My brother Andrew and his family have a passion for fresh vegetables, so when they moved to a new home in Barrington, Rhode Island, about a decade ago, Andrew’s first goal was starting a garden. With 30 years of gardening research and a few gardening books under my belt, I get called when my family members have a question about the best tomato varieties (‘Belgian Giant’ is my all-time favorite) or how to prevent weed problems (read my book Weedless Gardening). So I jumped in to help Andrew create his new garden. The sunniest area of Andrew’s shady yard is right outside his front door, so I suggested this patch as the perfect location for his small garden. I also proposed employing a strategy I’ve used with great success in my own garden. The crux of the system is to emulate Mother Nature, with mulching and minimal soil disturbance. This preserves the good soil structure generally found beneath lawns, doesn’t expose buried weed seeds to the light and air they need to sprout, and snuffs out seedlings from blown-in weeds. And here’s the best news: I did not tailor this vegetable garden plan for Andrew’s garden—it can be used just about anywhere.
Voilà! Instant Garden
After laying out the boundaries of the 16-by-16-foot garden, the next step was to kill the grass by covering the ground with a few layers of overlapped wet newspaper. The newspaper smothers the grass, which rots in place along with the newspaper. In the first season, before the newspaper has broken down, plant roots will grow down into the ground through the wetted newspaper.
Next we laid out permanent paths and planting beds, which avoids soil compaction and makes tilling unnecessary. This also allows you to plant seeds or transplants much closer together than in conventional gardens, in which you need enough space between rows to till, walk or hoe. Next, Andrew shoveled a 2-inch-deep layer of wood chips—free from a local arborist—into the 18-inch-wide paths. One path runs down the middle of the garden perpendicular to the other paths and is wider to accommodate a garden cart. In the 36-inch-wide planting beds, he slathered on a 2-inch layer of weed-free compost. Compost provides the nutrient-rich medium intensively grown vegetables need. (For tips on choosing compost, visit "How to Buy the Best Compost") In this garden, seedlings are planted directly into the compost without tilling or disturbing the soil underneath.
To eke out maximum production from this little plot of land, I also suggested installing drip irrigation. The drip system brings water directly to the vegetables, which conserves water and discourages weed growth. A timer at a nearby hose spigot turns the water on for five minutes six times a day.
The beauty of this system is that your transplants and seeds can go into the ground as soon as you’ve covered the newspaper with compost and wood chips. Viewing the quick change in his yard, his neighbors thought Andrew was a vegetable magician. Where one day there had been grass, the next day there was a garden with plants in the ground!
Contrast this instant garden with the conventional way of starting a garden: The first step is to turn over the soil, which must be delayed until the soil is moist but not overly so. Next you wait a couple of weeks for the burst of biological activity associated with the decomposition of tilled-in grasses and weeds to subside. New ground usually needs a second tilling to chop up any roots that survived the first round, followed by more waiting. Only then can you plant—and get ready to deal with the weeds that will sprout from newly awakened seeds.
Vegetable Garden Design Considerations
Over the years, Andrew’s vegetable garden has cozied itself into the landscape. He built a wooden fence to enclose the garden and fend off the occasional rabbit. Painted white, the fence makes the garden look at home against the backdrop of his white clapboard house. Plantings outside the fence soften the transition from flat lawn to vertical fence. Outside the fence, gooseberry and currant bushes provide berries for fresh eating or his wife’s homemade jams.
A few years after establishing the garden, Andrew built an arbor around the gateway. Today, you can sit and pluck grapes from two vines that weave in and out of the lattice. Boxwoods underplanted with strawberries complete the lovely picture. Even a simple arbor, if well done, represents a pleasing combination of good engineering and art. A well-built arbor should be sturdy and proportioned to the site and plants.
In planning an arbor, look around at other arbors for inspiration and ideas. Check around your neighborhood and look at pictures in magazines; think about what looks nice and what does not, and why. Then, when you design your arbor, plan it to visually blend with your house and the surrounding area. And pay close attention to proportions—the thicknesses and lengths of various wood pieces, and the length of overhangs—for strength and for beauty.
As with any other structure, strength begins at ground level. For that and longevity, use rot-resistant 4-by-4 wood for the four main support members of the arbor. Good choices of strong and rot-resistant wood, often locally available from sawmills or lumberyards, include black locust, honey locust, osage orange, redwood, cypress, and to a lesser extent, white oak and various kinds of cedars.
To give those main support posts strong footing, bury them deep enough in the soil. Alternate freezing and thawing of soil will, over time, heave a post up and out of the ground, or at least loosen it. So be sure to sink the base of any support post below the frost line. (You can determine your frost depth by asking a builder or building inspector how deep building footings need to be in your area—footing bottoms must be below frost depth.) As you backfill soil around any post in its hole, check that it is plumb, or vertical; a post that is leaning not only is apt to become more so over time, it also can give you an uneasy feeling when you look at it.
Horizontal and diagonal pieces joining the support posts strengthen the structure, and are part of the design. Rot-free wood is not as critical for these parts of the arbor that never touch ground. I’ve made arbors of eastern red cedar, which lasts about 10 years, and of black locust, which lasts about as long as pressure-treated wood. Pay attention to the edges of any lattice so that the lattice looks like it’s truly part of the design, not something just tacked onto the structure.
11 Tips for an Instant Garden
1. Minimize soil disturbance; always try to preserve the soil’s natural layering.
2. Cover planting beds with a 2-inch layer of weed-free compost, and plant directly into compost. Cover paths with wood chips.
3. Plant the garden as near your kitchen door as possible.
4. Site your garden where it will be bathed in at least six hours of direct sunlight daily.
5. Use transplants for quicker harvests of slow-growers such as tomatoes and broccoli.
6. Plant seeds for crops that transplant poorly such as carrots and okra, or those that are easy to grow from seed such as beans and peas.
7. Handwater newly planted seeds and transplants until their roots grow into the soil.
8. Use only weed-free mulches such as wood chips, sawdust and grass clippings.
9. A vegetable garden can be more than functional. Put a pretty fence, low shrubs and flowers around it.
10. To spend the least time weeding, do it frequently for short periods. Pull weeds when they are young, before they go to seed.
11. Keep an eye on the edges—that’s one place weeds try to sneak in.