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Posts Tagged ‘crowding’

Lost Onions in my Small Kitchen Garden

The view in early June shows onions holding their own between closely-spaced tomatoes and broccoli (left). However, even at this point, the lower parts of the onion stalks spend most of the day in shade. The stalks are the leaves, and they obviously require full sun all day for best production. (Ignore the onions on the right; they are last season’s victims of the Lost Onions method of kitchen gardening.)

My small kitchen garden is a laboratory that provides evidence each year supporting well-accepted theories of kitchen gardening. It also suggests that many alleged “best practices” are, at best, pretty good practices. This season, my success with crowding tomatoes, cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower reinforced my growing belief in cramming together vegetable plants to maximize your harvest. Eventually, I suppose I’ll have to think up a cutesy name for this approach so it can take its place next to “square foot gardening,” “lasagna gardening,” “straw-bale gardening,” “vertical gardening,” and “no-dig gardening,” among others.

The Lost Onion Gardening Method

Last season, I planted several rows of tomatoes in which I left only 12 inches from one plant to the next. Until late blight struck, the plants thrived. So, in the interest of growing more produce in the same space, this season I went a step further: I set plants a foot apart within their rows. I also laid out rows very close together.

Here’s a map of my small kitchen garden’s main bed in 2010. I added details only in the section I’ve described in the main article: Tomatoes, onions, cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower (labeled as broccoli). The grid represents one-foot squares, with the planting bed being 14’ deep and 28’ long. When you plant this tightly, you don’t walk in your vegetable garden, you wade in it.

I left just 18 inches from one row of tomatoes to another. When that looked “airy” I planted a second pair of rows with only a one-foot gap. My rationale for putting two rows of tomato plants just one foot apart was that I’d be able to reach and manage both rows of plants from one side.

18 inches from one of the tomato rows, I planted a double row of onion sets: white and purple. 18 inches from there, I planted a zig-zag row of broccoli plants, making the broccoli row itself very crowded. The line drawing shows this section of my small kitchen garden with tomatoes on the right, then onions (with cabbage at the bottom), and then broccoli and cauliflower.

I was very happy with this layout with one exception: I lost my onions.

How my Garden Grew

After several hard frosts, I peeled back the dried up tomato plants and ripped out small broccoli trees. There, right where I’d planted sets in the spring, were young onion sprouts. A few onions are in good enough shape that I can use the bulbs. The others’ stalks will substitute as spring onions in my Chinese stir fry dishes.

Technically, I didn’t so much lose my onions as I lost access to them. The tomatoes grew like champs, eventually extending four feet beyond the tops of their 7 foot supports. The broccoli also outgrew the onions; by season’s end one broccoli plant was eight feet tall!

The onions? They kept pace with the tomatoes and broccoli for a while, but sadly, onions grow to about 20 inches. So, the season wasn’t far along before the onions were in complete shade.

Consider the onion: They have tall, slender, spiky leaves that seem well-adapted for survival in very sunny climates. They have none of those thin, flimsy leaves typical of annuals that can’t survive extreme summer heat.

Heavily shaded, only a few of the onions produced flowers. But by the time the tops should have matured and started falling over under their own weight, the tomato and broccoli plants had formed a canopy over them; I could barely wiggle between the plants to do maintenance, and no way was I able to bend down to the onions without displacing tomatoes or broccoli. I’d lost my onions.

Mid autumn is a tad late in the year to pull your first onions but these are my first. There may yet be another dozen golf-ball-sized wonders ready to harvest from my small kitchen garden.

Autumn’s Gifts

In early November, I dismantled the tomato trellises, pulled the spent plants, and ripped out the broccoli trees. As I pulled back the weeds, lo-and-behold: there were young onion tops! These were a large onion variety, but the biggest ones in my garden are the size of golf balls. In many cases, the onion bulbs are too ratty to eat. However, the tops are tender enough to use as spring onions.

So, despite the abuse I’ve given these plants, they have forgiven me and provided some flavor to my life and my cooking. They have also taught me that onions will not tolerate crowding if it covers them in shade. When I plant onion sets next spring, they will have the front row of southern exposure… or there will be a generous three foot gap on each side of the onion bed to assure a sunny disposition.


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Plant Lettuce in Your Small Kitchen Garden

Small Kitchen Garden Lettuce Sprouts

The earliest lettuce sprouts in my small kitchen garden are no bigger than pebbles in the soil. Cracks in the soil indicate high clay content; clay cracks as it dries out.

I planted lettuce and spinach in my small kitchen garden nearly seven weeks ago. These are crops you can plant outdoors as soon as the soil thaws. I argue that there’s no hurry: cold weather crops will survive a heavy frost, but they won’t grow much if the temperature remains low. So, I tend to wait a few weeks after the thaw before I plant any cold weather crops.

On the other hand, if you wait too long, some cold-weather crops may not produce to their greatest potential before summer heat shuts them down. Pea plants, for example, wilt and die when cooked by summer heat. Lettuce and spinach grow slowly when nights are cool and days are warm, but when nights are warm and days are hot, these greens “bolt” meaning they send up stalks of flowers in a rush to make seeds before the heat becomes unbearable.

Don’t Wait to Plant Lettuce

Lettuce Seeds for a Small Kitchen Garden

A handful of lettuce seeds hardly resembles the food I begin to harvest about a month after planting. I’m always a bit awed that so much grows from such tiny packages.

If you’re in hardiness zone six or five, it’s not too late to enjoy a lettuce or spinach crop. It takes about 40 days from the day you plant seeds till it’s reasonable to harvest young plants—or leaves from them. If you plant now (the end of May), lettuce and spinach will grow quickly, though it’ll probably hit the wall in July.

Whether I plant lettuce early or late, I use a simple method that forces me to harvest young plants aggressively: I plant many seeds very close together—ideally about 3-5 seeds per square inch. Here’s the procedure:

Before You Plant Lettuce

Your Small Kitchen Garden has presented several posts that explain how to prepare garden beds for planting. The first of these articles explains the benefits of preparing soil. The second and third provide step-by-step instructions for preparing traditional planting beds using traditional methods, and using the “minimal till” approach that I use in my garden. The fourth article suggests one approach to preparing soil in a raised planting bed. Links appear at the bottom of this box.

The instructions in this post for planting lettuce assume that you’ve prepared your soil and you now have a furrow awaiting seeds.

1. Prepare to plant

2. Soil Preparation 1

3. Soil Preparation 2

4. Soil Preparation 3

1. Prepare soil according to the method that best fits your situation. The box, Before You Plant Lettuce provides links to posts that explain various methods of preparing soil. When you’ve created a six- to eight-inch-wide furrow in which to plant, you’re ready for step 2 below.

2. Read the planting instructions on the package holding your lettuce seeds. Chances are, they call for a planting depth of ¼ inch. Depending on the variety of lettuce, the instructions also may include thinning guidelines such as Thin to 12” between plants. Ultimately, you plants will need to be approximately this far apart or they won’t have space to mature. But I encourage you to start them much closer.

3. Pinch a bunch of lettuce seeds between you thumb and index finger, and sprinkle them around in the furrow as you’d sprinkle seasoning into a frying pan of cooking food. I think of this as seasoning the soil with seeds. You’re trying to deliver from two to five seeds on every square inch of soil in you furrow. As your pinch of seeds runs out, take another pinch and sprinkle areas that you missed with the first pinch. Repeat this until you’re confident there are seeds spread the full length and width of the row.

4. Cover the seeds with ¼ inch of soil. I usually pick up lumps of soil from the edges of the furrow and crumble them into the furrow. If there aren’t appropriate lumps, I sprinkle hands full of loose soil onto the seeds. Were I planting dozens of feet of rows, I’d rake soil onto the seeds, but it only takes a few minutes to cover a 14 foot row with hand-sprinkled soil.

I planted three three-foot sections of lettuce. The first holds a salad mix with four types of leaf lettuce. The second holds Ithaca head lettuce, a flavorful lettuce that forms crisp, small heads. The third holds Romaine lettuce. This is the first time I’ve grown Romaine. While the plants in these photos are already crowded, they aren’t yet big enough to fill a salad bowl simply by thinning.

5. Gently pat down the soil in the furrow. I press lightly with my fingers and the palm of my hand. This encourages soil to stay in place when it rains and when I hand-water the newly-planted seeds.

6. Water deeply and then water daily until the plants emerge. Then water if the soil looks dry or if the plants look wilted.

Crowding in Your Small Kitchen Garden

Your lettuce plants will be very crowded, but resist the urge to thin them until they produce leaves big enough to eat. This may take a few weeks, but then watch you’re your crowded plants may grow so fast that it become hard to keep up with them.

I take my first harvest from the middle of the furrow. I work my hand among the plants and grasp several at once right against the soil. I gently pull them from the ground, leaving a small gap in the lettuce patch. Ideally, I work the entire row for a single meal. If there’s simply more lettuce than we can consume, and the plants are pressed tightly together, I may pull many small plants and toss them on the mulch or compost pile; it’s important to keep air spaces among the remaining plants or they’ll hold moisture between them leading to possible problems with slugs, snails, insects, and even rot.

When my crowded lettuce plants are 3- to 4-inches tall, I work my hand into the mass of plants and pull several up along with their roots. I twist the roots off and toss them away, but the young, tender leaves go into the evening’s salad. I like to thin starting in the middle of the row. Ultimately, only five or six plants may mature, and thinning is necessary to provide space for them to grow.

As I harvest over the course of two or three weeks, I take plants always from the densest sections of the row. As lettuce matures in two months, I thin at a pace that I estimate will provide the requisite spacing about six weeks after planting.

For leaf lettuce, when you’ve thinned enough that the plants don’t crowd each other, change your harvesting technique: now use scissors to cut leaves from the plants an inch or two above the soil. More leaves should grow on the cut plants.

For head lettuce, continue to harvest entire plants as-needed. As heads approach maturity, you’ll need fewer of them to make a meal, and a head you harvest near the end of the season may last for several meals.

Here’s a video I made that demonstrates both how I plant lettuce and how I thin and harvest to make room for some plants. It’s about 6 and a half minutes long. Please enjoy:


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