ASK THE GARDENER
Frequently asked questions
I’d love to grow vegetables at my home but I don’t think there is enough light or space.
There are so many ways to grow veggies now with all the cool different pots and raised bed kits that are affordable and widely available. Many people overlook micro-climates and dappled light which plants love. You have to think outside the box a bit, quite literally in fact. A 4’ by 8’ raised bed is a very common jumping off point for vegetable gardeners but isn’t always necessary or appropriate. One of my favorite things is mixing kale and basil into traditional garden plantings. Knowing varieties that thrive in containers and little things (like cucumbers liking afternoon shade) help me find a place for lots of veggies.
Does it really matter if it’s organic?
Yes and No. Yes it matters because we need to do everything we can to protect our food and the environment from toxic chemicals. It just makes sense. Will eating only organic food, using only organic cleaners and wearing organic clothes make you live longer? Maybe, who knows? Some people live to their 90s drinking 12 beers and smoking two packs a day. I say it’s better to admit we can’t do everything but do everything we can. What’s the harm in caring for the earth starting right in our own backyards?
How often do I need to water?
When your garden needs it. Stick a finger in and see how it feels. Kind of like the cake test where you stick a toothpick in and if it comes out clean the cake is done. Well if your finger comes out pretty clean you’ll know it’s time to water. A great garden investment is a rain gauge. Kids love them and why water if you don’t have to. Two inches of rain a week is more than adequate. Nature doesn't work on a schedule. It either rained a lot or it didn’t - sometimes it seems like it rained a lot but it really didn’t. Sometimes it rains only enough to wet the trees but not enough to wet the ground. You will need to water new plants and container plants, though. Once containers are full of plants I have found that the plants sometimes shed the water to the sides and not into the pot so it’s a good idea to check pots frequently. Use a wand on a hose. Watering at the base of plants will help keep them dry and reduce the time they spend wet. If you have a lot of containers, group them so that you can water efficiently. I always recommend hand watering. It is a great excuse to get in the garden, be with your plants and use that time to double as light weeding and inspecting for pests. Plan your garden using plants native to your area so that it can survive on rainfall alone once it is established.
My lawn is a mess! I wish It could look like my neighbors but I just can’t bring myself to use all those chemicals. What should I do?
Less is more. There is a place for lawn—for walking on, for pets, kids when they are young, croquet. But it seems like a terrible waste after that. I mean they all look the same - boring! Plus you can’t eat it. A good strategy for gradually shifting away from too much lawn is to re-edge your beds, making them 6 to twelve inches wider each year. My lawn is mostly utilitarian, as paths and frames for the garden beds, a source of free straw for our chickens. I love lawns with lots of moss, or small spring flowering bulbs, they make a lawn more interesting and besides making your lawn more beautiful knowing the moss and bulbs are there just might discourage you from using weed killer. After that I only mow when the grass needs it, at the highest setting on the mower. Grass that's tall shades itself and the soil, so you don't need as much water. Don't fertilize; just use a mulching mower and leave the clippings on the grass. Top Dressing with compost and seeding in the fall never hurts. Oh and dig up dandelions by hand as not to let them spread to your neighbors lawn!
What type of mulch should I use in a vegetable garden?
This is such an interesting question because it raises so many different issues that one would not think to be connected. I can’t even respond without going in twenty directions at once. I have used many things as mulch in my vegetable gardens over the years, paper, straw, coco coir, salt marsh hay, chopped leaves, seaweed, grass clippings, wood mulch, cardboard, even living mulches. For certain I can say tomatoes love grass clippings as much as slugs, and wood chips for paths is excellent, seaweed is amazing but not available to everyone, same with salt marsh hay. Additionally they are both part of important ecosystems that are especially critical here in Massachusetts. Salt marshes play critical roles in marine fisheries and the Massachusetts economy and yet are being pushed to the brink of extinction by encroaching residential housing and a rising ocean. I like to design a garden that has as minimal an impact on the environment as possible. I like to use local products, post consumer products, free local resources like manure, wood chips, Neptunes Harvest Fish and Seaweed Fertilizer is one of my favorite general purpose fertilizers. Made in Gloucester, MA as a by-product of the local fishing catch. Is it sustainable? The seaweed is harvested to be able to grow back. But the whole thing is connected to the seaweed that washes up on beaches where insects lay eggs that get eaten by small fish when washed back into the ocean by the next high tide, the same with salt marsh hay on salt marsh edges. So now I’m like wait how about the fish how were they treated, did the manure come from a free range animal that was well cared for? Fed Organic? I’m just getting started. The long and the short of it is: the way we interact with our yards and the things we use in our yards when considered collectively can have an impact on things like local water supplies, clean air and wildlife. It’s amazing how many things can be used as mulch, how much energy it takes to get it, how much it suppresses weeds, how much it helps retain moisture in the soil. That’s just the beginning! Where the conversation goes after bringing up how mulch particularly wood chips creates a space between the soil and the mulch where all the fun begins, bugs, worms, bacteria, fungi all love this happy blanket for your soil.