Paint my thumb green!
June 4, 2008 8:48 AM   Subscribe

Help me plan and plant a garden this summer!

Miss. Onalark and I are starting a vegetable garden in New York state (about 40 minutes north of NYC). Neither of us are experienced gardeners, and we have a very small budget (think $50-100). I'm planning to plant this weekend, and I'm looking for advice on what to plant and the optimal configuration. The plot is about 20'x20' and is in full sunlight. Tomatoes are a definite.
What other vegetables are both delicious and hard to kill? Is it too late in the season to plant anything? And is there any science to deciding what plants go where within the garden if it appears to be equally sunny everywhere? How often should I water? Are those tomato cages really necessary?
posted by onalark to Home & Garden (22 answers total) 61 users marked this as a favorite
Peppers, beans, cucumbers, beets, tomotoes, herbs. Depending on how warm it is there, it might be too late for lettuces (they do not like hot weather). But, you could plant them in mid-August for fall.
posted by sulaine at 9:26 AM on June 4, 2008

What other vegetables are both delicious and hard to kill?

Hard to say what you'll find delicious - gustibus non est disputandum & all that. What do you like to eat?

Is it too late in the season to plant anything?

No, it's pretty much perfect now here in the Northeast to plant many things.

And is there any science to deciding what plants go where within the garden if it appears to be equally sunny everywhere?

You might want to read up on companion planting. Depending on your soil you may also want to check into getting some compost. A soil test is often a good idea before planting.

How often should I water?

Depends on the rain & the fact that different plants need different amounts of water. Tomatoes, e.g., loooove water. One tip: be sure to water plants around the base of their main stalk. Try not splash water on their leaves. This will help prevent alot of various plant diseases from developing.

Are those tomato cages really necessary?

Tomato cages are useful but not necessary. A couple of wooden stakes & some twine for tying up the branches will do you just fine.
posted by jammy at 9:37 AM on June 4, 2008

If you're going to have this plot for multiple years and can thus plan long-term, asparagus.
posted by desuetude at 9:48 AM on June 4, 2008

Response by poster: This is a 'summer and fall' plot through my employer, so I don't think I can do a multi-year thing. I'd love some more specific advice on companion plants to try out. I think my main plants will be a couple tomatoes and some cucumbers with a variety of herbs.
posted by onalark at 9:54 AM on June 4, 2008

Best answer: Hey, alright! More veggie gardeners!

20’ x 20’ is a pretty huge space to work with as a beginner gardener. You’re going to need to sketch out your planting rows as well as some walkways. I suggest mapping out 4’-wide planting rows and 1.5’- to 2’-wide walking paths. This way you will only have to reach a maximum of 2’ into each planting row to weed. Get some grid paper and plot out your area so that you have maximum coverage for planting.

New York, NY is in USDA plant hardiness Zone 7. This is good to know what you can plant in your garden that will survive your temperatures and climate. You may want to check with your local garden centre to find out your spring frost free date or you can check it here. Since frost-free dates can vary, I’d still check with your garden centre.

Once you figure that out, you can type it into the Lazy Gardener’s Automatic Seed Starting Chart here. This will tell you when you can start seeds indoor and when to transplant them into your garden. Not all vegetables can be started indoors as some like to be direct-sown, such as peas, beans, beets and spinach. Since today is June 4, we’re past the point of you starting any seeds indoors so you’re better off buying all your plants as starts from your garden centre. You can still buy seeds and have a later crop of most direct-sown vegetables too.

Depending on the quality of your soil you may want to invest in some aged, composted cow or sheep manure and spread it in your garden. You should be amending your vegetable garden with 2 – 4 pounds of compost per square foot.

If you plan on growing tomatoes, make sure you know which ones are determinate and indeterminate. Determinate tomato plants have short vines, are bush-like and compact. They flower at the top of the stems (where the fruit will grow) and only produce in a short time span during the season. They don’t need to be caged though some people like to – the plant is capable to growing strong enough to support future fruit. Indeterminate tomato plants have long vines and flower along the stem. They will produce fruit well past your last frost date. Indeterminate tomatoes are the ones that need to be trellised. Depending on how many tomatoes you’ll be planting, you can use wooden stakes or elaborate trellises. Here’s some tomato staking techniques from a Master Gardener website Be sure to get a variety of tomatoes for early, mid- and late season. Cherry tomatoes are usually early, standard/globes are mid-season and beefsteaks are late season fruit.

As for other vegetable suggestions, it really depends on what you and your partner are going to eat. Here’s what I’ve found over the last few years of growing vegetables:
• Carrots are a bit finicky as you have to keep the surface of the soil damp so they can push through.
• Cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower should be wrapped in remay to keep butterflies away or they’ll eat the leaves.
• Potatoes can get potato bugs which is annoying to pick off.
• Peas need to be started early in the season and I never get up and running that early.
• Zucchini and cucumber are dead easy.
• Bush beans and pole beans are great.
• Herbs and lettuce are fun to grow.
• Things like squash, corn, watermelon, asparagus, and pumpkins need a lot of space.

I use the square foot gardening method when it comes to plant spacing in my garden. You can find some examples here. Also, you can also check out You Grow Girl’s Beginner Basics forum here.

As for where to plant everything, you should be planting your taller crop in the north-east part of your garden so that the movement of the sun throughout the day doesn’t shade any of the other plants. In the case of lettuce and spinach, however, you may want to have a row behind your taller crops so that they are shaded and don’t bolt (go to seed) in the heat of summer. Examples of taller crops are indeterminate tomatoes, pole beans (which also need to be trellised - bush beans do not) and corn. Corn needs to be planted in rows 4’ wide to ensure good wind pollination. I like having watermelons and zucchini plants near the edge of my garden so that they can spill out onto the lawn if they need the space. Some people like companion planting, such as planting basil near tomatoes for better taste or beans near corn to help fix nitrogen in the soil. Also, check out succession planting so that you have a continuous harvest throughout the season.

You should deeply water your garden once a week rather than frequent, shallow watering. Some people say 2” per week. Melons, cucumbers and tomatoes need a lot of water once they start fruiting so you may want to give them an extra dousing. You should water during the morning so that the water has a chance to evaporate in the morning sun. Watering at night encourages foliage disease as the leaves stay damp throughout the night.

Good luck and have fun! MeFi mail me if you have any questions.
posted by KathyK at 10:08 AM on June 4, 2008 [109 favorites]

Your soil is the most important thing. If it were me.. I would research where the best agricultural land was within the distance I was prepared to travel. Take a trailer...
(The best farming soil in my STATE is almost all completely under (fucking) houses these days. Be aware that people where you are could also be that stupid. But it will make it easier to get as no-one is actually 'using it'. Wankers.)

But yeah then you will be wanting some Earthworms and to get started on your Compost.
Certain things like Cabbage not only stinks but also attracts moths (leaving hungry caterpillars) so you might like to give that a miss. Basil gets nibbled a bit too but whatever it is comes for the Basil and that's about it. I like it too so I understand. If you never see Lady Beatles in your yard, you might like to release some.

Your local Nursery or Gardening Society/Group (there's probably more than one, little old ladies do like to feud?) will be able to help you out with what will happily grow. Also any bug-repellent plants or any other pests/diseases and their preventative measures that you should be aware of in your area. Any gardens aimed at kids?? Everything they grow will be fun, productive and very encouraging!!

Grow some kind of Mint out there. (But in a pot, they grow well. Mint will strive for world domination if you let it.)
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 10:28 AM on June 4, 2008

I thought i had killed my chives so I dumped out the pot in a dirt patch. A few days later they were growing strong. My landlord then lawn-mowed over them. And a week later they are again growing strong. They are very good to add as a garnish to many different dishes. According to Wikipedia chives help repel some garden pests.

My radishes are also going pretty well. They grow fast, too.
posted by silkygreenbelly at 10:46 AM on June 4, 2008

Best answer: I'd love some more specific advice on companion plants to try out.

Here's a useful chart on companion plants.

Here's a nice article on companion planting for tomatoes.

Cucumbers like tomatoes, cabbages, corn, eggplants, lettuces, marigolds, dill, onions, peas, radish, & sunflowers. They don't like potatoes. You might want to make a simple trellis for cucumbers so as to get them up off the ground to avoid soil-borne nasties. It will also allow them to grow bigger & will be easier to harvest. If you build a trellis big enough & erect it at a slant (like a lean-to) you can use it to shade things like lettuce who don't like too much sun.

Marigolds help repel a number of nasty bugs. Plant them all around.

p.s. If you do want to plant some cabbages, mint will help repel the cabbage white moths. You can also grow some hyssop, which the moths love & will distract them from the cabbages.
posted by jammy at 10:47 AM on June 4, 2008 [5 favorites]

Oh yeah, almost forgot, do you have a cat? Or know someone who does? Because catnip is an excellent insect-repellant (flea beetles, Japanese beetles, spittle bugs, squash bugs, ants, aphids, etc.)
posted by jammy at 11:05 AM on June 4, 2008

Best answer: 20x20 is huge!
$50-$100 won;t get you very far is you want to amend the soil with purchased compost/manure and buy your vegetable starts (since it pretty late to be starting from seed)

You've got a lot of room, so you can afford to grow space-suckers like pumpkins, assorted squash, and watermelon.

Plant tomatoes. Lots. Most tomatoes need support, and cages are easy. Alternatively, you can stake up your tomatoe plants with sticks and twine one they start to sag. Cheaper, but more labor intensive.

Grow some Swiss Chard!!! Wonderful salad stuff, it's very hardy, and you don't really "harvest" the whole thing at once. Want a salad for dinner? Visit your plot and pull a bunch of leaves off. Rinse, repeat. If you have three or four Swiss Chard plants, you'll have all the Chard salad leaves you'll want.

Peppers of nearly all varieties grow well anywhere the summer gets at least decently warm. bell pepper are great for salads, and the spicy pepppers produce like crazy (if you like spicy food).

Sweet Onions are good too. Nice and easy - and they keep for a long time. Chives are also great and dead simple.

Zucchini is easy as well, and a big producer.

Might be too late in the year for corn, though you'd have to check with someone local who knows better - but sweet corn and popcorn are easy and lots of fun!
posted by terpia at 11:33 AM on June 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

KathyK's comment was spot-on. (Also, her website linked in her MeFi profile? Awesome. And good photos for reference for your own garden.) But I used to live almost exactly where you guys live now, in Westchester County, so let me add this stuff...

- We used to put in the tomato plants on Memorial Day, so no, you're not too late -- although we probably could have put them in a few weeks earlier, especially if "Walls of Water" had existed back then. I suggest that you buy good old reliable Early Girl or other shorter season varieties; Early Girl always did well for us, while other varieties were hit or miss. You may very end up with a few green tomatoes that are too cold to ripen on still-living plants in early October, though.

- String beans do awesomely well in that climate and aren't usually bothered by diseases, so do consider planting some. Step one, poke seed into hole 4-6 inches away from any other seeds in holes, in a sunny area; step two, water area regularly; step three, let it all grow like gangbusters; step four, pick beans every day for weeks. Regular picking actually stimulates the plants to make more!

- Sprainbrook Nursery is the best local place to get plants, garden supplies, and advice. They also sell some sort of soil amendment made up of crushed shells and salmon bones and fish waste, or something like that, which did absolutely divine things for my plants. Don't remember the name of it though, but if they still sell it, it's worth getting a bag.

- Even if you think you have no bunnies around, you probably do, and they will come nibble your lettuce when you're not looking. Doesn't mean you shouldn't plant the lettuce, but just keep it in mind.

- Have fun!
posted by Asparagirl at 5:42 PM on June 4, 2008

Watering: the best way to know how often to water is by feeling your soil. Depending upon your existing soil, the soil amendments you use, whether you apply mulch and what kind, and how close you plant your plants and different the microclimates in your gardening space, the amount of watering you have to do can vary drastically. What you need to do is dig down a couple inches near the root ball of the plants to see how wet it is down there. if the soil clumps together when you squeeze it, you probably don't need to water. Companion planting: I plant by cultural requirements, because it doesn't make sense to have vegetables that luxuriate in permanent spring to be next to plants that perform best (fruit) under some mild stress. Leafy things like basil need to be coddled with cooler temps and plenty of water or they will start trying to produce seeds; Fruit bearers like tomatoes flower and fruit when they are under the impression that their life is about to be cut short at any minute. Too much constant water and they produce lots more leaves and flavorless fruit.

If you really want to avoid wasting time and money on pointless amending and feeding, get a soil test done. You need to know the pH at the absolute minimum, because that will tell you whether or not nutrients that are in the soil will actually be available to your plants.
For example, iron is a common deficiency when pH is above 6.5- it is often still in the soil, but can't be taken up by plants. Rather than adding amendments, it is usually more effective and less costly to correct the pH.
posted by oneirodynia at 7:25 PM on June 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Grow anything you can get your hands on. Give things lots of room. Have fun. Experiment. Don't worry. Your new garden soil should do well the first time. Plant your tomato starts deeper than they sell them, cheating the stalk, tie them to a strong stick if you don't like cages. You'll figure it out, there are no rules. Think about the roots before the leaves. They grow first, but you tell them how deep, but letting them get a little dry at times. Diseases are a reality, but that's also a species variety issue. Some bugs carry diseases so never blame yourself, which is the therapeutic point to growing a garden: never blame yourself for anything.
posted by Brian B. at 9:27 PM on June 4, 2008

Best answer: Call your local county extension office and ask to speak to a Master Gardener, they will not only give you some good ideas, they will often have a demonstration garden in the area that you can visit - it's well worth a looksee before you start planting if you can swing it. (I'm a master gardener from 1995 in Illinois, and the members often give or trade plants, so if you are low on money, ask if they know anyone who has extra seedlings, it's worth a shot)

Basil is a good one to grow near tomatoes and you can make insulata caprese with them. Just regular old Italian basil from the garden store. Chives, mint, and lemon balm, as well as sage, will all come back next year, so ask the person if they are annuals when buying your herbs. Dill attracts beneficial insects, so that is always a good choice.

Space your tomatoes out, and do stake them. Most of the ones in your garden store will be the vining indeterminate kind and they sprawl like crazy. I usually get some early varieties, like Early Girl, and then Big Boy, which takes longer to produce. The less you stake them, the more they will sprawl, and you won't have any room to walk between the plants - also it will leave them open to disease because they aren't getting air circulation (and ya miss some tomatoes on the ground under the leaves!).

I'd get 2-3 six packs of tomatoes, 3 varieties (try a cherry tomato or a yellow pear cherry-sized in addition to your Early Girl and Big Boy). Space about 4' apart (some say 3' but I always given 'em an extra foot if possible). An easy method is to squish the bottom section of one cube of your six-pack to get the plant out (clip off any roots if they have a lot growing out the hole). Dig a hole and throw a small handful of Epsom salts in it. Plant the seedling deep, as those little hairs on the stems will form new roots and it will be stronger, pinch of a couple of leaves at the bottom if you have to. Then put your cage around the little bugger, deep enough so the wind won't pick it up.

Do the same thing with green peppers, but space them a little closer (they like Epsom salts too). Green peppers don't have the same hairy stems so plant them at the same level as they are growing in their containers.

At the far end, make a few little hills, spaced far apart, and stick some yellow and green zucchini seeds in, about 4-5 per hill. Don't do pumpkins unless you want to take over your whole patch.

You can also plant bush beans and avoid having to stake or tie the vines.

Johnny's Selected Seeds has good seeds but you can get seeds anywhere (I get them at my drugstore for 10 cents a pack sometimes). My favorites there are Sun Gold cherry tomato, Eclipse peas (which you can plant next year as they are out of stock - but do pick up some pea seeds now and try planting them in the fall when it gets cool), and any of their bush beans have done well for me. Anything that Johnny's sells will grow by you because they are in Zone 5 so their seeds are hardy.

Three six-packs of tomato plants, probably $2.00 at Walmart, a six pack of green peppers, same, hot peppers if you like them. A pack of basil plants, and the dill you'd probably have to hit a garden store for, as Walmart is low on their herb selections (mine is, anyway). The marigolds are good too, but most animals don't eat tomato leaves. You can eat the marigold flowers, and also pansy and nasturtium flowers, all good in salads. Nasturtiums are peppery.

Before you plant the tomatoes and peppers, lay down black landscape cloth (not plastic, it has to allow water through), and cut X's for each plant. Keep the cloth down with old wire coat hangers cut up and using the U-shaped sides as pins to hold it in the dirt. If you can't afford the cloth, use old newspaper, 5-6 pages thick, and weigh it down with rocks, leaving space for your plants. Nothing worse than planting tomatoes and getting a big ole crop of pigweed or lambs quarters growing right along next to them. It's fine to weed now but you're gonna get real sick of it come July when it's hotter than blazes and the bugs are attacking you because you're sweating. So lay down something to keep the weeds down.

When the tomatoes start growing, pinch off the little suckers between the main stem and the branches - you don't have to be religious about it, but if you're walkin' around and see them, pinch 'em off. This will give more energy to the plant. You can use Miracle Gro (mixed in water) when they are about up to your knee. Use it again in about 3 weeks and stop fertilizing when they get lots of blossoms. If you want organic fertilizer, ask the garden store for recommendations.

If the tomato leaves turn yellow, not just a few at the bottom, but a lot, that usually means the soil is lacking so dig in a little more Epsom salts around the roots and water it in. If that doesn't help, crush up some eggshells and let them soak in water for a day or two and water them with the strained liquid.

If you run into problems later on in the season, again, you can call the county extension office and the Master Gardeners there will answer your questions. Remember, sometimes things work and sometimes they don't, it's a learning process, but so rewarding when you pick that first tomato. The most important thing to cultivate is patience. Enjoy!

Good luck and feel free to MeMail me as well.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 3:25 AM on June 5, 2008 [4 favorites]

If you want organic fertilizer, ask the garden store for recommendations.

Grass clippings work quite nicely & are easy to find for free - they're full of tasty nitrogen, oxygen and phosphorus & decay slowly which makes for a rich soil. Plus, they help retain water in the soil & prevent weed growth.

Make a nice 1" layer all around the garden if you can. Leave a margin around the actual stalks of your plants, though - they need to breathe a bit & you don't want to promote any rot.

It's also worth checking local farms (if any) - they often have rich high-grade (i.e. fulla poo) compost for sale at cheaper rates than a garden store. Just be sure to get aged compost as fresh poo can "burn" the tender roots of young plants. Chicken poo works quite well.

It's not so much a question of feeding your plants as it is one of feeding the soil. As before, a soil test is a very good idea - it will help you know exactly what your plants will be hungry for once they're growing.

Have fun!
posted by jammy at 7:03 AM on June 5, 2008

Square Foot Gardening is the only way to go if you're cramped for space - and even if you're not. The "official" Square Foot Gardening website is kinda Web 1.0 and the book is poorly organized, but I have found the gardenweb square foot gardening forums to be very helpful. The forum is very friendly to SFQ newbies, so ask away after reading the FAQ.
posted by webhund at 7:05 AM on June 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Cubed Foot Gardening is one of the better introductory gardening books out there. Square foot is good, but I think there's better info and less "Isn't my method genius?!?" in Cubed.

There's a whole lot of stuff that isn't that interesting to grow and fresh isn't greatly improved over store bought, namely: onions, potatoes and cabbage. But don't let that stop you, it's fun to experiment with this stuff, just in my experience those things are more trouble than they're worth.
posted by electroboy at 9:15 AM on June 5, 2008

I, too, live in the Hudson Valley north of NYC and am starting a first garden (with Mrs. Swift). A few resources we've found helpful:
  • There are tons of nurseries and garden centers in the area: we go to the Cortlandt Farm Market, but in lower Westchester there are bigger options.
  • Gaia's Garden, an introduction to permaculture concepts specifically for gardeners. Despite the title, it's more practical than new-agey.
  • Carrots Love Tomatoes, a great book on companion planting. Full of wisdom both scientific and folksy.
  • Composter -- we're still learning about composting, but this thing makes it pretty easy. Just add stuff and turn.
We're already eating early radishes we planted about a month ago, and everything else is coming up quickly. Good luck!
posted by swift at 11:50 AM on June 5, 2008

Once you have it all in the ground and you're left to sit and listen to the cicadas, you might enjoy Michael Pollan's Second Nature: A Gardener's Education, a story of starting a vegetable garden not far away in CT.
posted by ioesf at 10:44 PM on June 5, 2008

Ditto on the recommendations for the Square Foot gardening method. You will have a lot more fun and much better results if you put all your resources (for amending the soil etc) into 1 or 2 4x4 squares, and plant them according to the sqft method than if you try to plant the entire 20x20 are and have to spend hours and hours weeding and watering. When planting a large "row" garden most people give up after about a month when the weeds are overwhelming, and their veggie garden becomes a lush weed patch with a few strugging veggie plants. The sqft method helps avoid that problem.

Focus on plants you really enjoy that have a high yield. You can always plant more next year. (Or setup a cold frame and plant more later in the summer, with the cold frame keeping your crops going into the fall.
posted by jcdill at 2:47 AM on June 6, 2008

Response by poster: I recruited a fellow intern at my workplace to take the responsibility of half of the garden. Here are a few pictures from our all-day gardening bonanza Saturday. Thanks again to everybody for the amazing and thoughtful advice.
posted by onalark at 12:47 PM on June 10, 2008

Looking ahead to Year 2, check out Seed Savers Exchange this winter for nifty seeds. They are a nonprofit dedicated to sharing heirloom seeds, cultivated, selected, and saved for generations to preserve their great various qualities like hardiness for specific regions, or great taste or storage or cooking quality. The variety is amazing. And when it comes to things like tomatoes and lettuces, heirloom varieties have taste and color that will give you an experience worlds beyond the basic hardware-store varieties.

Because they're open-pollinated (not hybrid) some plants can't be planted too close to one another or they won't come out the same when you save seeds for the next generation. But for other plants it doesn't matter at all, and they tell you in the catalog which is which.
posted by Miko at 3:28 PM on June 28, 2008

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