By Malee Oot November 23, 2013
Nearly a decade ago, apartment-dwelling Arlington resident Meeghan Long got permission from her landlord to start a garden behind her apartment. Since then, the area has been transformed into a space maintained by Meeghan and her husband Ian, and shared with other interested building residents. The couple has grown everything from potatoes to raspberries to corn, and learned a few things along the way. Fairfax Climate Watch caught up with Meeghan for some advice about building a successful garden in Northern Virginia.
FCW: What advice do you have for someone with the ability to kill a plastic, decorative plant?
Meeghan: Two words: farmer’s market. No, seriously though, people who know they have a dark thumb should try plants that require little to no human interaction. Potatoes, carrots, berries, herbs and small hot pepper plants don’t usually require much in the way of active care other than weekly water and full sun placement. When attempting to not kill a garden, planning is key. Plan plant locations to have correct sun or drainage needs – like with strawberries or leeks. Remember, when planning that ‘spring sun’ will be different from ‘fall sun’ because the earth move on its axis—so a spots that looks like it gets a lot of sun in April may not get as much sun in July or August. If you tend to keep up with the weekly watering, try tomatoes, cucumbers, and beans. Veggies require a lot of water to produce good fruit, but are often disease and pest resistant and so easily grown.
Ian: Some things don’t require a lot of care, like mint (grows like a weed!) and a few other herbs. Rosemary is another hardy one that does well even without regular watering.
FCW: What about with limited space? Or gardening in pots?
Meeghan: Plenty of plants will grow fine in pots. The key for limited space is the watch out for plants that are “indeterminate” and not purchase these. Look for “determinate” plants—these will grow up but not out, generally staying in a confined area, while indeterminate plants tend to grow up and out, taking up more space. Tomatoes, especially, will overrun a garden if indeterminate breeds are chosen.
I love potatoes in pots! Very little attention needed, and it is so much fun to pull them up (or dump them out) when they are finished. They do have vines that grow up, so you have to stake the plants unless you want them to ‘overflow’ the planters. Northern Virginia has too much clay in the soil to allow tuber-plants such as carrots, radishes, turnips or potatoes to grow well. These underground tubers will flourish if you put them in loose soil in planters, though.
And of course, many people keep a number of herbs in planters. Some of them allow the herbs to be brought inside when colder weather comes, such as the bay leaf tree, which will not stand the winters in Virginia. Some herbs like oregano and thyme will spread rapidly and overrun other ground-level plants if not constrained to a container.
One note for plants in pots—because they do not have access to ground-water runoff, be sure to water plants in pots more regularly than plants in the ground, as they will dry out much faster than plants that are grown directly in the ground. Also, plants in pots can strangle on their own rots if the plant outgrows the pot. Be careful to re-pot the plants when they have grown, and ensure the root ball is loosened in the process, so that the roots don’t strangle.
FCW: What has been your biggest success?
Meeghan: We planted a hundred corn in a sunny corner, and got several weeks of amazing corn harvest until the local wildlife found our cache. Watching the corn grow was an amazing experience! And when I first tried potatoes, we weren’t expecting much but after a few months of minimal care we dumped out the bags and came out with a great harvest. Our two-year old had a blast sifting through and pulling out the potatoes. And our strawberries and raspberries must be culled every spring because they are so proliferate. We transplant them with friends and neighbors to make room for harvesting each year.
Our garden sports raspberries that grow over five feet tall, due to a minor lack of sunlight from overhanging trees, and they have been an easy success. Strawberries also have repeated successful harvests each year. Tomatoes and cucumbers do very well for us too.
FCW: What has been your biggest failure (and we’ll never mention this again)?
Meeghan: In our soil, despite repeated attempts to aerate, fertilize and loosen the local soil, we have yet to be able to grow carrots, lettuce, or any kind of melon in our yard. Some of these do well in pots and planters, but between the local wildlife and the local soil, they never bear fruit. We often get pumpkins to grow, but they are destroyed by squirrels every time a few weeks into fruit development. Most of our other failures all stem from trying plants that require a lot of sun, but that were planted in areas without enough sun exposure. We tried sunflowers several years in a row, and ours did not do so well, but a neighbor has beautiful success with her sunflowers in sunnier spots.
In general, taking into account the plant placement and requirements tend to be our biggest downfall. Planting lettuce in too much shade, or at the wrong time of year, for example. Beans (green beans and snap peas) will not grow in the heat of July, so must be planted early spring and early fall for a good harvest. If you don’t know your plants’ needs, you should research them before trying the plant; otherwise you set yourself up for failure from the start. And, if the plant says to stake it, don’t wait until it is falling over to put supports in!
One more note on failures—mulching is not an option! If you fail to mulch, you will spend the rest of the season either pulling weeds or wishing you had the time and energy to pull weeds. A heavy layer of mulch in the early spring will help to keep plants from drying out (water regulation), keeps watering and weeds to a minimum, and helps to support plants after transplanting. Even plants in pots should be mulched to help keep the soil moist. In Northern Virginia, mulch will also protect your plants from being unearthed by squirrels digging for nuts.
FCW: What have you grown that you’ve found you use the most?
Meeghan: Sugar peas, tomatoes, strawberries, raspberries, cucumbers, green beans, potatoes, and cooking herbs of all kinds (bay leaf tree, parsley, oregano, cilantro, dill, rosemary, thyme, and mint). If you are interested and have time, even excessive harvests can be canned. When the cucumbers are in, we make pickles. When the berries turn, we put extra ripe berries in jam jars. Tomatoes with fresh Italian herbs make for good canning and can be used for everything from lasagna to pizza to chili in the winter. Sweet peppers grow slow enough that we tend to eat them as they are ready, but the spicier peppers dry well and can be used in a number of dishes. My favorites are Anchos for sweet pork sauce, jalapeños for nachos, yellow banana and purple Thai peppers for adding color to dishes, and of course the spiciest cayenne peppers for BBQ and hot buffalo sauces.
FCW: Any surprises?
Meeghan: The wildlife gets us every year. Some tricks I’ve learned to keep four-legged pests away include cayenne pepper sprinkled around our veggies (they get it on their paws and don’t like the result). CDs, wind chimes, and other bright-sparklies can help keep the birds away when hung on supports. I’ll admit that the scarecrow never one kept the deer at bay with the corn. Our neighbor swears by her cat as her greatest garden helper, but our dogs don’t seem to scare the squirrels much.
Some surprises are good, some not so good. But with regular watering, heavy mulching (to reduce weeding needs), good sunlight and planning before planting, your chances of growing what you want will often surprise you in a good way!