Garden Help: I got a garden, now what?!?

A friend of ours recently got a plot in a community garden and she asked for some help on getting started.

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Our friends new community garden plot.

Often when you first get a community garden plot, it is going to look a bit run down.  The previous owner probably didn’t spend any time cleaning up and the garden will most likely be covered in leaves and overgrown with leftover plants and opportunistic weeds.  But don’t get discouraged because with a little sweat and hard work, the run down garden can easily be transformed in to a highly productive and beautiful garden.

Step 1: Know the rules.

Every community garden has its own set of rules and regulations, so familiarize yourself with them before getting started to make sure you aren’t violating any rules/regulations.

Step 2: Gather tools.

The tools I suggest are the following: shovel, spading fork, bow rake, small hand trowel, small hand rake, gloves and hat.  The shovel, spading fork and bow rake are mostly used when you are first getting the garden ready for planting so if you have friends you can borrow from it will save your some money.  Most of the time during the growing season, the small hand trowel and rake will be sufficient.

Step 3: Clean up.

To get a better idea of what your piece of land looks like, remove all of the debris, leftover plants and weeds from the garden.  Start with the easy to remove debris (leaves, branches, etc.) that is just sitting on top of the soil.  Then start on the plants and weeds.  If there are any plants that you want to save, gently dig them out and put them in containers (if you don’t have any garden containers, paper grocery bags work great).  Be sure to dig far enough away from the base of the plant to limit root damage.  It might seem like a huge task, but just start on one side and work your way across, you’ll probably be surprised at how quickly the clean up goes and how much better the garden looks with just a little cleanup.  A shovel or spading fork are useful tools to help loosen the soil around weeds so they can be easily pulled out.  Be sure to follow your community garden’s policy on where to put all of the organic material you just removed from your plot.  Most community gardens have compost bins but check to see if there are noxious weeds that cannot be composted (false garlic, nutgrass and bindweed are NOT allowed in my community garden’s compost bins).

Step 4: Repairs.

Check the garden walls to see if they need any repairs.  Its much easier to fix things when there is nothing growing in the garden.  Likewise, if your garden has fencing, check to make sure there are no holes and that the posts are solidly in place.  If your garden has no walls (like my friends garden pictured above), I recommend adding a short 4-6 inch wall to keep the grass out of the garden and the garden soil in the garden.  The wall should start about 4 inches below soil level to keep roots from growing under and in to the garden (2x8s or 2x10s should be sufficient).  Walls can be built with a variety of materials (douglas fir, redwood, cedar, cinder blocks) but I HIGHLY discourage the use of pressure treated lumber.  While pressure treated lumber will last much longer than untreated lumber, it will also leach toxic chemicals in to the soil where your vegetables will be growing.  Douglas fir is the cheapest but will need to be replaced in 3-5 years depending on weather conditions.  Redwood and cedar are naturally insect and rot resistant so they will probably last 6-8 years but costs 2x as much.  Cinder blocks will last indefinitely and only cost 1.5x as much as douglas fir, but you will have to sacrifice some garden space to lay the cinder blocks (common block widths are 6 and 8 inches).  Cinder blocks also have the tendency to move around so they should be staked or buried halfway to stabilize them.  Check with your community garden on what materials are allowed and if there are any rules/regulations against garden walls or borders.

Step 5: Amend the soil.

After the walls and fences have been repaired, its time to amend the soil before planting.  Start by getting the garden soil smoothed out using a bow rake (metal garden rake).  Then add 1-2 inches of compost (from the community garden or store bought) over the entire garden.  Use the shovel or spading fork and turn the soil over to incorporate the compost in to the soil.  Then flatten everything out again using the bow rake.  I like to cover the entire garden in 2-3 inches of mulch but some people just leave the soil uncovered.  The mulch helps retain moisture in the soil as well as discourages weeds and provides food and shelter for earthworms.  I prefer to use shredded horse bedding (which is provided by my community garden), but partially composted leaves, grass clippings and even shredded paper will work.  I tend to stay away from wood chips since they don’t break down fast enough.  Check with your local county to see if there are any free compost/mulch programs in the area.  You can also try and call horse stables or check craigslist to see if anyone has chicken/rabbit/goat litter.  Fresh manure will have to be composted before use in the garden but your garden will appreciate the extra work.

Step 6: Layout.

Determine what you want to plant and do some research in to the growth habits of different varieties of plants and vegetables.  Based on space/light requirements, layout where you would like to plant everything and build garden paths accordingly.  Remember that plants will look very small and spaced too far apart when they are small, but will fill up the space when they are full grown.  Don’t plant too closely since it will encourage disease and reduce yields.  Do some research on companion planting and remember to plant some flowers to help attract bees and other beneficial insects to your garden.  I like to use old wood for paths (check craigslist for free wood, old fence boards work great) but you don’t have to use anything.  Just make sure you aren’t walking in the planting areas (compacts the soil) so make sure to mark the planting area boundaries.

Step 7: PLANT!

The fun part.  Plant seeds and seedlings, remembering to water well but not over water.  It is better to water deeply less often to encourage deep root growth instead of frequent shallow watering.  Seeds and small seedlings will need to be watered more often since their roots are very shallow and located close to the surface of the soil.  Remember to plant in season (don’t try growing cool season crops in the summer) for best results.

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