An Easy, Instant Garden Plan

This quick-start garden provides a family with vegetables from spring through fall.

| March/April 2012

  • This 16-by-16-foot garden was planted in a few short days thanks to a quick-start garden plan.
    Photo By Lee Reich
  • A wider path down the middle of the 36-inch-side planting beds allows space for a garden cart.
    Photo By Lee Reich

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.

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