Dear Sheila,

We've had fun planning and prepping your brand new vegetable garden. Now the planting begins! And by the time your garden is planted, you'll have a good understanding of basic planting principles. You'll be able to grow anything!

Peas- Principle #1: Plant at the right time

Garden books say that some spring crops can be planted "as soon as the ground can be worked." That's because certain seeds can sprout in cold soil, and and grow best while the weather is still cool. Well, we worked your ground a few weeks ago, and peas are an "ASATGCBW" crop. Can you find twenty minutes of free time? Pull back the mulch and newspaper where we planned your pea row. Get those long stakes we bought. Put one firmly into the ground at each end of the pea row, and the third in the middle. (later we'll use twine and make a light fence for the pea vines to climb.) Dig a small trench along there about two inches deep and place a pea every two or three inches. Push the dirt back over them and press it down. Principle #2: Get good contact between seeds and soil. There you go: first real vegetable planted! Leave the mulch back off the peas and within two weeks I bet you'll find a tidy row of green pea shoots.

Now to make a twine pea fence. Grab that twine and tie it to the first pea stake, a few inches from the bottom. Now, unwinding from the spool as you go, go over to the middle stake, wind the twine around it, go to the other end stake, and wind it. Angle up a few inches and head back the way you came. By going back and forth, you'll weave a lightweight fence that the pea vines will climb. Gosh, it's starting to look like a real garden now!

Lettuce- Principle #3: Plant at the right depth

Lettuce needs to be planted early, like peas, so it can grow in cool weather. But lettuce seeds don't look like peas at all. Lettuce seeds are tiny. Tiny seeds need to be carefully planted with just a thin layer of soil on top of them. The light blanket of soil on tiny seeds helps them stay moist but is easy for tiny new shoots to break through.

Take the trowel and scrape back a quarter of an inch of soil from the area where you want to plant the lettuce. Then tap a small amount of seed from the packet into your palm. Summon up some patience (haven't the kids been trying to teach us patience? I still have something to learn about it myself) and drop just a few seeds at a time, about six inches apart, down the row. They disappear almost a soon as you drop them. Collect the scraped aside soil and sprinkle it over the seeds. Then pat down the dirt. Patting gets the dirt stuck to the seed to help it sprout (see principle #2). Give the new row a gentle spray or sprinkle. Principle #4: Water newly planted seeds and keep them moist until sprouted. Watch for seedlings in a week or two. You'll probably have some weeds emerging too, but the lettuce will be in a row and look different from the others on closer examination. When you see the first row up and growing you can repeat this in another row several inches to one side of the first. Principle #5: Crops with short life cycles may be planted in succession (partial plantings made two or three weeks apart instead of planting an entire area all at once.)

After planting your peas and lettuce you get a break from planting. As the lettuce and peas grow, catch up on the housework, soccer games or book report emergencies until sometime in May (principle #1 again). When you are comfortable barefooting in the yard, it's time to plant heat loving summer vegetables.

Tomatoes- (#1 and #3)

Big seeds, tiny seeds, now no seeds! Vast numbers of gardeners buy their tomatoes already growing as little plants from a store, and you should too. Look for short leafy green plants at a nursery where everything sems pretty healthy and well tended. All plants should have a tag with a "cultivar name" and more descriptions. I recommended a "beefy" or "big," and indeterminate variety tomato to supply you with big red slices. Most tomato plants are sold as a sixpack all the same kind but I only planned three for your garden. Give the others away. The garden I planned for you has few inches to spare, and crowded plants are unhappy plants. Principle #6: Space plants properly for best results. Since we worked over the soil in March, all you do now is open up the mulch, use the trowel to loosen a hole big enough for the roots and dirt and some of the stem. Tomatoes do well planted a little deep, up to their bottom set of leaves. Press the dirt back in by hand, "plant" a tomato cage around each little plant, and water (#2 and #4).

Another school year is ending. Afternoon breezes are turning from sweet to sweaty. Tomatoes are thriving, and lettuce and peas are wilting. There's not a lot you can do about cool weather crops failing when the heat comes on. Take advantage of an opening in the garden to plant something new.

Green beans

You're getting to be a pro. I can make these instructions quick. When the lettuce gets bitter and the peas dry up, tear them both out. Choose the bigger of the now open spaces for your bush green beans. Green beans like warm weather (#1) and bean seeds are big like peas. Plant beans an inch deep and two inches apart in the row. Press soil over them, and water them (#4 and #5).

Summer squash and cucumbers- (#1, 2, 3, 4)

Squash and cucumbers are kissing cousins in the plant world so their planting needs are similar. They like really warm weather which makes really warm soil. Take the newspaper and mulch off of a two-foot-square area in the cuke and squash spots on your garden plan. Another thing that makes warm soil is pushing some dirt up into a small hill, just a few inches high. Squash likes extra compost mixed in that hill (Principle #7: Some plants have specialized soil preferences for best growth) but I hope the compost we added during the garden prep will make them happy this year. Smooth out a saucer size circle on top of each hill. Are you starting to feel those hours of preschool Play-doh paying off? Now take five or six seeds each, spread around the area, and stick them, pointy end down, in the dirt. I push them down so my finger goes halfway in; that's how I judge an inch and a half. Then press again so the dirt is closed up nicely on each seed. Give both hills a nice drink. For the cucumbers, now put the last big tomato cage smack on top of that hill. Cucumbers will grow up and over that cage on vines. In a bigger garden (can I talk you into that by this fall?) you might have time for a second crop of squash or cucumbers (#5) but this year you'll only have time and space to allow one hill of these (#6).

I've made you a cheat sheet to help you study before future planting sessions.

Seven tips for good planting

1: Plant at the right time.

2: Get good contact between seeds and soil.

3: Plant at the right depth.

4: Water newly planted seeds and keep them moist until sprouted.

5: Crops with short life cycles may be planted in succession.

6: Space plants properly for best results.

7: Some plants have specialized soil preferences for best growth.

That's it! You've planted a variety of easy vegetable crops. With this hands on learning you've been introduced to seven basic principles that apply to the planting and nurturing of lots of other garden goodies. I can't wait to see what you want to grow next year!

Click here for Dear Sheila (1) on choosing easy vegetable crops

Click here for Dear Sheila (2) about preparing a brand new area for a vegetable garden

Click here for Dear Sheila (5) about cleaning up the garden in the fall after the last harvest

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