Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Choosing plants

Being February, it is too cold to work outside, so I'll get back to garden layout when it warms up. That doesn't mean there isn't a lot to do INside. PlanBe- Amy- already has her peppers started. I am still trying to decide on what kinds of seeds I want! Luckily I have a few more weeks until the seeds HAVE to be in the greenhouse so I have baby plants in time.
In previous years I have simply bought whatever looked healthy at the library plant sale. This year I am paying close attention to what each plant requires, and especially how big each plant gets. Last summer I had a little problem with tomatoes gone wild, and nearly choked out the rest of my plants. This year I am prepared to find out just how different all the varieties of plants can be.
Size and requirements of plants are important for any gardener, but are especially important in regards to an urban garden. My space is limited, so in order to make it productive I need to find plants that are happiest in the microcosm of Philadelphia and also of my yard. Since I live in the outskirts and have actual dirt instead of a concrete pad, I avoid some of the biggest challenges. Some urban gardeners who use containers on a patio in city centers face the problem of the urban heat island. They are so surrounded by asphalt, buildings and cars that their yard is so hot that the dirt can't stay moist enough and the plants can be singed from heat. The pavement amplifies the solar heat gain during the day and gives off the heat long after the sun goes down making it hard to get good growing conditions. If the right plants are chosen however, success can be had. Many truly dedicated urban gardeners take to the sky and used their roof as plantable area. This has even more difficulties associated with it than gardening on a patio. The weight of the plants on the structure, the harsher wind, the difficulty in getting supplies 2 or more stories in the air, the list goes on. I hope one day to take to the sky and use all that wasted space on my roof, perhaps even sharing it with a few solar panels. But for now I am tackling growing in the ground. However dense your area, by being an urban gardener you can help mitigate the heat island effect by creating spaces that absorb water and CO2 and replacing some of the impervious ground with something closer to what was there before the city was built.
So what do I need to pay attention to when choosing seeds? Light.
Some of my garden is full sun and some of it is part shade. Many plants require full sun, a lot will tolerate part shade, in that respect I am lucky. If you want to familiarize yourself with all the different combinations of sun, part sun and other important factors, check out http://www.fedcoseeds.com/ogs.htm, go to their downloadable catalogue and scroll through until you find one of the 'at a glance' charts. They tell you what is good to grow in what parts of the country, how much light is needed, what is required to start the seeds and more. I think Fedco is the first place that I have seen that gives you a summary in chart form rather than having to skim through pages and pages of listings, handy! Some other places make it a little easier by putting icons at the end of each summary to show what that particular specimen requires. Things like that are why I prefer to look at paper catalogues rather than on line- it is easier to browse and compare with your fingers stuck in different pages rather than have to keep track of 15 web pages.
The next is soil.
Some plants need fertile soil, some needs sandy soil, some like soil that stays moist, most don't like to get their roots soggy. Again, other than not being super fertile, I'm in luck. My soil drains well and has been worked enough now that it is loose enough to let roots really take root. Just by looking at your soil you can probably get a basic idea of what you have. Soil with too much clay or too much sand may need several years of amendment before you get a good yield from your vegetables and flowers. Many vegetables will want more of one nutrient or another in the soil, kind of like a pregnant woman needs more of certain vitamins than say a high school athlete. I'll cover more about soil when I actually get to start digging. Just be forewarned that soil type makes a difference, but most problems can be corrected.
And what I think is the most important for an urban gardener- size. I want as much variety in my postage stamp as possible! so plants need to be compact, or at least controllable.
Last year I chose cherry tomato plants. I figured, small fruit, small plant. WRONG. Most tomatoes, the cherry ones I had included, are vines and get very leggy, they need to be tied to stakes or cages to support the branches. I had always heard my mom talk about determinate tomatoes but I had it in my mind that these were container type tomatoes that wouldn't get very big or put off much fruit. Thanks to Territorial Seed Co., I now know that determinate simply means that instead of growing vertically and contiuously, they grow latterally and stop after they get to a certain size. They do have the disadvantage of having all the fruit come at once, but by having several varieties, tomatoes can be spread over the growing season. And after my previous attempts at tomatoes (all in pots, all kind of neglected since I didn't realize how much care goes into gardening) never got very big, I figured since I really had space- which in contrast to a 10'x6' patch of concrete, I did-, I could pack in the tomato plants. I also hate to let baby plants go to waste and since I didn't have anybody else to share them with, I put 6 ideterminate cherry tomato plants (vines) along one side of my garden. The good news is that I got pints and pints of tomatoes. The bad news is they smothered just about everything else I had planted along that side and threatened to take over the yard. A few zinnias managed to squeeze there way through, and the marigolds survived well enough that I got a few flowers out of them once I pulled the tomato plants out, but I have learned my lesson, and am now searching for the perfect DETERMINATE tomato for my garden.
My dilemma in picking out seeds has been made even more difficult by the fact that my mom sent me a big stack of all her favorite seed catalogues. I have added this to the pile of Amy's favorite seed sources and I am up to 10 or 11 catalogues FULL of more tomatoes, peppers, green beans, squash, flowers and all kinds of other stuff that I would love to put in my garden but know that I don't have the skills or patience for yet. Once I find the tomatoes I want, I have to move on to peppers, then cucumbers, lettuce, squash, flowers AHHHHHHH!!!! I have to remind myself that I am new to this and I am going to be more disappointed if I plant 15 things and don't have time to really learn how to grow them so they all flop, than I will be if I stick to 3 or 4 things and really figure them out and get a nice harvest before adding to my garden.
So the quest begins, to pick the plants that will thrive in my little Eden.

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