It’s Time To Get Down And Dirty!

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As predicted, spring has arrived.

Also as predicted, early spring is probably going to be cooler and wetter than normal. Regardless, it’s time to get planting. If you can’t get your early veggies planted outdoors (peas, greens etc.), then you should be well on your way with your indoor starts.

In a couple of weeks I’ll have my first meeting with 12 students in a small upstate community who have never planted a vegetable garden before. Joined by a local farmer, Madelyn Warren, we’re going to teach these neophytes how to use a small raised bed garden of only 150 square feet (that’s 10-feet-by-15-feet) to grow enough vegetables to easily feed a small family with nutritious, organic produce from June through October. The same applies out here, where you can easily have a productive garden from May through early November.

There are no tricks and no gimmicks, just common sense, a bit of planning, being observant and following through. Well, maybe there are a few tricks. One trick is using a raised bed. It’s been shown over and over that raised beds are more productive because they allow you to easily add and amend soil. And since they’re isolated from surrounding colder soils, a raised bed garden tends to warm earlier in the season and stay warm longer into the fall.

Some raised beds are only 6 to 8 inches higher than the surrounding landscape, while other, more elaborate raised beds can be 2 to 4 feet higher than the ground level.

These taller beds are more expensive to build but can add an important design element (soooo important in the Hamptons). Taller beds also allow older gardeners much easier access, with a minimum of bending, kneeling and stooping.

The type of vegetable garden that I’m talking about is extremely intensive and maximizes the use of every square foot of space, which is how such a small plot can be so very productive. But if you don’t carefully plan this garden and follow the basic steps of successional plantings you’ll end up very frustrated and your yields won’t be anywhere near what the potential is.

Remember, we’re talking about just 150 square feet, though it’s not unreasonable to expect that you can grow tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash, eggplants, carrots, radishes, lettuces, spinach, beets, onions, peas and a good selection of herbs. And yes, had I planned better, my trial garden last summer would have been even more productive, but as it was I ended up giving away quite a bit of produce.

So, the plan. While it’s a little late to get your raised veggie garden off the ground, it’s not too late. But you need to get to work right away!

First, you or your contractor will have to build the structure. It can be made from simple rot-resistant timber, or something more ornate.

I’ll begin with the assumption that you will take care of the building part, but before you do, step one is orientation. The bed should receive at least eight hours of direct, unobstructed sunlight. When you are deciding on the location, don’t forget to consider trees and structures that may block or rob light as the season progresses.

The garden should be on a more or less north-south axis if it’s a rectangle. If it’s a square, the axis is not an issue.

When planning what you’ll grow it’s probably best to keep your taller crops, such as tomatoes (no, corn won’t work) on the north end so they don’t block the light and shade shorter plants. Peas, on the other hand, are a bit trickier because there are tall types and dwarf types, such as cascadia snap peas, which will grow only about 2 feet tall and yet are heavy producers.

Cascadias are also interesting because they can be harvested in only 60 days. This means that if you planted them in early April, the space used by these peas would be available for another crop in mid- to late July when it’s time to plant vegetables and greens that you will be harvesting in late summer and through the fall. And peas, being legumes, leave the soil well enriched with the nitrogen that leafy greens just love.

Brussels sprouts would love to fill this spot. They can be planted in July and harvested well into November.

This type of thinking is how you get the maximum use of your small garden. You never let a finished crop take up space when something else can be planted.

Just because you have a very limited space to work with you might think that you can’t grow sprawling plants, such as zucchinis, cucumbers, cabbages and eggplants.

So not true.

There are zucchinis that grow on very compact plants and cukes that have very short, but productive, vines. There are dwarf eggplants that take less time and space to grow (but they need lots of time and heat) and are considered to be top choices when it comes to taste. Similarly there are cabbages that are bred to be as small as a tennis ball or softball and yet their taste rivals all their larger cousins. And they take less time to mature.

Since tomatoes will undoubtedly be part of your garden, this is a perfect time for you to consider grafted varieties. If you can find grafted tomatoes they will absolutely maximize your space usage as they are nearly twice as productive as non-grafted types. This means twice the production in half the space.

When designing your plan, remember that you’ll need to be able to walk into your garden to weed, feed and harvest. Stepping stones or a simple serpentine path can be very effective—but again, maximize the space. Think about planting carrots, radishes and beets in between the stepping stones, just keep in mind that these are root crops and they need unobstructed room to grow downward.

Greens can be planted among plants or in rows along the outside edge of the garden where they’ll get light and air. While you want to get as much into this garden as you can, when you start to starve plants of light and limit the movement of air you end up with lower yields and a perfect scenario for diseases.

Mel Bartholomew may well be the father of modern intensive home vegetable gardening, which all started with his book, “Square Foot Gardening.” Recently updated, his “All New Square Foot Gardening” is available in paperback and a wonderful guide to your new, easy-to-maintain and deliciously productive vegetable garden.

Keep growing. And get to work.

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