Planting in my new raised bed: potatoes, onions, and more

Everything is greening up and it is officially my favorite time of the year!

We are planting potatoes, onion sets, spinach seeds, and lettuce seeds in our raised bed this month.   

There have  been a lot of posts on social media in the past few years about re-growing your vegetable scraps. I’ve never done that, and when it comes to potatoes, you should always purchase certified disease-free potato seed for planting in your gardens or containers.

I purchased two 4-pound bags of seed potatoes for $12, which was entirely too many seed potatoes for my small area (8 square feet), but I wanted two varieties and I will be sharing the extras. Below are the steps for cutting potatoes. You can get many “seeds” from one single potato tuber. It’s important that each piece has at least a few eyes/nodes, which will become the plants. Remember that potatoes are a storage organ of the stem, which has growing points called nodes, so that is why you can divide them and they will grow. Carrots, beets, and radishes, on the other hand, are root cells and do not have nodes on them, so you cannot cut them into pieces and expect them to grow into new plants.

Early potatoes should be seeded 3-5” deep, later season potatoes can be 5-7” (so that they won’t be sunburned). More specifics on growing potatoes can be found here. I want small potatoes for roasting with the skins on, so we planted 4 seeds per 1 square foot in the raised bed, with the intention that I will dig them as I need the space in my succession planting plan. Many early seeded vegetables can be harvested at many different stages (early or later, young leaf lettuce or more mature leaves, young baby beets or larger beets, green spring onions or larger ones, for example).

We seeded 9-16 onion sets per square foot with the hope of thinning them out and eating them as spring green onions and leaving a few to grow larger.  

We also added hoops to the raised bed which will support floating row cover to help insulate and protect it from pests, including deer, in the coming weeks. Once it warms up, then I will transition to deer netting over the hoops. 

We used ¾-inch, 10-foot long PVC pipes ($2.29 each), six 1-foot rebar pieces pounded into the ground for anchors, nails with plastic washers, and conduit 2-hole straps. The floating row cover ($15 for 7’ x 100’) is only 7 feet wide, but worked out perfectly with the 10-foot long pipe hoops. It’s always so nice when things work out accidentally! 

In order to make the cover removable to harvest and care for the plants, on the one side we used 4-foot boards connected to the floating row cover with nails that have plastic washers on them. The weight of the boards will hold the fabric in place (the boards are just hanging there).

We rolled the floating row cover and used a 6” landscape fabric staple to hold it in place, which can be easily pulled and replaced whenever access is needed to the bed.  

Hopefully next month we will have some photos to share of the sprouted potatoes, onions, spinach, and lettuce. We also plan to seed some radishes, beets, and turnips in the coming weeks. With the weather warming up, it also will be time to start scouting for insect pests and beneficial critters.

What do you have growing in your garden? Have you harvested anything  in 2021? Happy spring gardening!

By Ashley Bodkins, Senior Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Garrett County, Maryland, edited by Christa Carignan, Coordinator, Home & Garden Information Center, University of Maryland Extension. See more posts by Ashley and Christa.

Master Gardener Project Makes Discovery Commemorating the Remarkable Life of Jane Gates

building a raised bed garden
John and Julian begin work on a teaching garden at the Jane Gates Heritage House in Cumberland, Maryland

The Jane Gates Heritage House located on Greene Street in Cumberland, Maryland is a non-profit museum and community center started by John and Sukh Gates to honor the spirit of John’s third great-grandmother, Jane Gates (c. 1819 – 1888). Jane lived most of her life enslaved, most likely in or near Cumberland. She obtained freedom when slavery was abolished in Maryland in November 1864.

Jane Gates Heritage House
Jane Gates Heritage House

Jane purchased the house and lot for $1400 in 1871 in the current location of 515, 511, and 509 Greene Street. Jane Gates is listed in the 1870 U.S. Census in the house at 515 Greene Street as a nurse and a laundress, age 51, living with two of her children and two grandchildren. The house at 515 is Jane’s original dwelling. The houses at 511 and 509 were built decades later by one of Jane’s daughters and a granddaughter. Jane Gates is also the second great-grandmother of Dr. Paul Gates and his brother Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a scholar of African American culture at Harvard University and host of the PBS program, “Finding Your Roots.” Jane’s house is featured in his PBS documentary, “African American Lives II.”

The mission of the Jane Gates Heritage House is to empower, enrich, and enhance the lives of all through faith, education, and history. Along with African American history, the President of the board of directors, Sukh Gates, is passionate about teaching elementary-aged children crucial life skills such as healthy living and growing and preparing food. 

To reach this goal, Sukh wanted to transform the backyard of the house into a teaching garden. She asked for help from the Master Gardeners in Allegany County to design and install the garden. I developed a plan based on Sukh’s goals and the available land at the house. The plan called for four raised beds for vegetables, a small bed for fruit along an existing wall, and a pollinator garden along the fence that borders the alley.  

creating a new teaching garden
Construction of raised beds
raised bed gardens
Gardens planted in June

The Jane Gates Heritage House received a grant from the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture to renovate the house but not the grounds. Sukh and I applied for a grant from the Allegany Work Group of the Western Maryland Food Council to build the raised beds. In March 2020, the Food Council awarded $600 to cover the cost of materials and soil. Josh Frick, my husband, constructed the raised beds on site. Our families then worked together to install the raised beds and fill them with soil. In June, Master Gardeners donated and planted fruit, vegetables, herbs, and flowers in the gardens. The local wildlife posed quite a challenge, prompting the Gates family to erect a fence to protect their fledgling garden. By mid-July, Sukh excitedly picked the first zucchini.  

This project fostered a growing friendship between Sukh and me and our respective organizations. I regularly consulted with Sukh over the summer and into the fall. Sukh, new to gardening, was amazed by the beauty, the challenges, and the serenity afforded by the garden.

In the course of inspecting the pollinator garden for weeds, I noticed a plant that I hadn’t paid much attention to before. This plant looked familiar, like a flower of some kind, but it had not been planted by Master Gardeners. It was a volunteer that had re-seeded and spread itself from times past. It grew along the alley behind the house. I pondered this a while, and it finally came to me. This plant is soapwort! 

Soapwort, whose botanical name is Saponaria officinalis, may be more familiar to you as bouncing Bet or wild sweet William. European colonists brought soapwort to America because it had several essential uses. Sap from the roots and stems can be combined with water to create a lathery soap solution traditionally used to clean delicate textiles and woolen fabrics. This plant naturalized throughout North America. Further inquiry reveals that bouncing Bet (Bet is short for Bess) is an old English nickname that means washerwoman. The hook was set; Sukh and I wanted to learn more.

herbs
Herb garden

This discovery prompted Sukh and me to learn more about 19th Century laundering techniques. In the 1800s, the boiling of textiles in a large kettle was part of the laundering regimen. An archeological dig in 2019 led by Oxbow Cultural Research principal Suzanne Trussell found remnants of burned wood behind the house, near to where the soapwort grows. The wood was in the ground at an angle, which may indicate Jane used a tripod to hold a large kettle over a fire. Could this have been the spot where Jane spent long hours laboring? Could Jane have planted the soapwort nearby because she used it as part of her cleaning process? We can’t know for sure, but it’s fascinating to consider.  

Finding soapwort created a lead-in to explore Jane’s life as a laundress and to search for further relevant connections. The more we delved into history, the more Jane Gates came alive. Jane’s probable daily routines, methods, and challenges became clearer. Suddenly the life of Jane Gates became tangible. This is the mission of the Jane Gates Heritage House, after all, to learn from Jane by connecting the past to the present. The providential discovery of this inconspicuous plant shed light on the life of this remarkable woman, Jane Gates, and for that we are grateful.

If you would like to learn more about the Jane Gates Heritage House, please visit their Facebook page and if you would like to donate to the Jane Gates Heritage House, please visit their GoFundMe page. 

By Sherry Frick, Master Gardener Coordinator, University of Maryland Extension, Allegany County.

Semi-novice Gardener – Raised Bed Vegetable Garden Adventure (vol. 1)

Hi all, I’m Dan Adler – a part-time employee that works on web and communications at the HGIC.  I work on the website, video creation, posting others’ blog content, newsletters, design, and other web-media technical things.  I’ve been with the HGIC for several years, but I came into the job with close to no gardening experience.  Over the years, I’ve absorbed a certain amount of knowledge by osmosis in the office, but no one mistakes me as a subject-matter expert at the HGIC!

This growing season, I am going to record my raised bed vegetable garden exploits and post several in-progress reports here on the Maryland Grows blog.  I hope to go through my thoughts about decisions we (myself and my wife Krysten) made, where I went to find answers from the HGIC, what worked, and what didn’t.  Hopefully, this blog will help newer gardeners by acting as a bit of a case study on a fairly simple gardening project.  Learn from what I do right, and what I do wrong.

This page on vegetable gardens on the HGIC website has been a good starting point and reference for information along the way.

The project

(This blog post is about a month late; we did the work mentioned here about a month previous to this post.  Future blog posts will catch up and be closer to real-time as they happen).

We live in Baltimore County and have an area that gets full sun which is great for tomatoes and a lot of vegetables.  Last year we bought a couple 4’x8′ raised bed kits from the hardware store.  These are dead-simple to put together with no tools and get the job done for growing, but they are a bit thin and fragile after a while.  At the time, we had calculated buying the kits vs materials to make a similar-sized (but a bit more robust) raised bed, and for us, they were similar. Two things we did to improve it, however, was to staple some chicken wire underneath so digging rodents couldn’t come through the bottom, and we set them down on cardboard to smother the grass underneath.

Birds eye yard view
Picture of our yard area with old raised beds with weeds in them

We had some old soil in there from last year (with weeds in it) already, but this year, we topped it off with a bag of generic hardware store gardening soil in each 4’x4′ square after pulling the weeds.  We definitely expect that we will have to continue pulling weeds.

What we should have done: (You’ll see this a lot moving forward.)  Last year, when we were done growing, we should have protected our soil by either covering the soil with fallen leaves or leaf mulch in the fall, or planting cover crops that are easily mowed or string-trimmed away. This would have staved off weeds and kept more nutrients in our soil.

Let’s get planting

We’ve had some minor success with tomatoes, green beans, peppers, zucchini, and cucumber in the past, so we decided to do similar this year, but hopefully keep a better eye on them and build better support this year.  Previously, we have had cucurbits get eaten by squash vine borers, and our cheapo cone-style tomato support didn’t hold up the plants very well as they got bigger and fuller than they should have (we did not prune diligently).  We’ve also had issues with something eating up our green bean leaves; probably a groundhog.

Planting plan diagram

We bought seedlings from the hardware store and a packet of green bean seeds, and planted them like the picture above.

  • Big plants like tomatoes and the cucurbits that need some space were planted diagonally from each other to maximize the distance.
  • The top-left and bottom-right bed squares are taller and have deeper soils, so the tomatoes were planted in those, as I am assuming they like to go deeper with their roots than our other crops.
  • The bean seeds were planted according to the package’s instructions: 3″ apart in rows, down about 1″ in the soil.
  • We intentionally left spaces in the center of the bean planting and elsewhere in our beds with the plan to add some flowers to bring in pollinators.  Pollinators are essential for food crops, and attracting them is essential. Our area is in the middle of an ocean of grass, so we feel we need to incentivize these good bugs to visit a bit.  Read this blog post on Pollinators and Food Gardens.

We watered every day and added the flowers the next weekend.  The week after that, we have this shot:

Pollinators

The flowers we added were Zinnia and Marigold*.  Krysten also snuck in a celery plant in the bottom right corner as well.

You can see all the vegetables are larger and the beans are coming up well.  We are prepping for some renovation of the area around the garden as you can see, but I will talk about that later.

We have plans to create some fencing to keep rodents out, but that sort of depends on other renovation plans we have to happen first, so we are hoping at this point that the varmints don’t find the garden before we can get the defenses up.

As I’m writing this in hindsight, everything looks peachy and hopeful at this point in time about a month ago.  However, we definitely hit some snags and added some more challenges ourselves pretty soon after this.  Stay tuned, and I’ll fill you in shortly!

 

Dan Adler
HGIC Web and Communications Manager

*Previously, we had mistakenly labeled the marigolds we added as mums.  Text and images have been updated.