Frugal Gardening 101: Prepping your plot and planting early seeds

If you are thinking about growing your own vegetables this summer to save money on skyrocketing food prices, now is the time to prepare a garden plot for planting. 

Heidi Wood, horticulturalist for the Town of Stratford, P.E.I., says it is her favourite part of the gardening season because well-prepared soil is the key ingredient to growing a bountiful garden for the entire summer. 

“Getting my soil ready is my favourite thing,” said Wood from her office at the Robert L. Cotton Centre. “You really only get one chance.” 

First consideration: how big should your garden plot be? Wood suggests a size of six metres by 12 metres (20 feet by 40 feet) for a family of four. Her own plot at the Stratford Community Gardens is three metres by five metres (10 feet by 17 feet). 

You can make your plot smaller or larger depending on what you want to grow — check seed packages for space advice. 

Heidi Wood’s garden plot before preparation, left, and after, right. (Heidi Wood)

You can also make your plot smaller and reduce weeding and other soil care, by going vertical. Wood grows climbing yellow and green beans, and cucumbers can also climb. Her father helped her build a structure with discarded two-by-fours and some netting — or you can just use sturdy fallen tree branches secured with twine at the top. 

Veggies like climbing beans can even be grown in hanging baskets with the vines cascading down, Wood said. Or you could grow them in a container on your deck with some poles to climb, along with containers for tomatoes, lettuce and herbs. 

Prep the soil

If you’re starting a garden plot from scratch using a patch of lawn or field it is best to do it in the fall, Wood said. But there’s still time to start this spring.

Pick a spot with full sun (no shade). Wood suggests seeing where the grass is growing best on your lawn: that indicates better soil. 

Wood spreads compost on her garden plot in Stratford’s community garden to make the soil a little less alkaline and combat compaction. She does not use conventional fertilizers. (Heidi Wood)

She suggests three ways to prep soil from scratch: 

  • Till up your patch, sod and all, then remove the bits of grass and weeds by hand.
  • Remove and discard the sod then till the soil underneath. 
  • Dig up the sod, flip it over and leave it on top of the soil for a few weeks for it to decompose, then discard what’s left.

You can buy a mechanical tiller, which starts at about $200, a hand tiller for about $60, or choose an all-purpose garden spade for about $20. 

If you already have a garden plot, simply remove as many weeds as you can to “start out with a clean bed,” Wood said. 

Most gardens will then enjoy a layer of compost, which can be purchased by the bag for about $5. There are also frequent compost giveaways or sales across P.E.I. and Wood suggests keeping an eye on social media for those. She also advocates checking with local farmers for some free manure — she recommends it be about a year old to be well-decomposed, not fresh. 

Spread an inch or so of compost on top of your tilled soil, then mix it in lightly with a metal rake ($20 or so) or with a shovel, or even by hand. 

“Almost like you’re baking, you stir it in,” said Wood. Try to avoid standing on your soil, as that will compact it and make it inhospitable for seeds to take root, she said. If you need to add more compost you can do so later in the season.

 Minimize disrupting the soil bed, she advises, as there are weed seeds lurking, and earthworms doing good work.

Tools you’ll need

You can invest a lot in garden tools, but you don’t necessarily have to. Wood suggests at a minimum you’ll need a spade, metal rake, a hoe and a hand trowel. Those should cost less than $100 total. 

This is chickweed , which Wood says can indicate a few things: soil that is high in nitrogen, alkaline and compact. (Heidi Wood)

To keep it frugal, you could borrow what you need from a neighbour, or offer to share the cost of tools with some neighbours. 

If you join a community garden, you will pay for a plot by size, but most memberships include access to all the tools you’ll need, plus a water source. 

You can also buy a $50 membership to the Charlottetown Tool Library. Pick up tools by appointment at their storage locker on Thompson Drive. Rentals for most tools are about a week long. They also have tools including hammers, saws and drills for building raised beds. The library can be found on Facebook or by calling (902) 314-9732. 

You’ll need access to water for the garden, too. Wood suggests making or buying a rain barrel which can attach to a downspout on your house or shed. You could also simply put out buckets to catch rainwater. Gardens prefer rainwater over cooler tap water, she says.

Planting times

Spinach, leaf lettuce and green onion seeds can be planted in soil now, Wood said, as can cabbage, cauliflower or broccoli transplants you’ve started indoors. 

‘Planting seeds is easy,’ Wood says. (Joyce Wood)

“Things like that, that can adapt well to the cool temperatures,” she explained. “The soil is warming, but it’s not quite there just yet. I know it’s hard for people to just kind of sit back on these nice sunny days and think ‘Oh I should get in the garden,’ but … we could have snow.’ ” 

In mid-May, gardeners can begin to plant some of the seedlings they have begun to grow indoors, or that they have purchased at a garden centre — things like head lettuce, carrots, beets and parsnips. 

The end of May or the beginning of June are the right time to plant things like beans, which are very sensitive to frost. 

For planting directions, refer to your seed packages, Wood said.

pevita pearce

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