This could be the year you grow the tomatoes you use to make your BLT. And that will likely be the best BLT you ever eat, knowing that juicy tomato was plucked from your backyard garden just minutes before you laid it on a bed of lettuce and topped it with bacon.
Or why not grow a bodaciously big sunflower that will impress the heck out of the kids. You can do it. You just need a little guidance.
So Jodie Visker, woman of many gardening projects at the Onalaska schools, and Onalaska master gardener Marilyn Rebarchek have gathered their resources and are sharing their knowledge about what you need to get off the couch and out to the garden.
First, you need a plan.
How big will your garden be and what do you want to grow? If it’s vegetables, you need at least six hours of sun, so monitor your yard and figure out how much sun you get.
Many perennials and annuals need sun, too, so read plant tags before your load up a cart at the garden center. Those plant tags are important because they’ll tell you a lot about what the plants need — how much sun, how much water, how much space. Also, it should list how tall and how wide the plant will grow.
Let’s get started:
- You should begin where your plants begin — in the soil. If you don’t have good soil, you won’t grow good plants. Rebarchek recommends amending with compost, which can improve any kind of soil.
If you don’t have your own compost pile — and you should — then you can get free compost from the yard waste site at Isle La Plume. Just bring a bucket and a shovel. But plan on starting your own pile in your own yard as soon as you start gardening. It’s ecological and your plants will thank you. It’s like Mother Nature on organic steroids.
To learn more about how to do it and why you should do it, go to www.composting101.com. And if you’d like a soil test, contact your local extension office. In La Crosse County, that’s 785-9593.
- Visker recommends starting with “All New Square Foot Gardening” by Mel Bartholomew. It tells you how to get the highest yield from the smallest amount of space. “People start big and take up a lot of space,” she said. “That book is all about gardening in the least amount of space for the least amount of work.”
- If you don’t read that, read something else, said Rebarchek. “Do your research.” If tomatoes are your passion, look that up on the Internet and study how to grow that plant well and what type of tomato you want to plant. Tomato lovers can learn most of what they need to know by going to gardening.about .com/od/growingtips/tp/Tomato_Tips.htm
- Visker also recommends starting small with a flower or vegetable garden so you don’t get discouraged by the weeding and watering.
“If you want to start with seeds, zinnias are a really good choice. They don’t need real fertile soil and they’re vigorous growers. And for shade, coleus is really easy and provide a lot of color. For perennials, Russian sage is foolproof and drought tolerant. So is sedum Autumn Joy and the good old daylily.”
- If you’re looking for success in the vegetable garden, Visker recommends beans.
“Green beans are good and bush beans that don’t need any support are easy.”
And if you’re going to grow tomatoes, Visker added, “make sure you have enough space for them and support for them.”
- Watering is where many people go wrong. Your plants need an inch of water a week. So if it’s not falling from the sky, you have to supply it, Visker said.
- If you don’t have much space or only want to garden a little, try container gardening. It cuts down on weeding. But Visker said you have to be more vigilant about watering.
- The easiest starting place, especially for cooks, is probably herbs, Visker said.
“I really like to grow oregano. It is very easy, very common and a well used herb and that’s a perennial. It will come back three times as big. That’s really great and really low maintenance.”
Another easy one, she said, is basil, which is an annual so you’ll have to plant it every year.
“Sometimes I will put sage and thyme in my flower pots, then it’s convenient,” she said, if she wants to step out the kitchen door and snip some for cooking.
Another plus, most herbs don’t require quite as much sun as vegetables.
And except for basil, most of them don’t require really good soil, either. “Most of the herbs are fairly drought tolerant. It’s crazy not to grow them. It’s very money saving.”
West Virginia University Extension has a handy online guide that explains about growing herbs. It allows you to click on an herb, such as basil or oregano, to learn what to do for that herb. Go to www .wvu.edu/~agexten/hortcult/herbs/ne208hrb.htm
- Don’t forget the shrubs. Rebarchek said they can provide great structure in the garden and once they are planted and established, they don’t require as much care as perennials, annuals and vegetables.
- Consider the daylily. Rebarchek said Happy Returns and stella d’oro are among the most reliable, but if you don’t like yellow, find a daylily you do like.
“The problem is, the deer will eat those,” she said, so she no longer plants them. But if deer aren’t a problem for you, invest in daylilies.
- If you’re looking for something that doesn’t appeal to deer, Rebarchek recommends ornamental grasses. They come in a variety of sizes and growing habits. But if you’re living in deer country, skip arbor vitae. “You don’t dare plant arbor vitae around here. And any of the Asiatic or daylilies, those are like candy to deer. But, an alternative is any of the iris. Bunny rabbits and deer do not eat any of the iris.”
- Plant your food among the flowers. If you plant something with a big, ornamental leaf like rhubarb, you can be harvesting for rhubarb pie while the leaves interact with finer foliage plants like zagreb coreopsis. “Rhubarb is a beautiful ornamental,” Rebarchek said. You should be aware of foliage, she said, because that sticks around a lot longer than the flowers do.
- And lastly, plant some bulbs. If you’ve been impressed by all the tulips, daffodils, squill and hyacinths blooming in your neighbors’ yards, you’ll want to plant bulbs this fall for bloom next spring. “I would recommend daffodils because deer don’t eat them,” Rebarchek said.