Here in southern New Mexico, we pass our last frost date near the beginning of May, so it is time to plant the summer garden. This will be my family's 9th year of vegetable gardening, and in that time we have learned many lessons on what makes gardening successful here. Every location has its own unique challenges, yet there are some basics that every garden needs, including good soil, the right amount of water, and plenty of sunshine.
Plan It Out
Each year, before we start planting, I take a little time to plan out the garden. When it comes time to actually plant, there are always a few deviations from the plan, but the initial planning gets us started in the right direction. When planning our garden, I make sure to do each of the following:
Take stock of old seeds - We always seem to have some old seed packets from previous years of gardening. We typically find that most of the old seeds will still germinate well for a few years beyond the "Best By" dates on the seed packets. If we're unsure, sometimes I will test a few seeds to make sure they will germinate by planting them in a small pot indoors where I can water them daily in the weeks leading up to our last frost date.
Plan for companion plants - One way to help plants thrive is to plant "companion" plants which are mutually beneficial to each other. For instance, tomatoes will benefit from being planted near parsley and dill, and would enjoy the afternoon shade offered by sunflowers. Basil likes to be planted near tomatoes. For more ideas, check out my article on companion planting with herbs.
Get a rough idea of plant placement - We always make sure to plant the summer garden in a location with at least 6 hours of sun per day. Although we've tried experimenting with raised bed gardening and container gardening, we have found planting in the ground to be our most successful method for summer gardening. To reduce pests and diseases, we also make sure not to plant the same type of plants in the same location year after year. Based on the expected size of each type of plant, I will make a rough plan of where different types of plants will be located.
Prep the Soil and Add Compost
Good soil is key to a flourishing garden. The ideal soil will have plenty of nutrients for the plants, will drain away excess water to prevent root rot, and will also retain enough moisture to keep the plants from drying out too much between waterings. Although I have experimented with several no-till methods, I generally find it beneficial to turn over the dirt in my garden annually down to a depth of about 12-18 inches. This ensures that the ground is not too hard-packed so that roots can easily grow, and it also helps to mix nutrients evenly into the soil since certain areas may have been depleted by previous plantings.
Overly sandy soil drains too quickly and the plants can dry out too much, whereas areas with a high clay content in the soil can have the opposite problem of draining very slowly and becoming very hard-packed (which makes it hard for roots to grow). Since the native soil in my garden area is very sandy and highly alkaline, I amend it each year to improve its nutrient-content and water retention. Compost and peat moss are both excellent additions to my garden soil. [In places where the native soil is acidic, peat moss would not be a good addition to garden soil (since it is highly acidic)]. Compost is my favorite soil amendment, as it adds many nutrients to the soil as well as humus (which helps with water retention). Compost can be expensive if purchased by-the-bag, but by having an active compost pile it can be produced at home with vegetable scraps and yard waste. Another good option to check into is whether or not there is compost available at the city landfill. In my area, we can get compost for free at the city landfill. At our house, we let our chickens do the work of composting for us. Using a method I learned about in The Small-Scale Poultry Flock, we have deep mulch in our chicken coop, which consists of leaves and other dried vegetation from around our property. The mulch combines with kitchen scraps and chicken manure to make compost. The chickens do most of the work of turning and mixing the compost; I only occasionally need to turn over the soil under the roost areas where the manure can start to pile up. Because we live in the desert, I do need to water the mulch fairly regularly in the hot months to ensure that the compost is moist enough. With this deep mulch method, I was able to harvest 5 wheelbarrows full of beautiful compost to be used in our summer garden this year.
Each year, I add more compost to my garden so that over time, our garden soil is improving year by year. One caution when using compost is to make sure that it is fully composted before planting vegetables in it to ensure it will not burn the seedlings. A good general rule of thumb is to amend the soil with compost and then wait 1-2 weeks before planting.
Get to Planting
Once the soil is ready, we can start planting! Some plants, like tomatoes, are planted individually with plenty of space between plants. Other plants, such as corn and beans, are planted in rows. And then squash, cucumbers, and melons are planted in hills. Seed packets for each type of plant include instructions for how deep to plant the seeds and how far apart they should be spaced.
We typically plant everything from seed except for tomatoes. When transplanting tomato plants, it is a good idea to plant them much deeper than other seedlings. The bottom of the main stem (which includes some leaves) should be buried in the ground. This will give the tomato plants a head start as roots will grow off the main stem. This year, the edible plants we're growing will be:
Sunflowers and Marigolds
Basil, Thyme, Oregano, and Rosemary
Make it Beautiful with Flowers
Planting flowers in the vegetable garden makes the garden beautiful to look at and it aids the vegetables, too. For instance, sunflowers can provide late-afternoon shade for tomatoes, marigolds can benefit strawberries, and zinnias can attract lots of beneficial pollinators. Nasturtiums are also great to plant as bugs are more attracted to them than to the veggies. My daughter, especially, loves to plant lots of flowers in our summer garden.