Spring Gardening

Mar 24, 2011

Gardening columnist Adrian Higgins discusses how to dig, weed seed and prepare a vegetable garden for the months ahead.

If I'm creating a garden for the first time on my lawn. Should I add commercial fertilizer or just start with compost? I would like to create an organic garden, or as organic as practicality allows.

Hello, we seem to be having technical problems, but I'll give it a bash. Fertilizer is the last thing you need worry about. First, the site must be in full sun, second it must be in a free draining area, then you can start to dismantle the lawn and create growing beds. Skim off the turf and create raised beds with lots of good organic matter that will mitigate the heavy clay soil that you probably have. Hurry, the planting season is upon us.

Hi, I've had a tomato and basil garden for a few years. Last spring, to get the really good tomato taste I've been missing, I planted some heirlooms of the Fiorentina type. They all got hit by the wilt and produced only stunted fruit. The other tomatoes survived but really petered out towards the end of the season. Is there ANYTHING I can do this year, or do the harmful elements that cause wilt stay in the soil forever? I really liked the taste of the heirlooms even though they were wimpy-looking.

First, the season last year for tomatoes was dreadful, not just because of late blight disease. We just have to hope that this year, the temperatures will be a bit lower and more manageable, and we'll have more rainfall. Don't put tomato plants out too early, they really get set back by cold soil. I am only starting my seeds now, for planting in May. Also, I would plant some fail safe cherry tomatoes such as Sun Gold, Black Cherry and Sweet 100. Whatever the season throws at those guys, they seem to be able to take it. My general rule with tomatoes is, the bigger it is, the harder it is to raise a good fruit to maturity.

What are the components of a comprehensive soil test?

The basic results get to Potassium and Phosphorus (Nitrogen is too transient to record) as well as secondary nutrients such as Boron, Magnesium and Zinc. You will also learn the soil pH, useful to know, as well as something called Cation Exchange Rate, which has to do with the structure of the soil. Loam is good. You have to get extra tests for lead and arsenic, which is something worth doing if you are growing edible plants and if you live in the city, where old building received lead paint through the years.

I just wanted to pass along my composting method (as well as get your thoughts on how I can improve it). I don't have a bin or tumbler. What I do have is time. The method I use takes 18 months to start producing compost, but once you start, you'll have fresh compost every spring.

In the fall, collect your leaves (I collect them with my mower -- shredding and bagging them at once) and put them in an out-of-the-way location. Throughout the year, add kitchen waste to the pile (no animal products except for egg shells!), turning the pile from time to time. I also add grass clippings from time to time (I typically don't bag the clippings -- I mulch them into the ground when mowing the yard).

After 18 months, your leaves will be converted into compost by your friendly neighborhood worms. Sift the compost through a sifter (I built a 2'x2' form w/ studs and 1/2" steel netting) to remove the larger pieces (this also breaks up any clumps) and spread it on your garden. Believe me, your plants will love you for it! Make sure you start a new pile each fall so that you'll always have a pile going.

This is good, and the way that most people form compost, slowly and without the heat. Fast, hot compost requires a lot of attention. Slow is just as fine, though I would not add weeds to a cool compost pile.

I've heard that some flowers are very beneficial to plant within vegetable gardens; for what reason(s) ? Thanks, FXB, Westfield, NJ

There's a view among some gardeners that companion plantings are of value, e.g. marigolds to ward off soil nematodes. Others worry that some flowers (I think Cosmos) can draw insect pests. I'm not an adherent of this religion. The best thing you can do is grow your vegetables well and without weed competition or stress. Then plant lovely flowers to draw pollinators.

Hi, So glad you are doing this chat! Thanks, Washington Post! I'd appreciate any tips for growing spinach in a garden bed and containers. We live in Rockville. Last spring I had a problem with rabbits eating our tasty green plants!

Sad to say, but I've almost given up growing spinach. I think we live in too hot a part of the world. You can sow some now for baby spinach in late May and June. The logic suggests that we grow it as a fall crop, but the garden is so hot when you have to sow the seeds, that the seedlings are really stressed. I'd love to hear from other gardeners about spinach growing tips.

I've heard a lot of different opinions about when or whether to mulch around vegetables. Can you please give me the straight scoop? Thanks.

Mulch is valuable for keeping weeds down and conserving soil moisture. Chopped straw is perfect for this, I would just be careful not to lay it too thick. Don't use shredded bark or wood.

My husband and I are attempting a small garden (4x4) on our back patio. We prepared the bed with a mix of compost manure and gardening soil. Aside from a short fence to prevent our pugs from wandering into it, the bed seems to be ready for planting. We've never grown anything before so I'm a little worried about how to start - how many different kinds of veggies/herbs can you grow in such a small space? We want tomatoes, a variety of herbs, onions, maybe squash and/or peas... is that too much?

Your ambitions exceed your real estate. I would just grow some lettuce or mesclun mix now and then plan to grow stuff vertically in the summer. A couple of tomato plants, and some pole beans.

I desperately want to plant a cornus controversa variegata. I have checked with all my local nurseries, and no one is getting any in. So I broke down and ordered one from a catalogue. It arrived yesterday, and the leader is growing at an almost 45 degree angle! The tree is straight, then branches off to one side. Is there any hope for this tree, or should it be returned?

That might be a problem. This tree is grown for its horizontal branching, so the leader is not quite as big an issue as with other trees. Perhaps you can use a temporary splint to straighten it. Definitely orient the plant so the leader is on the northeast side, so that it grows the other way toward the sun.

I'd love to have a vegetable garden, but have a heard of 16 deer that traipse through my yard each evening. I know a fence is the only solution, but I'd like to do something that's aesthetically pleasing. Are there any books/websites you'd recommend to give me some ideas?

Yes, there are many beautiful fences. I have friends who have enclosed theirs with a striking fence made of cedar poles and twigs. In my community garden video, you can see the fence I made from (sounds awful but it works) half inch gas piping. Another option is black netting fence (I think Benner sells it) that recedes. Fencing is the best way to keep deer away, though a friend told me the squirting hose, activated my motion, does a pretty good job.

My best vegetable growing area is on the south-facing front of my house. The space is three feet deep by 20 feet wide. I'm thinking of putting in two-foot-high raised beds using landscape timbers. I'd like your thoughts about preparing the soil and soil amendments, how closely to space vegetable plants, and which varieties might do best there. Thanks.

P.S. The Post should have weekly gardening chats during the spring, summer and fall gardening seasons.

The dilemma is in using peat moss, which is a very useful soil amendment but is being shunned by green gardeners. Our native clay soil has its value, it just needs a lot of organic matter added to it to lighten it. I use Leafgro, limestone, and lots of finished compost. Your own shredded leaves make a beautiful amendment. You could leave them on the soil surface over winter for them to break down a little, and then turn them in for spring.

Good morning. A Topsy-Turvy is a plastic bag suspended from a hook, and the plant grows upside down. Do you have any experience with this method of growing tomatoes? Some friends say it's wonderful; others not so much. I'm thinking about giving it a try and wonder what variety of tomato to use - big boy, plum, cherry, grape, etc. - and would welcome your comments.

I've seen gardeners use it. I don't get the point of it, other than its novelty, and I worry that the tomato would dry out too much, with the resulting stress and risk of blossom end rot.

I had my garden soil professionally tested earlier this month, and the pH was determined to be 5.5. What is the best way to incorporate lime into the soil, and how far in advance of the planting season does is need to be applied? Also, where can I find a company that will do the job. Most landscaping companies don't want to work on small areas. My plot is 25 feet by 30 feet in size. Thanks!

That's a bit acidic, but would be great for blueberries, which are fruitful and ornamental. Otherwise just get cheap bags of powdered limestone and spread them on the garden maybe half an inch thick, and turn them over with a garden fork. I would consider that therapy, no need to get a landscaper to do it, unless you have some physical difficulty.

I know it's probably a one time appearance so I am making the most of it! My camellia didn't bloom this year, despite a full crop of buds. Now I'm looking ahead to next year. Should I clip the buds off? Let them fall on their own? What kind of preparations should I be making for next year? I was so disappointed after seeing all of those perfect buds.

I think I'm doing this once a month for the growing season. Hooray! Camellia buds usually have difficulty forming if we have a dry summer and early fall, so it is important to keep them watered during this crucial period of bud development. The buds may have formed but not sufficiently for a good show. Or maybe the cold kept them from developing until now, so give them a little while. There's no need to clip off the buds, and you may damage the plant in doing so.

I've already planted my tomatoe transplants and I fear it is way too early, and the snow and cold temperatures this weekend will kill them. Is there any way this can be avoided??

Dig them up, put them in pots, bring them indoors to a cool bright room and let them develop for another three or four weeks before putting them back outside. They will need lots of light, draining soil and even moisture.

My thyme has overwintered for several years, but now every year it gets more leggy and unkempt. I've tried cutting out the dead stuff, but is there any way of cutting or pruning that will keep it at least sort of neat?

I would treat it gingerly, like lavender, wait until you see fresh growth, and then cut back the stems by a half or more, but leave some new growth. Or you may want to plant young, vigorous replacements. Thyme is not long lived in our climate. Crown drainage is essential.

How (other than standing outside all day in each of several possible spots) does one figure out what areas in a very tree laden yard get six hours of full sunlight a day?

First, wait for the leaves to fill out, which takes the whole month of April. Observe the light patterns between 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.  The sunniest spots are what you're going for. It will require some presence, though not continuously.

You mentioned globe artichokes in today's article. I have been trying unsuccessfully to grow some for my artichoke ravenous family. I've tried seedlings (twice), direct sow, greenhouse. Any suggestions? Please?!

Our new online chat format doesn't tell me where you live, but the variety that works here is called Imperial Star.  Call around and see if anyone has it for sale as a transplant. I know DeBaggio Herbs has sold it in the past.

Regarding your open inquiry regarding spinach, the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in Virginia recommends Long-Standing Bloomsdale spinach as the most heat-tolerant cultivar that it offers.

Thanks. I've grown that, but it's not a magic bullet, spinach wise. 

When should I plant raspberries? I have the plot all prepared (fertilized with dried chicken manure and currently covered with rye which I will till under) and I'm dying to get started!

Plant the sprouting canes over the next month.

For the past two summers we have been plagued by both early and late tomato blight. I even planted last year's tomatoes in half-barrels of brand-new soil, since we have only one spot that gets enough sun so I can't follow the advice to move the planting place. Is our only option to spray the vines constantly with Daconil? We really can't live without our Brandywines.

I don't think any veggie is worth growing if you have to spray it with synthetic pesticides. If you are using the same containers, I would get rid of all the soil (and obviously any of last year's vegetation) and grow less demanding varieties, including hybrids with disease resistance.  Johnny's Seeds is selling some blight resistant varieties.  I think Brandywine is overrated, and difficult to grow.

Does anyone know where to find (other than online, hate shipping!), where I can find Thai basil seeds in the DC area? Thanks.

The beauty of seeds is that you can widen your net to the whole country. Territorial Seed is just one of many selling Thai basil varieties.

My house faces the East and I would like to plant flowers and shrubs in the front. In the summer the front gets direct sunlight until about 1 or 2 and then the shadow of the house falls over. Should I select plants that say "direct sun" or those for indirect sun/shade? The morning sun feels pretty intense during the summer.

You're on the sunny side of being shady. I think you have to experiment, and see what works, what doesn't. You might be surprised with what you can grow.

I bought one last year that had space for three plants and hung on its own pole. The first problem was that one plant developed blossom end rot, and I was told to treat it with lime. Well, you can't treat one without treating the others. But if the problem is the soil, I didn't want the others to develop the same problem. Then, with overly hot weather, it should have been watered constantly, but I couldn't quite manage that. This year I am planting in soil.

All things being equal, most plants are better off in the ground than in a  pot. The roots are not constricted, the soil is cooler in summer and there are fewer fluctuations in moisture content.

I'm eager to build a raised vegetable garden in my yard, but all our old trees create a remarkable amount of shade throughout the property (not the world's worst problem, I know). Any tips or tricks for what I can do to create a nice little home crop? I've heard that painting walls or fences white reflect sunlight enough for plants to take advantage. Any truth to that?

I think this has to be the last question. Painted fences and walls a light color will bring more reflected light into growing beds, but they won't make the difference between a  sun and a shade garden. If you try to grow veggies in shade, you will be as unhappy as the vegetables. See you all in April, and thanks for your questions, sorry I couldn't get to all of them.

In This Chat
Adrian Higgins
Adrian Higgins is the Washington Post's gardening columnist. Read his latest story on vegetable gardening and watch this video about his plans for cultivating his new garden plot.
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