Suppose you could eat better, save money, drive less, get fit, enjoy the outdoors and help the environment…all at the same time.
One time-honored tradition offers these benefits, and more. And it’s catching on with a new generation of devotees all across the United States. The solution to so many of our concerns is quite simple: gardening.
What could be more convenient than stepping into your backyard to grab a handful of garden-fresh green beans, crisp lettuce or a fully ripe, mouthwatering tomato? By growing vegetables and herbs, you can ensure they’ve been raised with care. Plus, with your own garden, you can switch to organic produce without breaking your budget. Simply choose organic methods for healthier food and a healthier environment.
With our simple, step-by-step plan, you can begin to reap the benefits of your own kitchen garden this summer.
Kitchen Garden Design Tips
One of the most common mistakes new gardeners make is trying to do too much the first year. With that in mind, we’ve divided our plan into installments, which you can implement over three, four or five years.
The first—and arguably most important—step is to choose the location of your garden. The groundwork you do there will be the most labor-intensive part of your project, so choose wisely. The most important consideration is sunlight: Nearly all herbs and vegetables require full sun throughout the day, so your garden should face south, east or west.
Also try to choose a location that is close and convenient to your kitchen. Remember: The closer your garden is to your kitchen, the more often you will use it.
Don’t rule out your front yard if it’s the sunniest and most convenient site available. Having a beautiful garden out front could be an attractive and welcome addition to your neighborhood. (For an example, check out “Southern Color” from May 2008 online.)
Place Your Beds
Let’s say you’ve chosen a site in your backyard, which has a fence along at least two sides. Following our plan on Page 35 (or your own adaptation), measure out and mark the space on the ground so you can envision the area your future garden will occupy. Our garden plan, when completed in five years, will cover an area of about 18 by 18 feet (324 square feet), including pathways, beds and an arbor. In that space, you can grow enough produce and herbs for a family of two or three, with some left over to share with neighbors.
Once you have a clear vision of your future garden and you’ve determined the best location, you’re ready to begin installing the first bed.
1. Stake out the area for your first bed. The first bed is a 3-foot-wide L shape; one part of the L is 13 feet long, the other 8 feet long. This might not seem like a big area, but remember that you’ll be adding more beds the following season. Make the bed no more than 3 to 4 feet wide so you easily can reach across it to plant and harvest.
2. Prepare the soil. Remove the sod. Use it elsewhere, if you can, or compost it. Next, mix compost, organic matter and amendments into the exposed soil and till or turn it with a spade. (See Page 25 for more about how to build your soil organically.) The prepared soil will be 4 to 6 inches higher than the surrounding area, creating a “raised bed.” Raised beds offer several advantages: They’re easier to tend; they provide good drainage; and you can plant them more intensively than you would a garden with rows—effectively boosting your yield per square foot.
3. Frame the bed. Surround the bed with non-rotting lumber and stake the corners to hold the frame in place. Recycled plastic “lumber” is a good choice for raised beds. While treated lumber is less expensive, it isn’t safe for food crops. Other good options include cedar and cypress, which are slow to decay. If the bed is next to a fence, be sure to frame that edge, too. The frame will keep the soil in place, and protect the fence from contact with the soil, which causes rotting.
What to Plant
After you’ve installed your raised bed, you’re ready to plant. Included in this “first-year” portion of the garden are herbs, an espaliered dwarf apple tree and a trellis for pole beans. (Click here for the complete planting list.)
If you plan to save seed from year to year, heirlooms (or open-pollinated varieties) are a good choice. Heirlooms, such as ‘Brandywine’ tomato, also have the potential for better flavor. The drawback to heirlooms is that they do not grow well in every region of the country. A variety might perform spectacularly in the Northeast, for instance, but fail miserably in the Southwest. Hybrids, which are a cross of two different varieties, generally perform well in every region of the United States. ‘Better Boy’ tomato is a good example of a dependable hybrid.
In my own garden, I grow heirlooms suitable to my region and hybrids, which have more disease resistance. Ask your local garden center or extension agent for suggested heirlooms and hybrids for your specific area. Most herbs aren’t hybridized, so you can choose any of the 2,000 or more herbs available.
Always Room for Apples
You can grow a substantial amount of fruit in a small space by training a tree flat against a wall. Espalier originated in the Middle Ages as a method for growing fruit inside castle walls. It’s ornamental, attractive and takes up virtually no soil space in your garden.
Begin with a 2- to 3-foot apple sapling grafted onto dwarf or semi-dwarf stock that has begun to grow side branches. Plant it against the fence at the back edge of your raised bed. Remember to plant the tree ball so the top of the soil of the tree is even with the final soil level of your raised bed.
Your goal is to train the branches to grow flat against the fence, pruning off any that grow in another direction. It takes three to five years to train a dwarf apple tree into a completed espalier and you can harvest apples for many years. Ask your local nursery for an apple variety that’s good in your area, and search online for specific instructions for espaliering an apple tree.
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, (417) 924-8917, rareseeds.com; Johnny’s Selected Seeds, (207) 861-3999, johnnyseeds.com; Mountain Valley Growers, (559) 338-2775, mountainvalleygrowers.com; Nichols Garden Nursery, (800) 422-3985, nicholsgardennursery.com; Renee’s Garden Seeds, (888) 880-7228, reneesgarden.com; Pinetree Garden Seeds, (207) 926-3400, superseeds.com; Richters Herbs, (905) 640-6677, richters.com.
Contributing editor Jim Long writes and gardens at his farm in the Ozarks Mountains. Contact him at jimlongsgarden.blogspot.com.