Help please...

hippiehomemakerMarch 27, 2014

Hi my names Lauren and let me start by saying I'm completely new to gardening except for killing a basil plant in my window and continually buying more just hoping I can keep them alive. So I have a lot of questions. I used to not want to start gardening until I had everything planned out and could figure out what I was doing. No one in my family gardens or any of my friends. So this year I bought some seeds tilled a patch of dirt and am going to learn as I go along. (hopefully)

I don't understand the advertisement for raised beds. I want to have an in ground garden. Is there anything wrong with this? Or are raised beds that much better?

So far I tilled a 20'X20' bed in the back yard and then border beds along the property. I mixed in manure and mushroom compost about four months ago. Any thing else I really need to do before I can start planting things? I've also got a really nice compost pile going to keep adding to the soil throughout the season and I've got a cover crop of fava beans going in the beds I don't have a plan for yet.

Seeds vs. Seedlings from the store? I purchased lots of different seeds from baker creek. The only ones I've started inside are my peppers and tomatoes and it's magical. They are thriving and about ready to be re potted.I've also got Kale, assorted lettuce, carrots, summer squash, sugar baby watermelon, peppers, long beans, runner beans, cucumbers, ect. Is it better to wait and plant the cool season things in fall or can I get a small spring crop if I plant now?

Planting? Is it better to plant in rows or companion plant/ mix it up. I'm leaning toward planting sections of different things mixed together. ex: potatoes, beans, and horseradish mixed together...peppers, tomatoes, and basil.... lettuce,marigolds, radish, and carrots... Cucumbers, amaranth, sunflowers, and beets... Is that ok or am I going to kill everything?

This is just the start of the list of questions, but I would really appreciate any help/ advice.

Thanks!, Lauren

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Okiedawn OK Zone 7

Hi Lauren,

Welcome to the forum.

To a certain extent, it is merely a personal preference for raised bed gardening versus grade-level, in-ground gardening. If the soil you are starting out with drains well, or if you can amend it enough to ensure it drains well, you don't need to build raised beds. However, if you are starting out with heavily compacted, dense clay soil, then raised beds become almost a necessity because plants in raised beds will have better drainage than plants planted at grade level in clay soil. If you happen to have a loamy-clayey soil, it even may drain well enough that you don't have to build raised beds.

If you are unsure what sort of soil you have, you can do a jar soil test that will help you understand how much of your soil is made up of clay, sandy or silt. I'll link a Fine Gardening magazine article on how to do the soil jar test. It is really easy and really helpful. If you don't have an empty jar sitting around, you can use a plastic bottle as long as the mouth of it is wide enough that you can pour the soil into it.

Another advantage of raised beds is that the soil in them tends to warm up a little earlier in springtime so that you can plant early

A third reason a person might like to have raised beds is that the roots are up in the soil in the raised bed, so when you walk down a row of plants, your feet are compacting the soil beneath your feet, but your plant roots are up in the raised bed so they aren't in soil that is being compacted by feet and equipment,

One way to have the advantages of raised beds without going to the time and expense of building them is simply to take hand tools and rake up long, low mounds of soil within your garden area. Plant your seeds and plants on top of the mounds. You get the benefits of raised beds without the expense of building permanent raised beds. Sometimes it is, in fact, better to use these mounds for planting the first few years until you have decided how you like to grow your garden. Then, if you still want raised beds, you always can build them at that point. My big garden started out with only 4 raised beds, and now has 14 with more in the planning stage. I waited until I understood a lot more about my particular garden site before I added to the initial 4 raised beds. I wanted to understand how much shade from trees to the north and west of the garden would impact the areas closest to the trees, and also how much tree root trouble I'd have. I wanted to understand how the heavy rainfall would flow across my sloping garden. I wanted to understand the pattern of light from the sun at various times of the year. As I gained an understanding of those different factors, we added more raised beds every year, and that is largely because we started out mostly with dense, compacted red clay. At the west end of the garden where we have a band of sandy-silty soil, we currently grow the plants at grade level. The sandy-silty soil, even when well-amended, drains so quickly that I have had better luck there in our mostly-dry climate, with grade-level plantings.

So, don't feel like you have to build raised beds. We built a new garden out back of the barn last year and there's not a raised bed in it. It has sandy soil that drains really well in about 80% of it. In the 20% of that area that is largely dense brownish-red clay, I was able to grow corn, okra and flowers last year, at grade level. Still, I eventually want to put raised beds in that clay area. The raised beds would be essential in a really rainy year. My last really rainy year was 2010, so I haven't been in a big hurry to build new raised beds. Next year might be a real rainy year, but I don't think this year necessarily will be.

I hope all the above helps you understand why a person might want or even need raised beds, but also that they are not absolutely essential except in the worst clay areas.

When you rototilled your garden soil and added soil amendments, you likely exposed some weed seed to sunlight and those seeds likely will sprout when the soil reaches the right temperature for them. This is pretty much unavoidable. Some weed seeds can survive 50 years or longer in the soil and will sprout after being exposed to less than 1 second of sunlight. If the weeds already are sprouted when it is time for you to sow seeds or to transplant plants into the ground, remove them before planting so their roots are not competing with the roots of whatever you are planting. You can remove them in whatever way makes the most sense to you. You can hand-pull them, slice them off at the ground level with a hoe, hoe them out of the soil, hand-dig them if they are deeply rooted, or you even can cultivate the soil lightly if you own or have access to a rototiller or soil cultivator. I have rototilled my corn plot twice and have cultivated the soil shallowly once with my Mantis cultivator in order to eliminate as many weeds as possible before I sow the corn seed in the ground. I'll still have to do a lot of weeding because that patch of ground has bindweed seeds in it, but I've already removed the cool-season weeds and grasses by cultivating so I'll have less weeding overall to do.

Rake your soil level. Remove any clumps of grass roots or perennial weed roots you find.

Seeds or seedlings also are largely a matter of personal preference. It is pretty important to at least start tomatoes, peppers and eggplants indoors a minimum of 6-8 weeks before transplanting time. The reason for this is that the hot temperatures that typically arrive in most of Oklahoma in June can cause pollination issues. We start the plants I listed above from seed indoors so the plants are large enough to flower and set fruit before the air temperatures get hot enough to shut down pollination and fruit set. With everything else, you mostly can start from seed sown directly in the ground. For cool-season crops, I have better success with broccoli and other cole family crops started from seed indoors and transplanted into the ground when the plants have 3-5 true leaves. Our spring weather is so erratic that seed of those sown directly can sprout irregularly and the plants can be bitten back by freezing temperatures.

We are just now sort of at the end of the cool-season planting time and not quite warm enough to start planting most warm-season plants. If I was a new gardener with cool-season seeds like carrots, lettuce, beets, kale and radishes, I'd go ahead and sow those seeds now. You'll likely get a good harvest from all the above, plus you will have the benefit of becoming "experienced" in growing them this year. Next year you can build upon what you learned this year and maybe focus a little bit more on planting them on time. Here in OK, most cool-season plants and seeds should be planted in February and March but the world won't end if some of them aren't planted until April. (I firmly believe every garden rule was made to be broken!) You also can sow a second round of cool-season seeds in the late summer for a fall or winter harvest.

When you companion-plant mixed beds of different kinds of plants together, you have to make sure you give each plant the kind of spacing that it needs. Otherwise, the larger and more rapidly growing plants can shade out the slower growing and smaller plants. When I plant potatoes and beans together, the potatoes go into the ground first and generally have emerged from the ground before I sow bean seeds. My beds run east-west because our ground slopes and east-west beds slow down soil erosion on our property, so I plant the potatoes on the north side of the bed if growing them with bush beans. Later on, I come back and sow the bean seeds a couple of feet south of the potato plants. If I am growing pole beans with the potatoes, I plant the potatoes in the middle of the 4'-wide bed. Then, when I come back and plant the bean seeds, I plant them on the north of the potato plants. I put up the trellis on the same day I sow seed. Usually, the potato plants are not yet so tall that I have to worry they will shade the bean plants. Pole beans grow quickly once they sprout.

Horseradish is a special plant. How special is it? It is so special that experienced gardeners know it is best to only grow it in containers. You can put the containers on top of the ground right there next to the potatoes, but what you do not want is for the horseradish to gets it roots down into the soil. If that happens, before too long, you'll have a 20' x 20' patch of horseradish, and you'll have it for the rest of your life.

I grow tomatoes, peppers and basil together in some beds, along with borage and other herbs and flowers. Normally, I have them in east-west running rows, with the tomatoes on the north side and the shorter peppers on the south side. I put basil plants (and other companion plants) in the middle between the tomato and pepper plants. I believe the basil plants are largely responsible for the fact that I very rarely have any tomato hornworm problems even though I grow anywhere from 100-300 tomato plants a year, and grow tons of other flowers and veggies the hornworms like (potatoes, peppers, nicotiana, petunias, daturas and brugmansias, for example). Tomato plants go into the ground first and are more widely spaced. Pepper plants go into the ground anywhere from 2 to 6 weeks later (mostly depending on just how early I first put tomato plants into the ground). Companion plants are put into the ground whenever it is the right time for them. I use both cool-season and warm-season companion plants, so they are planted at different times. Whatever spacing you choose to use, be sure you have the pepper plants where they won't be totally shaded by the tomato plants. While pepper plants can benefit from some shade in the worst of the summer heat, they won't produce well if they are too shaded.

You also can sow your lettuce seeds and carrot seeds in the same bed as tomato plants and use them as a living mulch. Have fun trying different things in different blocks of soil. I think the best carrot and lettuce crops I've ever had came from seeds sown in early April right after I put the tomato plants in the ground. They make a lovely, living and edible mulch. What's not to like about that? After the lettuce starts to bolt in the heat, you can yank them out and compost them, and put down mulch to keep the soil cool. The same thing is true with the carrots---once you harvest them, you can mulch the ground to keep it cool, or sow marigold or miniature zinnia (something small like Lilliput or Tom Thumb zinnias) seeds to grow in the now bare soil.

Marigolds move around a lot in my garden. I'll preface the explanation by saying I am in a really rural area surrounded by thousands of acres of mixed grassland and hickory/pecan/oak forests, all of which appear to be populated by trillions of spider mites. There is never a year that I don't have a severe spider mite issue. Why does this matter? Spider mites love marigolds. They love them a lot. Some of my gardening friends here won't plant marigolds anywhere near their garden because they feel the marigolds are a spider mite magnet. I'm not sure I totally agree with that, at least not in each and every year, and I am pigheaded and stubborn so I always plant marigolds in my vegetable garden. Some years I plant them near the tomato plants, which also are spider mite magnets. Sometimes I plant them far away. I try to keep them away from lettuce because I don't want to eat spider-mite infested lettuce. If you live in town and don't discover that trillions of spider mites live there around you, you might be able to grow marigolds anywhere and everywhere and never have a spider mite problem. Spider mites are worse the hotter and drier the weather, so in the worst of drought years (let's face it---if rain isn't falling in April and May in good amounts, it is going to be an awful drought year and an awful spider mite year), I plant the marigolds up near the house in a flower bed or in containers and don't put them anywhere near the veggie garden. I don't know if it helps, but likely it does.

Some years, my marigolds are spider mite infested in May. Some years the spider mites don't hit them hard until June or July. Some years the mites aren't much of a problem at all on the marigolds. So, I plant them every year, but am prepared to yank them out if I have to. Some years I am yanking them out of the ground, putting them in a black plastic trash bag, and disposing of them in the trash in early June. The reason I don't compost them is because that does nothing to get rid of the spider mites. With each heavily-infested spider mite-covered marigold plant that I dispose of, hundreds if not thousands of spider mites are going with them. I don't want to just put all those spider mites on the compost pile because they will travel right back to the garden and get on the tomato or cucumber plants.

When you use a plant like marigolds in that manner to attract and "trap" spider mites so you can dispose of them, that is called a trap crop or a trap planting. You also can plant marigolds far away from your garden in order to attract the mites away from your garden. Often, for the first few years you garden, you won't have much of a spider mite issue. Sometimes it takes some pests a few years to find a new garden. It took squash vine borers about 8 years to find me here and forever ruin my pumpkin-growing.

Amaranth and sunflowers get big, unless you are growing dwarf versions. Sunflowers are a great trap crop for stink bugs. I like to plant sunflowers away from the main veggie garden in order to attract the stink bugs away from the garden plants. I used to grow sunflowers right in there, mixed in with all the veggies, and it just seemed like they were such stink bug magnets that it was smarter to move them away from the main vegetable-growing areas. Amaranth is one of my favorite garden plants. I grow both the ornamental types and the grain types. The grain types produce tons of material for your compost pile, and the seedheads make lovely autumn decorations, but the plants can get huge. I usually grow them on the north side of the garden along with lion's tail, so they can get as big and tall and wide as they want without crowding out or shading out anything else. Sometimes I put the shorter ornamental ones, like love-lies-bleeding, inside the garden proper, but even then I have to be careful with spacing because they still get 3-4' tall in a good year. I also use the closely-related celosias as companion plants, mostly just because they are so pretty and they tolerate heat and drought so well.

It is unlikely you will kill anything merely by interplanting or intercropping it with other plants. Sunflowers, however, can stunt the growth of some other plants, so it is wise to keep them a little further away from the rest of your plants. Their roots exude a substance (maybe a phenolic compound, but I'm just guessing at that) that has an allelopathic effect on some plants and can slow or prevent their growth. Sometimes it is obvious and sometimes less so, but I remove it from the list of possible problems by putting the sunflowers further away from the veggies than I once did.

If you are in a rural to semi-rural area where skunks roam at night (and hopefully not during the daylight hours, because in that case they likely are rabid), there seems to be some attraction to the sunflowers. I think maybe there is a grub worm of some type that is common in soil underneath sunflowers. Before we had our garden fenced with a very sturdy fence, the skunks would crawl underneath the then-more-flimsy fence and prowl the garden at night. One year, on the evening before Mother's Day, they got into the garden. I had sunflowers growing along all four sides of the garden just inside the fencing. The skunk dug up each and every sunflower plant to get at whatever was in the soil beneath them. They also dug up vegetable plants here and there, but you could tell their focus was on the sunflower plants---they didn't miss a single plant. We spent that day, frantically replanting and trying to save those sunflower and vegetable plants (some lived, but most died) and working to make the fence more secure. We still refer to that day as the "Mother's Day Massacre". Based on that experience, we quickly improved our fencing to make it skunk-proof, but also moved the sunflowers further and further from the garden every year.

I'm in the process of removing a large, old compost pile and am starting a new one in a somewhat less visible location. When I've removed most of the compost, I'll rototill what is left into the soil there and plant sunflower seeds. In my location, that means we'll have to erect a fence to keep the deer from eating the sunflowers, but it will give me a nice place to grow a lot of sunflowers to use as cut flowers without having them growing too close to the veggie garden.

I hope you get the answers you're searching for. It sounds like you have done your research and carefully planned and prepared, and I expect you'll have a very successful garden this year.


Here is a link that might be useful: Soil Jar Test for Texture/Composition

This post was edited by okiedawn on Fri, Mar 28, 14 at 9:49

    Bookmark   March 27, 2014 at 1:50PM
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Dawn, I swear I'm not being sarcastic....have you considered writing a gardening book for Okies?

    Bookmark   March 27, 2014 at 10:01PM
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Okiedawn OK Zone 7

Every time I write a post here, it is practically book length. Isn't that enough? (grin)

I lack both the desire to write a book and the time to write a book. Also, I lack the self-discipline. When the weather is nice, I am outside from sunrise to sunset or beyond, playing in the dirt. Writing a book would cut into my play time, so it's not going to happen.

Thanks for putting a smile on my face, though. You are too kind.


    Bookmark   March 27, 2014 at 10:15PM
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I second my daughters thoughts! There is no way, I can add anything to the original questions.

Dawn, you never cease to amaze me. Thanks for sharing all your knowledge with all of us.



    Bookmark   March 27, 2014 at 10:41PM
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Lisa_H OK(7)

LOL...They beat me to it! You could probably copy all your posts and you would have a full length book :)

    Bookmark   March 27, 2014 at 11:12PM
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Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions. I've got soil drying right now so I can do the jar test and I'll post the results when they're ready. I think I have a bit of sand in my soil because, when I removed the grass I found streaks of sand a few inches down.

The mounding technique sounds perfect. I have ideas for a more formal french potager style veggie garden later on and this will let me get my beds in place to make sure I like them/ they're optimal for my backyard conditions.

The carrot/tomato cover crop sounds perfect!

I've got the love lies bleeding amaranth and I'm prepared to pull it if necessary same with the marigolds, but I'm hoping to get some amaranth out of it for storage/cooking.

As a bit of a background story, I'm a culinary art major so I really love cooking. The goal is to go from garden to fork and eventually I'd love to center some cooking seasonally classes around it. I think my generation doesn't understand the importance of food and how that applies to health. Basically I want to teach the principles of cooking so people can use what they have and make something delicious and healthy vs. most of my generation that has no idea how to cook.

Thanks for the warning about skunks. Our yard is fenced but there's a smaller hole where the bunnies come in so I'll probably get skunks. And thanks for the Horseradish warning as well, I put a Root in a pot last week so I will definitely keep it in there.

I have a 4'X16' space between my fence and the side of my house. I figured I'd make part of that the sunflower patch. It's a good 10 -15 feet away from my garden. I'm sorry about your mothers day massacre!

Thanks again for answering my question!

    Bookmark   March 28, 2014 at 10:54AM
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Are you coming to the Spring Fling?
You definitely should COOK and come to learn as well...and we all need to meet face-to-face, too; we have such a good time!


    Bookmark   March 31, 2014 at 4:46PM
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I would love to, but I'm going to be vising my family in Utah at that time. I will definitely come to the next gathering though. :)

    Bookmark   April 3, 2014 at 8:34PM
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