Suburban Garden Planning 101

It's raining compost.

It’s raining compost.

Fall really is the time to start your garden. It’s just raining compost as the leaves fall from the trees. The days are cool and much more pleasant to work in than the muggy days of late Spring and early summer. Your soil needs to feed itself, and if you are starting a new garden, it needs time to make the adjustment from sod to garden soil.

Everybody knows what a vegetable garden looks like, right? It’s a square or rectangle in the middle of the backyard. That’s why a lot of people don’t grow gardens. They have kids who want to play in the backyard. Dogs who want to chase frisbees and squirrels.

So I’m going to suggest that you think outside of the box, or square, or rectangle. You have no problem with planting ornamentals in narrow beds next to the house. Why not put your veggies there?

Here are some thoughts on how to do it:

Exposure

Veggies like sun, as a rule, six to eight hours a day. Look to the south side of your house for optimal exposure. Some crops, like lettuce, spinach, and peas, prefer cool weather. If you have a place in your garden with early morning or late afternoon shade, plant them there. On the one hand, they will grow a bit slower, but on the other, the shade will help extend the season for a longer

Land use

What path does your dog follow as he patrols the yard? Don’t plant there. Where’s home plate for your kids’ kickball games? Where’s the outfield? Put the garden behind home plate or along the baselines. (But set back, please.) Do you have a deck or patio? Consider planting a border of salad greens, herbs, and a tomato plant or bush cucumber along the edge. Leave a path or two to access the yard. (And put the paths where everybody walks anyway. It’s easier to teach plants where to grow than teach people or animals to change their habits.)

Or the end of the driveway.

DSC01065Maximize your growing space

In another article on this blog, I wrote about trellises. You can grow an amazing quantity of pole beans or cucumbers in a bed a foot wide if you give the vines support so that they grow up instead of sprawling all over the lawn. Trellises can be quite cheap and easy to make. We’ve made them from 2’x2’s, eyebolts, and string hung from the eaves; PVC pipe with fence wire held on with zip ties; old 2”x4”s and string; and 4”x4” posts sunk into concrete with wire fencing stapled to it. This last one will eventually have the wire removed and turn into the support for the south wall of our future greenhouse. You can put sticks or metal fenceposts in the ground, run wires between them, and zigzag string between the wires. Your imagination’s the limit.

2"x2s, eyebolts, and string.

2″x2s, eyebolts, and string.

Notice the DIY cold frame of plastic and the porch railing. Yeah, and the recycling bucket.

Notice the DIY cold frame of plastic and the porch railing. Yeah, and the recycling bucket.

Containers

Five gallon buckets with 5 or 6 holes drilled 2 inches from the bottom can each hold a tomato, eggplant, potato, or pepper plant. If you don’t like the look of a line of pails on your deck or patio, you can build a big box around them. (I’ll post pictures when we get ours done next year.)

Fencing

This is up to you and your needs. Are your kids old enough to walk around things, or are they still in the “Damn the torpedoes” phase of child development? Does your dog dig? Rabbits? Squirrels? We’ve found the cheapest is 2′ chicken wire mounted on rebar with zip ties.

Getting Started

I’ve said this before, and I know I’ll keep saying it, but start small. If you overburden yourself with taking on more garden than your experience warrants, you’ll feel stressed and end up getting turned off by the process. If you have no gardening experience at all, keep your garden smaller than ten square feet. That’s a strip one foot wide and ten feet long, two feet by five, or three and a bit by three. If you can restrain yourself, you’ll have a garden that’s easy to manage and will leave you hungry for more.

If you go nuts and plow up a huge plot, (been there, done that) you’ll likely find that it’s more work than you bargained for. You’re simply not used to it and it becomes one more damn thing you have to do. Like any other activity, it takes time to work it into your schedule and make the few minutes of routine maintenance a day a habit. (Remember that exercise bike?)

You can always make it bigger next year. If you’re a normal suburban person with a job, a commute, a family and, well, a life, you probably won’t want to add more than ten square feet per year.

The Easy Way

Figure out where you want to plant. Build the fence, if you need one. Get your soil tested at Co-op Extension or buy a soil test kit at your local hardware palace. Sprinkle whatever minerals your soil needs over the top of your future garden. Cover it with a couple layers of newspaper. Wet the paper down with the hose to keep it from blowing away. Run the lawnmower, bagger attached, over your lawn, fallen leaves and all. Dump the chopped leaves and grass clippings on the future garden, the deeper the better.

If you have a wood stove or fireplace, spread the ashes over the leaves as you clean it out over the winter. The alkalinity from the ashes will neutralize the acidity of the leaves and help them break down faster.

If you do it the hard way, raking all those leaves and throwing them onto the garden whole, you’ll end up with an impenetrable layer of wet, slimy leaves. Chopping them up with the mower lets them decompose faster. Whole leaves can take two years to turn into humus. Chopped leaves, mixed with grass clippings or other nitrogen-rich material and neutralized with wood ash can rot in less than half the time.

If you don’t have wood ash, sprinkle dolomite limestone over the top. If you find you are gathering leaves with no grass clippings mixed in, you can add nitrogen by means of a weak ammonia solution: one tablespoon per gallon, poured on with a watering can. Add another layer of leaves on top to prevent the ammonia from evaporating. If you opt out of fencing, get some straw and put a thin layer on top, spread like a lattice to keep the winter winds from blowing the leaves back onto your yard.

That’s all for now. Put your feet up, make yourself a nice hot cup of tea, and check out those seed catalogs.

Just don’t get carried away.

5 thoughts on “Suburban Garden Planning 101

  1. I have collected ash from the fireplace. I’m getting a load of leaf mulch delivered. Do you suggest sprinkling the ash over the mulch, or do I need to mix it in?

    • Putting the ash on top is easier. Rain will sink it into the leaves. The important thing is the “Sprinkle” part If you dump piles of the ash, it will set up like concrete. If you have a lot of ash, try putting a thin layer under the leaves and then alternating layers of leaves and ash. Also, make sure that, if your soil is neutral or alkaline, you’re not overdoing it. Most garden plants like soil in the 7-7.4 range.
      PS I envy you your lemon tree!

      • Thanks for the advice! Will sprinkle on top as suggested. I have a mound of mulch to place around the garden. I have made a small dent. Hard work, this gardening!
        My lemon tree needs more loving care. I’m working on it.

    • correction: veggie garden pH should be about 6.5 to 7, not the 7 to 7.4 I stated earlier. Got my pH backwards. 7 – neutral, higher is more alkaline, lower more acidic.) Some crops, like brassicas (cabbage, broccoli, kale, etc,) are ok with slightly more alkaline soil, but tomatoes prefer it a little acidic.

      • I’m not at that stage yet to think too far on the pH. A beginner gardener here. The information is going over the top for me. 🙂 I do have kale and tomatoes planted though. Not side by side, I have celery next to my kale, and I think I have peppers next to the tomatoes. They are growing slowly.

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