How’s this for a hobby? Spend time outside, beautify your yard or patio, generate a steady supply of organic produce, and even get a bit of exercise (if you count trotting wheelbarrows loaded with loam and compost to and fro).
Once I started thinking about it, it didn’t take me long to get hooked on the idea of planting a serious vegetable garden. So last winter, I signed up for a gardening workshop offered through my town’s adult education program, read 3 or 4 books on the topic, and enlisted the help of my super-handy husband. When spring rolled around, I was more than ready to get started.
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Here’s how it all came together:
CHOOSE A LOCATION
The first (and most important) decision was where to put the garden. An ideal spot it is flat and sunny (most plants need 6 to 8 hours of sunlight per day). In our yard, this conveniently happens to be right outside a door that leads into our kitchen.
BUILD THE BEDS
Like many beginners, we chose to follow the popular square-foot method that allows the gardener to plant lots of variety in a relatively small amount of space.
Instead of planting directly in the ground, we opted for raised beds—they hold water well, offer control over the quality of the soil, and make it easy to attach a trellis. We leveled the area before assembling a few raised bed kits that we purchased at a garden supply store. Alternatively, you can build your own frames using 2x10x8 untreated pine and Z-max brackets. (Never use treated wood because its chemicals can leach into your garden.) Bricks or stones can also be used to contain a raised garden bed. Four-by-four foot squares allow the gardener to reach into the entire garden without stepping on and unnecessarily compacting the dirt.
To surround the beds, we laid down weed blocker fabric and piled salt marsh hay on top if it. There are lots of choices of materials to put down around boxes—grass, pavers, pebbles, and so on—but I imagined myself running out to the garden to snip herbs or harvest veggies as I cooked, so I wanted something that would be comfortable under bare feet.
LOAD IN THE DIRT
To fill the beds, we ordered high-quality loam from a local nursery (for four 4×4 beds, 2 yards were plenty) and purchased compost from an organic farm near our home. We lined each bed with cardboard (this will decompose over time) to act as a barrier between the new and old dirt, then shoveled in the fresh loam and compost. (If you are using existing dirt, have it analyzed to find out which nutrients should be added. Check with a local university—many will perform routine soil analysis for a small fee.)
CONSTRUCT A FENCE
The most daunting part of the project was building the fence and entry gate. My husband spent a long, sweaty weekend installing our setup but of course you can hire someone to do the job. Almost every garden will require some kind of barrier to keep nibblers—rabbits, chipmunks, and so on—out. (In our area, we also have to contend with deer.) There are tons of options for fencing, depending on your budget and aesthetics. We opted for a 4-foot-high wooden picket fence that we augmented with a 2-foot wire rabbit-fence “skirt” to keep critters from digging their way in. Finally, we tied lengths of twine over the top of the garden to act as a visual deterrent against deer (they can easily jump fences but are supposedly turned off if they see any kind of obstacle—so far, so good).
PLAN, THEN PLANT
Finally! Choosing which vegetables to plant (along with when and where to put them) is a fun—if somewhat overwhelming—task. Using books and web sites as a guide, we drew up a planting calendar for our selections of seeds and seedlings. As first-time gardeners, we opted to plant lots of different vegetables and expect a small yield of each. Next year, we’ll focus on a greater quantity of our most successful crops. Keep in mind that tall plants (like tomatoes, tomatillos, peas, or pole beans) should be planted on the north side of your garden so they don’t shade the shorter plants. Some vegetable seeds can be sown directly the garden; for others, you’re better off buying seedlings. Purchase seedlings from a respected local grower since big-box stores won’t have specific varieties guaranteed to flourish in your climate.
SET UP A WATERING SYSTEM
Once everything was in the ground, we snaked a soaker house through the plants for easy watering.
ENJOY THE FRUITS (AND VEGETABLES) OF YOUR LABOR
Now that it is up and running, our garden requires very little maintenance—just a few minutes of weeding, harvesting, and watering every day keep it in tip-top shape.
So far, we’ve harvested good crops of shell peas, swiss chard, collards, kale, broccoli, radishes, lettuce, arugula, watercress, spinach, sorrel, claytonia, nasturtiums, potatoes, and cucumbers.
Our herb box is producing loads and loads of sage, parsley, cilantro, dill, thyme, oregano, rosemary, chervil, tarragon, 2 types of basil, and chives.
And in the next month or so, we will be pulling carrots, onions, and beets from the ground and picking tomatoes, tomatillos, eggplant, and bush beans.
Sound fun? Here are some resources.
- Fedco Seeds. They offer a huge variety, including many organic selections.
- Square Foot Gardening: A New Way to Garden in Less Space with Less Work by Mel Bartholomew
- Great Garden Companions: A Companion-Planting System for a Beautiful, Chemical-Free Vegetable Garden by Sally Jean Cunningham
- The Food Project. You’ll find a downloadable growing guide, a do-it-yourself guide to building a garden, pest control information, and much more.
Do you have a vegetable garden, or are you thinking about it? Share your stories in the comments below.
Bush Bean Blooms
These pretty flowers on my bush bean plants (grown from seed) signal that beans are on the way!
Tomatillos are as easy to grow as tomatoes. This plant is really thriving and will soon be taller than I am.
Here are 2 of my 4 raised beds. The twine strung across the top of the beds is to prevent deer from eating my harvest. Also note the wire fencing attached to the picket fence. So far this has been successful at keeping the many bunnies inhabiting our yard out of the garden.
A close-up of the fence
The wire fence is folded into an L-shape so that a 6-inch "skirt" rests flush on the ground outside the garden area. This is to prevent diggers (like moles) from burrowing under the fence.
A Tip on Onions
Leave onions in the ground until their tops turn brown and wilt, then let them "cure" in the dirt for about 10 days before harvest.
These are my carrots—I'm growing a gorgeous red variety called Atomic Red.
Butterhead and romaine lettuce. The plant will continue to grow and produce if you harvest only the larger outer leaves.
Garden broccoli tastes so different (and so much better) than the stuff at the supermarket. Here you can see that I already harvested the main head, but new little growth has already begun.
Nasturtium flowers make a gorgeous addition to salads. My 3-year-old gets a huge kick out of munching on these!
Good compost is essential for a healthy organic garden.
Cucumber plants. I plan on making lots of pickles once these start producing.
These are Sungold tomatoes—a super sweet yellow variety.
Claytonia—my new favorite salad green. It has a light, lemony taste.
Yummy Swiss Chard
This is Rainbow chard, with tender, colorful stems.
Peas are a cool-weather crop. We harvested some this spring and look forward to another planting in the fall.