So you’ve finally gotten around to installing a backyard farm, but you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed. What do you do first? How much should you water? What should you plant where? Before anything else, take a breath and recite the informal Green City Growers motto: there is no such thing as a gardening emergency.
Your raised bed farm utilizes a technique called square foot gardening, developed in the 1970’s by Mel Bartholomew. It allows for you to grow more crops in less space, and with less work. Raised bed farms are easy to tend to and care for, and can be placed anywhere with adequate sunlight, including driveways, decks, or rooftops. Here are a few basic gardening maintenance tips to help you get going.
Before anything else, it is important to plan out your garden before you start planting, and our crop mapping tool is a helpeful way to assist in this essential task. You’ll want to group together plants with similar watering requirements, and plant companion plants together. Companion plants can help each other grow in a variety of ways, while antagonistic plants impede one another’s growth. Plant your taller crops are on the north side of your raised beds. This way, they won’t shade out your smaller plants.
Finally, consider the time of year you will be planting and which crops will grow best at that time. You won’t have much luck growing tomatoes in April, and your lettuce will likely bolt if you try to plant it in mid-July. You can have a spring, summer and fall crop in your backyard farm, but not all at once!
There are two basic methods to plant: by planting seeds directly into the ground or by using transplants (or ‘starts’) that you have purchased or grown indoors. When a spring crop is finished, you can replant that square with a summer crop, and later for a fall crop. For both seeds and starts, draw a grid with your fingers inside each square foot to make the appropriate number of squares (4, 9, or 16) and plant seeds or seedlings in the center of each newly drawn square. Always remember to label where you have planted which seeds or transplants.
Generally, seeds should be planted at a depth of two times their size in cold weather, or four times their size in hot weather (approximately 1/8 to 1 inch). Plant seeds below a moist surface to prevent them from drying out. After planting, gently tap the soil down on top of the seed to bring it into contact with the soil. The best way to water newly planted seeds is with a light mist or spray from the hose so that they are not unearthed.
To transplant, dig a hole slightly larger than the container in which the seedling is growing. With vegetables, bury the plant up to the first set of leaves. Pat down the soil firmly around the plant and smooth it around the stem at a slight decline so that water drains toward the plant.
When you plant transplants, check to see if the roots are rootbound (if they are growing in circles.) If they are, cut off the bottom of the roots and soil or gently tease the bottoms of the roots before transplanting.
The best time to transplant is in the early morning or on cloudy days to minimize stress on the new plant.
“Vertical crops” such as peas, pole beans and cucumbers grow well on trellises, which will conserve space. Plant the seeds in a line underneath the trellis and train them to climb by twisting the main stem through the trellis once a week.
After transplanting, water each seedling immediately and every day for the next few days until they are established, keeping them moist, but not drenched. To water, pour warm water directly at the base of the plant. Warm water is better for the plants (they can absorb more nutrients from warm water, and in the spring and fall it helps to warm the soil.) Make sure to water close to the ground so you do not form puddles in the soil. Only water the base of plants – wet leaves are more susceptible to fungal diseases. The best time to water is early in the morning.
Water frequently (every one or two days,) based on the weather how your plants look, and what the soil feels like. Plants need more water if it is hot and sunny than if it is cool or cloudy. If plants turn yellow, they are getting too much water. If they are wilting, they are not getting enough. If the top one or two inches of the soil feel dry, it is time to water. Water the soil deeply to encourage deep root growth.
Mulching helps to conserve moisture and keep weeds under control. Spread a thick layer (several inches thick) of straw, shredded leaves, compost, dried leaves, or anything else that can be used as mulch, around your bed once your plants are established.
Weed when the weeds are young and when the soil is wet. Always take care of weeds before they bloom to prevent having more of them the following year.
To learn all about pest and disease management, proper harvesting techniques, soil maintenance, and more, purchase a copy of our comprehensive how-to book, The Urban Bounty, or register for our intensive Urban Farming Course on March 19th and 20th!