Updated on 03.24.09

Spring and the Awakening Garden

Trent Hamm

Spring is awakening here in Iowa, and for us that means getting outside, doing some yard work, and getting some early work done with our garden. With a three year old and a one year old in the house, we try to get everyone involved in the gardening process.

My wife journals extensively, so for this post, I’ve borrowed some of her writing about the garden to help describe some of the early steps for our 2009 garden. She also explains quite well how exactly we get our children involved with our gardening plans.

Sarah’s journal, March 18
Today I took the kids to do some shopping. I was just intending to get peat pellets to start the seeds in, but when I got there I saw a whole set-up with 72 peat pellets in a tray with a lid for $6. The tray is reusable, so next year I can just buy the pellets.

In addition to the pellets, I also bought a bunch of seeds. I had Joe (our son) help me with this part. His current favorite vegetable is cucumbers, so we bought a packet of those. I also had him decide whether to get muskmelons or watermelons (he chose muskmelons). Katie’s (our daughter) favorite vegetable is broccoli, but I couldn’t find any seeds for that. I will have to go to another garden store for those. In addition to the cucumbers and muskmelons, I bought pole green beans and three kinds of tomatoes –Burpee’s Big Boy Hybrid (“outstanding flavor”), Super Beefsteak (“large and disease resistant”), and Super Sweet 100 Cherry (“extra-prolific cherry”). We’re planning on turning a bunch of the bigger tomatoes into sauce, which is why I got two kinds.

Along with the vegetables, I bought a packet of marigolds. My sister, who worked at an organic flower garden for a while, claims that marigolds keep away some bugs, so I always use them for borders in my vegetable gardens.

All together, the cost before taxes for all of this was $13.50 ($6 for the tray, and $1 each for the seed packets, except the cucumbers, which were $1.50).


Here’s our peat tray and some of the seeds we selected for use this year. The almanac was a Christmas gift – it’s a pretty good guide for identifying when exactly to plant in our area. We use it hand in hand with weather forecasts to make a good guess as to when it’s safe to put plants in the ground so they won’t be destroyed by frost.

In addition, we also have a few leftover potatoes from last year’s crop:

A potato

We’ll simply cut this potato up into pieces and plant the pieces directly in the garden. The potato sprouted perfectly in a bag in the pantry, where it’s fairly warm and quite dry.

We get the kids involved by having them make several choices about what we plant. Last year, for example, our son Joe was wild about planting carrots, so we planted quite a few carrots in the garden. This year, he was much more enthusiastic about the melons, but our daughter is crazy about broccoli.

By growing things that the kids are excited about eating, they become excited (by extension) about the garden as well.

Sarah’s journal, March 19
Today I worked on clearing the garden of last year’s dead plants, and I also did some weeding. The nice thing about clearing out old dead plants is that it’s really easy to have young children help. Basically, they can’t pull up the wrong thing. If it looks dead, pull it up.

After pulling up dead plants in both the vegetable garden and the ornamental gardens in the front, I’m realizing that our one barrel composter isn’t going to be nearly big enough for all of the garden waste we generate. I’m considering starting a plain old ordinary compost heap behind the vegetable garden.

I also checked out the perennials that we planted last year. Some of the herbs seem to be coming back, and the strawberries are definitely coming up. In fact, I’m a little worried that the strawberries will try to take over the garden. I don’t see any asparagus yet, but I think it’s a little early for those.

I also set the chicken wire around the garden back up. I’d hate to have the young perennials eaten before they have a chance to get going.

In the evening, I had Trent and the kids help me add water to the peat pellets. The tray required 10½ cups of water, so Trent brought water over in measuring cups, the kids poured it in the tray, and I helped make sure Katie didn’t pour the water over herself and the kitchen floor. We couldn’t plant the seeds yet, because it takes peat pellets a while to soak up water.

Here’s our mostly-cleared garden as it sits right now.

Our garden in early spring

We didn’t get the covering off the ground last fall before the first blizzard came through, dumping more than a foot of snow on us which remained for months. We hoped that the covering would be in good shape in the spring – and it is pretty good, at least usable for the coming year.

Soon, we’ll strip the covering off the garden, spread some compost, and till the whole thing just before planting. Since we do not own a tiller (and don’t have extensive need for one), we’ll either borrow a small one from a neighbor or perhaps rent one for a day from the local hardware store.

The waste headed for our barrel composter…

Our compost bin

Our composter is a great size for catching a small amount of yard clippings and all of our vegetable table waste, but it’s not exactly big enough to deal with a huge amount of garden waste. Thus, we’re discussing getting either a second barrel composter or perhaps a small chicken wire composter.

In this picture, the compost is just beginning to work. We’re keeping it moist with very warm water and occasional spadefuls of dirt are tossed in to add microbes to continue the composting process. Our goal is to have nice, rich spreadable compost just before we begin to plant next month.

Sarah’s journal, March 20
The kids are at daycare today so that I can get a little bit of work done around the house before going back to teaching. This also lets me do some more of the time-consuming tasks that the kids would get bored with, like planting the seeds (they don’t really have the fine motor skills to help with that yet).

I started by planning how many of each kind of plant I want and deciding where to put them in the tray. I printed out a map of the tray using a spreadsheet program, which I taped to the front so that I can easily see it while I’m planting seeds. I’m saving the extra seeds that I’m not using, in case something doesn’t grow, or I just decide later that I want more of that particular plant. Some plants, like lettuce, can also be planted a second time during the year.

I also pulled out the Farmer’s Almanac that we got for Christmas and looked up when each thing that I’m growing should be moved out to the garden. I wrote those dates on our calendar in the house, as well as one that we’ve got hanging in the garage with the garden tools.

Here’s our planted tray.

Seedlings and chart

We started a bit later than usual this year with our seedling prep – usually, we’re getting this started much earlier in March. However, last year we lost a lot of plants to a late frost and we’re fairly timid about it. Plants will likely go in the ground much later this year, which does push our harvest well into August and early September instead of harvesting in late July and early August as we did last year.

The sheet of paper there is a chart that shows what each spot in the tray contains.

Which seedling is where?

This simply helps us keep track of the planting. Also, here’s our garden calendar – the calendar itself is actually a free bank calendar with a bunch of astrological information already on it.

Garden calendar

Notice we’ll be planting the lettuce on Friday or Saturday. Lettuce is hardy and will survive a spring frost or two. Our April calendar has quite a few dates marked in a similar fashion.

In a month or so, we’ll offer an update discussing the planting process.

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  1. Adam @ Checkbook Diaries says:

    As always Trent, great article. I’ve been looking forward to getting this year’s garden started since last year! I figure that if I learn the proper freezing and jarring methods, I might be able to grow enough vegetables to get us through the winter without having to buy too much produce.

  2. The Personal Finance Playbook says:

    Excellent post. I love gardening tips. Articles like this are a nice contribution to the DIY movement.

  3. Karl Katzke says:

    Sarah/Trent – You might want to consider buying broccoli that’s already been started in a tray; growing from seed is fairly difficult with your short season unless you start them under grow lights, which may be why they didn’t have seeds at the one place you went…

    If plan to you keep your seed tray indoors after the sprouts have come up, check to make sure your windows aren’t tinted/treated to keep certain frequencies of light out. Mine are (my house was just built 3 years ago) and I needed to supplement my sprouts with a grow light… or this was the result: http://garden.katzke.net/2009/02/leggy-seedlings/ … all those seedlings died because they didn’t get enough light.

  4. Kevin says:

    A tremendous book for anyone interested in vegetable gardening is Dick Raymond’s Joy of Gardening – http://tw2.us/Tj

  5. Sandy says:

    It’s so exciting getting my garden up and running every year! Last week I planted peas and kale and spring onions. I went out today, and nothing is up yet (I’ll give them a few weeks before I try again) but my big excitement is that my rhubarb plant is popping through! I planted it last year, so I only have to wait one more year til I can harvest it. I planted a rhubarb plant 4 years ago, and for some reason, it didn’t come up last year (cry) so I put another one in. They say for asperagus and rhubarb to wait 3 years before harvesting it.

  6. Kathy says:

    I come from a long line of gardeners. There’s nothing better than eating the first ripe tomato of the year! If you are planning to make sauce you should plant Roma tomatoes, they have the lowest water content, and you will spend a lot less time boiling things down to get it thick enough.

  7. Michael says:

    Your composter looks like a hand grenade. Also, you could use a better “improper comment submission” page.

  8. George says:

    For that size garden, you shouldn’t need a rototiller again (e.g. think green, use no fuel). Would only take about one afternoon for a single adult to till it in with a shovel, fork, and rake unless you’ve allowed it to recompact and harden into a clay lump.

    If your garden were three times bigger, then I’d be inclined to say a power tiller becomes useful rather than overkill.

  9. onaclov says:

    A friend and I just put together our Gardens, he did a 4×10 and a 2×10 and had some leftover lumber and we made a 4×4 for my family, they’ve done it before and had good success, and we’re going to try our hands at it, I’m excited!!!!!

    Good luck,
    I can’t wait to be eating fresh produce and whatnot from our backyard.

  10. Stu says:

    You should always buy seed potatoes, otherwise you risk spreading disease and such, potatoes are nuisances for this :(

  11. MB says:

    Wow, that is impressively organized. It makes me tired just looking at it though. I’m a novice gardener, but would love to be able to spend more time…maybe when my younger one gets a bit older. Good luck with your garden!

  12. sipote says:

    why doesn’t your wife start a blog?

    what do you suggest for those in cities who don’t have huge yards and want to start a garden?

  13. Sierra says:

    Awesome! We did our seed starts today too, much more chaotically. I also pulled my first harvest from my garden – our chives from last year have come back with a vengeance. They must have started growing under the snow, which just melted last week.

  14. lurker carl says:

    I applaude your organizational skills! That is an outstanding gardener’s diary.

    I think you could turn that garden over with a shovel quicker than going to the trouble or expense of borrowing or renting a rototiller. It appears from the photograph you hardly have enough room to operate a machine of any size within that plot.

    You can experiment with growing potatos from your pantry. As a biologist, this is something you should already realize – chances are it is a hybrid and will not produce the same quality potato as the original.

    You can put your compostible materials directly into your garden and bypass that unsightly composting pod. A neighbor would probably want see a clothesline instead of that thing! Use plant wastes as mulch throughout the growing season and turn it under when the garden is finished for the year. During the winter, toss the compostibles directly into a pile in the garden and turn it under again in the spring.

  15. Bettsi says:

    Thanks, Trent! This is a lot of good info for a garden neophyte like me.

  16. deRuiter says:

    An old galvanized trash can with the bottom rotted out makes a great compost bin. If you have the lid, poke a few holes in it and put it on UPSIDE DOWN to funnel rainwater into the compost. The other cheap alternative is some chicken wire or wire fencing staked into a square. Every year we cut up the sprouting potatoes about a week before planting, to let them develop a dry surface on the cut areas. The potatoes are placed ON TOP OF THE PREPARED EARTH and covered with spoiled hay or straw. The plants sprout through the straw, and when June comes you can start harvesting small potatoes without damaging the plants, by gently lifting the hay and then patting the hay back in place after removing the potatoes. At harvest time you remove the straw, pick up potatoes on the surface, and then dig each spot because some of the potatoes insist on growing in the earth. Have not had trouble with this system in decades. BUT WITH GARDENS YOU NEVER KNOW!

  17. Denise says:

    Mother Earth News, which you can access online, has great tips for making homemade compost holders. Or you can, as someone suggested, pile most of your waste on the garden, in the winter time and let it rot. Thanks for the pictures; I love it when you post them.

  18. Steve says:

    I know nothing about gardening, but am giving it a go this year. Thats a very timely article. Thanks

  19. Gigi says:

    We’re looking to expand our gardening this year. I’ve had great success with tomatoes, then we do some peppers,, raspberries, a couple of pumpkins, 1 small cherry tree, and a small grape arbor. With this (and a little help from the farmer’s market-who can resist when they sell those bushels of unbeautiful tomatoes so cheaply, which make perfectly good sauce!), I can tomatoes, jelly and jams. I’d like to expand this into other vegetables that I can can, but it seems like canning green beans and peas…the extensive boiling in the processing would take out a lot of the nutrients and makes the texture mushy. Do you know of anywhere I could find information on the nutritional content of home canned foods? We very seldom eat commercially canned foods because of the sodium content and the lack of vitamins. But we’d like to be more self-sufficient when it comes to what we eat.

  20. Ellen says:

    Great article and great inspiration. Thanks! Can you tell us where you purchased your peat pots for $6? Thank you!

  21. George says:

    @Stu – if you start with certified virus free potatoes, then you only need to consider new ones once every 3 years; just rotate your potatoes to a new location every year. If you live above, what, 1500′ elevation (?), then you don’t need to worry about the viruses [need some empirical evidence? the Incas never had troubles with viruses affecting their potatoes and no way are there enough certified virus-free potatoes to meet Idaho’s planting needs].

  22. George says:

    Another thought on potato starts: buy the more rare varieties for your starts (purple/blues, yellows, and reds) as the russet is grown as a commodity, so russets are cheap in the supermarket. Even organic russets are relatively cheap, so little benefit to growing them yourself.

  23. Sikantis says:

    I like gardening tips like yours. For an eco-friendly gardening planting potatoes like that is just great.

  24. Courtney says:

    Roma or other paste tomatoes are bred for sauce-making. They thicken faster than the “sandwich” tomatoes like Beefsteak or Big Boy, which have way more water. Brandywines are heirloom favorites around here, as are little yellow cherry tomatoes for eating off the vine. My husband often takes a box of cherry tomatoes for snacks at work! :) Seed swaps often allow for more seedling varieties, FYI.

    I highly recommend membership in Kitchen Gardeners International, (KGI), for helpful friendly information about gardening from some awesome master gardeners.

  25. sarah says:

    @ Gigi- Check w/ your extension office about any canning questions. If they don’t know right away, they will find out for you.

  26. Melody says:

    Can I find her journal on GardenStew?! That’s where I started a blog. I’ve just gotten the guts, as it were, to try gardening vegetables this year. Since I am in FL (*raspberry*) I already have sprouts for the pickling cucumbers, hot and crispy peppers and tomatoes. The only difference is I plan to try Hydroponic gardening! Some of them will be in soil, though. For a ‘control’ group.
    Great article – I’m amazed at the little chart! I agree, I need some of that organizational mojo!

  27. Sharon says:

    Trent, if there is a late frost your garden is small enough to put some old sheets over it to protect it.

  28. Suzanne says:

    I am very frugal and have never thrown out any seeds and I have a huge cache them that are 20 years old. I just did an experiment and sprouted 10 of each by putting them on a paper towel labeled with the name of the seed,wetting them with a spray bottle, folding several times and putting in a large ziplock in a single layer, so they each get some oxygen. Put the single thickness of paper towel upwards. I found that almost all of them sprouted at 90% to 100%. A few were 0%-30% and I threw those out. Those that were 40%-70% I will just plant more closely. I just wanted you to know that if you keep your seeds cool and dry you can use them far after the season they are packed for. They still do grow fine vegetables.

  29. Bavaria says:

    A friend has had good results vacuum sealing her excess garden seeds and using them the next year. It seems to keep the germination % higher than unsealed packets.

  30. I agree you can turn that small plot yourself with a shovel. We mostly use a shovel, hoe, and metal rake that is great for breaking up clumps. I like using the rake to get out old leaves and just smoothing out the plot before making rows. We’ve owned these tools for several years. It’s great exercise.

  31. How do you like that barrel composter?

    I have been thinking of buying or making one . . .

  32. Sarah says:

    @Ellen – I got the peat pots at the Wal-Mart Supercenter.

    @DDFD – We like it but I worry about it tipping over onto curious kids. I need to secure it to something.

    @George (et. al.) – I hoed the garden by hand last year, and may this year as well. Or my father-in-law may loan us his if they come visit around the right time.

    – Sarah (Trent’s wife)

  33. Heather K. says:

    I’m very much a novice when it comes to growing anything at all, but after reading about growing vegetables in straw bales, I was intrigued and decided to give it a try. Have you ever heard of or tried this method of gardening? I’ve started a blog just to keep up with my progress. I’m very excited about it and can’t wait for all the fresh produce (assuming it works)!

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