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Posts Tagged ‘planting bed’

Tilling in the No-Till Garden

This spring I rented a plot at a community garden. It changes everything. -post #2

Tilled ground in a community garden plot

That gash of exposed soil was the first planting bed in my community garden plot. Digging up the meadow was, perhaps, easier than digging a new bed in a lawn, but way more work than I wanted to do. In about an hour, I’d turned soil and removed weeds to create a two-foot-wide, 20-foot long planting bed.

When I rented a 30’ by 30’ plot at a community garden this spring, I hoped to work the plot without tilling it. However, as I explained in my last post, Small Kitchen Garden Goes Community, I didn’t get an actual garden plot; I got a meadow.

The no-till approach I had in mind was to bury the entire garden in mulch; I started looking for farmers who had spoiled hay to sell. I had learned from reading the works of Ruth Stout that weeds generally can’t grow up through a six-inch layer of hay—and any that do will eventually give up if you keep piling hay on top.

Building Soil Without Tilling

Soil quality is a huge issue for vegetable gardening. If you start a garden on bad soil, your best course of action is to figure out what the soil lacks and add those things. Usually, there’s tilling involved.

Newly excavated planting bed with compost

I cleverly followed the curvature of the Earth when I dug my community garden plot’s first bed… The darker blobs of soil are compost I wheeled some 200 yards from the far end of the community garden.

Building decent soil without tilling is a three-or-more-year project (unless you’re rich; you can have perfect soil in a few days if you have enough money). As a no-till gardener with modest resources, you collect autumn leaves, lawn clippings, horse manure, spoiled hay… whatever organic waste people might be anxious to get rid of. This you spread on the soil, and you continue to add more organic matter month-after-month.

Organic stuff closest to the original soil decays into rich loam. As you pile on more organic waste, it also decays. After several seasons, the loam becomes thick and will support many varieties of vegetable plants.

I wasn’t going to wait several seasons! I hadn’t yet planted peas, and spring was moving ahead. I’d have to till.

The Pea Patch

Soil and compost blended and raked at the community garden

After another hour or more of digging, stirring, mixing, and raking, I’d combined the compost with the loosened soil and smoothed over the bed. It stood in stark contrast to the wild meadow with emerging perennials and last year’s dead grasses.

On April 13th, I cut a planting bed into my meadow. I used a garden fork to lift soil along with plants growing in it, and I removed every plant (now officially “weed”). When I had a two-foot wide row down the middle of my plot, I brought several wheelbarrows of compost from the community compost heap and I mixed it into the soil. Finally, I raked it smooth and planted peas.

This wouldn’t do! Meadow plants surrounded my pea patch, and it was inevitable they’d try to grow into the newly-worked soil. I still planned to smother the weeds with mulch, but the tilled patch would provide an escape hatch especially for weeds that reproduce via rhizomes. I needed a strategy to protect this tilled pea patch from the untilled surrounds. That’ll be the topic of an upcoming post.

 
Small Kitchen Garden – Tilling in the No-Till Garden

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Grubs and Birds

Nest of robin eggs

I didn’t stretch to capture this photo; the robin’s nest is at shoulder level where two paths converge in my yard.

A robin has nested in the spruce tree that stands just four feet from my compost heap. The spruce tree is quite large; the nest could be thirty or more feet above the ground—and it could be deep in the branches. But no!

The robin chose stress. It built at shoulder level on a branch you almost have to brush as you walk between the compost heap and the house—or as you step off the front porch taking the shortest path from the kitchen to the compost heap. To live as I’m accustomed, I pass within 18 inches of that nest several times a day—on some days I’m there ten or twenty times!

Future raspberry bed

I’m expecting 30 raspberry plants to arrive by mail some time this week. Since I didn’t start last fall when I should have, I cut in a planting bed. There’s already a raspberry plant in place—and a grape vine. This photo shows the line I stretched to guide my shovel as I removed sod.

Cutting in a new Planting Bed

I’m cutting in a new planting bed. I vowed never to do this: if I’m putting a bed in an existing lawn, I want to start four months ahead, lay down a weed barrier (cardboard or newspapers), and cover that over with compost, manure, or mulch. The approach turns the lawn into decent soil structure and nutrition while minimizing digging.

Here’s the challenge: you can’t just plan to start new beds this way, you actually have to create them four months before you plant in them. I didn’t. But I ordered raspberry plants anyway.

The plants will arrive this week. The bed (or beds) must be ready. I’ve only myself to blame: I’m cutting sod.

But this post isn’t about cutting sod and making a raspberry bed. It’s about grubs and birds.

Grubs from the lawn

Nearly every patch of sod I removed to make a planting bed for my raspberries exposed several grubs. This handful went onto a piece of cardboard along with others that I eventually offered in friendship to a robin.

Grubs in the Sod

I don’t take care of my lawn. My family mows the grass to keep it under the maximum length allowed by law. That is all.

My lawn is free-range. If it wants to fight off turf diseases, or root-damaging nematodes or insects, or burrowing animals, it is free to do so. If it’s thirsty during drought it is welcome to drive roots deep or to drink out of the dog’s dish. Heck, if it wants to fly south for the winter, it can go! I won’t even ask it to write.

Apparently, the lawn lacks motivation. When I started cutting my sod, I discovered it hosts a whole bunch of grubs! Supposedly, these grubs can damage a lawn. Far more importantly (to me): the adults the grubs will become may eat leaves of my food plants.

Robin on fence

The robin fled when I laid out grubs for her, but when she returned she paused on the garden fence to examine my friendship offering.

Making Friends with a Robin

If it hasn’t made sense so far, this post is about to come together (it still may not make sense). It dawned on me the annoying, shoulder-level robin might help dispose of grubs I unearthed while cutting sod.

So, as I worked, I collected grubs on a piece of cardboard. Then, when I wanted a break, I flipped a large planter upside down next to the compost heap and dumped the grubs onto it. The robin didn’t hang around to watch, but once I backed away, she returned and immediately spotted the bounty.

She was gorged by the time she returned to her nest, and I had a few photos… but I don’t think we truly bonded. Maybe it’s hard to build a relationship over grubs, or maybe I need to be more persistent. Whatever the case, the robin and I will be rubbing shoulders for many more weeks.

Robin enjoys grubs

The robin clearly enjoyed the grubs, but she gave no sign of appreciation. I don’t think we’re friends, but I’ll keep trying to win her over—or at least I’ll scare her out of her nest several times a day.

http://www.smallkitchengarden.net/gardening/grubs-and-birds

 

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Wet Rhubarb in my Small Kitchen Garden

This photo has nothing to do with rhubarb. My neighbor’s magnolia blossoms were dramatic a few days ago, and I shot this photo looking west across the fields in front of our houses. Magnolia blossoms are among my favorites, and I wanted to dress up this blog post… so please enjoy.

It seems as though every article I post these days is about how wet is my small kitchen garden. This one has to do with how wet is my rhubarb. Variety is the spice of life!

My History with Rhubarb

My dad managed about five rhubarb plants in a back corner of our yard. I ate rhubarb only as sauce; can’t remember my mom ever preparing it another way. When finally I had space for my own kitchen garden, I bought several rhubarb plants from a local nursery and planted a tidy row near my planting bed.

For a few years, I had a modest rhubarb harvest each spring, but rarely enough for more than a pot or two of sauce—and maybe some rhubarb pies. Then we had rain.

I joked often that spring that if you weren’t playing golf in the rain, you weren’t playing golf. We had enough dry days to plant a vegetable garden, but I discovered that the rhubarb patch was in a low spot; there was standing water around the plants through much of the spring and by autumn there was no sign at all of rhubarb.

In the Falkland Island war, trench foot disabled more of Great Britain’s troops than combat injuries did. Trench foot arises when your feet are cold and wet for days at a time. That’s what’s happening to my rhubarb. By April 28, a few of the rhubarb plants in my main bed had barely produced leaves; trench foot is holding them back and may eventually kill them.

When rhubarb failed to emerge in the spring, I bought new plants and committed a sliver of my main planting bed to perennials; a dramatic departure as it meant having less room for the annual vegetables. Still, the planting bed sits a few inches above its surrounds, so I expected the rhubarb to be safe in particularly wet years.

This Spring is not “Particularly Wet;” it’s Wetter

Despite the drier planting bed, I’ve had only one really healthy plant for the past many years. Other plants have struggled during wet seasons and so have never grown hearty and productive. Finally, last year I set six rhubarb plants in a new area that doesn’t hold water the way my main planting bed seems to.

Mind you, my main planting bed is usually very moist in early spring, but I’ve always been able to till in March and April. Except for this year. My perennials have been in standing water at least one day for each day they’ve been dry. Some sections of the planting bed have had puddles continuously for 20 or more days.

A full 13 days before I photographed the rhubarb with trench foot (that’s the previous photo), the residential rhubarb inspector acknowledged that plants in my new rhubarb patch (in this photo) are in great shape. Today, despite the rain, these plants are nearly ready for a first harvest. The drainage around my new rhubarb patch is a bit better than the drainage in my main planting bed.

I can’t work the soil with so much moisture in it. Worse: the rhubarb is very unhappy. Of the six plants within my garden fence, I’m likely to lose two or three. That will leave me with a respectable nine plants which is double what I’ve ever had.

Remediation for my Small Kitchen Garden

The lesson, I suppose, is that every season brings its own challenges. Will it ever be wet like this again? This year’s frustration motivates me: I’ll probably take steps to reduce the agony caused by excessive spring rains.

My most obvious move is to add soil to my planting bed. The retaining wall now stands at least 4 inches above the soil so I can easily top up the bed. This will provide a buffer above spring-soaked soil in wet years, and I’ll be able to plant even when rains saturate the surrounding yard.

Actually, I won’t add soil. If I add anything it will be a mixture of sand, charcoal, and compost or mushroom soil. Then, I’ll till aggressively to mix the new stuff in with the underlying clay-heavy soil. After that, I’ll return to my minimal-disturbance approach to planting… and it’ll take way more rain than we’re having this year to keep me from planting spring vegetables

 

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Small Kitchen Garden Rhubarb Project

Your Small Kitchen Garden catches up with a series of posts about what went on in the garden this season while the kitchen gardener (Daniel) was busy writing his book Yes, You Can! And Freeze and Dry it, Too.

When you need to resort to a mattock to dig a garden bed, either you missed the rainy season, or you’re dealing with less-then-ideal soil.

My first outdoor project this past growing season was to expand my small kitchen garden. Here’s how that went down:

New Rhubarb for my Small Kitchen Garden

In 2009 I met a man who had five rhubarb plants in his garden but he’d lost interest in them. He told me his wife had used the rhubarb to make great baked goods, but since she died he simply didn’t use it. His plan, he said, was to dig up the plants and get rid of them.

On that day in 2009, I asked this man if he’d like me to dig up his rhubarb in exchange for the plants. He agreed, and I told him I’d be in touch in the spring after the ground thawed. In March, I lined the back of the minivan with cardboard, set in a shovel and a garden fork, and visited my new gardening friend.

The rhubarb plants marking the western border of the planting bed were large and healthy. I worked the garden fork into the soil, defining a 24-inch circle around each plant. Fortunately, my friend’s garden soil is full of humus, and it loosened easily. Unfortunately, digging five mature rhubarb plants is a lot of work.

A large cardboard box flattened in the back of Ye Olde Minivan was adequate to keep soil off the van’s carpet—but only because the van is 17 years old. Five rhubarb plants broke apart into many viable roots. Unfortunately, I had no planting bed prepared, so I heeled in the rhubarb roots to keep them from drying out. Heeled in? It means to cover the roots with soil without actually planting the plants. I put mine under cardboard and covered the cardboard with soil. The cardboard dried out every day, so I soaked it as often.

I dug deeply beneath the roots of the first plant to remove the entire root ball intact. I could barely haul this across the lawn and lift it into the back of the van. So, I was less surgical with the remaining plants. I dug closer to the roots and broke them apart as I levered them out of the soil.

In about 90 minutes, I’d stacked way too many rhubarb plants in the minivan, and had raked out the soil to leave a fresh planting area where my gardening friend planned to start ornamental Japanese red maples.

The Garden Cart Before the Horse

You’d think that by the time a serious gardener has a cargo load of rhubarb plants, he or she would have a planting bed waiting to receive them. Not this kitchen gardener. Nope. I hadn’t yet decided where I’d plant the rhubarb, much less prepared a planting bed.

So… I strategized with my wife (who has no love for rhubarb), and we agreed I’d extend an existing ornamental bed around a corner and plant the rhubarb there. It looked great on paper… but I hated that I couldn’t burn in a planting bed (as I explained in a post titled Your New Home Kitchen Garden Planting Bed); I needed to plant within a week or two, so I’d be cutting sod and conditioning soil before I could set the rhubarb in the ground.

This back corner of our house gets morning and afternoon sun and, while ornamental planting beds run all the way around the house, this 16 foot section of wall perches on lawn. Left of the corner is an established ornamental bed. To turn the corner with my new rhubarb bed, I measured out a right angle, then used string anchored against the corner of the house to sweep an arc. I cut sod along the curved border and quickly discovered this was a miserable place to dig a planting bed. Realizing it would take hours to excavate and condition the soil here, I decided to put the rhubarb elsewhere.

Slow-mo Planting Bed

When I removed the sod from my new planting bed, I discovered a sad truth: Calling the stuff under the sod “soil” was charitable; this would be a huge project. In fact, to dig, I needed to break up the clay and gravel with a mattock before I could shovel it out of the ground.

So, to keep the rhubarb fresh while I pounded a new planting bed into existence, I “heeled in” the roots of the plants. Then I gave up.

Rhubarb Patch Plan Two

It became clear that my rhubarb plants were suffering, and it would be weeks before the new bed was ready. In desperation, I came up with a new concept: I would extend my small kitchen garden annex and plant rhubarb along its southern edge.

The annex started life about 17 years ago as a sandbox for my kids. Not surprisingly, my kids haven’t played in it in years. So, last year, I decided to go archeologist and see what toys were popular in sandboxes in the late 90s and early 00s: I converted the sandbox into a planting bed.

I cut two feet of sod along the south edge of the planting bed I’d created last year from my kids’ sandbox. I dug five holes and set roots in each of them. Then I extended the planting bed two feet to the east and added one more plant. The south border of this planting bed is now home to six rhubarb plants. In the photo on the left, last autumn’s weeds still cover the bed. In the photo on the right, I’ve finished planting the rhubarb and I’ve weeded and raked the expanded bed. The area around the planting bed has terrific soil, perhaps because the old septic field runs under it. The new rhubarb plants grew amazingly well this summer.

The soil in that part of the yard is loose and rich. Coincidentally, there used to be a septic field in that area. I was able to remove sod and excavate holes in a matter of hours. Then I added compost, set the healthiest-looking rhubarb roots, and filled in around them with soil.

There were so many rhubarb roots left over that I stuck some in my main planting bed and potted up the rest to give to friends. The original six plants provided starters for about 14 new plants. My new rhubarb patch was so prolific, I was very tempted to harvest from it… but best practices say not to harvest from plants in the year you set them out.

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Small Kitchen Garden Soil-Preparation – 2

My last post provided rationale for working the soil in your small kitchen garden. Sure, you can dig a hole and drop in a seed, and a plant will probably grow. However, conditioning the soil to improve drainage, PH balance, and nutrition significantly increases your chances of success. It also improves the yields of your vegetable plants.

That said, I’m lazy. I’m not excited about spreading manure and I don’t have a power tiller, so my soil preparation has evolved into a minimalist procedure. My raised vegetable bed is large enough that I must walk in it to prepare it, plant it, weed it, and harvest from it.

Extracting a dandelion from your walk-in garden bed employs the same technique you’d use to turn soil: Push the garden fork in to the full depth of its tines, pry the soil out of the ground, and turn it over. When I remove dendelions, I sometimes insert the fork on four sides of the dandelion before prying the plant out of the ground. This loosens the soil and decreases the chance of breaking off the tap root deep underground. After lawnmower noise, my least favorite sound in the garden is the dull thud of a snapping dandelion tap root that runs deeper than my garden fork can reach.

Low-Till Planting

Here are the steps I follow to prepare my raised vegetable bed for spring planting. This approach has been very effective, and it’s most appropriate for modest gardens in which the soil gets compacted from foot traffic through the growing season:

This year I’m using apple sticks (the bounty of pruning season) and pink yarn to mark rows in my garden. I tie the yarn three or four inches above the ground so I can easily work under it with a hoe.

1. Decide where to run a planting row.

2. Turn the row of soil over. I prefer to use a garden fork. I dig a fork’s width swath from one end of the row to the other, plunging the fork in to the full depth of its tines, prying the fork-full of soil out of the ground, and turning that fork-full over so the soil that was on the surface ends up at the bottom of the hole from which I removed it.

3. Remove all weeds and their roots from the soil you turn over, and excavate all other weeds from either side of the row you’re working.

4. Break up soil clumps with a garden rake, and smooth over the surface within the fork-width row.

5. Set a stake at each end of the row, and stretch twine between the stakes. This provides a guide to ensure a straight row so you can accurately match your planting to your plan for the year’s garden.

6. If your garden bed tends to collect rain water, mound soil from between the rows onto the rows, creating six-to-nine-inch berms. By mounding the soil you turn each row into a raised bed that will reduce the chance of excess moisture damaging your crops.

If your garden is on high ground that drains quickly, don’t mound the soil; step 7 will result in depressed planting rows that catch and hold rain water; an advantage especially in a dry year.

Using a low-till method, I’ve turned and raked the soil (top-left) before I cut a furrow about six inches deep and as wide as the hoe. From years of gardening, the soil is in decent shape, but the mature compost on the shovel looks obviously more organic than the soil. Whether using compost or manure, I use a hoe to mix it with soil that I scrape off the bottom of the trench (bottom-left). I’d plant directly in this compost/soil mix (bottom-center), but if it were a manure/soil mix, I’d cover it lightly with soil (bottom-right) before planting.

7. For seeds, hoe the rows into trenches to receive the seeds. For seedlings, dig slightly-larger-than-root-ball-sized holes along the rows in which to set the plants. For seeds or seedlings, dig at least three inches deeper than you intend to plant the seeds or the seedlings; this leaves room to add compost or other humus.

Because the dimensions of trenches and holes vary depending on the types of vegetables you’re planting and—for seedlings—on the condition they’re in, step seven is where planting instructions begin in upcoming posts.

8. Dump three inches of compost, manure, or mushroom soil into the trench or into each hole. If you’re adding sulfur or crushed limestone to adjust the PH for a particular type of plant, do so at this point.

9. Mix the organic stuff with the soil that’s in the bottom of the trench or hole.

Being in a slightly raised planting bed, my garden soil drains quickly. So, I deliberately finish planting rows and holes to be two to three inches below the normal soil level. A plant’s-eye view shows a finished row with young spinach plants just poking through. If my planting bed drained slowly, I’d mound the soil before cutting planting rows or digging holes. Each row would sit above the natural soil level, turning a row into its own raised bed garden.

10. If you’ve used raw organic stuff such as horse or cow manure or mushroom soil (which is partially composted), sprinkle a half inch to an inch of soil over the compost layer; you’ll plant seeds or seedlings on this layer of untreated soil. Providing the cushion gives the roots a chance to get established before coming in contact with rich, possibly acidic humus. Also, heavy watering you’ll do to start seeds and seedlings will leach salts out of raw humus before the roots reach it.

If you’ve used mature compost as the organic matter, plant directly in the mixed soil and compost. The mixture will be equivalent to that of a fine potting soil; a great medium to get new roots growing quickly.

Concerning Raised Planting Beds

What distinguishes the classic raised vegetable bed is that you can work the bed without ever setting foot in it. A traditional raised bed is no more than four feet across so you can reach to the middle from either side. You needn’t build retaining walls to get some of the benefits of a raised bed. If you limit your in-ground beds to four feet across (any length is fine as long as you can walk along both sides of the bed), you’ll be able to work them without walking in them, just as you would raised beds.

Preparing soil in such narrow beds and laying out crops in them allows very different strategies than you’re likely to use in a traditional walk-in garden bed. In an upcoming post, we’ll talk about how to get narrow beds ready for planting, and explore ways you might lay out your vegetables in them.

 

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Prepare to Plant Your Small Kitchen Garden

Manure for a Small Kitchen Garden

I’ll be carting many garbage cans full of horse manure from the stable where my daughter rides to the kids’ abandoned sandbox. Tomatoes will thrive on a rich mixture of fresh manure and sand.

It’s planting time in my small kitchen garden! Actually, the weather this year is not in any hurry for my garden to get started. By mid March, the soil was thawed and workable, but there have been many nights with the temperature as low as 24F degrees. Cold weather crops such as peas, lettuce, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, and onions, could all have gone in in March.

But immediately after the soil thaws, it’s usually quite wet. I get no joy from working in mud. To boot, seeds planted in mid-march may get a head start if the weather cooperates, but they may also languish until April before putting on serious growth. Peas planted here in mid March (hardiness zone 5b or 6a, depending on who you ask), may mature only a week earlier than peas planted in mid April. So, I say, “don’t rush.” Plant cold weather crops when you can work the soil, when it’s dried out a bit, and when it’s not unbearably cold. Oh, and if you wait a few weeks, you give weeds a chance to show themselves so you’re more likely to remove them when you finally do start working the soil.

Basic Soil Preparation

I’m about to post a series about planting various types of vegetables. The procedures for planting any one type are remarkably similar to those for planting other types. In fact, preparing the soil for planting is a sequence of steps that you’ll repeat for everything you plant.

Different types of planting beds allow different styles of soil preparation. As well, a gardener’s experience, enthusiasm, and influences lead to unique preferences. With that in mind, please consider what I say to be suggestions rather than rules. The methods I describe have been effective in my experiences. After that, you’ll have to decide which are right for you.

Mushroom Soil

Pennsylvania grows some 40% of the mushrooms produced in the United States. Commercial growers assemble a growing medium that contains a lot of stuff that’s good for your garden—horse and chicken manure, straw, mashed grapes, and urea, for example. A batch of this mushroom soil is good for growing mushrooms just once.

After harvesting a crop from their secret mushroom soil mix, growers sell the spent soil which eventually becomes available through garden stores and landscapers throughout Pennsylvania. Gardeners love the stuff as mulch, and many mix it straight into their garden beds.

Here’s the trick: mushroom soil, like raw manure, isn’t ideal for emerging plants. If you’re going to use the stuff, you’ll have best results if you spread it on your garden bed when you finish harvesting in the fall. Let it steep over the winter, and mix it into the soil in spring. This gives salts time to leech out of the soil and make it more accommodating to your seedlings.

The bottom line: don’t plant directly in mushroom soil or manure. If you’re applying it fresh in the spring, mix it in well with your garden soil before you plant. Better still, bury it an inch or two below planting depth so the roots of your vegetable plants don’t reach it until it’s had a chance to leech out salts.

Please follow this link for more of the story about mushroom soil: Extension Service Garden Hints: Mushroom Compost – Use Carefully

My next few posts will outline soil-preparation in three scenarios:

1. Traditional in-ground planting beds using traditional methods

2. Low-till planting in traditional in-ground planting beds

3. Planting in narrow beds including raised vegetable gardens

In the meantime, a few thoughts about soil composition:

Soil for Your Small Kitchen Garden

I once heard a master gardener admonish readers never to amend clay-heavy soil with sand. He encouraged people always to add only organic matter to break up clay. I argue that you should cut clay by adding sand. True: humus will help retain moisture, break up clay, and provide nutrition. On the other hand, humus breaks down in time and may leave no trace; in the next season you could be right back where you started.

If I were building a garden bed from scratch and filling it with soil of my design, I’d get a mixture of 40% sand, 20% clay, and 40% silt. I’d layer this soil with organic stuff—ideally, mature compost—but I’d be happy using raw horse manure or mushroom soil (see box).

If I excavated a garden bed, expecting to plant vegetables in my lawn, and I discovered clay, I’d add sand. Sand helps prevent the clay from clumping and improves drainage. I’d also add humus to improve nutrition and keep the worms happy.

However you start out, to keep a planting bed productive you need to add humus each growing season. If your humus-free soil naturally remains loose because it includes a generous percentage of sand, then adding humus is light work compared to that of working in a clay-rich garden bed.

This season, I’ll be reclaiming my kids’ childhood sandbox. The box itself has rotted and collapsed, and the sand has supported an assortment of weeds for the past few years. I plan to cover the sand with six inches of horse manure and blend it as well as I can by hand. Then, I’m planting tomatoes.

 

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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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