CLEVELAND, Ohio — Warmer temperatures have many Northeast Ohioans reaching for their gardening gloves. And area pros — fresh off an unprecedented 2020 gardening boom — are providing a number of easy-to-follow guidelines that will ensure a bountiful fall harvest for both novices and old hands.
The popularity of gardening surged with the coronavirus pandemic, as people across the country sought a sense of self-sufficiency, as well as the physical, emotional and spiritual rewards of interacting with the earth.
An estimated 16 million new gardeners broke ground in 2020, and the trend is expected to continue.
“I can’t believe how many people I taught to garden in 2020, and we’re seeing it again this year,” commented Dale Heyink, owner of Puritas Nursery in Cleveland’s West Park neighborhood.
Noelle Akin, manager of training and education with Petitti Garden Centers, said the Northeast Ohio favorite, which is currently celebrating 50 years in business, also experienced an increase in gardeners last year, and the trend has continued this spring.
“It seems like veggie and herb gardening slowly, but steadily, increases each year, though last year was probably the biggest jump in a while, and the warm temperatures this March really got Northeast Ohioans and others motivated early,” observed Akin.
First things first
Both Heyink and Akin emphasize soil preparation as a critical first step to ensuring a healthy return on investment.
“It all comes down to soil preparation,” Akin said.
Fall is an ideal time to begin such preparations, though improvements made in spring beat none at all. Akin advises adding amendments a few weeks in advance of planting. Akin also recommends doing a soil pH test, though she notes that additions like compost, peat and manure are typically sure bets for boosting production.
Because Northeast Ohio soils are prone to compaction, Akin directs customers to Espoma’s “Soil Perfector,” the preferred solution at Petitti. The kiln-fired natural material creates space in the soil for air and water to infiltrate.
Annually rotating crops is also high on Akin’s garden priority list.
Heyink typically adds composted manure, though he said worm castings, mushroom compost and other items are also popular with gardeners. According to Heyink, the real key is to add nutrients each year.
“Every year, the veggies take a lot of nutrition out of the soil.”
When to plant
Cold crops like broccoli, potatoes, carrots and radishes can be planted as early as St. Patrick’s Day, though plants that prefer warmth — including tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers — should not be rushed.
“We grow for the calendar, and not for what the weather is like during one period or another,” explained Heyink.
Heyink, who has owned Puritas Nursery for 38 years, recommends planting warm-season crops outdoors after Mother’s Day. In fact, cold temperatures and low light mean warmth-loving plants put outside prior to mid-May will reap few benefits and are at risk of enduring a late frost.
Akin noted that Northeast Ohio is still susceptible to wintery weather in May, offering 2020′s May 11 snowfall as evidence. She advises waiting till at least mid-May to avoid killing frosts and the much maligned white stuff.
Let there be sunlight
Once plants are in the ground, sunlight is critical to ensuring production. At minimum, plants should have at least six hours of direct sunlight daily.
We all need our space
Proper spacing is also essential, though most gardeners have felt the urge to cram in just a few more plants.
“Keep it simple,” advised Akin. “More is not always better.”
When plants compete for light, water and other resources, yields per plant are lower. The same productivity can typically be achieved with fewer specimens, and doing so will help reduce the spread of pests and fungal issues that can render a season’s work worthless.
Heyink tells his customers to space tomatoes at least 2 feet apart and plant peppers at 18-inch intervals.
The importance of keeping hydrated
Watering is perhaps the most obvious aspect of plant care, though following certain guidelines will help keep crops healthy. An inch of water per week is a worthwhile rule of thumb for Northeast Ohio gardeners.
Watering thoroughly every seven days or so encourages deep-rooting plants, though only when the water is allowed to infiltrate slowly — so put away the watering cans and buckets.
Adding water to the base of plants is preferred to top-watering. Soaker hoses and drip systems not only work from the bottom, they also release water over an extended period of time.
In addition, watering earlier in the day helps prevent certain fungal and pest problems.
Deterring unwelcome diners
Few things are as frustrating as pouring time and money into the garden, only to see the rewards consumed by local wildlife.
Heyink swears by “feather meal” — processed chicken feathers — as a deer deterrent and uses blood meal to drive away smaller mammals. Both products also add nitrogen to the soil.
Akin is an advocate for natural sprays that use essential oils to stave off hungry critters.
Granular repellents, chemical sprays, fencing and netting are just a few of the other available options. DIY fans can even mix up a batch of cayenne pepper spray.
For insects, Akin recommends first attempting simple solutions such as a cold spray of water or removing infested portions of the plant.
Products with essential oils, including NEEM and various insecticidal soaps, are also in Akin’s bug-busting bag of tricks. She suggests “Captain Jack’s Deadbug Brew,” which utilizes a naturally occurring bacteria, for persistent pest problems.
Heyink advises using various garden dusts before insects arrive. He also relies on sprays, though he urges consumers to carefully follow the instructions for such products.
There is more to this than I thought
Yes, but a few unexpected hurdles should not keep you from pursuing a stress-relieving, life-affirming and relatively inexpensive pastime. Area garden centers and nurseries are more than willing to discuss everything from fertilizers to different types of fungus, as well as the items detailed above.
In gardening, as in life, persistence pays off, but be warned — produce from store shelves will never again taste the same.