Help me grow great greens
March 15, 2014 7:12 PM   Subscribe

I suck at gardening. Past gardening efforts have ended in disaster (bug infestations, groundhog eating everything, plants dying for no obvious reason that I can see). This year, though, I would like for it to be different. I would like to grow my own leafy greens--kale, spinach, lettuces, chard, collards, etc. I'm not so interested in other things like tomatoes and peppers. Do you have any advice for exactly what I need to do to grow great greens?

The details are that I am in Zone 6, and I already have a small raised bed in the yard. Last year the only thing it produced was weeds, because I was too busy/depressed during the springtime to plant anything. The year before it was the site of the disasters I list above.

And the groundhog is still around.

Tomorrow I'm headed to the hardware store. What should I buy? Here are some of my thoughts:

Chicken wire fencing to keep groundhog out--will this work?

We have a compost bin that we've dutifully thrown stuff into for over two years, but have never turned. Would the stuff at the bottom of this suffice for compost, or should I buy some other kind of soil amendment at the store?

Do I need to do a soil test?

Should I plant seeds indoors and then transplant? Do I need to buy a grow light for this? Our house is very cave-like.

Basically, what is the simplest route I can take to get from no garden to producing my own greens?

Any links to good basic websites or books are great. I've checked out all kinds of books on gardening from the library but for some reason they make my eyes glaze over. Maybe it's because very few of them seem to focus exclusively on greens, and I'm not really interested in strawberries, squash, etc.

Thank you!
posted by whistle pig to Home & Garden (17 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Chicken wire fencing probably won't keep the groundhog out. Even if you bury the bottom of the wire in the ground to keep the groundhog from squeezing under, you're going to need some kind of gate and it's going to be hard to make one that doesn't have any gaps the groundhog can take advantage of. (And if it really wants to, it can probably dig its way under anything you put up anyway.) We have occasional problems with groundhogs and one thing that seems to help is leaving buckets with cat poop in them near the plants the groundhog likes. Your success with approaches like that may depend on how much other food is available to the groundhog.

The stuff at the bottom of your compost bin should be good to use.

I've never done any soil testing beyond checking pH and I've generally had good luck with gardens in a variety of different places. You could probably skip it. (You probably don't even need to check your pH.)

For greens, there's mostly no need to start plants inside, but it might be helpful for kale and collards. If you do try it you'll need a grow light if your house is really cave-like. If you had a south-facing window with a lot of light coming in, it might work all right for something you were going to plant outside when it was still pretty small, but a grow light would work better even then.
posted by Redstart at 8:06 PM on March 15, 2014

I'm also in zone 6, and have had many gardens (with various levels of success). Greens are the one thing that I've managed to grow successfully every year.

I've always been too lazy to start my greens inside, but in general they're happy cool-ish weather crops--if I remember correctly, the minimum soil temperature for lettuce germination is just above freezing, and for things like chard and other dark greens, it goes up to maybe forty. According to this map, I'm basically already there with regards to soil temperatures. (Minimum temps obviously won't see super fast or total germination, but I'm all about the path of least resistance, here.) I'm considering sowing chard directly, and possibly lettuce, as well, at the end of this month--it won't be a bumper crop, early on, but it'll start producing, and I'll possibly re-seed come mid-May. IMO, this is definitely the simplest route--I basically just toss down some compost/topsoil/whatever, and then sprinkle the lettuce seeds over top of that.

Seconding Redstart, though, that chicken wire will do nothing to deter the groundhog. We (and by we, I mean my neighbours) have had good luck with humane trap, trapping the local groundhogs and releasing them a few miles away. I think the groundhog is the biggest barrier to easy, hands-off greens production for you.

The site Grow Stuff is relatively new and has a smallish userbase, but might be of use to you--it's for people who are growing edibles, specifically, and I'm sure that there are people there with lots of information about greens.
posted by MeghanC at 8:20 PM on March 15, 2014

Timed watering systems are magical. You can get a $25 timer that attaches to your hose bib and connect that to a garden hose with an oscillating sprinkler on the end, or for a little more effort you can use it to run drip irrigation tubing to water each individual plant, which is more efficient and will give you more control over how much water gets distributed to each crop. Even if you think you're pretty good at watering regularly, you're no match for the perfect consistency provided by a timer. This one factor is what turned me from an unsuccessful gardener into a mostly successful one.

Bug infestations are an inevitability to be mitigated, not a disaster that means your garden has failed. I've had some luck using the Bug Blaster (a hose attachment that physically knocks the bugs off the plant with tiny high-pressure water jets) to control whiteflies on greens, and there are a whole host of other methods chemical, mechanical and horticultural to control pests. What works best for you will depend on the specifics of your crop, the pest, and your tolerance for chemical pesticides.

One good way to mitigate pests through planning is to interplant your crops; instead of having a row of kale and a row of spinach and a row of lettuce, mix it up so the pests have a harder time locating their favorite host and infestations are more likely to be confined to a single plant. You can also plant a "trap crop" such as nasturtium near the garden to attract pests away from the stuff you want to eat. You might also be intersted in companion planting, the practice of placing your crops based on beneficial relationships between them.
posted by contraption at 8:33 PM on March 15, 2014

I hate groundhogs. I have one too. Between the groundhog, the squirrels and the red winged blackbirds it's a battle to get veggies in my backyard. I feel your pain.

Last year I netted most of my vegetable garden and it did make a difference but only, I think, because the groundhog headed for easier pickings like my echinacea, my hollyhocks, the clover in the grass, and the neighbours' gardens. So if your neighbours have good things for groundhogs to eat (which is everything so far as I can tell) the chicken wire might help. No guarantees though. A determined groundhog will get through.

Get to the bottom of the compost pile and smell the dirt. If it smells earthy and crumbles and isn't slimy you are good to go. I like shrimp or seaweed compost for my garden in addition to my own compost.

Leafy greens are easy to grow, but they like cool weather. Most can be planted as soon as the ground can be worked, check your packages. Reseed every couple of weeks for a continual crop. Once it gets hot they'll start to bolt quickly so you may want to halt planting mid summer and then start again toward autumn. You don't need to start leafy greens inside, just chuck a bunch of seeds in the ground. You'll need to water (at night or in the morning) if it gets dry.
posted by Cuke at 8:49 PM on March 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Blood meal worked wonders at keeping squirrels from eating my garden. It's what it sounds like, and smells like death, but is also good fertilizer, and groundhogs might hate it as much as squirrels do.
posted by jessicapierce at 9:10 PM on March 15, 2014

The easiest thing to do would be to get some plastic containers -- like the kind used for window boxes -- and put your leafy greens in those. They aren't demanding and you don't have to start them indoors.

Blood meal does deter rodents but you have to apply it after it rains. It's a good fertilizer, too.

I found that the repellant sprays work as well, but you have to go out a couple of times a week to re-apply the spray. And the sprays are expensive! Maybe if your containers are close to your house, the groundhog will stay away?
posted by Ostara at 9:18 PM on March 15, 2014

If your plan is to put the wire under your raised bed, I would go with thicker wire that won't rust in a year. It may help if the ground hog is coming up from under the garden. I do winter gardening where I put some dirt in the lower half of a plastic more milk jug, put in some water and seeds, close and set outside. They will sprout when ready, then keep watered and transplant when ready. Bugs - I get aphids and it is fairly easy to brush them off kale and collards with a brush when I wash them. They can also be hosed off. Chard and spinach I get leaf minors that I control by picking off and throwing away.
posted by 101cats at 10:06 PM on March 15, 2014

We have raised beds and rabbits, rather than groundhogs. Last weekend, I spent a day pulling out the chicken wire barrier we'd put in a few years ago. It never really worked, and only made it harder for the people to get to the garden, not the animals.

Compost is awesome, with the qualifier that whenever I use ours, I get a lot of volunteers from seeds that were still viable. If it's going to bug you to have two tomato plants, a cantaloupe, and a pumpkin growing out of your greens, consider using something else or making sure your compost got hot enough to kill off the seeds.
posted by instamatic at 4:13 AM on March 16, 2014

I should also have said that I am a firm believer in direct sowing seeds, especially for cold-hardy plants like greens. I am a fairly lazy gardener, and while I have occasionally kept seed starts alive enough to plant, I have rarely successfully hardened them off and transplanted them. I direct sow or pick up pony packs of plants at a nursery, or a combination of the two.
posted by instamatic at 4:17 AM on March 16, 2014

Response by poster: Hooray! Thank you so much for this advice. It's all extremely helpful. Darn groundhog!
posted by whistle pig at 7:42 AM on March 16, 2014

Neither of my thumbs is green, but I've had good luck growing herbs in pots. I have not had trouble with wildlife, even the deer who nibble at !most anything.
posted by SemiSalt at 9:14 AM on March 16, 2014

If you're not already using them, you should also check out your local cooperative extension. They can probably provide a ton of good advice about management of pests in your specific area, as well as services like soil testing, seed exchanges, gardening classes, etc.
posted by ourobouros at 11:06 AM on March 16, 2014

I use and looooove these rolling reservoir containers, which I use for everything because I rent but greens and herbs and other tender tasty things do really really well in them. I've had mine a year and I'm not seeing any sign of weather damage (constant CA sun).

(I did have to drive all over town to actually find a store that had more than one. I ordered them via in-store pickup from three stores that had to call me back and tell me they couldn't find any, and then I finally found one store that had 20 of them stacked up right at the end of the garden center checkout counter.)

I would think you could even extend your season by rolling them up near the house and sheltering/insulating.

But nothing's going to get in there unless it can climb up and in, and you could rig protective collars to make that extra difficult. For sure you won't have anything digging under.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:37 AM on March 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

I can't help with groundhog but Square Foot Gardening helped me go from worst gardener ever to having too many vegetables.
posted by night_train at 2:00 PM on March 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Don't be discouraged--you can easily grow greens! One thing that might work against the groundhog is to fence your garden in with heavy gauge garden fence, but don't bother burying it. Instead, bend it 90 degrees about two feet or so from the bottom so that the two-foot section lays flat on the grass extending away from your raised bed. Then, when the critter tries to dig under, it gets paws full of fence instead of dirt. It probably won't be smart enough to back up and try tunneling from farther out. The grass will grow up through the fence, and you can mow over it.

I've never had trouble with insects going after greens, so I'd say just keep trying. You better hop to it though, since many greens prefer cool temps and won't grow well once June arrives. (You could try another plot that is shaded to extend your season a bit.)

Also, plant successively from north to south, so that the taller northern plants don't shade out the younger southern ones.
posted by Camofrog at 3:19 PM on March 16, 2014

Squirrels and rabbits can be controlled with a decent pellet gun. No fencing I've tried has ever worked (though it does keep the deer out). The legality of plinking the squirrels and rabbits should be investigated. I think woodchucks might be a bit too big to be warded off or eliminated by a pellet gun.
posted by k5.user at 6:43 AM on March 17, 2014

It's worth having your soil tested, if only so you know what your baseline conditions are if you decided to start growing more fickle plants (e.g. tomatoes) later. Brooklyn College offers inexpensive, high-quality testing to US residents.

Groundhogs are smart and persistent - you'll need a combination of a chickenwire and cinder block bed (like this) and some low fencing to keep them out. A faster, cheaper solution - unless you're ethically opposed - is to find a neighbor with a .22 who likes to hunt and have them killed (hopefully using the meat).

Get to the bottom of the compost pile and smell the dirt. If it smells earthy and crumbles and isn't slimy you are good to go.

This is right - unless it is completely rotted and looks and smells like soil, don't use it until it is. Burying unfinished compost where you're planting will starve your plants of nitrogen (it's needed for decay, and will be used by the still-rotting compost). A very thin layer of worm castings is an excellent soil amendment for the season if you don't have compost that is ready to go.

Two other critical things not mentioned so far:

1) Spacing - follow the directions for spacing and thinning your plants on the seed packet. Crowding their root bundles will stress the plants, which will make them susceptible to bugs and disease. It will also make you have to water much more often, since the root systems won't develop fully and allow the plants to draw in the water they need.

2) Sunlight - Are your plants getting enough light? Kale and other brassicas, for example, need at least 3-4 hours of full sun each day while they're growing. Less will mean weak plants that cannot resist bugs and disease.

I grow a lot of greens, following this pattern: in the fall, direct seed kale and collards, harvesting in late spring / early summer as they start to bolt (I'm in Zone 7). I replace them with Napa cabbage, bok choi, and chard, then pull these and reseed with more cold-tolerant greens for early spring at the end of the season.
posted by ryanshepard at 8:07 AM on March 18, 2014

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