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June 1, 2013

The plot beckons

Experts offer tips for first-time gardeners

By Cathy B. Koplen Contributing Writer
The Daily Star

---- — It is time to plant a garden.

According to most experts, the rule of thumb in this region is to put in a vegetable garden around Memorial Day weekend.

It can be done in a weekend, but if this is the first time the ground has been cleared for a garden, it takes some planning.

“There are a couple of options,” said Carrie Hewlett, who co-owns Gretna Garden greenhouses in Otego.

“You can do a raised bed. That is the easiest way, but it is more expensive, too,” Hewlett said. “You have to buy the wood to frame it and the dirt to fill it, but you don’t have to worry about taking out the sod.”

Gardeners who want to till a garden should mark out the spot and make sure there is plenty of sunlight. A outside watering system is helpful. The sod must either be removed or tilled into the soil. It is possible in most areas to dig out the sod with a shovel.

If gardeners want to use a tiller, there are many available for rent at hardware stores. Before tilling, larger rocks should be removed. For grassy areas, a mid-size tiller is most useful. After tilling, gardeners should pick or rake clods of sod and rocks out of the garden.

Many people mix supplemental soil, manure or compost into the garden after tilling.

“You should always test your soil,” said Tony Annutto, who owns Annutto’s Farm Stand. “I had a man in here the other day. He said his blueberries were not doing well. He tested the soil and saw he needed some more acid. He added some fertilizer.”

Soil types run from acidic to alkaline. Some plants do better with a higher content of one or the other.

When trying to decide what to put into a garden, the Cornell University Cooperative Extension has a user-friendly website that has information on most vegetables that are generally grown in upstate New York.

It is a good time to plant young vegetables including tomatoes, cucumber, squash, peppers and watermelon.

“The underground stuff, you would want to put that in earlier in May, and the peas too, they like it when it is cooler,” said Richard Hewlett, who has been farming in Otego since 1975 and owns Gretna Garden with his daughter.

Richard Hewlett said a little spring snow helps some plants.

“You know what we call spring snow — we call it poor man’s fertilizer,” Hewlett said. “It is not just the water. Rain and snow bring in micro-nutrients that just watering alone doesn’t.”

Water is vital to young plants. If an outdoor water source is not available, inexpensive watering cans are an option, as are rain collectors that slowly release collected water through punctured hoses.

After deciding what to plant, it is helpful to have a chart with all of the plants marked. A well-planned garden allows for taller vegetable to shade some vegetable that cannot tolerate too much sun.

Space is important to factor into a garden plan. Young vegetables will grow quickly and take up a varied amount of space. Squash will grow into a large bush, while cucumbers will run along the garden if they are not trained to grow up on a trellis or tomato cage. Tomatoes, depending on the variety, can grow five feet or taller.

Keep the valleys between the rows clean of weeds with plastic, newspaper or straw. Weeds should be periodically removed from the garden beds.

Most gardeners are able to see a lush yield in July without too much effort. The summer conditions in the area and the quality of the soil help even the most unlikely of gardeners to reap the efforts of their work.

“Our soil is really good, especially along the river,” Carrie Hewlett said. “It is like the Nile with all the nutrients in the silt.”