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It’s alive!
How to not kill your first garden

04/17/14
By Kelly Sennott ksennott@hippopress.com



Want to keep your garden alive? Get a soil test. Oh, and don’t overwater, or plant too early. And find some shade for your plants already!
If you’re a new gardener, or a previously unsuccessful one trying to learn how to make your garden grow, the rules can be overwhelming. 
Ron Christie, program coordinator for the UNH Cooperative Extension, narrowed it down to a few ways to decrease the likelihood of your killing your vegetables this growing season. 
 
Get pH balanced
Christie started the phone interview with the “single, most important thing you can do”: Get a soil test.
UNH Cooperative Extension offers soil tests for $17; just send a soil sample via mail (visit extension.unh.edu, or you can Google other New Hampshire businesses that offer soil testing services). After you get your soil tested for the first time, you generally don’t need to get another test for a couple years. 
“It’s going to tell you several things. First of all, it will tell you the pH of your soil. The pH is very important; it tells you how acidic your soil is. Vegetables won’t grow in acidic soil very well, and it could be your first way to kill them, by not having the proper pH levels,” Christie said. 
If your soil is too acidic, the soil test will not only tell you so, but it will also tell you how much lime to add to counterbalance that.
The soil test will also instruct on exactly how much fertilizer to add for better growing, and what type of fertilizer. 
If you’re already confused, you can call the UNH Cooperative Extension anytime Monday through Friday between 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., at which point you can speak with a master gardener to help you get through the soil test. It’s the busy season for gardening, so send those samples ASAP, as it will take two to three weeks for the results to come in.
 
Know when to hold ’em
The next rookie mistake? Planting too early. Because of the weather this year, it will likely be a late season for many gardeners. 
“We’ve had a cold winter, a cold spring. What’s important in determining when to plant is how warm your soil is,” Christie said. “It’s critical not so much for cool-season crops — for them, it [the soil] generally needs to be about 50 degrees — but warm-soil crops need to be planted when [the soil is] about 65 degrees or above, and when the air temperature doesn’t drop below 50 degrees.”
Beginner gardeners should try to plant items that aren’t too temperamental. Easy-to-grow cool-season crops (which, again, should be planted when the soil itself is at least 50 degrees) include lettuce, onions, carrots and radishes, to name a few.
Naturally, planting time depends on what part of the state you’re working in — the seacoast gardening season will start earlier than say, the Upper Valley’s — but Christie thinks that in most southern New Hampshire spots, it should be fine to begin growing cool-season vegetables toward the end of April. 
These plants can take a minor frost if it hits them, but they don’t like warm weather much; he recommends replacing these items with warm-season vegetables when the weather warms up and then replanting them as summer winds down.
“These [cool-season crops] will bolt and want to produce a flower,” Christie said. “The sweetness, the tenderness and all the sugar of the plant will go into making seeds.”
Hold off a bit on the warm-season veggies — like cucumbers, summer squash and tomatoes — for at least a month or two. Temperature will tell all, but Christie thinks they might be ready to grow shortly after June 1.
“Everybody tries to plan on planting for Memorial Day, but I’d wait two weeks later,” Christie said. 
Cucumbers, summer squash and tomatoes make the easy-to-grow list because they’re low-maintenance.
“The cucumbers are hearty, tough plants, even in the summer. … You can take a tomato plant and stick it anywhere, and it’s going to grow,” Christie said. 
Want to speed up the process? Build a raised bed to plant in, so your soil is off the ground and warms up faster.
 
Water, water everywhere
One last rookie mistake Christie advises against: overwatering. 
“People tend to want to water way too much, believe it or not,” Christie said. “Or they go to the other extreme and don’t water enough.”
How do you know if something needs to be watered? Stick your finger two inches into the soil, five or six inches away from the plant. If it’s damp, it doesn’t need to be watered. If it’s dry, do it. Christie recommends you check your plants every two or three days — more frequently if it’s extremely dry or warm. Fruits and vegetables will also require more water once they start to fruit.
“What can happen if you water constantly is that the roots will rot,” Christie said. “You can set up your plants for all kinds of root diseases, and as a result, it will grow very poorly.”
 
Odds and ends
Sunlight is also critical; leafy vegetables need at least four hours of direct sunlight, root crops (like carrots) need at least six, and fruiting vegetables (like summer squash, tomatoes, beans) need at least eight or else they won’t grow well.
In special circumstances, you might want to consider investing in row covers, which keep away insects, or good drainage systems, in case of week-long downpours. 
But the most important thing beginner gardeners can do, Christie said, is learn how to grow things beforehand.
“We have a lot of people who don’t do that. They think they can take a seed, put it in the ground and then have a beautiful vegetable, but it’s really important to do some reading beforehand,” Christie said. “And there’s all kind of information about gardening on the Internet, in the library [and] at the university website.” 
 
As seen in the April 17, 2014 issue of the Hippo.
 
 





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