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Answers from a Master Gardener – 1

From the wisdom of a master gardener: Plant your small kitchen garden with foods you prefer to eat. If your family eats a lot of pasta, then tomatoes are a good choice. I second the thought: expecially when you have limited space, plant what will give you the most joy to eat.

Nearly a month ago, I invited readers of Your Small Kitchen Garden—and people on Twitter—to offer up questions they’d like to ask a Master Gardener. I was on my way to the Pennsylvania Farm Show where I had planned to meet with a Master Gardener and ask those questions. As I reported in several posts: I did meet with a Master Gardener. In fact, I met with several of them.

My activity at the Farm Show was rather hectic, and I failed to coordinate with any of the Master Gardeners until after the Show. However, last week Ginger Pryor, the director of Penn State University’s Master Gardener program, generously took a chunk of a morning to answer the question you folks had asked.Our conversation resulted in more material than should reasonably go into a single blog post, so this is the first installment of Your Small Kitchen Garden’s Answers from a Master Gardener.

Small Kitchen Garden Indoors

Twitter acquaintance @nickfalvo asked about the best way to grow a kitchen garden indoors: What are the best plants? What are the best practices?

Ginger admitted that growing vegetables indoors isn’t her forte (each Master Gardener focuses on aspects of gardening of interest to them), but she acknowledged that growing food indoors is particularly challenging. She suggests that you choose cool-season plants that don’t fruit. She named parsley and chives in this category, and also suggested growing sprouts—pea sprouts, specifically. (Lettuces and spinach are short-season plants that do well in cool weather.)

Among the challenges of a full-bore indoor kitchen garden are

  1. providing adequate light
  2. providing adequate heat

If you’re serious about growing indoors, placing plants in a south-facing window won’t satisfy their need for sunlight; you’ll need to augment with artificial light. You’ll also need to keep the plants warmer than people typically keep their living spaces.

Ginger suggests that you use an indoor kitchen garden primarily to start seeds for later transplant outdoors. To help seeds get started in houses with thermostats set low, put your seed planters on heating pads.

Essential Small Kitchen Garden Tools

I’ve never used a soil knife, but Ginger Pryor, the master gardener who answered your questions, uses no other gardening tool.

Twitter acquaintance @hardknocksmba asked which tools are must-haves for a kitchen gardener. Ginger’s reply: This is a matter of personal taste. She says the only gardening tool she uses is a soil knife; it’s especially useful for breaking up the clay-heavy soil common to central Pennsylvania. But each person’s gardening style determines the tools they’ll need—or prefer.

In view of this, Ginger answered the follow-on question, Which tools are a waste of money? with the same observation: it’s a matter of personal style.

Test Your Soil

@hardknockwmba asked, How should I test my soil? Ginger pointed to the Cooperative Extension soil testing service. In Pennsylvania, nine dollars buys testing on a soil sample. You fill out a form on which you list crops you plan to grow, and you provide the soil. Cooperative Extension reports on soil composition including pH level, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, calcium, zinc, copper, and sulfur. The report recommends lime and fertilizer amendments to optimize soil for the crops you want to grow.

You can request additional analyses, each adding cost to the initial $9 fee. For example, an additional $5 buys a measure of the organic component of your soil, and another $5 will tell you how much arsenic is in the soil. Ginger suggests the organic matter analysis for new planting sites. She insists that the greatest factor in your success is soil preparation, so get this right when you start. Most state Cooperative Extension offices offer soil testing services and other programs to help you succeed with your small kitchen garden. Follow this link to find an Extension office in your state: Cooperative Extension Office Locator.

If you’re into gourmet cooking, Ginger suggests, you might emphasize herbs in your small kitchen garden. When I plant tomatoes, I always plant basil nearby. To me, the combined flavors are nearly as good as candy. In my last post—Spring Planning for Your Small Kitchen Garden—I revealed the items I must plant to get satisfaction from a growing season.

What Should I Plant?

@hardknocksmba also asked what he should plant in a 120 square foot space. As you might guess, Ginger insisted she can’t answer this question for anyone without knowing them better. She proposed that you answer the following question to help decide what to plant: Why are you planting a garden? She followed it up with a few broad suggestions: If there is a lot of pasta in your diet, plant accordingly: tomatoes and peppers might dominate. If you’re into gourmet cooking, then emphasize herbs.

Ginger pointed out that some vegetables—corn, for example—take so much space to produce even a modest harvest that they have no place in a small kitchen garden. In contrast, lettuce, spinach, peas, beans, and many other vegetable plants produce food for a sustained period during the growing season.

Beyond these thoughts, Ginger emphasized: Grow what you want to eat.

More Gardening Insights

Ginger and I talked through many more questions, and I’ll report on them soon. Subscribe to Your Small Kitchen Garden’s RSS feed, or revisit in the next few days for the second installment of Answers from a Master Gardener.

 

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