Thinking about starting a garden? There are vast benefits of gardening including saving money, getting exercise, and enjoying the fresh air. Not to mention, the taste and nutritional value that homegrown and freshly picked items hold.
According to the Farmer's Almanac, aspiring vegetable gardeners living in Helena enjoy a last frost date of May 19. This gives Helenans about 123 growing days. According to our research fifty percent of sources say Bozeman’s last frost date is May 26, but according to the Farmer's Almanac the last frost date is June 6. Compared to Helena, Bozeman's last frost date reduces the growing season by almost four weeks to 97 days.
If you are in your backyard looking at a patch of grass and dreaming of ripening tomatoes and cute little lettuce leafs and its past the above dates… you might be a little late to the garden party. But don’t despair; hope is only a good gardening blog away.
Anything a Container and a Container for Anything
Gardening centers, home improvement stores, and some crafting stores offer planting pots in a variety of sizes and colors. Be wary of using terra cotta or clay pots because they cause the soil to dry out quickly - which could cause your plants to die if you are not careful.
You can save money on your garden by using re-purposed containers; gallon jugs cut in half, soda bottles cut length wise, a kiddie pool, coffee cans, buckets, etc. all make great planting pots. Whatever container you decided to go with, make sure it has good drainage. Otherwise, your plants might get over watered. If you are making a re-purposed pot, or even if the new pot that you just bought doesn't have drainage in the bottom - all you need to do is drill a few holes in the bottom and you're good to go!
The deepest containers you have are going to be best for cherry tomatoes, while the more shallow pots, like soda bottles, are going to be best for lettuce. You will need to buy bags of potting soil, to fill those new pots that you plan to use to garden with. Potting soil is disease and weed free and holds moisture after watering. If you opt to buy organic soil you will need to plan on adding an organic fertilizer like fish emulsion, while non-organic potting soils typically have time released fertilizers already added.
Lucky for you, you will need fewer tools to maintain your pots and containers than you would need if you were maintaining a more traditional garden. A trowel, sharp scissors, discarded serving fork, and gloves will do almost everything you need. Start by filling your containers with potting soil. If you are looking to save some money and use less soil, especially in the deeper containers, fill the bottoms with rocks. This will also help with drainage in the pot as well. Its what we call a win-win!
What to Plant
Planting a mixture of seeds and already established plants will provide the most satisfaction and keep startup costs budget friendly. This approach means you are not relying on all of your seeds to sprout. Seeing some green keeps your hopes up and is more appealing to the eye.
Lettuces, radishes, carrots, and zucchini are reliable growers from seed. Early Scarlet Gold, White Beauty, Sparkler, and Cherry Belle are smaller radish varieties sure to tantalize your taste buds. When the first radishes are picked, plant another round.
Choose carrot varieties with shorter roots like Romeo, Parmex, Short and Sweet, and Babette. Think two gallon to five gallon when considering containers for carrots.
Lettuce can be a bit tricky as the heat of summer comes on. Leaf lettuces with shallow roots will do best and can be sown every two weeks. Romaine, Oakleaf, and Deer Tongue are heat resistant lettuce types and good candidates for planting in shallow containers. If the lettuce is not doing well due to sun and heat try Swiss chard plants instead.
Zucchini are fun and prolific. Look for bush or dwarf types like Gold Rush, Bush Baby, Patio Star, and Eight Ball. Growing the bush type helps reduce the need for staking but a five gallon container will best suit this plant.
Surely one of summer’s highlights is freshly picked cherry tomatoes. Sweet and juicy; put a bowl full on the counter and watch them disappear quickly. Buy established tomato plants.
Plant tomato plants deeper than their original pots. Remove the bottom leaves from the stems and plant three- four inches deeper than in the pot. The stems will root and make for a strong plant. Tiny Tim and Patio Pik will not need support as they grow. Sweet Million, Sun Sugar, and Sun Gold all need staking and pots larger than five gallons. The extra effort will be rewarded.
Consider adding a few herbs, but like the tomatoes buy these as plants. Stick a basil plant or two in each tomato pot. Planted together they help each other with flavor and bug resistance. Parsley is bright green and cold resistant. Mints are easy and smell great but give them their own pot and don’t let them escape to the yard.
Whether you are planting seeds or mature plants - they love damp moist soil. Young seeds need the moisture to germinate and mature plants need it to continue to grow properly. Do not let the soil dry out or the seeds will not sprout. Even after your seeds have sprouted they will still be tender so give them some TLC.
How often you will need to water your plants will depend on factors like; how much sun your plants receive, daytime temperatures, rainfall, and plant size. The soil should not be heavy and wet but should also be maintained enough that it doesn't feel like dry dirt. Be ready to water your plants every day - especially in the middle of the summer when the heat is at its highest. Morning watering is best, so if you can fit that into your schedule then your plants will be better off for it!
The amount of sun your plants should receive depends entirely on the plant type. Tomatoes will be happiest with more sun - at least six hours. Some of your other plants might be better off with a little more cover from the sweltering summer sun. The best way to determine how much sun to give your plants is to read the instructions that come with each plant.
Knowing when to harvest your new plants may be tricky. Lettuce should be harvested when it is about four to six inches tall, clip the outer leaves to keep it producing. When trying to harvest your radishes, look at the top of the radish where it shows through the dirt. If it looks like a good sized radish - one that you might want to eat, then it is time to harvest your radishes. Follow growing guidelines for carrots. Make sure they have plenty of water the last month of growing. If the top of the carrot is breaking through the dirt and looks about the right size, pull one or two to test their maturity before harvesting all of your carrots. Continuously pick your zucchini, rather than trying to grow one huge one. Finally, you will know that your tomatoes are ready when they are get color and are plump. Do not wait too long to pick your tomatoes, because they will split and cause your plant to reduce the amount of tomatoes it produces.
Miscellaneous, but important tips
Read the seed packets for average growing time, dates to maturity, and other tips. These tips will also include thinning recommendations. You will do this after your seeds have sprouted and two sets of leaves are showing. To thin your plants, use scissors carefully, so you do not disrupt the plants that are still growing.
Add fertilizer when first planting your new garden. Your fertilizer should be a slow release variety that is low in nitrogen. A refresher may need to be added mid growing season. This approach means that you are not fertilizing every couple of weeks. If not using a slow release fertilizer then use a 10-10-10 added when watering. This should be diluted down to about 1/10th the recommended amount and used every week so as to not burn the plants.
As the season progresses, the days get longer and the heat and sun get stronger. You may consider building your plants some shade to escape the scorching heat. For a money saving option, you can use a folding ladder with a long board running through the steps to the back brace to create shade. . A purchased sun shade can be strung from a tree to a screw eye attached to the deck. The morning sun is great for your plants, but the hot, afternoon sun can be hard on them.
Planning for Next Year
If you still want a full garden in your yard, take the whole summer to work on this project. You can take the time to plan out your garden's layout and other specifics.
Be aware of visitors you might have to your garden. Deer and rabbits will be around, especially if they are common in your area. Have a plan for how you will protect your garden and build this into the design of your garden from the beginning.
Between building your garden, breaking ground, weeding, and making plans for next year's garden, you will have your hands full this summer and be ready to hit the ground running for next summer's garden adventures!
If you have more questions or need more inspiration, Montana State University Extension has publications and online information covering everything from composting to beekeeping. MotherEarth News, Organic Gardening, and Fine Gardening are just a few of the magazines you can peruse all winter long for inspiration. Don’t forget YouTube to show you how to be a sodbuster, build a deer proof enclosure, and use grow tunnels for winter gardening. If these resources aren't enough, the internet is an endless source of good information to answer all of your gardening needs.
Need to set a budget for your new gardening habit? Download our FREE budget worksheet to get started!