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Tips for Growing Your Own Garden

Create a green escape with these early-season steps

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Tips for Growing Your Own Garden

Winter may yet have a firm grip outdoors, but our thoughts are free to turn to spring and all things garden! In fact, while we’re still cozied up inside and before most of the hands-on work begins, March is the ideal time to plan and prepare for the growing season ahead. Whether it’s pots on a porch or balcony, a shared community plot, or an entire backyard, your garden is a green sanctuary for both you and other creatures—a little patch of nature, be it wild or manicured. Some pre-season tasks will help set the stage for success.

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Refresh your plan

Revisit last year’s garden and any lessons learned, then articulate your goals for this season. Perhaps you want to increase diversity, focus on feeding yourself, or shape your garden like a mandala for the sheer joy of it? A simple sketch can be helpful for visualizing possibilities and as a handy reference for this time next year.

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Take inventory

Go through your seed packets and jot down those you’ll need to acquire.

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Gather resources

Order seeds from a small seed company, or pick them up at a local store or seed exchange. Explore what local nurseries have on offer through their catalogues or websites—it may not yet be time to plant, but you can work those berry bushes, asparagus crowns, or purple coneflowers into your plan at this stage. Scout out local sources of topsoil, compost, manure, mulch, and any other resources you may want in larger quantity.

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Think water

Can you reduce the need for this precious resource through your choice of plants or use of mulch? Can you implement or increase rainwater collection?

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Be hands-on (and hands-off!)

If you’re getting antsy to do a little yard work, tend to your compost pile and note if it needs more “greens” or “browns” to get cooking come spring. Don’t, however, give in to the urge to pull aside mulch and dead plant debris until the soil really wakes up—beneficial insects rely on this shelter for a little while yet.

In permaculture, one of the guiding principles is to “obtain a yield.” Fresh food is a garden yield, certainly, but so is beauty and sanctuary; so is habitat for fellow creatures. Happily, these yields often go hand in hand. What’s more beautiful than the dazzling stems of rainbow chard or the company of birds cheerfully finding worms in your healthy soil? For a garden you can relish for its outward charm and deeper sustainability, you can’t go wrong with a handful of basic practices.

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Steward the soil

Use compost to enrich your soil with nutrients and microbiology, then protect that microbial life and soil structure with a layer of mulch or a living crop. And since tilling takes a heavy toll on the invisible ecosystem underground, you’re better to gently loosen planting areas with a few twists of the garden fork.

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Take pleasure

Plan to bask in the beauty of the garden you create by incorporating some seating. A hammock would take the basking to a new level! It may be hard to imagine in March, but you’ll likely be grateful for a shady spot come midsummer, so consider some tall plants such as sunflowers, a honeysuckle vine, or peas on a trellis.

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Make room for blooms

Any garden will benefit from flowers interspersed throughout. Phacelia attracts pollinators, yarrow draws beneficial predatory insects, marigolds deter pests, nasturtiums and calendula are edible ... the list goes on. If you’re a flowers-only gardener, your patch of blooms can become a bird and insect haven if you plant native varieties to which they are adapted.

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Learn and share

You may prefer solitude in your garden, but you can still gain inspiration and tips from fellow enthusiasts in your community. A little digging will likely turn up a local gardening group or horticultural society full of people sharing experience, questions, and even excess plants.

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The what and when

This is a broad guide to garden tasks through the season—planting calendars more specific to your growing zone are available online.

Month Plant indoors Plant outdoors Other tasks
March Choose long-season vegetables (tomatoes, peppers, celery); herbs (holy basil, parsley); and flowers (viola, strawflower). If your climate allows, try a spring cover crop such as buckwheat or fava beans. A cold frame or plastic tunnel will warm the soil for earlier planting. Prune trees and shrubs for shape before they leaf out.
April Add more vegetables (cabbage, squash); herbs (thyme, lemon balm); and flowers (alyssum, zinnia). As soon as ground is workable: trees, shrubs, and cold-tolerant plants such as peas, onions, kale, calendula, and bachelor buttons. Enrich soil with compost in preparation for planting.
May Some plants, such as corn and cucumbers, tend to do well when started just a few weeks before transplanting outside. Almost all seeds, transplants, and perennials can go in the ground, but check your region’s typical last frost date for those tender ones (beans, squash). Keep seeds and transplants moist. Mulch any bare soil once plants have sprouted.
June Successive plantings of quick-growing veggies such as radishes and greens can be started.

Practical supplies for the thoughtful gardener

Fertilizer Like whole foods, whole sources are best (fish fertilizer, seaweed, bone and blood meal, guano).

Compost/worm castings These improve soil’s water- and nutrient-holding capacity and contribute beneficial microbes.

Hand tools Choose ones that are built to last over discount varieties (you might find deals at garage sales, reuse stores, or on online platforms). Old standbys include a spade, rake, garden fork, trowel, hori hori knife, stirrup hoe, and bypass pruners. Don’t forget the ever-handy wheelbarrow!

Seeds Prioritize local suppliers, organic if possible, and open-pollinated varieties that can be saved, thus contributing to seed security.

Miscellaneous materials For raised beds, plant supports, stepping stones, and others, consider the sustainability of your materials. Are they renewable, repurposed, recyclable, and/or nontoxic?

Eat the weeds!

Ironically, some of the first leaves to poke up in the spring belong to “weeds,” plants we tend to reject, but that provide us a free garden harvest even before our crops do. From dandelions and plantain to chickweed and lamb’s quarters, help yourself to these nutrient-dense foods while you wait for the soil to warm for planting!

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