My brother Andrew and his family have a true passion for fresh vegetables, especially salad vegetables. So when they moved to their new suburban home in Barrington, R.I., about a decade ago, Andrew’s first question was, “Where do I put a vegetable garden?”
Enter me, the garden expert of the family. With 30 years of gardening and agriculture research, as well as a few gardening books under my belt, I’m the one who gets called when there’s a question about which tomato variety is good to grow (‘Belgian Giant’ is my all-time favorite), or how to prevent weed problems (read my book, Weedless Gardening). So it was natural that I would sit down with Andrew to help create his new garden.
The sunniest area of Andrew’s mostly shaded yard was right outside his front door — not the usual place for a vegetable garden in the ’burbs. His blacktop driveway wound around a 25-foot wide circle of lawn before heading straight back out to the street through a grove of shade trees. I suggested that this patch of lawn was the perfect location for his small garden.
I also proposed beginning the garden in an unconventional way — one that I assured Andrew would be quick and easy, and prevent future weed problems. It’s a strategy I’ve used with great success in my own garden. The crux of the system is to emulate Mother Nature, with light mulching and minimal soil disturbance. This preserves the good soil structure generally found beneath lawns and meadows, doesn’t expose buried weed seeds to the light and air they need to sprout, and snuffs out seedlings from blown-in weed seeds. And here’s the best news: I did not tailor this system just for Andrew’s garden — it can be used just about anywhere.
Voila! Instant Garden
After laying out the boundaries of the 16-by-16-foot garden area, the first step was to kill the grass. The easiest way to do this is to cover the ground with a few layers of overlapped wet newspaper so no weed shoots can poke through. The newspaper smothers the grass, which dies and rots in place along with the newspaper itself. The first season, roots from vegetable plants will grow down into the ground through the wetted newspaper.
After the newspaper was in place, we laid out permanent paths and planting beds. Most gardens need to be tilled annually to loosen the soil and offset compaction from walking and rolling wheelbarrows or tractors over the ground. Establishing permanent paths and planting beds avoids compaction and makes tilling unnecessary. Another advantage of permanent beds is that seeds or transplants can be planted much closer together than in conventional gardens, which need enough space between each row to allow you to till, walk or hoe. For example, in a smaller design such as Andrew’s, four or five rows of carrots or three rows of lettuce can run shoulder to shoulder down one bed.
Next, Andrew shoveled a 2-inch-deep layer of wood chips — free from a local arborist — into the paths, which I suggested making 18 inches wide. 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 (see “How to Buy the Best Compost,” below). Compost provides the nutrient- and humus-rich medium needed by intensively grown vegetables.
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 along paths. A timer at a nearby hose spigot turns the water on six times a day at a slow drip, but for only five minutes each time. After running through the timer, the water runs through a pressure reducer, a filter, and then out to the garden via inexpensive, half-inch black plastic tubing. At each bed, Andrew plugged in a valve followed by a quarter-inch dripperline that runs the length of the bed and periodically drips water to replace what the plants slowly use.
The beauty of this system for beginning a garden is that your vegetable transplants and seeds can go into the ground just as soon as you’ve covered the newspaper with compost and wood chips. Viewing the quick change in Andrew’s yard, his neighbors thought he was a vegetable magician. Where one day there had been an expanse of grass, the next day there was a garden with plants already in the ground!
Contrast creating this instant garden with the conventional way of starting a garden: The first step would be to turn over the soil with a shovel or a rototiller, something that needs to be delayed until the soil is moist but not overly so. Next you’d have to 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 plants and roots that survived the first round, followed by another waiting period. Only then can you go ahead and plant — and get ready to deal with all the weeds that will sprout from newly awakened seeds.
Andrew’s vegetable garden was in his front yard, but there was no reason it had to look like a jumble of tomato, lettuce and pea plants had been dropped onto that patch of lawn. Over the years, the vegetable garden has cozied itself into the overall landscape.
From the start, Andrew designed and built a wooden fence to enclose the garden and fend off the occasional rabbit. Painted white, the fence made the whole garden look right at home against the backdrop of his white clapboard house. Various plantings on the outside of the fence have softened the transition between the flat lawn and the vertical fence. Andrew’s wife, Jen, wanted a sunny spot in which to grow flowers — the bit of lawn that remained between the driveway and the south and east sides of the vegetable garden was perfect. Outside the fence along the north side of the garden, they planted a few gooseberry and currant bushes I’d shared with them. Both crops thrive in the bit of shade there, and the family enjoys the berries fresh or in Jen’s homemade jams.
The gate on the west side of the garden faces the home’s front door. A few years after establishing the garden, Andrew built an arbor around the gateway.
Adding an Arbor
In Andrew’s arbor, you can sit and pluck grapes from the two vines, planted on either side, that weave in and out of the lattice. Boxwoods under-planted with strawberries complete the lovely picture.
Even a simple arbor, if well done, represents a pleasing combination of good engineering and good art. The well-built arbor should be sturdy and proportioned to the site and plants, with just enough embellishments.
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.
Through the Year
Andrew’s gardening season begins each March, when he replenishes the wood chips in the paths and the compost in the planting beds. Because the garden is planted so intensively, I also suggested that he sprinkle a little fertilizer on with the compost, which works best when laid down about an inch deep.
Planting is easy and timely. The first outdoor planting date for his area is April 1, for pea planting, something the whole family does together. Another beautiful aspect of this system is that all they have to do to plant is open up a furrow in the soft compost and drop in the seeds. The conventional approach, by contrast, would involve turning over the ground, then raking before even one seed was dropped in the ground.
Andrew’s garden also gets special treatment at the other end of the growing season, as the harvest winds down. I advised Andrew, as each crop is finished, to remove only the tops of the plants and any large roots. Leaving finer roots to rot away air and water. It also readies the soil for the next crop, either right away — with late cucumbers following early peas, for example — or the following spring.
Weeds do occasionally appear, but they can actually help improve your soil, if you just remove the tops and large roots. Overall, weeding chores in this kind of garden are inconsequential.
“I don’t even think about weeding,” Andrew says. “If I’m out in the garden, I’ll pull the occasional weed, but weeding is the last thing I’m thinking about.”
Minimal weeding is the result of not tilling, maintaining a thin mulch of compost in the beds and chips in the paths, and using drip irrigation to only water the crops, not the paths. The circular driveway and surrounding expanse of mowed lawns do their share in weed prevention by limiting the amount of wind-blown weed seeds.
The only other job is deciding what to plant, and where. Because they grow their own vegetables, Andrew and his family can grow things they especially like, such as fennel for their daughter Allegra, and parsley for their daughter Dustine. Although it’s of limited value in such a small garden, Andrew rotates his crops, that is, plants them in different areas from year to year. This practice lessens problems from pests that overwinter from one year to the next. A thorough fall cleanup, and the wood chip and compost mulches, also do their share to prevent pests.
Beyond that, there’s little to do except harvest and enjoy the garden. From midsummer on, this 16-by-16-foot space supplies all the salad fixings and vegetables for the family of four, plus a little extra to freeze. Follow this strategy and, with a minimal amount of investment and labor, you too can enjoy tasty, ultra-fresh vegetables.
11 Tips for Starting a New Garden
- Minimize soil disturbance; always try to preserve the natural layering of the soil.
- Place your vegetable garden as close to your kitchen door as possible.
- Site your vegetable garden where it will be bathed each day in at least six hours of direct summer sunlight.
- Use transplants for quicker harvests of slower-growing plants, such as tomatoes, peppers
- Do not use transplants for crops that transplant poorly, such as carrots and okra, or those that are easy to grow from seed, such as beans and peas.
- Even if you have drip irrigation, hand water newly planted seeds and transplants until their roots grow into moist soil.
- Use only weed-free mulches, such as wood chips, sawdust and grass clippings.
- A vegetable garden can be more than functional. Put a pretty fence, low shrubs and flowers around it.
- To spend the least time weeding, do it frequently for short periods.
- Keep an eye on the edges — that’s one place weeds try to sneak in.
- Get to any weeds while they are still young because “one year’s seed is five years’ weeds.”
How to Buy the Best Compost
A cottage industry has sprouted up throughout much of the United States that recycles “waste” into compost. This bulk compost is cheaper and generally better than you can buy in plastic bags. But it’s important to do a little homework before buying, which will help ensure that you get high-quality compost.
Start your search for bulk compost in newspaper ads and the Yellow Pages. “Compost” is an obvious starting point, but purveyors of compost might also be listed under “topsoil,” “fertilizers,” “mulch,” “manure” or “mushrooms.” Another option is the Internet — visit Google and search for “garden compost delivered yard,” and the postal abbreviation for your state. Make sure that what’s for sale is compost, not just any old pile of wood chips or manure.
When you find a good source, here are some tips to consider and questions to ask:
Ask what went into the compost. The greater the variety of raw materials that went into the mix, the wider the spectrum of nutrients in the end product.
Ask about the compost’s acidity. The ideal compost for most garden plants is slightly acidic.
Be sure to get assurance that weed seeds are few or absent. You don’t want that layer of rich, brown compost on your soil to transform into a carpet of weeds with a little rain and sun. Time, temperature and mixing all have bearing on the number of viable weed seeds in finished compost. A carefully built compost pile easily reaches high enough temperatures to kill most weed seeds. Turning the pile gets it cooking again and eliminates any weed seeds that survived the first cooking.
If possible, get a sample before you get a truckload. The material should no longer contain obvious bits of raw materials, but should be brown and crumbly with the pleasant, earthy aroma of a forest floor.
Avoid buying compost that contains industrial wastes or pesticides. It may include toxins that could contaminate your food. In dry regions, compost made from feedlot manures might be excessively high in salts, which can burn roots.
Lee Reich holds a doctorate in horticulture and writes a weekly gardening column that appears in nationwide newspapers. He also is the author of Weedless Gardening.