Getting to grips with gardening is not a difficult task if you simply take one step at a time and, quite often, it is the very first, all important step that puts people off!
This is, of course, along with soil preparation, the various planting procedures necessary for different species of plants and seeds. Some new gardeners get totally confused about how to start off and can end up extremely puzzled if they study the widely differing suggestions detailed in the incredible range of often climatically unsuitable gardening books found in book shops and bazaars. Therefore, in this month’s Subh-e-Nau, is providing you with very simple to follow instructions on how to begin vegetable and herb cultivation here in Pakistan.
Step 1: Soil preparation
Mark out the area/s of garden ground you want to transform in to a ‘kitchen garden’. The simplest way to do this is using wooden/metal stakes and a ball of strong twine. Don’t get over enthusiastic and mark out one huge area which would be impossible to weed without walking on the soil surface as this is something to be avoided; it compresses the soil which, in turn, reduces water penetration plus adversely affects beneficial insects and soil micro-organisms. Try to ensure that all parts of the plot can be reached by stretching your arm to the centre. Thoroughly weed the area, digging out every single bit of roots of perennial weeds and extracting any stones you happen to see.
If you adhere to the ‘no dig’ principle, this is the only time you need to physically dig the plot. Irrespective of the type of soil (clay, sandy or otherwise), you should mix copious quantities of organic matter, in the form of home made compost or well rotted animal manure, in to the soil then rake it level, breaking up any lumps you see. If this is the first time this particular garden area is being brought in to cultivation then nothing more in the way of ‘food’ will be required during the first growing season. If the ground has been used before, however, then later feeds of liquid organic fertilizer are recommended. You may want to edge the plot with bricks or other suitable material but it isn’t really necessary. If you are gardening in clay pots/containers then all you need to do is fill them with a lump/stone free mix of good quality soil and organic matter/compost/well rotted manure on a 50/50 basis. Also ensure that the drainage hole in the base of the pot/container remains unblocked by placing a layer of broken pot/gravel or small stones in the bottom before putting in the soil/compost mix.
Step 2: Seed sowing
Once you have worked out what to plant and when (an earlier edition of Subh-e-Nau contained a comprehensive Planting Chart covering the entire country) then proceed as follows:
Very small seeds such as those for many varieties of herbs should be carefully sown just under the soil surface as tiny seeds will not germinate if planted too deeply. Simply scattering them on the soil surface and then lightly raking them in is one solution.
Otherwise, in an attempt at avoiding overcrowding which wastes an incredible amount as seeds as only the strongest emerging seedlings will survive, mixing a pinch of seeds with a handful of fine sand (not sea sand as this contains salt) or with coarsely ground atta prior to ‘broadcasting’ them, will help you to see exactly where the seeds have fallen and help you to distribute them at a reasonable space.
Larger seeds such as those for carrots, turnips, cabbages and celery should be sown in lines, approximately a quarter of an inch deep at the very most. Distance between the seeds and the rows vary from species to species so try picturing the diameter of the mature vegetable and sow the seed with this in mind. If sowing carrots for example, individual seed is best sown about 3 inches apart all round.
Medium sized seeds, spinach and Swiss chard are good examples, should also be planted about a quarter of an inch deep and are very easy to space out at approximately 3 – 4 inches apart so that the plants have lots of space to grow and thrive.
Species like peas and beans are even easier to handle: Peas can be sown 2 – 3 inches apart and beans from 3 – 6 inches apart depending on variety. Both of these popular vegetables can simply be pushed down in to prepared soil to a depth of 1 inch which is just about the length of your first finger from tip to its first joint. Climbing varieties, as against bush ones, will need strong supports of mesh/string, canes/sturdy branches which can be arranged in rows or ‘wig-wams’ which should be constructed and emplaced prior to sowing the seeds.
Seeds for all kinds of pumpkins, squash, ‘kudoo’ and cucumber should be sown, standing on edge (this means on their sharp side rather than being laid flat down), being planted so that they are covered with an amount of soil equaling the on-edge height of the seed. This means that large pumpkin seeds are sown deeper than relatively small cucumber seeds.
Potatoes can be planted in trenches 6 – 12 inches deep, with lines about 2 feet apart. The trenches can be lined with well rotted manure/compost for an extra boost. Some people advocate planting only pieces of potato with sprouts on (emerging shoots) but, in my own experience, this method does not result in good crops. I recommend planting whole potatoes which have sprouts forming somewhere. Planting very large potatoes is not necessary but avoid planting very small ones, selecting medium size tubers instead. There is absolutely no need to purchase expensive ‘seed potatoes’ from a seed merchant, just select nice, firm potatoes from the bazaar instead, keep them in a dark place until they begin to sprout and then plant those.
As potatoes grow they should be ‘earthed up’. This means carefully, without damaging new green leaves, draw up soil on either side of the plant, covering as many as the emerging leaves as possible and keep on doing this at regular intervals until the plants are too tall to cover when you can then let them be. The reason for this ‘earthing up’ is to encourage the plants to form stronger growth, both above and below ground, to maximize tuber production. Potatoes can also be grown on ‘the flat’, without constructing ridges over individual plants/rows but, instead, keep on covering the entire potato bed with additional compost or mulch. This method can be easier in some ways, plus, it ensures that the developing tubers are fully covered at all times (ridged up plants can end up with some forming tubers exposed to light if you are not careful, exposed tubers turn green in color and are poisonous!) and, in the long term, adds a vast amount of nutrients to the soil for follow on crops.
Step 3: Maintenance
Regular weeding is of prime importance as is the systematic removal of any plants showing evidence of stress, disease or unhealthy infestations of insects such as aphids. All fallen leaves, broken or rotting plant material should be picked up and disposed off. If plant debris is disease and pest free, it should be added to the compost heap. Infected plant material should be disposed of otherwise. Keep a sharp eye open for insect problems and treat with organic solutions immediately and well before things get out of hand. Slugs and snails can create havoc so either collect them up by hand for disposal or set out organic slug/snail traps details of which, along with other organic controls, we will go in to next month.
Step 4: Commonsense
Overcrowding any type of seed/plants leads to poor growth – high losses and increased diseases as well as insect infestations. Strongly growing, healthy plants, properly spaced out, weeded and tended are more disease resistant than their weak counterparts.
All weakly growing, obviously unhealthy plants should be pulled up and disposed of.
Watering, preferably with recycled ‘gray water’ or harvested and stored rainwater, is of prime importance, particularly at seedling, flowering and ‘fruiting’ stages of growth. Watering is best done in the evening so that plants have all night long to drink their fill before the sun rises and heat evaporates the moisture away. Morning watering is a complete waste of time and increasingly precious water.
Watering by hand uses less water than other problem prone methods of irrigation.
Do not spray water on top of plants; apply it only to the soil around their roots. View your gardening time as therapy not as a chore that must be done!
Indigenous American Indians applied the ‘Three Sisters’ growing method, sowing pumpkins, sweet corn and beans on small mounds of soil. The nitrogenous roots of the beans help both pumpkins and corn to thrive and the beans climb up the support provided by the corn. In northern regions of Pakistan, corn, beans and cucumbers are traditionally grown together with pumpkins planted around the boundaries of this mixed crop. Such intercropping is beneficial to plant and soil health plus assists in keep harmful insects at bay by confusing their sense of smell. The mounds in the photograph are composed entirely of homemade compost and planted with pumpkins and corn only (I had already sown beans on wig-wams before deciding to use this method. The area surrounding each mound is regularly mulched with grass clippings to retain soil moisture, keep down weeds and improve soil fertility long term.
Writer: Zahrah Nasir