even still, if you water excessively, on raised beds over clay sub-soil, you'll just be spreading your water and fertilizer out to the grade, which may not be a good solution for surrounding lawn, shrubbery, etc.

Also, frame homes on slab in Florida can have ungodly amounts of termite pretreat injected under the slab, so as to be able to continue to defeat Florida's voracious termites and wood ants, for many years. Some of these soil treatments are intended to remain poisonous for 20 years or more, and may provide some color indication of their presence. Best not to go digging with 2 feet of a slab on such a home (or however far from the slab your termite protection contractor advises).

As for the dog pen, expect heavy soil compaction from dog activity, and possibly some presence of ring worm or other intestinal parasites of dogs. Turn the soil, fertilize, treat for parasites, wear good footwear, make sure water drains off lot, and wait a year or two, until native plants spring up... Then, turn under, re-fertilize, and garden as you will.
posted by paulsc at 6:14 PM on April 3, 2010

Do you have access to the space between now and August? Because if so, now would be the time to make a nice triple-bay composter and start stocking it with other people's lawn clippings.
posted by flabdablet at 6:14 PM on April 3, 2010

I was going to suggest composting, but maybe even doing it where you are now, in a covered, dog-proof container. That compost could help a lot when you move, especially if you can get neighbors to contribute.
posted by amtho at 7:40 PM on April 3, 2010

The Cooperative Extension Service is your friend. Check on the issue of a food garden in an area where dogs were kept, and the termite treatment.

Ask the landlord if you can start working on the garden now. The old flower beds might support salad greens, which are pretty as well as yummy, and any composting, or cover crops you put in can improve the soil.

If the dogs are no longer present, a layer of black plastic might heat the soil enough to kill a lot of unwanted microbes and would suppress weeds, to be ready for planting sooner.
posted by theora55 at 9:01 AM on April 4, 2010

Your best bet for rehabbing what's there will probably be to rent a hand-tiller (from Home Depot type place) and fluff up the dirt, preferably adding compost as you go. The dog run is probably pretty well packed-down, and, as others have said, you don't really know what's under there. I'd been pleasantly surprised by the nice black soil in my yard until some recent excavations (for some reason I needed to dig a dry sump to improve drainage, why in the world?) demonstrated that it was in fact about 8-12" of nice black topsoil on a tan clay base (oh, that's why.) If the current residents don't mind, you could probably even dig up samples to send to your local extension office for soil testing.

On the topic of drainage, maybe you can stop by the property after a big rainstorm (you get those in Florida, right?) and see if there are any lake-like puddles. You could also double-check the sunlight situation in May/June and see how new foliage, changing sun angles, etc. affect the sun/shade regions in back.

Consider planting tomatoes in 5-gallon buckets to bring along with you - you might not even end up taking them out of the buckets when you arrive, but it'll be nice to set the buckets in the new garden area and have those big bushy plants there to make it look gardeny.
posted by aimedwander at 6:58 AM on April 5, 2010

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