Marion — Whether your thumb is greener than the grass on your lawn, or you’re learning to care for your first plant, there are always a few tricks to help you along the way.
One person with quite a few of those tricks up her sleeve is Kristi Marshall, of the Marion Garden Group. Marshall stopped by Marion’s Taber Library on Thursday to discuss sowing seeds properly.
The talk was held as part of the library’s inauguration of their new “Seed Lending Library.” The program offers library patrons the chance to “check out” seeds and plant them at home in their garden, in the hopes that they will eventually return with more seeds for the library.
Marshall discussed her long experience of gardening, which she says is a process of trial and error. She’s grown just about everything, from herbs to vegetables to fruits and flowers. “Except sunflowers,” she said, amused. “I’ve never been able to get those to grow!”
Marshall’s top tips for starting a garden are below.
1. Plant at the right time
Massachusetts has 153 days of the growing season, according to Marshall. It’s wisest to plant outdoor seeds after May 19. Possible frost nights will come after September 21.
2. Read your seed packet
A seed packet may seem like an IKEA instruction guide – throw it off to the side and consult if needed (and if it is not in the trash). However the packets detail how much space a plant needs, how deeply it must be buried in the soil, and how much light it needs. Did you know that a seed referred to as “needing light” indicates that you shouldn’t bury the seed at all?
3. Prepare your growing site
Always choose a patch of land that receives “full sunlight” – that is, eight hours per day of sunshine. Prepare at least six to eight inches of the topsoil (plants like beans prefer 12 inches) by removing rocks, weeds, twigs and roots. Break down all of the clumps, and mix in organic material or compost. Organic material could include soybean or alfalfa meal, fertilizer, manure, lime or even kelp.
4. Keep the hose nearby
All seeds need to be wet to germinate. Often, they can be soaked beforehand. Marshall warns to look at directions before doing that, because seeds can only be soaked for so long before they are prone to rot. Each seed has different water tolerance levels.
Also remember to keep soil wet – but not soggy – as the plant germinates.
Always choose the healthiest and strongest plants to survive. Marshall noted that if you thin out plants, more energy can be expended on the few remaining flowers, fruits or vegetables. “It’s hard to do though!” she admitted. “If I have 10 pumpkins growing, I want them all to grow – but if I could cut them, I’d have a few larger pumpkins.”
Always snip the plant, rather than pulling it out by the root. Marshall explained that the greens can be thrown back into compost or eaten as salad greens.
6. Thickening plants
If you have a plant you would prefer to see grow outwards, rather than up (say, a bush), wait until the first three leaf sets have arrived. Then the middle tip can be pinched off to encourage the plant to grow outwards,
7. Your backyard is a microclimate
“Your backyard may behave differently than other areas in town,” Marshall stated. “In fact, there might be parts of your yard that act differently than the rest of the yard.” She cited one patch in her yard which consistently remains cooler, allowing her to plant cool-weather plants later into the summer.
8. Begin early
A number of plants can be started inside the house, and transplanted outside as the weather warms. Marshall had a neat trick up her sleeve. She used a Chinese-food delivery box (plastic with a clear lid), wet a paper towel, and threw seeds down over it. Shortly she’ll be able to move the plants that developed to a larger growing space, or even outdoors. Bonus: the paper towel does not need to be removed and can be used as part of composting materials.
9. Study companion plants
Some plants just grow better with others nearby. One surprising pairing is rose and garlic. Each plant attracts pollinators and insects that aid the other.
Corn, beans and squash also go well together. Native Americans in the area used to plant the corn in small hills, and then the beans and squash shortly afterwards. The cornstalk can act as a natural trellis for the beans and the squash plant leaves fan over the soil, slowing down moisture evaporation.
10. Plan and prepare ahead of time
Have your garden bed ready in advance, so all you’ll need to do is transplant your plant to the outdoors, if you’ve started growing early. The last thing a gardener wants to do is have everything set to transplant, and not be able to because the soil isn’t ready.
Referring to a planting schedule may help. Planting schedules denote when which seed is best to plant outside. Late May and early June, for example, are the best time to plant corn, beans, summer squash, melons and sweet potatoes outside.