Last Monday, my garden-friend, Laura and I went to a gardening workshop at Lisle Library. They are hosting a summer-long series, Gardening for Victory, that will cover aspects of gardening from soil preparation to planting and pest control. The series is led by Master Gardener Barbara Ottolino. Our session was titled Planning for Victory: Site, Sun, Soil, Bed, and Crop Selection. Ottolino shared a lot of tips for making gardening easier (less work, less time) and a little more interesting.
Ottolino is very enthusiastic about gardening and making gardens work for people, both in terms of saving time and maximizing the amount of produce you can harvest from your space. She shared a ton of tips and answered questions from the audience at the end. I left with a lot of takeaways for our garden plot this spring and some ideas for our balcony garden too.
For new gardeners choosing a site for a garden, she recommends drawing a simple map of your land, including your house, trees, fences, etc. Mark where you’d like to place your garden. Over the course of a day, record the sunlight shining on your land. Draw yellow stripes on the map at 9AM, red stripes at noon, and orange stripes at 3PM. Where you have the most overlapping colors is going to be the best place for your vegetable garden. But don’t count out the other places with fewer stripes! You could plant shade tolerant vegetables and flowers in those places. Ottolino recommends using what you have and not feeling stuck having your garden in one plot…spread things out over your property if that’s what you need to do.
Ottolino recommends alternating your plantings of lettuce and carrots in the same row or area. (Lettuce, carrot, lettuce, carrot…) Because of their roots (carrot roots are longer and deeper than lettuce roots) and their tops (carrots have way less going on above the soil than bushy lettuce), neither plant is competing with the other above or below ground. It’s a good way to maximize your produce haul in a smaller garden. She also recommended staggered sowing. Rather than throwing all of your radish seeds in at once, plant a few at a time over a week or more. This way you can enjoy radishes for a longer period of time and don’t have an overload of radishes at once.
Some of her tips seem to be geared for older gardeners. She recommends a specific type of lettuce for its ease of harvesting. (Salanova, because it grows into tiny heads that just need to be plucked out of the ground. You could harvest it from a wheelchair, if necessary.) She recommends a broad fork because it is easy to use, even without a lot of strength, and it loosens the soil instead of turning the soil. That brings me to her biggest tip…
She does not recommend turning or tilling your soil. Loosening, yes. Turning, no. This was groundbreaking news to me because I grew up in a home where every spring my father would go out and till the garden. Naoto and I turn fresh mulch into our garden plot every spring. Ottolino recommends layering your dried leaves and fresh grass clippings on your garden plot in the fall and then just planting in the spring. She says this way, you’re not dragging your compost out to the compost bin and then out to your garden…this is the perfect one step, no fuss solution for someone who might not have the strength to do a lot of hauling. (Not to say she’s against composting…this is just another way of looking at things.) Ottolino successfully gardened at her old home in Missouri in hard clay soil. She did this by making her garden beds with layers of manure, straw, dried leaves, and grass clippings. This method is covered extensively in the book Lasagna Gardening by Patricia Lanza.
In addition to her experience as a Master Gardener, most of Ottolino’s tips and philosophies derive from two specific books: How to Grow More Vegetables by John Jeavons and The New Organic Grower by Eliot Coleman. I am looking forward to checking out those books at the library soon. In the meantime, I really need to pop down to our garden plot and get started! The mulch just arrived and it’s time to transplant some of my winter sowing seedlings and to plant some beets and radishes! It’s been so cold here this week that it’s hard to imagine summer is just around the corner!
If you’re in Chicagoland and are interested in attending the next program in the Victory Gardening Series, you can sign up here.