Sandra Warner and Carol Sobczak embrace this time of year.
Warner has spent the past few weeks preparing the half dozen raised garden beds in her yard for the vegetable plants and herbs she will nurture in the coming months. Sobczak has taken a similar tack on her property, as well as tinkered with what she calls her “bag of tricks” to keep critters of all shapes and sizes at bay.
But this is only what the two Clarence women are doing at home. The master gardeners with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Erie County also spend part of the growing season sharing their wisdom at special events, in the extension’s soil clinic and on the Master Gardener Hotline.
“Gardening is really a science,” Sobczak said, “but it’s not difficult once you understand some basic principles. If you pay attention to some of the common things, you’ll have more success as a gardener and you’ll be more likely to stick with it.”
Done right, home gardening can be the healthiest form of eating.
“The nice thing about your garden is you know what goes into it, so you know what’s coming out of it,” said Ed M. Spoth, co-owner of Spoth’s Farm Market on Transit Road in Clarence.
Spoth, Sobczak and Warner offered the following tips for those looking to get the most wellness from their garden this growing season.
CHOOSE THE RIGHT SPOT
Spoth’s great-grandfather, Ed J., grew crops along Transit Road, just north of Roll Road, back in the 1920s. His grandfather opened the family farm market about 1950 but sold the family farm about 20 years ago. The family, including his father, Ed D., now work mostly vegetable crops on about 80 acres further east, along Clarence Center and Salt roads.
When choosing a site for a garden, “the more sun, the better,” Spoth said. A field is wide open, but that rarely is the case on residential property. The key is to find a spot that tends to have the most sunshine for the longest period each day – promoting as much photosynthesis as possible – along or near the south side of a home. The master gardeners recommended a spot within easy distance of a hose, unless you plan frequent watering trips with a sprinkling can.
START WITH GOOD SOIL
Good soil needs to be at least 6 to 8 inches deep. “Soil is food to a plant,” said Sobczak, president of the extension Master Gardener Program. “If you have healthy soil, you’ll have earthworms and other insects that will carry nutrients from the top down.”
Tilth, texture and pH are the lifeblood of healthy soil, said Warner, Erie County extension master gardener soil clinic coordinator.
Tilth means the soil has been tilled, is pliable, and absorbs and holds moisture. This helps roots, earthworms and other helpful insects move about freely. “You can put your hand down in it to your elbow,” Sobczak said. “It’s loose.”
Garden soil texture should be about 25 percent water, 25 percent air and 50 percent healthy soil components, Warner said, and also have a “neutral” pH between 6.8 and 7.2. Blueberries and a few select plants like acidic soil in the 4.6 pH range, but most plants thrive in the neutral zone.
“If you’re in the Northtowns, your pH may be a little high and you want to lower it with sulphur,” said Sharon Bachman, an extension master gardener educator. “In the Southtowns, it may be a little low and you might want to raise it with a little lime.” Warner can test a soil sample and make recommendations to bring your garden into better balance if needed. She recommended gathering a cupful of earth from your garden site, taken from four to six spots about 6 to 8 inches deep. Combine those samples, let the cupful dry and bring it to the Cooperative Extension office in East Aurora or coming soil clinic (see box). For a modest fee, a master gardener will provide a written recommendation on how to improve your garden soil.
Bear in mind that if you’re coming off a year where the yield on certain plants wasn’t that good in your garden, remnants of those plants remain in the soil and it may be time for more soil management. Crop rotation also may be in order. Warner said she rotates plants from year to year in her raised beds.
PICK THE RIGHT PLANTS
“You definitely want to have tomatoes and peppers,” Spoth said. “Those are simple to grow and ubiquitous. You can use them in salads, eat them fresh, and you can cook with them, too.” All varieties tend to be hardy enough for the Western New York climate.
Cold crops that were already fit for planting earlier this month include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, lettuce, onions and peas, he and the master gardeners said. Most other crops can be planted now, as well as herbs. Parsley, oregano, mint, chives and lavender often return for more than one season. Mint creeps, so plant it in a pot. Basil won’t come back but is a good companion plant ecologically for tomatoes, Sobczak said.
Disease-resistant tomatoes and other plants can help ward off would-be pests, the gardeners said, but some people prefer the taste of heirloom vegetables that haven’t been hybridized with those traits. Both kinds are available at most garden centers.
Vegetable and flower growing and planting guides are available online at gardening.cornell.edu/homegardening.
THINK UP AND AROUND
“When you plant stuff tight together, that definitely can affect your yield – yet space is at a premium in many gardens,” Spoth said. When you plant too tightly, it can impact size and quantity of vegetables, though they still remain a healthy choice. With many plants, “stake or cage them and you generally get better fruit,” Spoth said. Cucumbers and zucchini are good veggie planting choices, he added, “but a couple plants are plenty. Otherwise, you’re going to be growing them for the whole neighborhood.”
Consider raised bed, container or pot gardening, and trellises when space is limited and convenience at a premium. Sobczak planted lettuce this spring in a pot that looks like a big salad bowl. “You can leave it on the picnic table and snip it off,” she said, “and if you do it right, it will regenerate.”
“Your plant tags have all the vital information to secure the success of the plant,” Sobczak said. “That’s why the growers do it that way. They want you to be successful and buy more.” Information includes where a plant will grow best – because of exposure to the sun – as well as how much space to leave between plants, maturation time, watering needs, soil requirements and hardiness zones.
DOCUMENT YOUR WORK
“Keeping records is important,” Sobczak said. “Most gardeners have a journal of some kind.” This helps you plan this year’s garden with your favorite vegetable varieties from past years, or maybe something you enjoyed from a farmers market. “That’s the only way you’ll know what works for sure in your garden from year to year,” she said. Even with pest management. When you find certain insects are attracted to certain plants, learn what they are and how to deal with them. (The extension can test for insects, too.) Look at your garden every day and examine each plant. Do you see signs of insects having fed on your plants, or footprints and scat from animals? Do you see bugs or eggs on the bottom sides of your plant leaves? “A lot of times,” Sobczak said, “you can catch something before it becomes a problem.”
ENJOY YOUR BOUNTY
Gardening should be viewed as a hobby that, with work and knowledge, will bring you a healthy return.
“It shouldn’t be frustrating,” Sobczak said, “and you should get a nice yield out of it. What’s better than to be able to eat your artwork? There’s nothing like holding a sun-ripened tomato in your hand while it’s still warm and taking a bite out of it. That’s perfection. That’s one of the good things in life.”