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Finally....an excuse to put in a garden, after 30 years of farm stands

When we got married in the 70s, my husband was really into gardening (runs in the family) and we had amazing "square foot" vegetables that were the talk of the town. Since then we never had the right light, plus my job became a 24/7 gig in the summer so I got out of the habit. Now I find myself prematurely "retired" and am so psyched to dig up a nice patch on our acre of yard and get going again this spring.

So refresh my memory please. Should I be starting a compost pile now or is it too late (Long Island NY)? Should I rent a rototiller in the spring or should I hire someone? (Probably will only start with 20 x20 I'm thinking). Home Depot is 3 minutes away. I go to the gym but hear it's pretty rough on your body to do yourself. I'm positive it will be half tomatoes, the rest eggplant, zuccini, lettuce and maybe radish, but always something new and interesting too, any suggestions on must haves? I've always done herbs up on the front porch and will continue to do so, easier when I'm cooking. Should I do from seed the first year or just buy seedlings because there will so much other work involved? Raised beds or ground level? I can't wait til next year to really learn about canning too, so far all I've done is jams and mostardos.

I don't know too many people that have gardens anymore, plenty of farm stands around here but their prices are getting too high with my new status in life. So I come here to you, my Chowpals, in case you have any words of wisdom. TIA!

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  1. Kudos to you!! I was born & raised on Long Island, & it was a gardening paradise for me.

    First off - it's never too late to start a compost pile. Go to it.

    As far as raised beds - that's up to you. I make impromptu raised beds here by just tossing the soil up into mounds. It definitely helps due to our clay soil.

    What you grow is definitely up to you - but definitely grow what YOU enjoy cooking/eating. And while starting from seed is interesting - particularly since you have so many varieties to choose from - if I were you, I'd probably do a little of both. Start some greens, beans, & squash from seed; buy a few seedlings of tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, etc.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Breezychow

      Thanks I was thinking to buy everything this year already growing, and then expand into seeds after that. I was also thinking to get chickens and maybe even a goat right away but found a website that said, one thing at a time! Guess I waited a bit too long, I'm all revved up.

    2. I'm another retired gardener. It's not too late to start a compost pile. Lawn clippings and fall leaves should get you started for next year. If your dirt is fairly good, in-ground plants should do fine. Mine is not, so I put some herbs, radish, squash, cucumbers, cress, kale and some tomatoes in the ground, more lettuce, herbs, broccoli and eggplant in raised beds, and peppers and some tomatoes in containers. Going from seed is fun, but you need a sunroom, greenhouse or artificial light setup to make it work. Why not buy mostly plants the first year and try some lettuce and radish from seed until you figure out how much work you want to do. Check out sites like Johnny's Seeds and Daves Garden who provide lots of advice. Look up layering or lasagna methods of creating new beds that avoid the pain of rototilling. Be sure to protect young plants from hungry critters (a tip from bitter experience!).

      4 Replies
      1. re: DonShirer

        We have plenty of deer here but the neighbors complain about the gophers more. Time will tell I guess, maybe time to get a dog too!!

        Good to know that lawn clippings and leaves are good, I've got PLENTY of both. I've always felt guilty throwing out all my kitchen scraps but hope if I just throw them out in the pile the wild animals won't start pulling it apart. When we had our old garden, we discovered the most massive colony of ants had taken the mulch over, we had to throw the whole thing in the woods far far away. It was like a horror movie, and scares me about an open compost pile. I always thought I should get some type of container this time.....

        We have top soil and then lots of sand, most plants seem to love it. I always wonder if everyone makes the raised gardens because they look neater? Agway usually has a nice selection of seeds but you're right, I'll just pick a few easy ones at first. Wish I had a window greenhouse but may have to get a gro lite set up like we used to have, my house plants take up all the sunniest windows. After next year, I'd love to save seeds from my favorite plants and play around with that too.

        1. re: coll

          I made a compost container out of an old 30-gal plastic garbage can: cut a circle out of the bottom with a reciprocating saw, drill a bunch of holes around the sides with a largish drill bit. Put it upside-down in the garden and put the lid on top, weighted down with a brick. (We also cut an access panel with the recip. saw but that part got a little tricky). I throw in my kitchen scraps and some shredded newspaper every now & then. It's probably functioing more like a worm bin than a compospile - I don't turn it or tend it much at all - but the good get broken down eventually and ther'es no smell, no trouble with small critters.

          I save fallen leaves separately to use as mulch around my tomatoes - make it thick enough an no weeding all summer long! My sis-in-law swears by fallen leaves, too. For the last 20 years all they've done is pile leave onto their garden before the deep freeze. In the spring they push 'em aside and plant the tomatoes.

          1. re: coll

            PS something that might be fun to try is sorrel. It's a perennial and it might not bee too late to sprinkle some seeds on the ground to get started for next spring. I'm in zone 6 (north of Boston) and my sorrel is usually up in March, very pickable by early April. It's fun to have a fresh green from the garden so early. Plus a roasted beet and sorrel salad is awesome.

            If you can get your hands on some garlic bulbs or multiplier onions, you can get them in the ground now for next summer's harvest, too. throw some leek or scallion seeds around now and they'll be ready for you to eat in mid-late spring, too.

            1. re: gimlis1mum

              Oh I grew sorrel up on the porch this summer, maybe I can plant what I have left next spring. It was a really hardy plant. I always wanted to try planting the ends of fennel, or throwing some shallots from the grocery in the ground and see what happens.

              Thanks for idea of a garbage can, I'll use my rottiest old one; buying a brand new one to replace it will be lots cheaper than the composters I see for sale. So just add things through the hole in the top? and then cover with the lid. Very smart.

        2. And sweet corn! You'll want peas and kohlrabi too. From seed. No one eats kohlrabi like they used to. Or spell it correctly either. I hope I did though.

          Maybe think of raspberries or blackberries at time point. That's a longer term thing.

          4 Replies
          1. re: FireFlyFiftyFive

            Oh I know, everyone is doing corn, and usually in the front yard for some reason. More useful than a hedge I guess. And peas definitely, thanks for reminding me.

            My yard is half wild and is covered with wild blueberry, raspberry and strawberries that must have been there before the house was built. Must have been part of a farm is my guess. As a matter of fact, where I plan to put the garden there isn't even any grass, it's all strawberries although I keep it mowed so no fruit. The ones that invaded my front garden have the most luscious strawberries in the spring, if I can beat the squirrels to it.

            1. re: FireFlyFiftyFive

              You spelled kohlrabi correctly — one of my favorites too!

              1. re: odkaty

                Is kohlrabi related to broccoli rabe? I use that enough. I definitely want some unusal things in there.

                1. re: coll

                  I don't grow either but like different things. You'll find them in the seed catalogs I just posted. Some catalogs have a great variety of Asian greens, too. Plus, when you grow your own, you discover that different varieties taste different. I grew dinosaur kale for the first time this year but my husband doesn't care for kale salads. I like them. I'll keep experimenting with recipes. This kind of kale as long narrow leaves. Also have Gilfeather turnips for the first time. Husband doesn't care for anything in the cabbage family very much but this is a very tender, sweet rutabaga with a white flesh.

            2. If you are planning to dig up lawn, spade it this fall to kill the grass and let it compost in place. Bonus points for adding a layer of leaves before spading. Waiting until spring to till grass or other perennial vegetation is a mistake. Spend half an hour a day spading to start. Buy a good spade with handle appropriate for your height, sharpen the blade with a file periodically and learn to spade with your legs doing some of the lifting. If you are going to use raised beds, leave strips of turf for walkways when you do the initial spading. Building and maintaining organic matter is key for good tilth. If you must use a rotary tiller, try not to overwork the soil.

              Never plant members of the nightshade family in the same bed two years in a row because of risk of soil-born disease buildup. Once in three or four years is better. Tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and eggplant are members of the nightshade family.

              1 Reply
              1. re: Eldon Kreider

                So much good advice, thank you!

                Guess I better start mapping a layout, if I dig a little at a time (and with the warmer winter weather lately I can work on it throughout the winter) maybe I won't need a rototiller. I would like that.

              2. Go for it! I have about an acre that I cultivate in NJ and there's nothing like the tase or satisfaction of growing your own. Fall is a great time to start compost, since you have so many leaves avaialble. By a cheap square tarp at Home Depot and keep your compost covered, it will cook all through the winter. I used to be a purist, but now use a compost starter if I don't have a lot of green matter to offset the amount of leaves. Zucchini & radishes you can do from seed. I'd also recommend any kind of beans from seed, but I agree, grow what you like to eat. If you don't have experience rototilling, you might be better off getting someone to do it for you.

                1 Reply
                1. re: bropaul

                  A few years back I tried to get some guy from the Pennysaver to rototill, what a flake. A different excuse everytime I called, and when I finally said forget it he was irate. Guess that's why I was thinking of doing it myself.

                  Thanks, the tarp sounds like a great idea, and I will keep compost starter in mind. I have a Cornell Extension in the area, since farming is pretty big around here. Offices in town for testing soil and whatnot, plus an experimental farm up on the country road. Good neighbors to have around, I use them all the time.

                2. I put in my first garden ever this year, 90% by seed. I had no problem with pests, and thats the way I like it. I did summer and winter squash, basil, Swiss Chard, potatoes, celery, onions, garlic, watermelon, cantalope, cucumbers (on the fence), bush beans, sugar peas, lettuces, spinach, sorrel, arugula, beets, radishes, carrots, peppers, and tomatoes. Here in Colorado, the leafy greens were finished by July, the Swiss Chard is still going strong, I had a shit load of tomatoes and cucumbers and canned my arss off. The pickles are DELICIOUS!!!!! It was an experiment and one I am very happy with. I will do seeds again, they were work but worth it in the end. I amended the soil with a organic veg mix that included Poultry poop. No fertilizers, just water and a bit of talking to. Have fun with it, be happy with what you get, and look forward to many rewarding summer days picking your bounty!!!

                  5 Replies
                  1. re: JEN10

                    Oh the chicken farm down the block does sell burlap bags of chicken poop, I'm going to have to get some. My father's friend used to swear by "Zoo Doo" which came from the Bronx Zoo, it was an acual commercial brand, wonder if it's still around. But he used to say it was mostly elephant, because everything grew so big.

                    Yeah I'm going to have to figure out the water, we have irrigation pipes so another reason that rototilling might not be a good idea. I should plan the garden around the sprinkler heads, I remember the constant turning on and off, plus moving of, the old fashioned sprinklers.

                    1. re: coll

                      >> "But he used to say it was mostly elephant, because everything grew so big."

                      Hilarious !! Thanks for the laugh.

                      1. re: Cheese Boy

                        Thanks, my Dad and his friends were really something when it came to storytelling. Think I'll check out if Zoo Doo is still around, just for kicks.

                        Oh wait, it wasn't a joke! It was (or is? this article is from 1992) mostly elephant and rhinoceros, which besides being twice as strong as horse and cow, supposedly scares the deer and raccoons away.


                        1. re: coll

                          >> " ... takes orders for gift packs of the compost."

                          Thank you for yet another laugh.
                          Nothing's better than being gifted a bag of rhinoceros or elephant SH*T!

                          1. re: Cheese Boy

                            Oooh, now I know what I want for Christmas!!

                  2. I am a gardener--a really, really lazy gardener. If I was putting a garden into an area with sod on it, I would cover the whole 20 by 20 area with cardboard. On top of the cardboard, I would lay down a foot or so of loose straw and leaves. If you use all leaves and no straw, be sure to mulch the leaves, so they don't pack. I don't know what your winters are like--here in Missouri, I can sheet compost all year--just bury the peelings and bits in the layer of leaves.

                    I have done this trick 3 or 5 times here, to start new perennial gardens. I don't till those, I just dig holes for plants. If you have good loose soil (I am think LI must be sandy?) you might be able to do your whole garden without tilling.

                    If you do need to till, wait until the soil is dry enough (don't til wet soil), rent the tiller and go for it. I tilled for many years with a front tine tiller, which is a real workout. Rear tines are easier, and are probably the only kind rented any more.

                    Seedlings are tricky--you have to have grow lights to get good seedlings, and a fan helps, too, to make the stems strong. But varieties are better from seeds. If you have cats--fuhgeddaboudit. If they don't poop in your trays, they will eat the tender seedlings when they come up. Or both.

                    I have noticed lately that a lot things that are way easy to grow from seed are being sold as plants. For the cost of a sixpack of lettuce seedlings, you could have a 50 foot row of lettuce grown from seed.

                    Buy pepper, tomato and eggplants as seedlings--most everything else comes up well from seed.

                    This winter, find your local Extension office--they will have a ton of gardening stuff, mostly free or low cost. (I am an Extension Specialist in Missouri, and a Master Gardener--an certificate I got after attending a series of Extension classes.) Extension also has a lot of stuff on canning/freezing/preserving.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: sparrowgrass

                      I am lucky that the grass never took off in the back yard, there's mostly strawberry plants growing as groundcover where I'm planning on planting. If they don't get totally killed off by my digging, I will let some live around the edges and maybe they'll produce berries to snack on while I'm weeding.

                      I love our local Cornell Extention, I already got my soil tested for the lawn (needed lime), maybe I should go back for garden now? I know that's different.

                      Yeah we have three cats and the youngest love munching on my houseplants. Although I'd probably grow the seeds in the basement so can keep the door closed. I hope to someday have my own seeds from last years plants, I did morning glories that way, and also I think I may have a beach plum growing from the dozens of seeds I sowed last spring. Hoping this is just the tip of the iceburg for me.

                    2. It will be fun to get back into the swing of things in the garden. I don't know how big your square foot garden was ( are you planning on that type layout again?) but 20' x 20' seems plenty big to start. It will seem pretty big when weeding it in the hot sun. I haven't ever canned and so have had smaller gardens with the aim of keeping us in tomatoes for salads and sandwiches and cherry tomatoes to eat off the vine. I like to use newspaper as mulch. Thick sections of it between the rows and a layer around the plants

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: calliope_nh

                        Thanks for the tip on the newspaper, that's a great way to recycle. I'm planning on mainly growing stuff to eat immediately, will only can if it gets overabundant.

                      2. Thanks everyone, I am so grateful for all these intelligent and informative replies, so quickly. I will keep picking your brains, but I have an idea of what I should be doing now.... you're all amazing! Can't wait til I can give advice too.

                        1. I second the suggestion to do lasagna gardening. See if you can borrow the book from the library. Basically, it's alternate green and brown. I started beds in 2007 to plant in 2008 and I'm starting 2 new beds now. First a thick layer of wet newspapers, then grass clippings, then had some composted manure, put some chopped up leaves (picked up by the lawn mower and into the bag attachment). I'll sprinkle on some wood ashed (we heat with wood), throw on some kitchen scraps covered with grass clippings. The author also uses peat moss but I don't. Expect a 24" pile to settle down to 12" by spring and become ground level the following year. In the spring I will add more composted manure on top.

                          I find a narrow 10 foot bed is a good size for me but it depends on what I'm planting. A 10' row of lettuce is too much for the two of us (husband doesn't eat a lot of salads). The row of beets I planted still has beets in it but last year we didn't have enough beets so I planted a second row and now those are mature, too. I've given some away and they will keep until the ground freezes. Basically, think about how much you are going to eat and do some succession planting. My original row of lettuce bolted when it got hot ... I planted late in the summer and now (here in NH) I have 1 1/2 rows of slow growing lettuce that won't bolt. We are also enjoying green and yellow beans that I planted on 7/29 but again, two rows are too much. I'm giving some away. But also, the late planting require we have a small low tunnel covered with garden fabric (see info on Johnny's Seeds website) to protect the beans when we got a light frost in early October. (Two years ago I learned the hard way when the beans were in blossom but got hit by frost in the middle of Sept.)

                          Agway has a nice selection of seeds in our town but the big advantage to growing your own are the specialty seeds you can get from a place like Johnny's or Baker Creek . My husband now prefers filet type bush beans. Also, keep you eyes open for a local grower of heirloom tomatoes and peppers. I found one who only places one ad in the farmers weekly market bulletin each year. She grows in her backyard and offers dozens of varieties. Heirloom tomatoes are getting popular but I have yet to see some of the pepper varieties she offers.

                          My winter squash was a bust this year, the insects won but in previous years I have grown two beautiful varieties that were good keepers. No effort to preserve them. Just kept them in a cool area of the basement. We still had squash in April. We happen to like parsnips so those won't be harvested until next spring. Plant garlic now for next year.

                          I'm not very good at starting seeds yet but am slowly working out better planning so that everything doesn't come all at once. What I have done is break my original large patch into rows. The narrow paths are covered with newspapers and grass clippings to keep down weeds. We have some wide paths that have to be mowed and a problem with weeds from the grass paths getting into the vegetable beds (creeping charlie that sends out runners).

                          The other thing that I am considering is maybe 4 plastic covered row tunnels for the spring and getting drip hose system from a garden supplier (not a big box store). Someone I know started seeds indoors, set plants out early and was eating zucchini in June.

                          I have purchased both of Eliot Coleman's books on gardening year round in the northeast.

                          Cooperative Extension is GREAT! DIL has egg layers for the first time this year and things are going well BUT in some areas, town zoning or homeowner associations don't allow chickens.

                          Best wishes!

                          7 Replies
                          1. re: dfrostnh

                            You're really getting me psyched! I will definitely check out those places for seeds. Agway is convenient but they don't have such a wide range of seeds. Also going to look right now into lasagna gardening, I'm thinking it's the name itself that's turning me off. Plus Elliot Coleman, I am off to my library website. We do have a neighborhood guinea hen that we all have adopted, no one has chickens but we live in a rural area so dhould be no problem, I'm thinking to get guaranteed females though. At least one person on our block had a goat for a time.

                            Beets, how could I have forgot about them! And I will look into the tunnels, although it's usually in the high 60s to 70s this time of year here. Leaves just starting to get tinges. However I'm getting ready to hibernate myself.

                            1. re: coll

                              Whoa - slow down & do some reading/researching about the things you want to grow & their needs, plus your local growing condtions. If you're this through-the-hoop gung-ho about gardening, canning food & raising chickens will end up disasters.

                              For starters, Kohlrabi & Broccoli Raab (aka Rapini) are two completely different vegetables with completely different growth habits. Do some reading.

                              Secondly, there are no "gophers" on Long Island. "Gophers" are a midwest pest. What your neighbors most likely have are voles (aka meadow mice). Completely different pest. Do some reading.

                              Remember the DIY adage "Measure twice, cut once"? Well, it pertains to gardening & livestock raising as well.

                              1. re: Breezychow

                                First of all, I wasn't planning on growing kohlrabi, nor broccoli rabe either, was just asking the difference out of curiousity. I like broccoli rabe, I know it has other names but have no idea what kohlrabi is. Neither is on my A list to plant though.

                                And the creature that lives under my front porch is definitely not a vole, it is the size of a small/ medium dog and is a ringer for Puxatawny Phil. Wish I had my old computer with the photo as proof to show you. I've heard tell that when the settlers came here back in the time of the Mayflower, Long Island was overrun with gophers/woodchucks/groundhogs, and they still exist in the less populated areas of the Island. No need to read up on it, I can just look under my porch to see his giant burrow.

                                Guess I 'll just get on with it and let you know how I'm doing this time next year. I'm usually good at figuring things out when I have to.

                                1. re: coll

                                  ohoh, a woodchuck can be disasterous for a garden. I would get him relocated ASAP. We had woodchucks when we first lived here in the early 70s but our dog took care of that. We haven't seen any since we moved back in 2007. We also have deer but I used the repellant spray for a couple of years and they don't bother the garden. Recently I found a deep hole claw in the mouse/vole/chipmunk ruined winter squash patch that we think was done by a coyote. Hopefully whatever it was got the squash-gnawing critter.

                                  1. re: dfrostnh

                                    Ours appeared a couple of years ago, he liked to graze on the clover in our lawn and the neighborhood kids were fascinated. We even named him Bill Murray, he looked like a big teddy bear. But during the winter, when the leaves fell off the hydrangea, I discovered a giant dirt mound built against our garage foundation and realized how destructive this little guy could be. Didn't see much of him this year so hopefully he's moved on. Usually it's the squirrels and rabbits that get my stuff. The deer have nearby corn fields to munch on and tend to leave us alone. Fingers crossed!

                                    1. re: coll

                                      Woodchuck's gotta go before you can have a garden . . .

                                      1. re: bropaul

                                        Thanks that's my my neighbors tell me. I'm gonna be on the lookout this winter, but hoping he's moved on. And didn't leave any children behind either.

                          2. "Amazing 'square foot' vegetables" is the way I would go.

                            I always watched Mel Bartholomew's show back in the day and one Christmas, gifted my brother and his wife with the book Square Foot Gardening. Almost thirty years later, they still use and love the method.

                            Aside from the relatively easy and inexpensive construction of the four foot square frames, it's a great labor saver. Other benefits from the system; intensive production, manageability, no foot traffic to compact the soil, no rototilling et al.

                            As a Landscape Designer, I try to incorporate these for homeowners with an interest in growing their own fruit and vegetables. One can start with a square or two and add more if success breeds enthusiasm. Siting to allow for future expansion, or just a good fit on your property for any type of garden, is an excellent start.

                            Anyone with an interest would get lots of information by googling Mel Bartholomew or Square Foot Gardening. Not sure if it's OK to post a link...

                            3 Replies
                            1. re: MacTAC

                              Thanks so much, this is the method my husband used back in the 70s and the results were stupendous. I will be researching in the very near future, I know it's a winner. Why can't you post a link, not that I can't find it myself.

                              1. re: coll

                                You're welcome, coll. Just wasn't sure what the site rules are. This one looks like a good start...


                                1. re: MacTAC

                                  I think this might be the way to go, thanks for bringing it up. I know my husband was really into it, although I remember him doing it with just mulch, rather than wooden boxes? It's all just a hazy memory, except for the towering plants.