From the Ground Up

JOHNSTOWN – This spring, Cornell Cooperative Extension’s master gardeners are offering Food Gardening 101, a series of classes for beginning vegetable growers and those interested in getting their green thumbs back in shape.

On Thursday evening, Master Gardener Jay Ephraim taught a class focusing on the best places to establish a new garden and how to identify and address issues of soil quality.

Garden site selection

“Give plants what they want, and they’ll grow very well,” Ephraim said. “Find the best place that you can.”

He sketched a diagram of a typical residential plot, ticking off a list of considerations:

– “Sunny spots are premium real estate,” he said, noting a vegetable garden should be located where it will receive at least six hours of direct sunlight every day. Eight hours of sun is ideal for most vegetables.

– A garden should be in a well-drained spot, not in a location prone to getting swampy after a heavy rain.

– It should be relatively level. Cornell suggests that if a hillside is the only place available to a home gardener, he or she could build flat beds or terraces that run across the slope.

– The garden shouldn’t be close to trees. “They can shade and compete with crops for water and nutrients,” according to information provided by Cornell.

– Gardens should be shielded from strong winds. “Wind really dries out soil,” Ephraim said. “But a little breezy is good.” Good air circulation helps prevent disease, Cornell advises.

– Gardens should be close to a water source. On days without rain, vegetable gardens need to be watered copiously. At more than 8 pounds per gallon, water is too heavy to haul by bucket in large quantities, so it makes sense to establish a garden where it can be reached with a hose.

– Gardens should be located away from potential contaminants, Ephraim said, so they shouldn’t be near septic tanks or too close to roads, where salt and oil runoff can leach into the soil.

“It may not be possible for you to have all of these optimal conditions,” he said, so the individual homeowner must make the most of the space available.

‘What’s beautiful to you’

In addition to the practical concerns of what’s best for the vegetables, Ephraim said, would-be gardeners also should think about their own convenience and pleasure.

“A great thought to have is put the garden where [you’re] going to see it all the time, if you can,” he said. “Right off the deck, right off the porch, right out the bedroom window – a place where you can look at it and enjoy it. If it’s right there, right out the door, as close to the house as possible, you just up the chances of your being in it, enjoying it.”

Ephraim said some people aren’t satisfied with anything less than perfection, while others don’t mind a few weeds.

“The garden should be beautiful,” Ephraim said. “What’s beautiful to you? My definition of beautiful is different from your definition.”

Likewise, the success or failure of a vegetable garden will depend on the expectations of the individual.

“You can measure success in a lot of ways,” he said. “Maybe it was bountiful, or maybe not. Did you really have a good time but it didn’t really grow that well? Or maybe you got a lot of exercise.”

Planning ahead

Cornell Cooperative Extension recommends planning for the gardening season well in advance of Memorial Day weekend.

It’s imperative for a beginning gardener to start small, Ephraim said. Even if one’s first garden consists of only a few potted tomato plants on the back porch, that’s better than starting a garden too big to maintain for the whole summer.

“You can always make a bigger garden next year,” he said.

Before planting, gardeners should think about what they and their families like to eat. Being practical early in the spring will prevent an excess of veggies going to waste in August.

“You can’t give away squash in the summer,” Ephraim said.

Cornell suggests growing vegetables in 3- to 4-foot beds with paths in between instead of just one large garden patch. And raised-bed gardening has a lot of advantages, Ephraim said.

“If you don’t have good soil already there, you can make your own good soil by composting stuff and filling up these raised-bed boxes.”

Raised-bed gardens drain better than regular ground-level gardens, and they lessen the amount of bending the gardener needs to do for weeding.

Creating the raised-bed boxes does require an initial investment of time and perhaps money for the materials, Ephraim said, though many people build them out of rocks or repurposed lumber.

“Once you have them, it makes your life a lot easier as a gardener,” he said.

Most residents of Fulton and Montgomery counties have to worry about either deer or smaller animals, so putting a fence around a vegetable garden is important.

At his home in Bleecker, Ephraim said, deer have come right up onto the deck to eat plants growing in containers.

“To me, they’re an expensive nuisance,” he said. “If they’re hungry … they’ll do amazing things to feed themselves.”

To protect rural gardens from deer, one needs a fence up to six feet tall, he said. For city gardens where rabbits and woodchucks are the main trespassers, the fence should extend at least a foot above the ground and be buried at least a foot below it.

Soil issues

When it comes to establishing a healthy, productive vegetable garden, Ephraim said, “it all starts with the soil.”

On Thursday evening, he asked class participants to get their hands dirty, feeling the consistency of eight different varieties of soil. No matter what kind of soil you have in your garden to begin with, he said, you can make it better for vegetables by adding organic material to it.

“If you don’t have a compost pile yet, you’re going to need one,” he said. “You can never have enough organic material.”

Some gardeners store compost in simple heaps on the ground, off to the side of the garden area, while others use special bins or tubs. Nearly any kind of organic, plant-based material can be added to a compost mix: Well-rotted, seasoned horse or cow manure is excellent, and grass clippings, leaves and kitchen scraps as well. Even egg shells can be composted, though meat scraps and bones are not a good idea because they attract animals, Ephraim said.

Class participants go an up-close look at Ephraim’s vermiposting container, a covered plastic tub filled with red wiggler worms who quickly turn his kitchen scraps into what he calls “black gold” – dark, nutrient-rich compost that does wonders for the quality of his garden soil.

Gardeners who have concerns about their soil can bring samples to Cornell Cooperative Extension’s office in Canajoharie for testing. The agency will have the soil analyzed and offer suggestions for improving it.

Teaching and learning

Originally from Brooklyn, Ephraim is a retired teacher with the Broadalbin-Perth Central School District. One of the things he loves about being a master gardener, he said, is that it gives him opportunities both to teach and to learn.

People with gardening questions may speak with a master gardener by calling the Cooperative Extension at 673-5525, Ext. 107. He said the program is run entirely by volunteers, and they are always looking for new people to get involved.

Features editor Bill Ackerbauer can be reached at