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The Joe Lunchpail Garden - A guide to the average backyard garden, Part II

By Mike Thayer

This is Part II of the Joe Lunchpail Garden series, today's piece is about picking the right plants, plotting your garden and prepping your soil.  You can review what was discussed in Part I by clicking here.

Zoning Your Garden

Iowa Planting Zone MapIt's important to know what kind of plants are appropriate for the area.  You can find a "planting zone" or hardiness level on the back of most seed packets and on those little plastic tags stuck in the soil of starter plants.  Knowing what's "in the zone" will help you determine what kind of plant varieties you want for your garden.  According to the plant hardiness zone map put out by the USDA, Iowa is in zone 5.    Most stores that sell plants and seed packets are pretty good about selling what's appropriate, but sometimes a few varieties slip in that aren't.  As a weekend gardener, make sure you're buying something that is "Iowa" suitable.

Basically, for our area in the lower half of Iowa, you'll want to start planting what' s considered "cool weather" veggies about a month before the last frost - plant around mid-April.  The "cool weather" veggies can handle a little frost, seed varieties like spinach, lettuce, peas and radishes. Other veggie varieties can be planted around mid-May where the Mother's Day rule applies.  DO NOT plant the following veggie seeds or starter plants in your backyard garden before Mother's Day:  Beans, corn, tomatoes, eggplant, squashes, cucumbers, peppers, melons.  Pretty much anything can be safely planted after Mother's Day, but don't wait much past early June though if you're planting seeds, as some plants won't have enough time to give you a full harvest before the first fall freeze comes around.

There's room to grow

No matter what size garden you decide on, there's more room to it than you might think.

Let's say you decide on a backyard garden plot of 18' x 7'.  It's a typical backyard Joe Lunchpail garden size but by doing what's called "Companion Planting" you can turn your garden into a better than average producer.  How do you do that?  It's simple really, don't plant everything in single rows.  Plant quick growing plants like radishes with slow growing carrots.  Inter-plant onion sets with broccoli.  Don't plant lettuce in a single row, sow your seeds in a six-inch wide row instead and mix up the varieties, it will make for a better salad.    Peas can be done in a similar fashion, plant a row that has edible pods and just six inches from it, plant a row that does not have edible pods or has a longer maturity date.  Don't EVER single row the onions, they can go just about anywhere there's some extra space, a couple inches will do, around broccoli, around tomatoes, around anything that takes awhile to mature.  You'll enjoy picking a few as table fare as you wait for the broccoli or whatever to mature later in the season.  Be creative, try to match up fast growing veggies with slow to mature varieties.  A fun one is planting pole beans with corn.  The pole bean climbs the corn stalk, it's a race to the top.

In general, try to plant your vegetable rows in an east-west direction.  North-south planted rows, start off OK, but as plants get taller, they can eventually shade each other out of needed sunlight as the sun moves across the sky.

Consider planting some flowers in your garden.  Marigolds planted around your border for instance helps to keep certain pests away from your soon to be delicious produce.  Certain flowers can also help attract the good insects that will help to pollinate your garden and make those veggies.  Frills and function!

Now Let's Talk Dirty!

Let's face it - fertile soil - that's loose and full of nutrients does not exist in every Joe Lunchpail backyard.  We've all seen those garden shows where the gardening "star" can be seen using a garden tool in the dirt as if it's a hot knife through butter.  Keep in mind that those show gardens have had years of compost, amendments and pampering put into them, so don't get discouraged.  Most soils while not perfect, will grow veggies and flowers and if not, the soil can at least be doctored up and done so inexpensively.

Having good soil is key.  A garden in clay will not be a very productive one for you.  Mixing in some sand and compost will go a long way towards improving matters, although means getting your hands a little dirty.......  but isn't that what gardening is all about anyway?

Tilling that soil

if you're a weekend gardener and have a garden of decent size it's worth your while to rent a tiller.  it saves you the trouble and back-breaking work of shoveling and hoeing 'til (pun intended, get it, 'til?) your feet hurt and your hands are blistered (didn't wear gloves huh?).  There are a number of places around to rent a tiller and in my opinion, this is the fastest and most economical way to add nutrients to your garden.

TIP:  Tilling can be more than a one person job.  Loading/unloading, picking up and returning - you might tag the spouse, son, daughter or a friend to help you out with that.  Also, keep in mind that when renting, a front tine tiller is arguably harder to handle than a rear tine tiller.  It comes down to a matter of personal preference. 

Things you can do before you 'til:  Have a pick-up truck or a friend that will let you use theirs for  a couple hours?  If you have a medium to large garden, a load or two of black dirt will do wonders for your soil.  Locally, black dirt is available at S&G Materials.

Call S & G Materials today at 319-354-1667, or visit our shop.
S & G Materials
4059 SE Izaak Walton Rd
Iowa City, IA 52240

Hours of Business:
Monday to Friday 7:00 AM - 5:00 PM
Saturday 7:00 AM - 12:00 PM

Getting a pick-up load or two of black dirt  beats the heck out of buying a bunch of 40 pound bags of top soil at the local garden shop.  Buy plants there by all means, but the dirt, not so much....  You get far more dirt for the buck at S&G Materials.  

Other items to consider adding to your garden as a top dressing before tilling: 

  • Epsom salts:  Plants love magnesium, they get greener, bushier and that's what the epsom salts give you.   Healthy plants fight off pests and disease better.
  • Sand:  If you've got a lot of clay in your garden, this will help break things up and improve drainage.  You can get sand at S&G Materials.
  • Pete Moss:  This is a natural, all purpose soil conditioner.  If you've got clay soil, it helps loosen it up.  If you've got sandy soil, pete moss helps firm it up.  It also hangs on to those nutrients, helping plant roots to feed.

That's it for Part II, next up, scheduling planting times, learning NOT to use your garbage disposal and working towards that bumper crop.

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