Small Scale Corn

Small Scale Corn

I never had much luck with corn. Planted a few rows, watched it grow, watched the little ears tassle out, then…bupkis. I finally found the secret.

Plant in blocks. Four rows with four plants in each row, all six inches apart. The problem, you see, is pollination. If you’re growing acres of the stuff, pollen is no problem. The air is thick with it. But with limited space, rows simply don’t cut it.

So figure out how long it will take your family to eat 32 ears of corn. (That’s right, they grow two to the stalk on most varieties.) Let’s say it will take 10 days. Plant a block every 10 days. Bigger family? You can eat 32 ears in 4 days, you say? No problem, plant a block every 4 days. Start at the north end of the garden so the older, bigger stalks don’t shade the newbies. Once you’ve harvested both ears off a stalk, toss it in the compost and follow up with a cool weather crop in that spot. They’ll appreciate the shade while the days are still hot.

Corn likes rich soil, thus the bury-the-fish-head trick Squanto taught the Pilgrims. If you’re like us, with semi-trained house pets who like to dig holes, then eat or roll in what they find in them, come directly indoors and either upchuck or roll on the carpet, respectively, forget that trick. There are alternatives. If you have a fish tank, rather than pouring that disgusting, evil, nasty, stinky perfect, nitrogen-rich, free fertilizer down the drain, rinse the filter fluff in a pail of warm water, dig 6 inch deep trenches where the corn will go, and pour the stuff in there. You can toss the used charcoal in the trench. It will decompose, but the fluff won’t. Do this at least 2 weeks ahead of planting to give the goop a chance to mellow.

Fill the trenches back in, though. Your dog may not be interested in fish poop, but flies think it’s yummy.

No fish tank? No problem. You can buy fish fertilizer at your local garden store, or use that compost you’ve been collecting.

How Not to Sheet Compost: Learning by Doing

We had a bumper crop of leaves last Fall, courtesy of my brother in law. Nice! Organic matter! My husband dutifully hauled them, ran them over with the mower, and spread them on the garden, along with liberal applications of wood ash from the stove. It worked for us in Oregon, right?

Not so much. The Oregon leaves had grass clippings mixed in, providing nitrogen, plus, the soil there is denser and more acidic. (Plus Ralph had a 55-gallon fish tank then, and we regularly added the sludge to the compost bin. When I tested the soil before planting this Spring, I had a shock. pH, um, a little high, at 7.5. (Too much wood ash.) Phosphorus and potassium? Fabulous! Nitrogen? Zilch. Ouch. The decomposing leaves had sucked all the nitrogen out of the soil in the process of turning into nice garden dirt.

We remedied this with bagged cow manure, but still, it’s an expensive way to learn. The cheap way to fix this is a weak ammonia solution, but we decided to keep our organic cred.

Greenhouse, Phase I

Future greenhouse.

Future greenhouse.

Well, we decided to build a greenhouse. Priced out kits and DIY components and found that it was out of our reach. Went on Freecycle, looking for used windows. Hit the jackpot with a gentleman who had planned to make a greenhouse from windows discarded by someone who’s just done a window upgrade. He ended up buying a kit. He wasn’t happy with the kit–the roof leaked–but he’d just thrown another sheet of plastic over it and abandoned the glass house idea.

So right now I have ten 35 x 28 double glazed sash windows in the trunk of my car, and five 18 x 28s and one 18 x 35 in the garage. Ralph has another half dozen or so from a different window replacement job sitting in the back yard. My benefactor has more of the 35 x 28s, which I will go back to pick up, once I have trunk space again.

We’ll keep you posted as the project progresses.

If you’ve never heard of Freecycle, they really are the greatest thing since sliced bread, maybe even since the invention of chocolate. Whether you are into DYI from recycled goods or looking to clean out your garage or basement, go to their website, and join. There are local chapters in every state. You sign on with an offer or a need. You look at other people’s postings, and those with the excess stuff connect with those who need same stuff, or vice versa, and you work out an agreement as to pick-up.

It’s simple, it works, and it keeps things out of the landfill. It’s not to be confused with Craigslist, where you can sell things or offer services. It’s about giving stuff you don’t want to people who want and can use it.

In addition, you get to meet great people. LIke Tony, the guy who decided not to build a greenhouse out of windows, after all. Thanks, Tony!

Turbocharge Your Tomatoes

My spindly little tomato plants, preparing to grow mighty roots!

My spindly little tomato plants, preparing to grow mighty roots!

This is a cool trick to give your tomato plants a head start. If you’re buying tomato sets, pick tall spindly ones. If you started yours indoors, they probably will be anyway.

For each plant, get a 2-liter soda bottle. Using a box knife or pruners, cut off the neck. (Tried skipping that step one year. Bad mistake.) Cut a vertical slit 3/4 of the way down one side. Cut two horizontal slits–across the top and bottom of the vertical slit. (So it looks like a capital H on it’s side.) Cut a notch in the middle of the vertical slit to make watering easier.

2-liter soda bottle, prepped for planting

Lay the bottle on it’s side, slit side up, and fill halfway with potting soil.

Pull off the lower leaves, making your tomato plant look like a miniature palm tree. Lay the tomato plant on the soil, with the leafy part sticking out of the neck of the bottle. Fill the bottle with potting soil, and water well. Put in a sunny place and keep the soil moist. The buried part of the stem will grow roots. You can duct tape the slit shut. Just make sure you keep the notch open for watering.

That photo didn’t come out as clear as I wished it had, so here’s a drawing. soda bottle

What I like about this is that you can move the plants indoors at night, and out into direct sun during the day. Plus the dirt stays put.

When the weather turns warm enough to set out tomatoes in the garden, dig a deep hole, once again trimming the plant back into a palm tree, cut the bottle off the plant and lay the root ball in the hole. Fill the hole with soil or compost, right up to the bottom leaf, water well, and stand back.

My experience has been that you will see noticable growth within a couple of days. That giant rootball wants a big plant.

Making Compost

Front boards removed.

Front boards removed.

Why bother composting? Well, other than that whole virtuous “waste not, want not” ethic, there’s an entirely practical consideration.

Way back when I was probably the only Art major in history to take Soil Science as an elective, the professor announced that Muck is the most productive type of soil, provided it’s properly drained. The following lecture, he got into that whole NPK thing and into the weeds of how many pounds or 5-10-5 or 10-10-10 it would take to improve soil. Dumb me. I raised my hand and asked, “What about compost?”

“That’s Muck,” he snarled. I was so taken aback I didn’t ask the obvious question, “Didn’t you just tell us that’s the best soil?”

Now from the NPK standpoint compost ain’t squat. (That’s Nitrogen, Phosphorus & Potassium, in case you were wondering. Why is Potassium “K?” Greek to me. Okay, Latin, Kallium.)  Compost freights in at barely 1-1-1. So what’s the big deal about it? Why is compost (AKA Muck) considered the best soil?

What it lacks in NPK it more than makes up for in a host of ways. Humic Acid, for one, helps break down soil nutrients into forms that are easier for plants to absorb. It also gives a home to mycorrhizal fungi, which interpenetrate plant roots. In exchange for getting a cut of the nutrients the plants produce via photosynthesis, the fungi act as an auxiliary root system, sharing what they absorb from the soil. Win-win, I say. Chemical fertilizers are too harsh for the beneficial fungi, killing them off. I suspect this is why plants need greater and greater quantities of that convenient NPK-in-a-bag stuff each year, once you start down the chemical path. The humus, or fibrous bits, absorbs water, aiding in water retention, plus all the micronutrients from plants past are there to nourish plants present. It’s also in bigger chunks than soil particles, which helps aerate the soil and make it easier for plant roots to penetrate.

Well, now that you have something to put compost in, we might as well deal with the process of making the stuff. So, how, lacking  a herd of muck-producing livestock, do you make your own Muck?

Short explanation:

Everything rots.

Longer explanation:

Mother Nature recycles. Anything that dies, is excreted, shed, or sloughs off becomes food to those at the bottom of the food chain: microbes and fungi. These organisms digest the dead stuff, breaking it down into its component nutrients. Plants can then absorb those nutrients through their roots, and in turn we absorb them through the villi in our small intestines, after the appropriate slicing, dicing, and application of heat.

Looked at another way, those microbes and fungi are the prep cooks for the Vegetable Kingdom. So how do you keep the help happy and productive?

They’re pretty easy to please, actually. They need three things: food, water, and air. Pretty much like us, but not such picky eaters.

You don’t need a bin to make compost: it’s just a way of keeping it in one place and controlling the shape of the pile. I’ve read that 4’X4’ is really the minimum but found that our 3’X3’ design works well. In a pinch you can use a hoop made of chicken wire or other fencing, or if you have a secluded spot in your yard, dispense with walls entirely. If you do, though, your heap will work slower, since it will tend to form into a cone shape and the sloping edges won’t heat up enough to rot quickly. Also, animals will be able to dig around in it, scattering it all over. Messy. So un-suburban.

There are some things that you should not put in a compost heap, however, and this is not so much for the benefit of the bacteria as for the benefit of your sanity. Never put anything containing animal products, with the exception of herbivore poop, into your compost heap. You will have guests…guests that you really don’t want [coughratscough] So, bread crusts, yes. Bread crusts with mayonnaise, no. (Peanut butter will draw varmints, as well.) Rinsed eggshells, yes. Eggs, no.  Rabbit, horse, poultry, or cow poop, yes. Dog and cat poop, no. Dog hair, yes. It contains nitrogen. We’ve been known to empty our vacuum cleaner bags into the compost heap. But I digress…Your poop, hell no. Goop from your fish filter, yes. Dead goldfish, no. See the pattern?

You don’t need animal waste to make a compost heap. You do need a carbon:nitrogen ratio of 35:1. So what’s carbon?

Any dried plant matter, pretty much. Dead leaves, straw, sawdust.

What’s nitrogen?

Green plant matter and poop, basically.

So what do I do with this stuff?

You make a big, fat lasagna. Unlike regular lasagna, you don’t have to make it all at once, and you never, ever use cheese. (See above.)

Start with a layer of coarse material. Corn harvest is a great time to start a new pile. Cut the stalks to the size of your bin. Put down a layer running right to left, then another layer at a 90° angle to the first (front to back in the bin or pile) alternate 3 or 4 layers, then drop in your first nitrogen layer: kitchen waste, fresh-pulled weeds, or fresh grass clippings. An inch or two will do. The sturdy stalks on the bottom will create an air pocket that helps aerate the heap.

Now scatter some dirt on top (if you’re using fresh-pulled weeds, you can skip this step). Top with something dry and brown, like straw or leaves. If you are using leaves, run them over with the lawnmower to cut them into bits. Otherwise, they will pack down into an impenetrable layer that will take years to break down. Layers can be 3” (leaves) to 6” (grass clippings) thick. Grass clippings are in a league of their own. They are high in nitrogen, so they break down fast. If you live in suburbia, (and if you’re reading this blog, that’s likely) grass clippings will be your most reliable and abundant compost ingredient. The only thing to watch for with grass clippings is that if you make a layer of them too thick (more than, say 6 inches) they will tend to clump up, starving the bacteria of air, so if you’ve hit the grass clipping jackpot, toss in a layer of dirt and something with a little structure, like straw, every 6 inches.

Sawdust is a special case. It contains lignin, a form of carbon that it much harder to break down than, say, straw, so if you’re using sawdust, the max is ½ to 1 inch per layer.

Lather, rinse repeat. Eventually your bin will be full. Then what?

You may need to water the pile occasionally. Check it by sticking your hand carefully a few inches deep into the center of the top. Why carefully? Because if your microbes are happy, they will be cookin’. The center of the pile should reach 150°. You may see steam rising off it on chilly mornings. You’ll also watch it get shorter, day by day, as the contents of the pile break down. It’s okay to keep adding to the pile while this happens.

If it doesn’t heat up, it’s most likely too dry. Just add water. However, it should be moist, not soggy. If it’s been raining a lot and the compost is not heating up, well, that means too much water, not enough air. You may have to poke holes in it at 6 inch intervals by ramming a stick down into the heap. The third possible cause for a sluggish heap is too much carbon, not enough nitrogen. Mixing in grass clippings will solve that, but in an emergency, a tablespoon of ammonia mixed into a quart of water, then watered in, will perk things up. (I know…nasty chemicals in your beautiful organic compost heap, tsk, tsk. I’ve never had to resort to the ammonia trick, nor to the nice, natural, organic alternative that you can probably get away with in the country, but not in suburbia…think about it: what’s liquid, high in nitrogen, and produced by animals…need another hint? It’s yellow.)

It’s not necessary to cover the heap with black plastic to make the sun heat it up, The bacteria make the heat. However, if it’s winter and you’re in a very cold climate, you could cover the heap to protect it from the cold.  If you do choose to cover the heap, cut some slits in the top to allow air and water to get in.

After about 6 weeks the pile will cool. The material in the center of the pile will have decomposed and matted down to the point where the bacteria are starved for air. Time to turn it. (That’s why we build our bins in pairs.) As you move material from one bin to the other with a spading fork or pitchfork, (A shovel will be useless with the tangled mass of half-rotted weeds and stems.) try to put material from the outside of the heap to the middle and the stuff from the middle toward the edges, so that you’re turning the heap inside out as well as upside down. At this time, you can add additional layers of grass clippings or chopped leaf/grass mix, which will increase the nitrogen level and help break down the remaining clumps and stems. This, BTW, is a great upper body workout that will save you a trip to the gym.

While the second bin is cooking, you’re probably filling up the first with a new collection of garden refuse. After the second round of decomposition, the first batch of compost will be mostly decomposed. Move your brand new garden soil to the garden, mixing any not-fully-rotted material in with the new batch as you turn it into the second bin.

And the Circle continues.

Links: (Hat tip to Town & Country Gardening)

And check out the book Compost! in the Suburbutopia Toolshed.

Worm Nursery

Discovered this accidentally. When we moved into the house in Oregon, the owner proudly pointed to his compost bin in the back yard. For the first few months we lived there, we continued to use it. It happened to occupy an area that we wanted to turn into garden, so after we built our new bins (See Containing Compost on the how-to page.) we moved the old compost into the new bin.
Since it was summer, we’d been eating cantaloupe pretty frequently, and I’d been dropping the seeds into the half-cantaloupe rinds and tossing them into the bin. When we dug it out, each clump of seeds was full of wriggling baby earthworms. The adult worms had sought out the moistest, most nutrient-rich spot in the bin: those gloops of cantaloupe seeds, conveniently contained in their shells.
So next time you indulge in melons, give it a try: put the seeds into a half melon shell, put it upright in the compost bin, toss some dirt in and bury under a layer of grass clippings.
Let me know how it works for you.

Starting a Suburban Garden

Your playing children and cavorting dogs will thank you for planting your garden at the edge of the yard.

Backyard Border Garden

First off, start small. The #1 mistake beginning gardeners make is grabbing a garden catalog and deciding they need a vast tract of land so they can grow a row of everything. Arugula! Merveille de Quatre Saisons lettuce! Celtus! Salsify! Twenty-seven varieties of heirloom tomatoes! Did I say, “Start small?” I’ll keep saying it.

Everything in the seed catalog is absolutely the best. Their writers taught Dan Draper the art of persuasion. (Remember, he grew up on a farm, reading this stuff.) Stay strong. Do not give in. Start small. One tomato plant, one bush cucumber or bush squash, and one leafy green of your choice. Seriously, folks, that’s enough for starters. A pepper plant, maybe. The hot ones are easier to grow than the sweets, or at least that’s what I’ve found. Once you’ve successfully grown an 8’ x 4’ space, which is about what the above list of plants would take up, you can make the garden a little bigger next year. Plant what you like to eat: tomatoes, cukes, and lettuce for a salad garden, or tomatoes, hot peppers and cilantro for a salsa garden. Like Southern cooking? Collards and sweet potatoes are both easy to grow and prolific, although the sweet potato vines will want to spread.

Second, buy plants rather than starting seeds, especially for warm-season crops like tomatoes and squash. Some things you have to direct seed: corn, peas, and beans, for example, but buy tomatoes, cukes, peppers, and squash as sets, not seeds.

Third, put your tiny garden in an out-of-the-way spot. I know the conventional image of “vegetable garden” is a square or rectangle occupying the middle of the yard, but that image comes from farms, where they have lots of land and tractors to plow it. Find a nice sunny spot somewhere in the border. Your playing children and cavorting dogs will thank you.

Fourth, soil improvements will pay off ten-fold over increases in garden size. Fortunately, soil improvements are easy, cheap, and readily available in a suburban setting. They are called “grass clippings.” In the Fall, they are called “leaves and grass clippings.”

Labor-saving hint #1: Don’t rake your leaves. Suck them up with the lawn mower. This chops the carbon-containing leaves and mixes them with the nitrogen-containing fresh grass for optimal composting action.

There are a lot of things you can buy at your local hardware palace to add to your soil. Some of them even have “organic” on the label. Other than the stuff that comes out of your grass catcher, you’ll only need two: dolomite limestone (if you don’t have a woodstove or fireplace) and Epsom salts.

Labor saving hint #2: Don’t get the brilliant idea to “wait until all the leaves fall off the trees.” You will curse yourself. The drifts of leaves will clog the mower and you’ll have to lift it up every few feet to clear it, plus you’ll have to empty the bag every twenty feet or so and the carbon/nitrogen ratio will be off. Just mow once a week, more often if you have a sudden leaf drop. Putting whole leaves on the garden or in a compost bin creates an impenetrable layer that can take years to break down. (Yes, I know that this advice is out of season. Just sayin’)

Take the time and effort to dig deeply and break up the soil well. If you have compost, add it. If not, you can add bagged topsoil, compost, or even potting soil. If your soil is heavy clay, consider mixing in some sand. Sprinkle a little Epsom salts and lime or wood ash over your garden plot and mix well.

Labor saving hint #3: choose a pleasant time of day to garden. One of my worst garden experiences was working with people who insisted on waiting until 10am to start. After lunch, it was right back out into the 90°+ heat until about 5 pm, at which time, it having become pleasant outside, we would quit for the day and go into the house. Fortunately, the average suburbanite has something called a “day job” that pretty much demands that you restrict your garden activity to those long summer evenings. Looks like a win-win to me.

Fifth, grow up! This is not a personal judgment on you. I mean garden vertically wherever you can. A five foot row of pole beans will out-yield a ten-foot row of bush beans, and require less weeding, watering, and bending over. Squash, melon, and cucumber vines will yield just as much on a trellis that occupies three feet of garden as they will sprawling across the vast domain they are programmed to conquer. (Warning, do not try this with watermelons, unless you grow the mini-icebox kind.)

Sixth, just add water. Every day that it doesn’t rain, spend a little time outside and give your garden a spritz. Soak the ground so that it takes about 60 seconds to lose the shiny you get from spraying it with water.

Seventh, get the weeds while they’re small. If you’re militant about this, you won’t find gardening a chore at all. If you let the weeds get big, they will fight back, so when you see a new weed, nail it. Get yourself a Dutch (also called “scuffle”) hoe. You push it back and forth just below the soil surface and it cuts the tender roots off the tiny little weeds. (And your plants, if you’re not paying attention.) After the weeds are cut off, put a thick layer of grass clippings around your plants. That will keep the soil moist and new weeds from sprouting. Show no mercy to your weeds and your plants will reward you with more food than you know what to do with.

Easy to Grow                     More Advanced                       Not For Beginners

Beans                                    Peas*                               Eggplant**

Zucchini                               Broccoli                              Cauliflower

Hot peppers                       Bell Peppers                           Red Bell Peppers

Collards                              Lettuce*                               Celery

Kale                                     Melons**                            Endive

Swiss chard                        Onions

Tomatoes                           Carrots

Summer Squash               Radishes*

Garlic                                     Corn

*Prefer cool weather. Try planting them in a spot with some shade.

**Long-season. You may need to protect them with plastic as Fall closes in.

Eighth, and last: Start small.

Containing Compost

Finished Bin
We’ve always composted, and continued to do so after our recent move. We continued our conserving ways for several months before a neighbor showed up, glanced at the back yard, and cheerfully informed us that the city has fines for people with unsightly properties. Given that everyone else had been complimenting us on how much better the yard looked since we’d moved in, we pretty quickly narrowed down the object of our neighbor’s concern to the pile of dead leaves and grass clippings concealing the potato peels and egg shells.

On a trip to the local hardware palace for yet more perennials, I noticed a plastic compost bin for sale. “51 gallon capacity,” the sign said. That sounds a lot more impressive than “six point eight cubic feet” which also happens to be true. While it might be enough to hold kitchen waste, that’s nowhere near enough capacity for a lawn’s-worth of grass clippings plus  two shade trees worth of leaves. Plus, it looked like Dark Helmet’s hat from Spaceballs. We can do better, I thought.

In a few minutes of wandering the aisles, we located 2” x 4” x 8’ landscape timbers at $3.54 each for the corner posts and 6-foot cedar dog-eared fence planks at $1.17 each that would serve as rot-resistant sides. That, plus a bunch of deck screws and a few metal fence stakes, gave us a two-bin, 3’ x 3’ x 4’ compost heap for $55.05. We used scrap lumber for the boards to hold the front slats in place, and recycled the inner cores from dog poop bag rolls for spacers. Buying a 1” x 6” x 12’ and a foot of aquarium hose to replace the recycled items would bring the cost up to just a little over that of the pint-sized commercial model.

However we get a lot more bang for our buck: 36 cubic-foot capacity in each of the two compartments, to be precise, enough for grass clippings and leaves as well as kitchen waste. That works out to 11 cents per gallon of storage capacity, and, other than the recycled plastic spacers, it uses no petroleum products. Compare that to the $1.14/gallon of Mr. Helmet’s hat. May the Schwartz be with you!

Materials list:

3 – 2” x 4” x 8’ landscape timbers

28 – 6-foot cedar fence planks

9 – ¾” length pieces of plastic or metal tubing, ¼” to ½” diameter

144—2” decking screws, 9 – 3 ½” decking screws

4 – 5’ metal fence stakes


Saw, measuring tape, marker, drill, screwdriver, level, sledge hammer


Cut the landscape timbers into 4-foot lengths.

Cut 12 of the cedar planks into 3-foot lengths for the sides of the bins.

The planks may split if you run screws directly into them, so it’s a good idea to pre-drill 2 holes on the end of each plank plus two more 2” from the centers of the 6-foot planks.  You can expedite this by stacking the planks and drilling them 4 or 5 at a time. Carefully measure the first plank and put it on top of each carefully stacked pile of planks as a template.

Lay three of the posts on the ground, spaced so that they line up with the holes in the 6-foot planks. Space the planks a finger’s-width apart for better air circulation.  Screw the planks to the posts using the 2” decking screws. The top piece will extend above the end of the post. You now have the back of your bin.

Stand the back up in the place you want the finished bin to stand and attach the bottom plank to the end, using one screw. Attach the front post to the plank with one screw. Use the level to insure that the posts are vertical and screw the front and back ends of the plank to the uprights. Attach the remaining planks the same way, again, a fingers-width apart. Repeat this procedure for the opposite wall and the middle wall.

You have a bin! Reinforce the walls by driving a metal fence post on the outside of each side wall and on both sides of the center wall, near the front posts. (Rooftop gardeners might want to place a cinderblock on either side of the front posts for support, instead.)


Attach a 4’ length of board to the center post at top, middle, and bottom, running the 3 1/2” screws through the spacers. Leave a little play between the spacers and the post, rather than running the risk of splitting them by screwing them on too tightly. They’re just there as guidelines. Do the same with the side posts.

Measure the distance between the spacers, subtract ½”, and cut the front planks to that length. Slide the boards into the slots as needed as your bin fills. Remove them when it’s time to move the compost out.

If you have the space and wish to double your capacity, you’ll need to get 12 more cedar slats and four additional fence stakes. Leave your side and center pieces 6 feet long and reinforce the middle of the side and center walls with the stakes.


Fences, Neighbors

‘Good fences make good neighbors,” the saying goes. I understand that comes from farm life, where someone else’s livestock eating your corn crop or someone playing Finders, Keepers with your cow are Generally Frowned Upon. In the Burbs, although free-running dogs and toddlers can be a problem, it’s more of an esthetic thing. Maintaining boundaries is important. But some people’s idea of their boundaries includes whatever they can see from their windows, whether it’s in their yard or not.
We’re lucky in our current place. It came with a 6-foot cedar fence surrounding most of the yard, and a dense row of Leyland cypress along the other side. We weren’t financially equipped to put a board fence around the remainder, so made do with 4 x4 posts and wire fencing. The lucky part is that the sunny spot, where the shed and garden are, and the someday chicken coop will be, i.e., the industrial part of the yard, is blocked from public view. But what if you’re not so lucky?
Maintain your boundaries, and no one will notice the rest. Most humans, at least those not in direct contact with nature constantly, perceive the natural world as a “Green Screen.” If you keep the edges tidy, the rest will be a blur. So how do you do that?
If your garden has a public face, use an old Amish trick. Plant flowers along the edge facing the viewers. The Amish are fond of petunias. I like a combination of calendulas, dark red marigolds, and blue forget-me-nots. I’ve also used nasturtiums along the edges. Queen Sophia, with its bluish leaves and dark red blossoms is awesome. Keep the edges weeded, even if you fall behind on the rest of the garden. Better yet, keep the whole thing weeded and mulched, but I know how it is sometimes.
If you want privacy and can’t afford a real fence, make your own Green Screen. About the simplest and cheapest is PVC pipe. Make a rectangular frame with t-connectors at the bottom end so you can add two 2-foot long pipes for posts. Max size for stability is 6 feet high and 4 feet wide. If you need to go wider, say 5 or 6 feet, add an extra post in the middle of the bottom horizontal pipe.
Wrap nylon seine twine between the bottom and top horizontal pipes. It’s a good idea to wrap it all the way around each pipe before sending it down (or up) to the other pipe. Pull it snug. (Manly efforts to pull the string so tight the pipe bends are not necessary.) You can put a dot of glue at each wrap to keep it in place. If you want permanence, dig holes a foot and a half deep and put concrete in them. Stick the poles in and brace them until the concrete dries. If you want extra stability, but don’t want it there permanently, ram a couple of 3 foot long pieces of rebar into the ground, leaving a foot or so above ground level. Put the pipe posts over them and ram them at least a foot into the ground.
What size PVC? you may ask. I’d go to the nearest hardware palace, pick up the rebar and take it over to the plumbing supply aisle. Find the pipe that fits the rebar best. Ignore the strange looks from that guy in the overcoat. If you can’t find a pipe that fits snugly, go a size larger and wrap a plastic bag over the rebar before fitting the pipe over it.
Then plant something that grows vines. Annuals like beans, peas, morning glories, moonflowers, or perennials like rambling rose, grapes or hops*, whatever suits your fancy. In a couple of months, your yard will be your Secret Garden.
*hops grow 25 to 30 feet tall. To grow them on a little support like this, you’ll need to train them to zigzag back and forth across it. With hops, you might want to run your twine in horizontal Vs, rather than vertical, and put small notches where the twine wraps, in addition to the glue. For grapes, use horizontal wire supports, notching the sides of the pipe to keep the wires from slipping.