Harrisonburg Gardening 101: Planning your Plantings

Renee -- March 25th, 2011

This is the 2nd post in our local gardening mini-series. Here’s the first: “Preparing the Plot“. I’ll reiterate that I’m no expert! I just do a lot of reading about gardens online and I started my own small plot here in Harrisonburg for the first time last year.

Now is the perfect time to start seeds indoors for planting once all danger of frost has past, or to start frost-hardy plants outside under protective cover.

Harrisonburg is technically in Hardiness Zone 6-a according to the National Gardening Association, but keep in mind that there are also local microclimates, especially in areas like ours that are so hilly. A low-lying garden on the shady side of a hill will likely have slightly cooler temperatures than a garden at the top of a hill that gets sun all day, and the effect is even stronger on opposite sides of a mountain. So use “Zone 6″ as a guideline, but keep your specific planting spot in mind when deciding what types of plants to grow in your garden.

Our average last frost is in early May, so now is the time to plant seeds indoors if the packets say to grow seedlings indoors for 6 weeks before transplanting outside. You can also transplant seedlings outside earlier, or plant seeds of frost-hardy plants like spinach and peas directly in the ground, if you have a protective cover such as a cold frame, hoop frame, or even simply an inverted clear storage bin like I have been using that has worked great for germinating and protecting my young spinach plants so far.

Uncover plants seeded outdoors on mild days after they have germinated to get sun and light rain if possible, but make sure they are covered during cold nights to avoid letting the frost settle on the leaves. A coating of water can also help protect from frost.

If you’ve never started seeds indoors before, you can find some basic info at this link.

Don’t get too excited and put indoor plants outside too early or before “hardening off” the plants (gradually acclimating them to the outdoors), however, or you may have a seedling disaster like I did last year on my first try:

Frost-damaged plants in my garden last Spring

Here are some additional links with tips for planting vegetables in our zone:

But before you can think about planting, you of course first have to acquire seeds or plants. You can get seeds just about anywhere: Hardware Stores, Co-Ops, Garden Centers, Big Box stores, and online. I bought most of my seeds this year at Ace Hardware, supplementing my stash with some special varieties from Renee’s Garden online. (I didn’t only shop there because of the name, though it is a good one! I mostly went on the recommendation of one of my favorite garden blogs, Chiot’s Run.) You can also get seeds from other gardeners – most I know have a stash of extras lying around that they’re happy to give away or exchange!

Garden Centers also carry small plants if you don’t want to mess with seed-starting, but I also highly recommend shopping for plants at our Farmer’s Market. I got a Yellow Pear Tomato plant last year that did well, and I’ve seen other tomatoes, hot peppers, and strawberry plants for sale as well. I wish I were more patient and had room in my garden to put more Farmer’s Market plants, but my plot was full last year by the time most were for sale!

Some other topics to consider when planning your garden include companion planting – meaning what plants grow well around each other, and what may affect one another negatively – and space planning. There is a garden trend called “Square Foot Gardening” which specifies how many of each type of plant you can put in each square foot of your garden to maximize space usage. There is a lot of information about it online and plenty of books written about the topic. Be aware there are also some companies trying to sell expensive square foot gardening systems (including planter boxes conveniently divided into 1-foot squares), which seem completely unnecessary to me.

Keep in mind when planning your garden that mature plant height matters as much as horizontal spacing. I learned this the hard way when my tomato plants grew tall enough to completely shade my squash and cucumbers!

Here are some helpful websites:

I’ll do a quick rundown of what I attempted to grow here last year and how it went:

Lettuce – I planted Caesar (Romaine) and “Summer Mix” lettuce, which all did great, though I had to fight off slugs most of the season (more on that in a future post). It produced prolifically the whole season, though the leaves were less crisp and more bitter in the high heat of late summer.

Radishes – I had a great batch of Radishes early in the season and didn’t plant much as it got hotter. They were really easy to grow from seed – a great beginner’s crop!

Green Beans – The beans did well and I ended up with several large bowls of green beans throughout the season (more than I had expected since I only planted about a 3ft x 4ft area). I had some climbing and some bush beans (Blue Lake). Though the bush beans tasted great, in the future I will buy climbing beans to take advantage of my small space and grow vertically on a structure like this branch teepee.

Yellow Squash – I ended up buying most of my squash at the Farmer’s Market last year because mine fruited, but the squash never grew large enough to be edible. My plants continued to flower, though, and I discovered a new love for fried squash blossoms! (The linked recipe is a baked version from local food blog Lisa’s Cafe. I stuffed mine with mozzarella and fresh basil.) I think my squash plants were overshadowed by my tomato plants and just didn’t get enough sun or water in my crowded garden to produce well.

Cucumbers – Cucumbers were even more of a bust for me than the yellow squash. The plants were stunted for the same reasons the squash were, and barely grew at all. I think cucumbers need a lot of sun and water, and the tomato plants stole both from the cucumbers and squash.

Carrots – I had a hard time with getting carrots to grow properly. My garden bed was only partially raised and I didn’t dig down very deeply. They grew fine in the shallow soil, but you can see in the picture what happened when they hit harder clay soil! If you grow standard carrots, make sure you loosen the soil as deep as they may grow, and if you have heavy clay (like a lot of us do around here), you may want to mix in some sandy soil amendments. Since I plan to avoid digging as much as possible this year, I’m trying radish-shaped Round Romeo carrots that don’t root down deep!

Potatoes – I bought Kennebec seed potatoes on a whim and realized when I got home that there was no room for them in my garden! I searched for alternative ways of planting them online and learned that you could grow them in containers. I tried growing a few in trash bags and trash bins, and they did produce several small to medium potatoes per plant! However, I’d try much larger containers in the future. Maybe one day I’ll build a structure like the one at this link for potatoes. You can also grow them above ground in grow-bags or even a stack of old tires!

Tomatoes – My tomatoes did well overall, though they were smaller than anticipated, probably due to competition for water since I planted everything in my small plot so close together. This year, instead of starting a flat of tomato seeds and seeing how many survive, I’m starting only 6-8 plants inside, and letting them grow for much longer indoors, so I have just a few hardy plants to transplant into the garden instead of a ton of weak ones. I also had trouble with “damping off disease“, but the plants that survived that and the frost eventually thrived in the hot weather.

I also grew onions, nasturtium, and a friend gave me some basil plants. You can see a more about my garden in my Flickr Photoblog from last year, and I’ll try to add more photos this year as I try growing some new veggies such as broccoli and arugula!

I hope my relatively good success with my first small garden will inspire some of you that haven’t gardened yet to try it out this year. If you have any gardening questions, ask in the comments and I’m sure you will get answers from the many hburgnews readers that have more experience gardening & farming than I do!

For those of you that have grown vegetables here before, what did you plant and how did it do in our local climate? And what are your favorite local places to get seeds and plants? Tell us in the comments!

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