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A gardening guide for the north country newbie

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If you want the perfect antidote to this year’s epic winter, plant something in the dirt and watch it grow. If this is your first season in the north country, or you’re new to gardening, here’s some advice from experts and longtime home gardeners to help you get started.

n Don’t bite off more than you can chew.

“I’d keep it small and plant easy crops,” says Susan J. Gwise, horticulture educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County. “For example: peas, green beans, beets, lettuce and spinach.” There are lots of options on how to plant the garden—long rows, squares or boxes. “I’d start by doing a 10-by-10 or 12-by-12 square.”

If flowers are your goal, start with what grows well up here naturally. It will give you a great boost to have a successful garden right away. “I’d try things like Shasta daisies and purple coneflower,” also known as echinacea, says Kelly E. Reinhardt, who has been working her gardens in Sackets Harbor for 12 years. “You can’t kill them and they reseed next to each other.”

n Plan your garden, but don’t overplan.

There is no “right” way to plant a garden. Ms. Reinhardt focuses on intuition in choosing what she plants. “I’m a little more freestyle, I just plant it in the ground,” she says. She recommends considering the style and proportions of your home when planting flowers. “You’ve got a tall old house with 12-foot ceilings and then put in teeny tiny 6-inch flowers. It has to show up and be proportionate with your house. Flat things get lost.”

Sun exposure is key, too. “There are many flowers that can tolerate shade,” says Ms. Gwise. “But it’s hard to vegetable garden in the shade.” Observe the sun pattern around your house to pick the best spot — at least eight hours of sun a day.

Good air circulation will keep down pests, especially fungus. “If air gets stagnant, you get a lot of disease buildup,” warns Ms. Gwise.

You’ll also want a water source close by, she says. “If you have to run hoses out there all the time, or get buckets, it will get old fast.”

It’s also wise to keep track of your garden from year to year — maybe with a diagram.

Jolene K. Rhodes of Rhodes Greenhouses in Henderson says that’s because plants, especially veggies, need to be moved around. “Never plant tomatoes in the same place you plant the year before. It’s best just to rotate your vegetable garden.”

n Beware the short growing season.

Choosing which seeds to plant can be tricky. Any seed you plant must be harvested within 100 days, says Ms. Gwise. Certain crops must be started early indoors or bought as seedlings — like cucumber, zucchini, winter squash — or they won’t bear fruit by the end of the season in September.

Perennial flowers are staples, because they come back year after year. “If you’re buying them from seed, they don’t blossom that first year. They have to grow and go through a winter first,” says Mrs. Rhodes. “If you buy blooming perennial plants they’ve already gone through that. They’ll already be in bloom and you can see their color.”

Buying local can help maximize your results, with both annuals and perennials. “Big-box stores may have an attractive-looking price on flowers,” she says. Locally grown plants “may sound a little more expensive, but they’re bigger plants or have more blossoms,” says Mrs. Rhodes. “When you put them in the ground, they’re going to take off — that’s because they’ve been here, they’re used to it, you’re not shocking them.”

n Make sure the soil is ready.

You want a warm, dry patch of earth to plant. Much of our soil in the north country is heavy with clay, making it retain moisture longer. “Take a handful of soil and squeeze it. If you open the hand and it crumbles or you touch it and it falls apart easily, it’s OK to work it,” says Ms. Gwise.

Also, be careful not to walk on or compact the soil of your garden when it’s wet. “You’ll push the oxygen right out of the soil. Plant roots need oxygen,” says Ms. Gwise. She also suggests everyone do a pH test, which is free at local extension offices. Local pH levels tend to run between 6 and 7, which is a good range.

To keep your soil balanced, incorporate organic matter — compost — into your garden before planting or in the fall when you till or when the harvest is over. “It’s going to loosen up soil, add food for the critters in the soil to feed on, add a low level of nutrients and help fix any soil compaction,” says Ms. Gwise. “Aerated soil holds on to water and nutrients.”

n Spend your money wisely.

The good news is you don’t have to spend a lot of money to have a great garden. “All you need is a shovel, a rake, a way to get water to the garden. Other than that, there’s just the plants or the seeds,” says Ms. Gwise.

It’s also good to keep costs low at first, until you know it’s something you like.

Ms. Reinhardt adds a new perennial bed each year, building on her gardens incrementally. And Mrs. Rhodes suggests starting with some containers to try your hand at flowers: “Don’t try to have the garden that your grandmother had. Do a few patio planters at first.”







A NNY Planting Guide
Our short growing season means all crops can’t be planted at the same time. Here’s a cheat sheet for what to plant — and when.
EARLY SPRING: Cold-season crops can be planted as soon as you can work the soil. Good picks are onions, peas, beets, spinach and lettuce — anything that germinates at temps as low as 40 degrees.
AROUND MAY 15: Put in warm-season crops planted from seeds, like green beans, corn, cucumbers, winter squash and zucchini. “Most people’s problem here is with the warm-season crops: They’re too anxious and get them in too early,” says Sue Gwise of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County. “These guys really don’t like cold weather.”
MEMORIAL DAY, MAY 26: Most transplant crops can go in the ground now, both flowers and produce. Tomato, eggplant and peppers are all plants that must go in from plants, not seeds.
MORE INFO: Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County, www.ccejefferson.org.

Uncommon Sense
Here are some of the biggest mistakes new gardeners make and how to avoid them.
NOT GIVING SEEDS ENOUGH LIGHT: Seeds are less expensive than transplants, so many new gardeners try their hand at sprouting their own seeds inside. “A common mistake is they don’t give them enough light. A sunny window is not enough,” says Susan Gwise of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County. You’d need additional fluorescent lights about 2 or 3 inches from the light 14 to 16 hours a day.
GOING IT ALONE: Gardeners are a social bunch. Sackets Harbor resident Kelly Reinhardt has stacks of books and a decade of experience, but she still turns to more experienced gardeners for help. “You talk to a master gardener for 10 minutes and learn something new,” says Reinhardt. “If you find a garden you like, ask if you can come over and talk about it for a minute. They’d love to.”
LETTING WEEDS GROW TOO LONG: Keeping up on weeding is a must. If you put off the chore, it will turn into an overwhelming job quickly; also, weeds will spread if you let them grow long enough to go to seed. Ms. Gwise suggests setting aside 30 minutes daily for tending the garden. Mulching can also prohibit new weed growth and has the bonus of keeping the soil moist.
GIVING UP: Even the best gardeners have crops that fail; great outdoor spaces take years of work to take on the shape you want. “When you see something you like — and what you like doesn’t have to be what someone else likes—try it. It’s trial and error,” says Jolene Rhodes of Rhodes Greenhouses in Henderson.
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