Gardens are a growing idea in these economic times. Thinking of growing vegetables? Start with the basics.
A few years ago, a student at the local community college – a young mother juggling a job, school and caring for two small children – told me that, busy as she was, she wished that she had a garden. But she hadn’t grown up in a gardening family; she didn’t know how to begin.
I think of that conversation when I read stories about the economic downturn and rising unemployment rates. How many others like her are out there? Because I suspect she’s not alone, I’m devoting several Mountain Garden columns to some gardening basics. If I were talking to that student today, here’s what I would tell her.
Gardening is a constant learning experience: that’s one of its joys.
And the best way to begin to understand what’s going on in a garden is by starting small. Most seasoned gardeners will tell you that they ignored this advice. You probably will too, though you shouldn’t. If you start too big, you risk getting discouraged and giving up.
How small should your first garden be? How about 40 square feet? That’s plenty to keep up with, and space enough to grow a lot of food. If you’re busy, half that is probably enough.
The way you lay garden beds out depends on your reach. Most of my beds are four feet wide; if I were doing them over, I’d make them three. And if a bed is located along a fence or wall and can only be worked from one side, two feet is wide enough.
Where to put your garden? In a word, in the sun. Plenty of plants grow well in the shade, but not vegetables. Unlike other necessities for a successful vegetable garden (good soil and sufficient water foremost among them), you can’t increase the amount of sunlight your garden gets once it’s in (short of leveling buildings or cutting down trees). So choose wisely. Most vegetables require “full sun”; even those that don’t yield better the more sun they get.
What’s full sun mean? Six hours a day. Minimum. Even experienced gardeners sometimes forget this. “People come to me wondering why they’re not getting good tomato yields,” says a garden guru I know.
“They tell me what they’ve done to improve their soil or that they’ve added drip irrigation. What’s the problem? I go take a look and find a garden surrounded by trees. ‘There’s your problem,’ I tell them. ‘No matter what you do for your soil, tomatoes need six hours of sun.’”
So, pick a spot that’s sunny throughout the growing season. (The spot that’s sunny in March may be less so once the leaves are on the trees.) Preferably it will also be an in-your-face kind of place, where your plants can nag at you: “Water me!” “Weed around me!” “Pick me, right now!” A place you walk by on the way to car. A place you see from your deck. A place that’s the horticultural equivalent of the squeaky wheel and thereby gets the grease. In this case, elbow grease. Yours.
Once you’ve selected a site, you need to begin what I think of as “helping God make dirt.” Something – maybe lawn – ought already to be growing on your future garden site. Preferably vigorously. (If not, your vegetables probably won’t either.) If the current occupant is grass, you don’t have to dig it up. Trim it off close to the ground. (Save the trimmings to add back later.) Then cover the spot with a thick layer of corrugated cardboard or six to eight sheets of newspaper. Wet the paper before you lay it down, especially if your area’s prone to drought. You want the paper to break down, not so soon the grass doesn’t die, but quickly enough that earthworms will come up through it and help break down the organic material you’ve piled on top of it.
What organic material should that be? Whatever you can lay your hands on. Coarse material such as chopped cornstalks and leaves, as well as manure and spoiled hay, both of which may contain weed seeds, should go in the lower layers. Above these, spread the finer stuff – composted manure and other compost – and top the bed off with straw, or something else attractive that will keep everything tacked down.
This soil-making method is usually called “sheet composting,” although garden author Patricia Lanza has coined the term “lasagna gardening”
for it. Most sources suggest you pile up 18 to 24 inches of organic material, but the beds can be shallower the more fine material you use.
You’ll want to begin making dirt early in the season. Coarse material takes a long time to break down. There are ways to get around the problem of not-quite-ready soil. For seeds, pull back a furrow, fill it with compost, press in the seeds and cover them. For transplants, make holes, fill with compost, tuck the seedlings in and water well.
Crops that Tolerate Light Shade
(Highest yields in full sun)
- Pole beans
- Lettuce and other leafy greens
Crops Requiring Full Sun
(Reserve your sunniest space for these)
- Bush Beans
- Squash (summer and winter)
The Good Book Says
“The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible,” by Edward C. Smith (Storey Publishing, 2000), is one of my favorite garden books and a great place to begin. I finally bought my own copy after borrowing it repeatedly from the library. Good general information, as well as easy-to-find specifics on individual crops.
Patricia Lanza’s “Lasagna Gardening for Small Spaces” (Rodale Press, 2002), while not aimed exclusively at vegetable gardening (there are chapters on flower, vegetable, herb, fruit and berry gardening in small spaces), explains lasagna gardening, and lots of other things. You may be able to find a remaindered copy for next to nothing. I did.
There’s a wealth of gardening information on line. Just Google your question and you’ll likely find answers, lots of them. Print out the best of it and take it with you to the garden. If it gets wet or illegible, tear it up, tuck it into your sheet compost and make dirt with it. —EH