To have all the watermelon, squash, sweet potatoes and pumpkin your family can eat, you don’t need to till up the whole back 40. You don’t even need a roto-tiller. Instead, simply cut out circles of sod, mulch the area and watch your garden grow.
I tried this method for the first time in 2009 and was amazed at the amount of produce (squash, cucumbers and melons) an area about 15’ by 20’ yielded. The next year, I expanded to add peppers, nasturtium, sweet potatoes and tomatoes, letting them sprawl instead of staking them. I had no trouble with bugs (they dislike crawling across scratchy mulch) and was able to keep the squirrels, rabbits and birds at bay with generous sprinklings of cayenne pepper when the plants were tiny and a moveable scarecrow all season.
To begin your garden, choose a sunny spot, possibly in a troublesome area of the lawn. Rocks and weeds will not matter. For my new vine patch, I selected a strip that is difficult to mow between the rabbit-proof fence and a line of small hazelnut trees.
Dig out circles of sod about 18” in diameter and 8’ to 12’ apart. This is easiest with a sharp and pointy shovel. Perforate the circle to a depth of about 4” all the way around with the shovel, and then use the shovel and a block (flat rock or chunk of lumber) to pry up the sod circle.
Depending on your soil, the sod usually comes up in one clump. Shake off and keep as much dirt as possible from the grass. The sod circle can be used to fill low or bare spots in the lawn. Do not put the sod in your mulch pile. Trust me – the sod will grow, even if you turn it upside down and let it freeze, dry out and turn brown.
Next, dig down at least 12” in each circle to take out the dirt. All vine-type plants, particularly cucumbers, are heavy feeders. So, digging out 2 feet of dirt is even better. Shovel the soil into a wheelbarrow or other large container. Set aside enough of the dirt for the top 6” or so of each hole. Mix the remaining excavated soil with well-rotted animal manure and compost. (Vines do best in rich soil.) Shovel the thoroughly mixed soil back into the holes, using the non-manure soil on top. Compost and other organic material can be added to the top layer, but no manure.
When you have all your planting circles prepared, you can begin mulching the surrounding area. It is helpful, but not necessary, to put down a layer of newspaper (not colorful, glossy pages) or cardboard to control weeds and lure earthworms. I didn’t use newspaper with my first vine patch, so some weeds worked their way up through the mulch. The weeds were a cinch to pull, however, as they were weak and spindly after navigating their way to sunlight.
Next, you can begin forking mulch onto the area, leaving the planting circles uncovered. Use whatever is available, preferably free, as you will want this mulch layer thick. I use sawdust from a local sawmill ($5 for all our pickup can hold) and tree leaves.
Grass clippings also work especially well as they add nitrogen and really suppress the weeds. If you use anything woody (sawdust or tree bark), leave it on the top of the soil. Wood needs nitrogen to decompose and will rob it from your plants if you till it in.
In my experience, you cannot pile on too much mulch for this project. Again, do the best you can with what you have to work with. If desired, you can remove the mulch in the fall to use elsewhere. Do not fork the mulch on top of your planting holes, as this will not allow the soil to warm up as it should. Cucumber, pumpkin, melon and squash seeds need soil temperatures of at least 60 degrees to germinate or they will rot. They germinate best at 95 degrees.
Now, depending on your soil temperature, you are ready to plant. Remember, all those viney plants love warmth. If it is still too cold outside, you can jumpstart the season by starting seeds indoors no sooner than about 4 weeks before planting outdoors. Growing seedlings indoors will not only shorten your wait for your first cantaloupe, but will also protect your new plants from common hazards – birds, bugs, heavy rain and weeds. If you have 8 or more weeks yet of cool weather, you can plant snow peas now to make use of your pretty, new garden.
Cucumbers, melons, squash and such do not like to have their roots disturbed during transplanting. This can be avoided by starting the seeds in individual paper or peat pots. At transplanting time, carefully rip out the pot bottoms to expose the roots, and then plant the entire pot. Also tear off any part of the pot exposed above the soil level as it acts as a wick, drying out the soil. To use an old milk or juice carton, punch holes all along the bottom edge of the container, making it easy to tear off at planting time.
A free and easy paper pot also can be made by rolling newspaper around a jar or can about the size of a drinking glass. Fold the bottom under and fill the paper pot with soil as usual; plant 1-2 seeds, label and water.
Plant 3 to 5 vine seedlings or 5 to 6 seeds per hill in your new garden area. I like to jumble mine up to fool the bugs. Also, add marigold, radishes, dill and yarrow here and there to attract good bugs and repel the bad ones.
Planting in this way, I have had less trouble with squash bugs and have had to do almost no weeding. Since your variety of plants bloom at different times, you will have a lovely garden throughout the season. Next year, refresh your mulch and do it all over again.
Photos by Linda Holliday
Linda Holliday lives in the Missouri Ozarks where she and her husband formed Well WaterBoy Products, a company devoted to producing products for off-grid living.