Roots and Shoots: Reader Q and A

Busy people gardening; the best berry bushes

By Pamela Doan

Q: I don’t have a lot of time but I’d like to have a vegetable garden this summer. What should I plant, and how should I begin?

The most time-consuming part of a vegetable garden is prepping for planting. Clearing a space, adding organic matter to your soil, finding a way to exclude deer, rabbits and other critters that will partake in your harvest — these are the initial challenges. Sowing seeds and transplanting vegetables can be done easily and quickly. Then you need to set aside time to water, weed and monitor.

There are low-maintenance ways to accomplish all of this, though. It sounds like you need something small and manageable that could be extended next year if you have more time or interest. Instead of trying to clear lawn or another area for a garden, consider container gardening or raised beds. These options make for less work but possibly more costs if you don’t have the materials.

Containers can be placed anywhere that the plants will get ample sunlight (6 to 8 hours per day for vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, corn and squash and 4 to 6 hours for greens). You can purchase organic soil to fill them. While anything can be grown in a pot as long as it’s big enough to accommodate the plant’s development, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, pole beans, greens and herbs are all easy choices.

A raised bed saves the work of clearing and tilling. Make a simple wood frame and don’t forget to cover the bottom with hardware cloth to keep out burrowing pests. You can use a layering method to fill it. Alternate using any of these organic materials: peat moss, shredded leaves, compost, grass clippings or composted manure (not raw).

A creative solution for a time-strapped gardener? Garden anywhere, anytime. (Photo by P. Doan)

A creative solution for a time-strapped gardener? Garden anywhere, anytime. (Photo by P. Doan)

If you start your raised bed with decent soil, you can then top dress it in future years to keep the level up. There’s less digging and bending, too. Raised beds retain water better than plants in the ground and it’s easy to set up a drip line for watering.

That’s a potential drawback for containers. The plants need daily watering and concrete and stone containers dry out faster and heat up quickly. Plastic containers are fine but avoid plastics with a 3, 6 and 7 — they can leach chemicals into the soil and therefore into your food. The same goes with treated and stained wood. Try cedar, redwood or teak, which are naturally better at holding up in rain and sun.

If you’re ready to get out there and clear a space in the lawn for a garden, test the soil’s pH to see what will grow best and whether it needs amending. (At the Master Gardener Plant Sale in Brewster on May 14, they’re offering free soil testing or you can take a sample to the county Cornell Cooperative Exchange office at another time and pay a small fee.)

Another alternative is to grow some vegetables in containers and add edible plants to the landscaping or flower beds. Mixing flowers with vegetables could have lovely results.

Q: I like fresh berries but they’re expensive. Are there some varieties I can have in my yard? How do I take care of them?

There are several native berry bushes that will do well. Lee Reich, who has turned his property in New Paltz into a farmden (“a little more than a garden, not quite a farm”) has decades of experience growing fruit and nut trees. Here were his recommendations:

  • Highbush blueberry Vaccinium corymbosum (varieties: Earliblue, Bluecrop or Jersey)
  • Lowbush blueberry Vaccinium angustifolium
  • Juneberry Amelanchier spp.
  • Mulberry Morus spp. (varieties: Illinois Everbearing, Oscar)
  • Huckleberry Gaylussacia baccata

Keep in mind that blueberries thrive in acidic soil (pH of 4.0 to 5.0) while most berry producers do best in soil with a pH of 5.5 to 6.5. If that’s the natural state of your soil, you’re in luck. Otherwise, to successfully grow blueberries, you’ll need amendments to get to that level and it will be a constant chore. Soil always reverts to its natural state.

Most berries need at least six hours of sunlight, so choose your site accordingly. Currants will grow in shadier spots. Be prepared to defend your harvest. Deer will munch the leaves and birds will enjoy the berries.

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