An Instant Garden for Anyone

Hate to wait? Start a new garden with this instant garden plan and reap the benefits faster.

| April/May 2008

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 instant 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 instant 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.

3/10/2015 5:21:23 PM

Theresa, it is my understanding that modern newspaper inks are soy (vegetable)-based. The older inks were petrochemical-based. I would, however, avoid colored inks.

1/9/2015 7:44:35 AM

I am concerned that using wetted newspaper to establish a new garden plot or as mulch will put toxic substances from the ink into the soil. Is this a possibility and concern? Please advise. Theresa

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