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Posts Tagged ‘planning’

Answers from a Master Gardener – 1

From the wisdom of a master gardener: Plant your small kitchen garden with foods you prefer to eat. If your family eats a lot of pasta, then tomatoes are a good choice. I second the thought: expecially when you have limited space, plant what will give you the most joy to eat.

Nearly a month ago, I invited readers of Your Small Kitchen Garden—and people on Twitter—to offer up questions they’d like to ask a Master Gardener. I was on my way to the Pennsylvania Farm Show where I had planned to meet with a Master Gardener and ask those questions. As I reported in several posts: I did meet with a Master Gardener. In fact, I met with several of them.

My activity at the Farm Show was rather hectic, and I failed to coordinate with any of the Master Gardeners until after the Show. However, last week Ginger Pryor, the director of Penn State University’s Master Gardener program, generously took a chunk of a morning to answer the question you folks had asked.Our conversation resulted in more material than should reasonably go into a single blog post, so this is the first installment of Your Small Kitchen Garden’s Answers from a Master Gardener.

Small Kitchen Garden Indoors

Twitter acquaintance @nickfalvo asked about the best way to grow a kitchen garden indoors: What are the best plants? What are the best practices?

Ginger admitted that growing vegetables indoors isn’t her forte (each Master Gardener focuses on aspects of gardening of interest to them), but she acknowledged that growing food indoors is particularly challenging. She suggests that you choose cool-season plants that don’t fruit. She named parsley and chives in this category, and also suggested growing sprouts—pea sprouts, specifically. (Lettuces and spinach are short-season plants that do well in cool weather.)

Among the challenges of a full-bore indoor kitchen garden are

  1. providing adequate light
  2. providing adequate heat

If you’re serious about growing indoors, placing plants in a south-facing window won’t satisfy their need for sunlight; you’ll need to augment with artificial light. You’ll also need to keep the plants warmer than people typically keep their living spaces.

Ginger suggests that you use an indoor kitchen garden primarily to start seeds for later transplant outdoors. To help seeds get started in houses with thermostats set low, put your seed planters on heating pads.

Essential Small Kitchen Garden Tools

I’ve never used a soil knife, but Ginger Pryor, the master gardener who answered your questions, uses no other gardening tool.

Twitter acquaintance @hardknocksmba asked which tools are must-haves for a kitchen gardener. Ginger’s reply: This is a matter of personal taste. She says the only gardening tool she uses is a soil knife; it’s especially useful for breaking up the clay-heavy soil common to central Pennsylvania. But each person’s gardening style determines the tools they’ll need—or prefer.

In view of this, Ginger answered the follow-on question, Which tools are a waste of money? with the same observation: it’s a matter of personal style.

Test Your Soil

@hardknockwmba asked, How should I test my soil? Ginger pointed to the Cooperative Extension soil testing service. In Pennsylvania, nine dollars buys testing on a soil sample. You fill out a form on which you list crops you plan to grow, and you provide the soil. Cooperative Extension reports on soil composition including pH level, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, calcium, zinc, copper, and sulfur. The report recommends lime and fertilizer amendments to optimize soil for the crops you want to grow.

You can request additional analyses, each adding cost to the initial $9 fee. For example, an additional $5 buys a measure of the organic component of your soil, and another $5 will tell you how much arsenic is in the soil. Ginger suggests the organic matter analysis for new planting sites. She insists that the greatest factor in your success is soil preparation, so get this right when you start. Most state Cooperative Extension offices offer soil testing services and other programs to help you succeed with your small kitchen garden. Follow this link to find an Extension office in your state: Cooperative Extension Office Locator.

If you’re into gourmet cooking, Ginger suggests, you might emphasize herbs in your small kitchen garden. When I plant tomatoes, I always plant basil nearby. To me, the combined flavors are nearly as good as candy. In my last post—Spring Planning for Your Small Kitchen Garden—I revealed the items I must plant to get satisfaction from a growing season.

What Should I Plant?

@hardknocksmba also asked what he should plant in a 120 square foot space. As you might guess, Ginger insisted she can’t answer this question for anyone without knowing them better. She proposed that you answer the following question to help decide what to plant: Why are you planting a garden? She followed it up with a few broad suggestions: If there is a lot of pasta in your diet, plant accordingly: tomatoes and peppers might dominate. If you’re into gourmet cooking, then emphasize herbs.

Ginger pointed out that some vegetables—corn, for example—take so much space to produce even a modest harvest that they have no place in a small kitchen garden. In contrast, lettuce, spinach, peas, beans, and many other vegetable plants produce food for a sustained period during the growing season.

Beyond these thoughts, Ginger emphasized: Grow what you want to eat.

More Gardening Insights

Ginger and I talked through many more questions, and I’ll report on them soon. Subscribe to Your Small Kitchen Garden’s RSS feed, or revisit in the next few days for the second installment of Answers from a Master Gardener.

 

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Spring Planning for Your Small Kitchen Garden

My anticipation for red, juicy, sweet tomatoes grows through the winter, spring, and early summer. I usually plant more than half my garden in tomatoes, and add a small selection of other vegetables. In some years, I cram a bit of everything into my small kitchen garden. Still, I crave fresh tomatoes most of all (fresh peas are a close second).

I’ve spent the last five weeks compensating for my small kitchen garden’s winter hibernation. I made a trip to South Carolina, spent several days at the Pennsylvania Farm Show, and made a head-first dive into growing alfalfa sprouts. I also have a pot of cilantro struggling away on a south-facing windowsill in my basement.

All of this has helped with my winter gardening blues, but it has also distracted me a bit from important mainstream gardening issues. Key among those: planting season looms large.

What Do You Want to Eat?

Even for a small kitchen garden, it’s helpful to plan for the upcoming growing season. I start all my vegetable garden planning with one thought: what do I want to eat? From years of growing, I’ve developed priorities.

In my laziest years, I’ve planted only peas, lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, and herbs; I can’t imagine a season without homegrown tomatoes, and fresh peas are so satisfying. Because my tastes are simple, I can find what I need at a nearby garden store. Usually, I buy seeds for Wando peas, Ithaca lettuce, a lettuce “salad mix,” and Bloomsdale Long-Standing spinach—all very satisfactory. I also choose flats from among a dozen or more varieties of young tomato plants. These are always in the store by the time I need them in my garden.

I saved a few dozen seeds from a gorgeous heirloom tomato a neighbor gave me. I’ll start these two, and several others indoors in March so I can transplant them to my small kitchen garden in May.

Even in years when I’ve squeezed more variety into my small raised vegetable garden, I’ve settled for seeds I could buy locally. That notwithstanding, every winter I pour over garden catalogs and hanker for all kinds of seeds I haven’t tried.

Get Ready to Grow

For most gardeners in the United States, this is garden catalog season. If you want to stretch your gardening muscle, you can’t wait much longer: get going with seed catalogs. If you find something special in a catalog, you may need to order now to have seeds in time for planting in your area. Especially if you plan to start seeds indoors, you should order immediately.

I’ll be starting some tomato seeds indoors, and maybe some peppers. I can’t move tomato plants outdoors until early May, so I won’t start seeds indoors until mid-to-late March.

In the meantime, I’ve become an affiliate of Nature Hills Nursery. This company has a history of on-line sales, and offers a great selection of live plants and seeds. Where you can find customer reviews of the company, you find more positive than negative feedback, which is a decent record for on-line nurseries. Here’s my take on the company:

Nature Hills Nursery

For seeds, Nature Hills is making the right moves. They sell Botanical Interests brand, a supplier that has signed the Safe Seeds pledge. This means seeds you buy from Nature Hills Nursery are not products of genetic engineering. What’s more, Botanical Interests has a large selection of certified organic seeds.

Buyers Beware (of Yourselves)

Buying live plants through the mail comes with many risks, and I coach all gardeners to buy locally: find a garden store or nursery you can visit. Inspect the plants, ask questions, and understand the replacement policies. Then, adhere to planting and care instructions from the nursery operator.

It’s unreasonable to expect professional growers to guarantee survival of the plants they sell. They haven’t tested your soil, they haven’t evaluated your site-selection for light and moisture, and they aren’t doing the planting and tending. If nursery plants fail in your garden, there’s at least some chance that you’re the problem… please be patient with your supplier. Multiple failures of plants in the same planting bed are far more likely due to poor soil conditions, lighting, drainage, fungus, insects, or furry animals than they are to a nursery selling you bad stock—especially when you’ve selected the plants at a local store.

For live plants, Nature Hills has a controversial warranty policy. If your plants arrive damaged or dead, Nature Hills will replace them—but they want you to report quickly in case they need to place a claim with their shippers. If your plants fail after you plant them, Nature Hills will sell you replacements at half price plus the cost of shipping. This policy draws ire from some, though customers whose plants succeed seem quite happy with Nature Hills.

If you can live with the half-price warranty replacement policy, you’ll find terrific variety and good prices at Nature Hills. Still, I prefer that you shop locally for live plants (see box), and only buy on-line if you can’t find what you want at a local garden store or nursery. All that said, please check out the Botanical Interests seeds available on Nature Hills’ web site.

Here’s a link to the Nature Hills vegetable seed catalog. This link takes you directly to their organic seeds. You’ll find a lot of great vegetable offerings at both links. And, depending on your sensibilities, check out their selection of live small fruits (strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and such) and fruit trees.

 

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Lumber for a Raised Bed in a Small Kitchen Garden

While this post is part of a series that explains how to build your own raised planting bed, you could save much aggravation by assembling a planting bed from a kit. As you might expect, a kit costs more than twice what you pay for materials to build it yourself. Still, if you have absolutely no woodworking skills (or tools), seriously consider getting a kit. Follow this link for more information.

There are few limits to how you design a small kitchen garden. Once you’ve decided on location, you face the considerable challenge of designing and creating planting beds. So far, this blog has shown how to cut a planting bed into an existing lawn, and how to build retaining walls using landscaping timbers for a raised bed that sits five inches above an existing lawn—or another area with soil that can become part of the planting bed.

What if the soil in your future garden area simply isn’t usable? Or, what if there is no soil, but you happen to have a concrete pad left over from a demolished barn, house, garage or carport? Or, what if you just don’t want to bend down so far to reach the plants and weeds in your planting beds? These are all reasons to build deep raised bed gardens. This post explains how to use lumber other than landscaping timbers to build deep raised beds.

Small Kitchen Garden Raised Beds

In an earlier post on building raised beds, I suggested that at the very least, your planting beds should have soil to a depth of one foot. Were I to build on a surface through which roots couldn’t grow, I’d make my raised beds 14 inches deep. This way, I know that if I need to dig with a shovel, I won’t likely strike bottom when I push the shovel down with my foot.

Construction-grade lumber is typically milled from white pine trees. The wood is light-colored and light-weight, and it rots easily. If you build retaining walls for a raised bed garden from white pine, you’ll likely need to replace them in four-to-six years. Find a leech-proof, non-toxic sealant, and apply several coats before installing your raised bed.

You need to create a retaining wall to hold that much soil in a pile. Typically, people use lumber to build retaining walls, but there are many other fine alternatives. The downside of using lumber is that it has a tendency to rot; a wooden retaining wall in contact with soil can lose integrity in three or four years. Worse: in many climates, putting wood in contact with soil is like putting up a welcome sign for termites. If your planting bed will be close to your house—or snuggled up against it—take extreme caution not to provide a bridge for termites to get from the soil in your yard to the wood frame of your house.

Lumber for your Raised Beds

Termites and other agents that destroy wood have preferences. The most affordable lumber, for example, is pine, a very soft wood. Pine absorbs and holds water easily which leads to cracking and deterioration especially where the wet wood freezes, thaws, and dries out over the course of a year. Boring insects can make holes in pine easily, and microorganisms that cause rot find pine an easy target.

Hardwoods resist rot far better than pine does, but they are also considerably more expensive. To boot, hardwoods aren’t as easy to find in the same variety of dimensions as pine… and the very most rot-resistant hardwoods may simply not be available at all.

There are several varieties of cedar. You often see red cedar lining linnen chests and saunas, and white cedar used to build outdoor furniture and fences.

Cedar is a popular choice for building raised bed retaining walls. As it’s also popular for building decks and outdoor furniture, it may be available in a local store… but it is expensive.

Because it’s inexpensive and abundant, many people use pine to build raised bed retaining walls. But if you use pine, you’ll need to replace it every three-to-five years unless you treat it with something to protect it from rot. This is where the worlds of evil corporations, government regulation, an overzealous legal system, and fearful consumer gardeners intersect.

Pressure-Treated Lumber for Raised Beds?

From pre-history, people have turned to chemicals to protect wood from rotting. Creosote has proven extremely successful—it’s on telephone poles and railroad ties all over the United States. For many years, you could buy creosote-soaked railroad ties to build retaining walls in your own yard… but this has fallen out of practice: creosote protects wood effectively because it has stuff in it that’s really bad for biology. We have a lot of biology going on in us, so we shouldn’t be getting into creosote.

Pressure-treated lumber typically has a green tinge to it. If you use it in your garden, wear a dust mask when cutting it. Thoroughly clean up any sawdust you create and put it out with the trash. Don’t burn or compost unused pressure-treated lumber.

The lumber industry has found alternatives to creosote, and in most places you can find pressure-treated lumber that is extremely resistant to rot. In the United States, until recently pressure-treated lumber had arsenic in it, and experts have argued the danger of coming into contact with such lumber. About 20 years ago, I read a discussion in which an expert explained that if you collected the soil around a piece of pressure-treated lumber and ate it, you might consume a dangerous amount of arsenic after twenty or thirty years of daily consumption; even within an inch of pressure treated lumber in the ground, there was no detectable arsenic.

Despite these types of findings, all do-it-yourself gurus warned people not to use pressure-treated lumber where humans might come in contact with it. You certainly wouldn’t use it in a produce garden. And, because of lawsuits and finger-pointing, the industry agreed to stop putting arsenic in pressure-treated lumber destined for home use. In the US, a ban went into effect five-or-six years ago.

Does this mean you can use today’s pressure-treated lumber to build raised planting beds in a small kitchen garden? There’s still a lot of paranoia; but, living in the United States, I’d do it. To address any discomfort you might feel about it, there are two precautions you can take:

  1. After assembling the retaining wall, line the inside of the wall with heavy plastic before you fill the frame with soil.
  2. Stain or paint the surfaces of the retaining wall that face out or up; if you’re going to come in contact with the wood, paint it to lock in whatever chemicals are in it.

Here’s a terrific article about pressure-treated lumber, in case you want a thorough understanding about what was wrong with pressure treated lumber when it was made with arsenic: Does Pressure-Treated Wood Belong in Your Garden?

Plastic for a Small Kitchen Garden?

With the near necessity that every new house includes a deck, the building industry has introduced several materials to replace and out-last wood. Composite materials are waste wood—sawdust, for example—mixed with synthetics such as plastic and then formed into boards. These boards have the same dimensions as certain standard cuts of lumber and they have similar woodworking characteristics. That is: you can cut them with a saw, drill holes, and hold them together with screws. They’ll also take paint, though they don’t require any. Best of all: they’ll last for 40 or more years with no maintenance.

I’ve also read about “plastic lumber” which I can only guess is not a composite, but is plastic shaped and textured to resemble boards. If you don’t object to surrounding your garden with plastic, then composite decking is the most maintenance-free material for building a classic “wood-frame” raised planting bed.

Costs?

I visited a home improvement store so I could estimate the costs of materials for raised planting beds using different materials. Here’s a summary:

Retaining Walls Cost of Materials for 4′ x 10′ Bed
  Treated Untreated Composite Cedar
  $58.67 $48.36 $118.77 $111.37

These estimates assume a 4 foot by 10 foot bed with 14 inch sides (technically, they’ll be 13 inches when assembled)… except in the case of the composite materials. The dollar amount in that column will build a 12-inch-deep raised bed.

One other caveat: I haven’t included costs for paint or sealer or plastic sheeting. If you build with untreated pine boards, figure to spend another $15 to $25 for sealant to protect the wood against moisture. I’d apply several coats of marine spar varnish to all the wood before assembling the retaining wall. That should extend the life of the walls for a few seasons.

Enough about Lumber

At this point, you have a pretty good idea of the materials you might use to make a traditional raised bed for a small kitchen garden. In an upcoming post, we’ll list materials to buy and the tools you’ll need to do the work. We’ll also explain how to assemble a frame and set it in place.

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A Small Kitchen Garden in a Raised Bed

Several of my recent posts explained how to plan and build a small kitchen garden. Most recently, I showed the simple steps to create a planting bed in an existing lawn. In that discussion, A Small Kitchen Garden In Your Lawn, we got as far as removing sod, but we didn’t actually prepare the underlying soil for planting. Before we do that, let’s talk about alternatives to cutting garden beds into your lawn. Let’s talk about raised bed gardens.

Materials for my raised bed garden are minimal: landscaping timbers and 12 inch twisted spikes. There’s a lot of fuss about pressure-treated lumber leaching poison into the soil… and a lot of fuss that such leaching is negligible or non-existent. My raised bed retaining walls are of pressure-treated lumber, as are my tomato stakes. I’ll report in this blog when my health deteriorates as a result. If you fear leaching, use untreated lumber—something that rots slowly such as black locust. If you buy construction grade lumber, find a stable sealant and coat the lumber heavily before installing it. Perhaps four or five coats of spar varnish would extend the life your raised bed retaining walls for several years.

Raised Bed Gardens

Landscaping timbers are about 2.75 inches thick and 3.75 inches across. With rounded sides and flat tops and bottoms, these timbers stack easily. Their weight holds up well against pressure from your garden soil; they don’t bend easily. If you have your timbers cut to length at the lumber store (most will do this without extra charge), you need only a hammer and a drill with a long bit to assemble your retaining wall. If you buy timbers at full-length, you’ll also need a saw to cut them. (I’d use an electric saw, but the hand saw asked to be included in this photo.) For each rectangular bed you need four timbers of matching length for the length of the bed, and four of matching length for the width of the bed. For example, to create a planting bed six feet long and four feet across, you’ll need four 5’ 8.25” sections, and four 3’ 8.25” sections.

A raised bed is a planting bed that is higher than the existing ground. There are several circumstances in which you simply can’t grow fruits and vegetables in the ground in your yard. In those circumstances, if you want a small kitchen garden, you have only two choices: plant in containers, or build raised planting beds.

But a raised bed provides benefits beyond relief from poor site conditions. A raised bed…

  • …can reduce the amount of bending to work a garden bed
  • …creates a barrier between your planting bed and potential invasion of unwanted plants that propagate via roots, rhizomes, and stolons.
  • …can protect the soil from becoming compacted and in so doing reduce the amount of work needed to keep the soil productive

Strategies for Building Raised Beds

There are no rules for building raised planting beds. Because we’re talking small kitchen garden, you may be trying to cram a planting bed into a very limited, and perhaps oddly-shaped space. In many cases, the shape of that space will dictate how you build your raised bed garden. If you’re lucky enough to have at least some open space in which to work, you’re a little less constrained.

A simple test

Where you plan to put your planting bed, dig a hole about a foot deep and a foot in diameter. Fill it with water and check on it periodically. If it takes more than eight hours for the water to soak in, you should create a raised bed. Even once you till the soil and amend it with sand and humus, your garden bed will be surrounded by the compacted, non-porous soil that won’t absorb water in eight hours. In a wet season, your planting bed could become a mud pit: water will soak into the garden quickly, but it could take days to soak into the surrounding soil.

At its simplest, a raised bed could be no more than a heap of soil sitting on the turf, on an old concrete slab, or on just about any surface. However, when the heap has no barriers to hold it in place, it will flatten out from one season to the next and require regular rebuilding to keep it together.

Because of this, most gardeners build walls to contain the soil of a raised planting bed. Those walls might be wooden boards, concrete blocks, brick walls, or cleverly-placed rocks. The walls must be strong enough to withstand pressure from hundreds of pounds of soil. Also, the walls should be durable; if made of unprotected wood, they may rot away in a matter of three or four growing seasons.

The Raised Bed in My Small Kitchen Garden

My house came with what looked like a planting bed for a kitchen garden (along with many beds with ornamental plantings). This was a raised bed 13.5 feet square. I don’t know how the previous owner created the bed, but it seems likely to have been a three-step process:

You’ll be stacking the timbers two deep around the perimeter of your new planting bed. Start by laying out a rectangle according to the scale model in this photo. (Yes, I simulated the layout of your landscaping timbers using Popsicle sticks.) Drill holes through the timbers to accommodate the spikes. The drill bit should be the same diameter as the spikes, or a smidge larger; for my spikes, I needed a three-eighths-inch bit. Put holes about two feet apart, but at this point don’t put holes in the last four inches of the outer ends of the timbers.

First, I believe the bed’s creator cut out a square of sod following the procedures I illustrated in my previous blog post.

Second, the bed’s creator built a retaining wall around the excavated square using gardening timbers.

Finally, the bed’s creator added topsoil and tilled—mixing the added topsoil with the “Lewisburg Soil Clay” he or she had found under the sod.

In fact, it’s possible that the previous homeowner had intended to have an in-ground planting bed, had cut the sod, and had then realized a problem… and there were two obvious ones:

  1. Most of my lawn sits on clay. It’s amazing that grass survives in it.
  2. The garden bed is at the bottom of a hill that drains my neighbor’s yard. Any depression at the bottom of that hill fills with water during rain. Perhaps the former homeowner cut out sod for a planting bed, watched it become a wading pool in a damp growing season, and then converted it into a raised planting bed.

How Deep Your Small Kitchen Garden Beds?

The illustrations in this post show how I would build a raised garden bed to match the one that was in my yard when I bought the house. You can follow these steps to build beds of just about any dimension—though it’s easiest to build rectangular planting beds this way. But there’s an important consideration we haven’t yet discussed: how deep will your crops grow?

Make sure the timbers are in the right places, and drive spikes through the holes into the ground as far as they’ll go. (If you’re looking for a perfect rectangle, measure both diagonals and adjust the frame until the measurements are equal.) Then lay the second tier of timbers on the first, overlapping pieces at each corner as these photos illustrate. Drill holes. This time, align a timber as you want it and hold it in place as you drill through it and the timber beneath it. Drill a hole at a corner first, drive a spike through it, move about two feet along the same timber, drill a hole and set a spike, and so on. If you don’t maintain alignment of the timbers when you drill holes, setting the spikes can be quite difficult.

Most vegetables that produce above ground tend to have shallow roots; they’ll be comfortable in four inches of soil. Even some foods that develop in the soil, such as radishes and beets, do so near the surface. Root crops such as potatoes and sweet potatoes can make it in six inches of soil, but you may need to mound soil on top of exposed tubers that push to the surface—this can happen even in very deep soil.

Depending on the variety you choose, long tap root vegetables (carrots and parsnips, for example) provide the deepest challenge: some want to grow ten or even twelve inches deep (though there are many varieties that tend to be shorter). So, for greatest versatility, I suggest that your raised planting beds provide at least 12 inches of soil depth.

The inside corners of your retaining wall will look like this. When you’ve spiked all the timbers to each other and the ground, you’re ready to prepare the soil. We’ll talk about that in an upcoming post.

Here’s the trick: if your raised planting bed will be on existing soil, you might be able to include some of that soil in your measurement. So, on an existing lawn, you could build a bed four inches deep, and till down some ten-to-twelve inches, using six or more inches of the existing soil for planting.

That’s the situation in my yard: my raised bed provides only about three inches elevation above the surrounding soil, so my plants’ roots can still reach excess moisture that collects from the hill above my garden. If this becomes a chronic problem, I can add another two inches of soil before I’d need to build the walls of my raised bed higher.

In an upcoming post, we’ll explore other ways to create walls for a raised planting bed. As well, we’ll talk about soil amendments that might be necessary to prepare your garden beds for spring planting.

Here are some other posts about building raised planting beds:

  • Our Raised beds on Gardencentre TV « The Recycle Works Blog – We thought you might like to see this video of our raised beds being reviewed on Gardencentertv website. It shows both how easy the raised beds are to assemble and how versatile they are. They say a picture can say a thousand words …

  • Innovative Raised Beds – So instead of writing a longer post, I thought I’d share a photo of my traditional raised beds built from recycled cedar fencing (top) and some alternative raised bed ideas I discovered at The Garden …

  • Making a Raised-Bed Garden – Back in 2002 when we landscaped our yard and started our garden we decided to create a raised bed garden. We decided on raised bed gardening for a number of reason. The main reason being the soil in our yard seemed to be composed of …

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A Small Kitchen Garden in Your Lawn

Ideally, you can use a straight-edged spade to cut the sod away for a garden bed. I’ve used an edging tool, and even a round-point spade… though the extreme curvature of the blade makes it hard to create a straight edge with a round-point shovel.

I hope your small kitchen garden plan is starting to take shape in your mind. So far, you’ve figured out where to put your planting beds, and you’ve thought hard about how big to make them: will you need to walk in your planting beds to work them, or will you be able to work them from the sides? The next decision is a biggie: Will you plant directly in the ground, or will you raise your planting beds above ground level?

Start by setting pins at the corners of the new garden bed, and stretch twine between them to mark the perimeter. If you’re cutting a bed with curved edges, use a bunch of pins to define the curves… or eyeball it if you’re not concerned about precision.

Your yard may impose an answer to that question; if the soil is rocky, constantly wet, or unworkable, you may need to build raised beds on the yard rather than cutting planting beds into the yard. If you’re lucky enough to have soil you can work relatively easily-and that will support plant life-you need to choose between in-ground and raised beds.

Making the choice might be easiest when you’re familiar with the steps involved in building each type of planting bed. This post examines steps to take when preparing a new traditional-style planting bed in an established lawn.

A Planting Bed in the Lawn

The least expensive planting bed you can create is one that you pay for with sweat equity. For such a bed, you mark the perimeter of the new garden area, and then remove the sod from within that space. Sod includes all the grass and a few inches of soil (bound together by roots of the grass). So, when you cut in a new planting bed this way, the remaining lawn sits a few inches above your small kitchen garden.

There’s nothing wrong with a recessed planting bed as long as the soil drains efficiently, though there are a few other liabilities:

  • The lower your planting bed, the farther you need to bend down to work in it.
  • It’s tough to mow grass along a drop-off.
  • Set the shovel blade against the turf, aligned with the twine along one edge of the new planting bed. Aim the shovel blade straight into the turf. This may mean angling the handle well forward (away from you). Then push down firmly with the ball of your foot. You may need to stomp on the shovel several times to get it to cut into the soil. (Hold the top of the handle firmly in position while you’re pushing the shovel into the ground with your foot.) Cut along the entire length of one side of the new bed—or cut all the way around the perimeter since you’re going to do that eventually anyway.

    Step into the garden bed, turn around, and cut a line parallel to and about a foot away from the first line you cut. Each time you cut the blade into the turf, lower the shovel’s handle (pull it toward you and down) so that it pries the turf up off of the underlying soil. If the sod doesn’t come up easily, you may need to cut the shovel in deeper and pry again.

    Notice how the existing lawn acts as a fulcrum, turning the shovel’s blade into a lever. Exploit this by working your way backward across the planting bed you’re creating.

  • The edge of the lawn along the garden bed will break down as you step and kneel on it.
  • Being a low spot in the yard, an in-ground planting bed may collect water during heavy rain; a wet season could result in failed crops.
  • Weeds and other plants that propagate through stolons and rhizomes can easily cross the line between an in-ground planting bed and the adjacent lawn.

Peel the sod off of the soil. This may be easiest if you cut perpendicular lines between the parallel cuts you’ve already made… but if you start at the side border of the new planting bed where you’ve already made a cut, the sod should come up in large pieces that tear away from each other easily. There’s a lot of nutrition in the sod, so add it to your compost pile… preferably grass-side-down.

As you work the soil and amend it (add stuff to improve the soil’s characteristics) in a new planting bed, it’ll mound up a bit and be nearly even with the soil supporting the lawn. However, the planting bed will settle in time, and stepping in the bed will compact it; it will never be even with the lawn until you add back as much soil as you removed.

Raised Planting Beds

An in-ground planting bed is simple to describe and easy to create. The alternative raised bed is only a little trickier. A raised bed offers several advantages over a traditional in-ground planting bed… but it also introduces some minor challenges. We’ll explore raised bed gardens in the next post, and look at at least one technique you can use to build your own raised planting beds. In later posts we’ll talk about amending soil and otherwise preparing a new bed so it’ll be ready to go in the spring.

When you finish one pass across the planting bed, make a second pass, cutting a line parallel to the first swath, prying the sod away from the soil, and peeling the sod out. Eventually, you’ll have a hole in your lawn that provides stark contrast to the green grass (and dandelions).

Machine-Made Planting Beds

Don’t rule out using a machine to cut in a planting bed. A powerful walk-behind auto-tiller can cut through sod and turn it over enough to prepare a lawn area for repurposing. Generally, you’ll need to “lift-and-throw” chunks of grass and roots out of the way after cutting a bed this way.

A lawn tractor with a drag-behind plough attachment can cut sod, but also leaves chunks of grass and roots. Following up with a disking attachment will break up the sod chunks, and repeated raking will remove a lot of the them… a task you must complete to prevent them from coming back as a “weed” problem in your new planting bed.

Chemicals Anyone?

With organic gardening being seriously in vogue, it’s hard to recommend this solution, but it is still a popular tool for farmers—especially those practicing no-plough, low-impact methods. A week or two before you plough (or auto-till) a planting bed into your lawn, carefully (if you slop, you’ll have some seriously dead patches of grass where you don’t want them) apply an herbicide (Roundup is very popular for this) to the area you plan to till. Turn the sod after it is completely dead; the grass leaves and roots become humus in the soil and the planting bed stays level with the surrounding lawn.

If you’re not in a hurry, there’s a much more organic way to achieve the same end… but your new beds might not be ready for planting until well into the next growing season.

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Small Kitchen Garden Design: Layout

Perrenials fill two traditional farmyard planting beds: asparagus on the left and raspberries on the right.

I can’t tell you exactly how to build your small kitchen garden. That’s because I don’t know exactly what conditions you face as you make your plan. There are a few design considerations to have in mind as you make decisions about how to build your own planting beds.

How Big Your Bed?

Forget, for the moment, the soil conditions at the location you’ve chosen for your new planting bed. More importantly: how much space are you going to convert into a small kitchen garden?

A square that is 10 feet by 10 feet can hold 7 crowded rows of vegetables with 18 inches between rows. For plants that require little space—radishes, beets, carrots, lettuce, spinach, peppers, and beans, for example—you can get away with such crowding… but you’ll be wiggling between rows when the plants are full-grown.

You might crowd larger plants such as tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, potatoes, and sweet potatoes, to two feet… but again, you’ll be hard-pressed to find places for your feet when you’re in the garden.

Do You Need to be In Your Garden?

Here’s the key question in choosing a layout for a small kitchen garden: Do you need to be in your planting beds? A traditional vegetable garden on a country farm is a ploughed area in the yard. If it runs 100 feet by 30 feet (modest for someone to live off of year-round), then someone needs to walk in it to till it, plant it, weed it, and harvest from it. But, if you’re going small, perhaps you should design a garden with planting beds in which you never walk.

Walk Versus No-Walk Planting Beds

Here are characteristics of planting beds whose management requires that you walk in them. I’ve color-coded the characteristics where green=advantage, yellow=neutral, and red=disadvantage:

  • They are generally more than three or four feet across at their shortest dimension
  • You can easily use a power-tiller to turn the soil and mix in amendments.
  • The soil gets compacted from regular traffic
  • You must reserve tilled areas between planting areas where you can stand and walk while working the garden. This significantly reduces yield per square foot of tilled earth.
  • You must manage the open spaces to keep down weeds
  • There is enormous flexibility for how you arrange crops in the garden and for how you rotate crops from year-to-year.
  • For the same total square footage of planting beds, it takes less fencing to protect a single large bed than to protect multiple smaller beds

Here are characteristics of planting beds you can manage without ever walking in them:

  • Beds are no more than three to four feet across—two feet across if you can access them from only one side.
  • A small kitchen garden of no-walk beds typically has several adjacent planting beds with room to walk between them and work them from all sides. If multiple beds aren’t an option, then a long, narrow bed provides the most versatility for rotating crops from season-to-season.
  • For equal areas of tilled soil, you need far more space for no-walk planting beds than for planting beds in which you walk… but remember: you can grow far more per square foot in a no-walk planting bed than in one where you must walk to work the garden.
  • Without someone pressing down on it, the soil doesn’t get compacted quickly. That makes it easier to work when you’re amending, planting, and weeding.
  • Areas between planting beds can be lawn, permanent mulch, paving, or other easily-maintained surfaces.
  • A no-walk bed can support far more plants per square foot than a large planting bed can. Consider: In a bed that’s only 18 inches wide, you can plant a row of vegetables near each boundary of the bed—you don’t need to get between the rows.

In a traditional in-ground planting bed, it can be difficult to distinguish where the yard ends and the garden begins.

Cutting-in a Planting Bed

I’m sure I’ve overlooked several notable characteristics of both walk- and no-walk planting beds. Please chime in if you want to share pet peeves about your planting beds, or identify advantages I’ve missed.

My next post will explain (with photos) how to lay out and cut-in a traditional farmer’s-style planting bed in your yard. In later posts, we’ll talk about differences between these traditional in-ground planting beds and the somewhat more European raised beds.

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Your First Small Kitchen Garden

While having nothing to do with my small kitchen garden, this photo clearly illustrates autumn… and autumn frosts have all but killed my garden for the year. Autumn is the ideal time to prepare new planting beds for the next growing season.

It’s mid-autumn in my small kitchen garden, and there’s not much left for me to do in it until late winter. However, in hardiness zones 5, 6, and higher (most of the continental United States), there are still many warm days ahead of us. For people who don’t yet have gardens in their yards, these remaining warm days provide perfect opportunities to get ready for next spring.

If your small kitchen garden necessarily must live inside, or is a container-only affair on a balcony, deck, patio, or limited yard, this post won’t help much. But, if you plan to create planting beds in—or on—your lawn (or a paved area), this post is a good place to start.

Build Your Small Kitchen Garden Now

There is no better time than autumn to build a new garden bed. Reasons?

  • You don’t have to wait until the soil thaws
  • Chances are, the soil now isn’t saturated and muddy; during the spring thaw, you’re not likely to be so lucky
  • You have many days to work without concern about finishing in time to plant
  • Nurseries, garden stores, and other soil-suppliers are less busy in autumn and may offer discounts
  • Other outdoor maintenance tasks tend to diminish in the fall
  • Building a planting bed now means it’ll be ready for early vegetables as soon as the soil thaws next year

Small Kitchen Garden Design Strategy

Blog entries and articles abound about how to create a kitchen garden. So many of those articles cover the same four or five basic points. Forgive me if you’ve already read these, especially since they may seem rather obvious:

The house we bought in central PA had a raised planting bed along the south-facing property line. The hill to the left in the photo is above the garden, and water gathers at the bottom, saturating the soil during rainy years… bad especially for my rhubarb which completely died out during one very wet season.

Sunlight—find a place in your yard that will get direct sun for at least six hours a day. More is better.

Drainage—identify the “wet” places in your yard and work around them. By wet, I mean places in your yard where water tends to pool (or flow) during heavy rain or lengthy wet periods. Wet soil can drown the roots of a plant. It can also promote rot and disease that can spread to your plants and result in poor crops. You can put a garden in an area that gets wet, but if that’s your best location, build a raised bed to keep your plants’ roots above the moisture.

Soil quality—I’ve yet to meet a homeowner who says, “I really lucked out. Every inch of my yard is rich, fast-draining soil just loaded with humus. If I drop a seed in the dirt, it grows like Jack’s beanstalk.” If your soil is pure clay (as mine is), building a raised bed may be the easiest way to create a garden. Once you’ve built the bed’s containing walls, you can have high-quality topsoil delivered to fill it. If you want to plant directly in the ground, you may need to mix sand, humus, and silt in with the naturally-occurring soil.

Proximity—It’s a KITCHEN GARDEN! Life with a small kitchen garden is easiest when that garden is near your kitchen. (Sorry. I warned you these items are obvious.) In my experience, there’s no better place for a kitchen garden than right outside the kitchen door… but sunlight, drainage, and soil quality trump nearness to kitchen. Oh! And is there a faucet handy from which you can run a hose? I hate that my hose attaches to a faucet about a third of the way around the house from my garden.

My raised planting bed consists of two layers of pressure-treated gardening ties, held together and into the ground by 12-inch galvanized steel stakes. The anti-rodent fence sits on the raised bed’s retaining walls, with PVC plugs to keep it from sliding off (a recent design innovation that hasn’t yet won me over).

Exposure—This is a huge issue that is of small importance. Huh? Well… a lot of kitchen gardens are dirt patches carved out of large yards or fields; with no special protection from the elements they do just fine. However, it’s painful to lose even a tiny amount of produce you grow in a small kitchen garden; there isn’t much to begin with. So, if you can, put your small kitchen garden behind a barrier from the prevailing winds. If you’re in a city neighborhood, a suburb, on within a small town, the surrounding houses probably provide ample protection against high winds. If you live on a large lot, your house or garage might make a good windbreak.

But consider other sources of aggravation: a garden bed under the eves may suffer heavy damage if your rain gutters overflow and splash onto the plants below. Trees to the north of a garden (in the northern hemisphere) can overhang a garden without shading it… but branches that fall from those trees can crush vegetable plants, and fallen tree seeds can increase your weeding chores. If there are deer or large rodents in your neighborhood, they may harvest your goods before you do… Choose a location that gives your small kitchen garden every chance to prevail against nature.

Size—Wow. Only you can answer the question: How big my small kitchen garden? You can get a surprising amount of food from a modest planting bed. For many years, I had a planting bed that was 14 feet by 14 feet and I crowded my plantings. It was easy to grow more than we’d eat in a season, and we froze a lot of vegetables to use over the winter. If you want to grow big crops such as corn, squash, and melons, you won’t get as much out of a small space… though there are strategies for getting two or three types of vegetables from the space recommended for a single variety.

Don’t Start Yet

My next several posts will extend this discussion about building planting beds for a small kitchen garden. We’ll talk about advantages of raised-bed gardens, about how to build raised beds, about how to cut sod and remove it, and about how to amend soil so your plants will be happy in it. We’ll also explore strategies to fit more into less space.

If you haven’t done this yet, please refer to my earlier post about kitchen garden design for inspiration about how you might fit a small kitchen garden into your yard.

In case you want to learn more faster than I’m presenting it, here are more articles about building planting beds; specifically, raised bed gardens:

  • Meandering . . . » Blog Archive » Growing Green! – Register Log in Entries RSS Comments RSS WordPress. I have a garden!! (and it’s safe from dogs!!) This beautiful little veggie raised bed garden resulted from much consulting and lots of sweat from mom and me. Mom probably would not have volunteered had she known quite how bad it was going to be (and hot, so hot!), but she did and I couldn’t have done it without her (or Geli and Paul, who got us more soil with 10 bags of 2 cubic feet were not enough!).

  • how to build a raised bed garden – a raised bed garden allows you to have greater control over the soil you are using in your garden. it also puts the garden at a height that is much easier to maintain and work with. many veggies will thrive in raised beds. …

  • Creating a Raised Bed Garden – The first step in creating a raised bed garden is to decide how large you’d like it to be. It should be no wider than 4 feet, so you can reach comfortably to end to plants from both sides, but it can be as long as you’d like. …

  • Creating a Raised Bed Garden – If your current planting goals involve plants that require good water drainage, I am sure you know how frustrating it is to have a yard that just won’t cooperate. Some plants can handle the excess water that comes about from being in an …

  • maintaining a raised bed garden – after you’ve built your frames, you need to mix your soil and put it into the frames. if you like, you can use about 25% soil from your own garden as a base. you can then add in equal parts sand and compost. …

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Small Kitchen Garden Planning

Definitely a bad plan for a small kitchen garden.

Are you thinking of starting a small kitchen garden… or about making changes to one you’ve already established? I have one single best and most useful tip for you: get to know other people with home kitchen gardens. Especially if you’re contemplating your first garden and you have no experience, become someone’s apprentice. Find a kitchen garden you like, and ask its owner to let you help with prepping, planting, maintenance, harvesting, and putting everything to bed for the winter (if that’s common practice in your hardiness zone).

But don’t stop with a single gardener. Even if you have a lot of gardening experience, get to know several kitchen gardeners and really explore what they do. You’ll find about as many great tips and techniques as you can find gardeners… you might discover an approach that defies your wisdom, yet solves problems you’ve skirted for years.

A Home Kitchen Garden Tour

Here’s another invaluable tip for every gardener: tour as many home kitchen gardens as you can, and think hard about what you see. Don’t have time to tour a dozen or more gardens? Don’t know where to find so many gardens to tour? No problem!

There’s a “group pool” on flickr.com called Edible Landscapes. Members of this pool have uploaded photographs of kitchen gardens, and there’s a lot of variety: traditional gardens, raised beds, container gardening, wall gardening… you’re bound to see something to get your creative juices flowing. Before you commit to new plans for your small kitchen garden, run this flickr slideshow, and take a garden tour:

 

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