Food stylist and garden expert Allyson Levy lives in Stone Ridge and helped start both gardens at the Marbletown Elementary and Middle schools. Below are her tips for starting your own garden.
First find the sunniest spot in your yard. That means an area that gets at least 6 hours of sunlight during the day. If you have several places that are ideal, consider positioning the garden close to the house, or even next to the door of the kitchen. This will allow you to keep an eye on what you are growing and, considering the close proximity to the house, it might offer some protection from deer and other creatures. If you don’t live in an urban environment and deer might be a problem, a fence or another type of barrier needs to be in place if you realistically want to harvest what you will grow.
“In mid May we planted Adirondack Red, Kennebec and Yukon Gold potatoes for the first time in our raised beds. I was inspired by the movie “The Gleaners and I” and I even found my own heart shaped potato in my garden” – Ellie Markovitch
Raised beds are the fastest way to start with lots of good soil rather than digging up your pre-existing soil and adding the amendments needed to create ideal growing conditions. Keep it simple, start with one or two beds. You can always build more beds in the following seasons if you outgrow your space. Ideally, if space allows, make a 4 foot by 8 foot raised bed with untreated lumber. Most large home improvement centers sell 2′ x 8′ x 12′ untreated pine and can cut the wood to order. Two pieces of this wood will make one 4′ x 8′ box, when cut at the eight foot mark. Pine boxes will last about 5 years or so, so if you can make the investment, buy cedar which is more expensive but will last longer. To fasten the wood together use 3 inch deck screws which have a rust resistant coating.
Soil is a very complicated subject, which can be further examined on university websites (such as that of the Cornell Cooperative Extension) but the bottom line is that several organic amendments will mean bigger, tastier, and healthier crops. The most reasonably priced soil can be purchased from a local landscape materials supplier, and if you are planning to make more than one raised bed it is the best option because the supplier will generally deliver. However, the soils tend to be sandy loam and you will need to add compost, aged manures, decomposed leaves and grass clippings to enrich the soil. All of these amendments (except for grass clippings and leaf mold) can be purchased at your local nursery. They may be a little pricy but they are well worth the investment in the long run. The best ingredients for soil enrichment are fall leaves and grass clippings. Instead of raking those leaves and clippings into a bag that gets sent to a landfill, you can collect and store them under a tarp covering. After they have decomposed for a few years you will have a really high quality soil amendment that costs nothing. If this seems too complicated you can buy bags of soil and composted cow manure at your local hardware stores, and, although a bit pricy, it is a convenient alternative as the two can be easily mixed together in a wheelbarrow. For every two bags of soil you will want one bag of composted manure. To fill one 4′ x 8′ raised bed you will need approximately 21 cubic feet of soil.
Pick a few vegetables that you and your family really like to eat. For some it’s cucumbers and for others its salad greens. Make a list of your five favorite produce and buy 2-5 seedlings or small plants of each to plant out in early spring. Buy them from a local nursery and not a big box store if possible. Or try planting seeds in late winter to plant out in early spring. Even though it is more involved, with the help of a bright sunny windowsill and a little water, planting seedlings that you grew from seeds is very rewarding, as well as giving you the opportunity to choose unusual varieties of different crops. There are several organic seed companies that have wonderful rare heirloom varieties of popular vegetables, and do mail order business.