Q: Since fall is around the corner, what can I do to ensure that vegetables and flowers will grow in my yard next spring and summer?
A: Time for a true confession. Inside or outside, I have a very hard time keeping plants alive. To ease the guilt of watching plants meet their slow, painful demise, I stick with cheap plants from big box stores.
That’s why I called in the big guns for a truly expert answer to your question. Walt Harrison owns a 26-year-old plant and landscaping company called Habersham Gardens. With help from his green thumb, we both may end up with a little greener outlook on things next summer.
Prep your soil: Whether you want calla lilies or vine-ripened tomatoes, Harrison says it’s time to start prepping your soil now. Grab a shovel or pitch fork and start digging with the goal of flipping about 8 to 12 inches of terra firma to loosen and aerate your soil.
Add nutrients: Harrison describes compost as the black part of the dirt, and it’s filled with plant-loving nutrients. Make sure your soil has plenty of the good stuff by adding compost.
“Any organic material — food, paper, sawdust, wood chips, leaves — can be composted and put into your garden,” he says. “You don’t even have to compost if you wait over winter. Just add those chopped leaves.”
Pine straw or crushed eggshells also deliver key nutrients to the soil. But Harrison warns against adding food, unless you like the idea of attracting rodents. Pet waste is another no-no due to bacteria. Check out Planetgreen.com’s list of 75 awesome household items that can be composted, including wine corks, dryer lint and pet fur.
Consider a winter garden: Cooler temperatures may mean the end of tomato season, but this is the perfect time to plant a fall garden filled with lettuce, cabbage and other cool-weather crops like Swiss chard (a favorite I discovered through a CSA membership).
Create curb appeal: In this economy, it pays to enhance your home’s curb appeal with the addition of colorful plants. Fire up the search engines and start the hunt for fun and funky perennials, which Harrison says have a smaller carbon footprint than annuals.
“Perennials are grown outside or in a cold frame, and they don’t really have a lot of heat requirements,” he says. “Also, they are only potted once and usually planted every few years.”
He notes that the greenest — and cheapest — option is to grow your plants from seed. A small container of perennials may cost $5, but you can get as many as 50 plants from $5 worth of seeds.
Make it a family affair: You may have an easier time getting kids to eat vegetables that they actually grew from seed. Carrots, lettuce, potatoes and runner beans make fun “starter crops” for kids. Of course, the little ones may be better gardeners than you think. Many schools have embraced classroom gardens as an opportunity to reinforce math and science concepts. Kidsgardening.org also is a great reference for fun activities that you can try at home.
Consult an expert: In a previous column, I offered tips on finding plants that will grow in your yard. Learn more about your soil by consulting an expert at your local cooperative extension office. This network of colleges and universities receives federal funding through the National Institute on Food and Agriculture to provide information on all things green.
All the best!
— Morieka Johnson