Diggin’ In: Different gardening techniques are all ‘right’

August 10, 2015

There is no right or wrong way to garden – only your way.

It’s the mantra that guides some southeastern Virginia vegetable gardeners.

They are newbies; they are experimenters; they are Master Gardeners. You decide which suits your style or create your own style gardening and do it your way.

Community gardening

With no suitable gardening spaces at home, some residents opted to raise veggies in the new 47-plot community garden at the Sports Complex in Yorktown, Va.

For Mark and Jennifer Gates and son Connor, 10, an "as is" tilled plot has been improved with additions of composted soil blend, earthworms and eggshells to raise peppers, herbs, eggplant and zucchini, as well as tomatoes and cucumbers. The Gates family spends 30-60 minutes daily in the garden, doing whatever is needed — watering, pruning, weeding.

During this gardening season, the family has learned lessons from other community gardeners — such as working crushed eggshells into the soil, adding sugar to the water when the tomatoes just start to turn pink and pruning the "suckers" from tomato plants.

They’ve also learned the importance of nutrient-dense soil, adds Jennifer.

"We’ve learned that it’s best to have loose, aerated soil, which is tough to achieve with the hard clay soil that is naturally in the plot," she says.

"We’ve learned that weed control is a beast of a task! We started by laying a natural, organic paper barrier and covering that with grass mulch, but that did not work out. The paper didn’t stay in place despite multiple efforts to keep it down. We are now weeding by hand daily to get it under control. Next growing season, we’d like to have raised beds with loose, composted soil. We’re researching the benefits of placing newspaper, then straw over the newspaper, as a natural weed control."

Straw bale gardening

Earlier this year, retired firefighter Jim Ridenhour of Newport News, Va., received a group invite for Straw Bale Gardening on Facebook.

Interested, he googled the book "Straw Bale Gardening" by Joel Karsten and read a shortened version of it.

"The best part of straw bale gardening is that you can use it anywhere — even on your driveway or concrete patio," he says.

Straw bales — not hay bales, Ridenhour emphasizes — are really easy. First, it’s already a raised garden, and if one bale is not tall enough, double stack them and you have even more planting space.

"Place two bales on the base side by side and then one on top centered — that’s my plan for next year," he says.

Ridenhour’s bales are in an "E" configuration with bales in a north-to-south direction for better sunlight in his yard. Before arranging the bales, he suggests you first put down weed-block fabric and mulch, and leave plenty of walking space between the rows.

Conditioning the bales is the time-consuming part, he says.

Each day for 12 days you either put fertilizer on the bales or soak the bales with your garden hose. After the first 12 days you leave the bales alone and just water them daily. This ‘conditioning’ starts the bales’ internal composting. Wire supports are also placed to help climbing cucumbers and any other climbing varieties you plant.

"You don’t have to plant just veggies — you can also plant flowers and flowering bulbs, or whatever you enjoy," he says.

Backyard bins

In Williamsburg, Va., Master Gardener Dennis Wool and his peers teach Backyard Bins and Barrels workshops that show how to turn 10-, 14- and 18-gallon containers — commonly known as storage tubs — into self-watering planters. The smallest sizes are good for herbs and small vegetable plants, while the 18-gallon ones accommodate squash and tomatoes with a much larger root system that need staking, he says.

"These containers are very affordable, can be purchased at any of the big box stores, are easily assembled and work well on patios, decks, and even driveways," he says.

"Folks that like to garden but who have limited space, physical limitations or want to show children that veggies come from plants find these very easy to use and maintain."

Materials for a large planter, according to Wool, include: 18-gallon plastic storage box, hollowed bamboo tube or plastic pipe, one plastic plant tray (the kind you bring plants home in) and piece of weed block or porous cloth.

Drill ¾-inch hole in side of the plastic box about two inches from the bottom to create a "weep" hole for the water reservoir.

Place inverted plastic plant tray in storage box.

Cover plastic tray with weed block so the soil does fill the water reservoir, allows water to wick into the soil.

Insert bamboo tube or plastic pipe into the corner hole in the plastic tray. This allows a hose to be used to fill the water reservoir.

Use a good potting mix and compost materials to fill the container.

Add plants.

Initially, water plants from the top, then fill the reservoir through the fill tube.

"One of our crew was successful with pumpkins and watermelons — allowing the vines to grow out on his lawn," says Wool, who also teaches how to make rain barrels as part of the workshop series.

"In early spring, I plant a flat of nine heads of lettuce in an 18-gallon bin and have success up until the weather gets really hot. Fall should be able to handle cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower started from small plants."



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