By Julia Howard
With spring’s last projected frost date safely behind us, gardening enthusiasts take out their trowels and prepare garden plots for planting. But if you’re new to gardening, the process may seem overwhelming. We spoke with Susan Beebe, Assistant Director/Agriculture Issue Leader of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Saratoga County, to understand the basics of gardening with starter plants.
To begin, determine where you would like to plant. Perhaps you have space for a garden or raised beds in your yard, or maybe planting in containers seems more feasible. If planting in the ground, Susan Beebe explains that the first and most crucial step is to determine the pH of your soil. “Soil pH is important because it will help you prepare to plant your garden,” explains Beebe. To collect a soil sample, walk through the area that you would like to plant and collect soil samples from various places. Dig 3” to 8” deep and scoop about ½ cup of soil into a clean container. Soil samples may be brought to Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Master Gardener table at the farmers’ market on the third Wednesday of every month or directly to their office.
If planting in raised beds, Beebe recommends combining potting soil and compost to hold water and prevent moisture from draining out. “Soil is alive and full of microorganisms that plants need to survive,” says Beebe. “Adding green manure, compost, or even a cover crop can keep soil healthy while planting in raised beds.”
If planting in containers, Beebe advises using soilless mixes rather than potting soil. “A benefit to the soilless mixes is that they are much lighter than potting soil and allow you to move your containers around. The counterpart is that these mixes have a tendency to dry out, so depending on the location, you may have to water your containers more,” explains Beebe.
Once your soil is ready, it’s time to buy plants. Several vendors offer various herbs, fruit, and vegetable starter plants at the Saratoga Farmers’ Market. These plants are typically several weeks old and have been nurtured through the most delicate early stages of growth by professional growers in a greenhouse. If you have questions about what to plant, ask the growers; Balet Flowers & Design, Burger’s MarketGarden, Gomez Veggie Ville, Green Jeans Market Farm, Leaning Birch Farm, Old Tavern Farm, and Scotch Ridge Berry Farm.
Now it’s time to plant. Once you’ve popped the first plant out of the container, pull the roots apart with your hands gently; you can look to see how tightly wound the roots are. “You need to pull the roots apart with your hands gently,” Susan Beebe instructs. “You may even use a little knife to break the roots because the goal is to stop their circling motion so that they can spread into the ground,” she adds. When planting, maintain the level it was grown at rather than planting deeper. “The only exception is leggy tomato plants that you can bury deeper,” says Beebe.
Once your starters are planted, water generously and ensure 6+ hours of sunlight a day. Some leafy crops like spinach can thrive with less sun; however, vegetables like carrots, beets, and peppers need 6+ hours a day.
Fruit and vegetables thrive and produce more with light fertilizing at planting. The appropriate fertilizer depends on how you’re growing and what your growing. Beebe recommends side-dressing again with fertilizer 2-3 weeks after planting to ensure healthy, productive plants.