Our part of the world had an early start on the Local Food movement, to such a degree that we now have many more small farms in our area, operated by energetic and skilled farmers, and several farmer’s markets as well as farm stands. There is more interest in community gardens. Of course the very most local food comes from our own backyards. Right now because April is National Garden Month.the national media is full of information about vegetable gardening.
Sometimes magazines and newspapers make the planting and harvesting of a garden sound so simple that it will take no thought, care or money. This can lead to failure, despair and the resolution never to try such a foolhardy project again. This is too bad. Out of my own bitter experience I have my own advice for the new gardener who wants to plant some vegetables.
First, site your garden where you will see it every day. In a suburban backyard where space is limited this may not be an issue, but it is easy to slip into ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mode, especially when you are trying to fit new chores into your daily schedule.
When you are siting your garden remember that vegetables need at least six hours of sun. Don’t put the garden on the shady side of the house. Shade will make for comfortable weeding, but not for healthy plants or a good harvest. Also make sure you have water available. Newly planted seeds need to be kept moist.
Second, keep the garden small. One hundred square feet of planting beds can produce lots of vegetables. But I stress the term planting beds. A 10 by 10 foot square will give you 100 square feet, but you also need paths that will allow you to work between blocks of planting beds.
Add the footage of paths to your small garden plan. A planting bed should be no more than three feet wide so that you can reach all the way into the bed from either side. Paths should be at least two feet wide to allow you to maneuver comfortably. Now when I make new beds I allow for a three foot path. I am not quite so nimble or slim as I once was.
One of the reasons a small garden can be so productive is that not all vegetables take up ground space. Peas of any variety, shelling, snow, or sugar snaps, grow on a fence. Pole beans, green, yellow and purple, grow up – on a pole, usually in a teepee arrangement although some catalogs sell things like bean towers that will allow you to grow even more beans in the same space. Cucumbers can also be trained up a fence.
Third, plant the vegetables that you like to eat. There is no point in planting kale which is easy to grow, nutritious, and can be harvested well into the fall, if there is no way you are ever going to make kale soup, a kale stir fry, kale gratin or kale fribble.
If I were limited to a really tiny garden I would concentrate on salad greens. There is such a variety of beautiful lettuces that are easy to grow and as far as I am concerned a fresh picked salad is one of life’s delights. Growing some lettuces can also save you real money. Tender Bibb and butterhead lettuces can cost a pretty penny at the market, but they are no harder to grow than any other variety.
I know people who only grow tomatoes. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that a perfectly ripe fresh picked tomato is something that cannot be bought at the store.
Planting what you like to eat does not mean you shouldn’t try one or two things that are more exotic or interesting. Children will have fun growing a gourd assortment – on a fence. The gourmet might like to try growing shallots or fennel.
Once you have a site and a plan, what else do you need?
Standard practice is to dig your garden space, which means you will need a spade. Or you’ll need someone with a rototiller. However, there are also no-till techniques that I have talked about in the past and used successfully. Next week I will describe two ways to lessen start-up labors.
Gardening does not require many tools. I have a trowel, and a Korean hand hoe which I use a great deal. Of course, any trip to the garden center will show you many more tools that have their uses, but for most of us those are not absolutely essential.
I like to do most of my gardening on my knees. I know this is not favored by all. Last year when I talked to Ev Hatch at his Plant a Row for the Hungry garden, he told me his favorite tool is the hoe. He likes to garden on his feet.
A garden does require water and a hose. Or hoses. There was a time when I attended yard sales just so I could pick up extra hoses. Yard sales are also good places to pick up other garden tools, watering cans and even wheelbarrows.
Next week I’ll concentrate on no-till gardening..###
Between the Rows April 9 2011