Garden Design and Planning: All Posts

Small-space garden design applies to the salad greens growing by your front stoop...or the maxed-out patio container garden incorporating reclaimed Weber grills...the important thing is, the moment you're ready to share your space with vegetables, you're officially a gardener -- and you're ready for kitchen garden plans, tips, and inspiration.

Small-space and urban gardeners face particular design challenges -- difficult micro climates, pest containment problems, and the defining issue of limited space -- but that just means we need different tools in order to dream big. Start envisioning hanging baskets, trellises, vertical plant racks, terraces, and window boxes, and you're space expands exponentially. Think about companion plants for natural insect control and growth improvement. Plunder your storage area for cold frames, insulating and reflective materials, and you go from one successful growing season to more. Plan your small vegetable garden resourcefully, with an eye for reusing what you already have and obtaining the rest cheaply, and you'll have a truly unique container garden. Incorporate design elements like plant texture, color, and height into your scheme, and the results will be even better. These posts will get you started with garden planning software, companion plant suggestions, and creative container ideas.

Starting a New Garden with a Wattle Fence Technique

Saturday, June 15th, 2013

It was a mild afternoon in late fall when I began pruning (and then continued hacking away at, willy-nilly) an enormous cluster of hardy kiwi on the southern side of our sloping yard. This prodigiously growing perennial had been left to roam free before we moved in, which meant that it was sending out thick cords to find anchor in nearby trees; it’s like a macro version of a pea or bean plant that will grow as high as a rooftop and, from there, vine onto anything that doesn’t yelp. At some point, while teetering on tip-toe and reaching upwards with a pair of second-hand shears, I needed to make this plant work harder for me.

So began the edging of a new bed with a wattle technique. While the base of an established hardy kiwi is thick and shaggy, the newer growth is smooth and flexible, and sometimes several branches will freely twine around themselves in sculptural grace — I have a nice exemplar on a shelf in our dining area. Yanking ten-foot lengths from the treetops, I wondered at its strength, and began to set some aside with the inkling of constructing a fence. When I was ready to put this idea to the test, I made stakes from straight sections about 1″ in diameter cut to about 2′ long and sharpened, and drove them into the ground at above 18″ intervals. Then, the fun part — for me, this kind of thing is exhilarating, because I think natural materials are gorgeous and I don’t like to be too fussy with straight lines or edges in a garden: weaving long cords of green kiwi wood through the stakes in an alternating pattern. At some point I needed to bulk up the structure with more stakes of a smaller diameter. In less time than it would have taken me to drive to the nearest Home Depot and purchase and install pre-made garden edging, I had finished a very simple fence: no corners, and measuring only about 10 feet — and figured I would see how it held up through the winter. If nothing else, I thought it made a neat sculptural element that I liked looking at.

It’s almost summer now, and this area now contains a vegetable garden bed (I dug into the hillside, lined the inside of the fence with old burlap feed sacks, and filled the bed with maple leaves and compost to create an even surface). I finally got around to trimming the stakes and/or hammering them into the ground to a more uniform height, which has not stopped them from sprouting some leaves. The life in a garden is a source of constant wonder for me, and I think it’s fantastic to have this kind of “living fence.”

The peas are growing well, and the beans are beginning. We’ve had heavy rains without the soil being washed away, thanks to the burlap, I think, and because the drainage seems to be fine. It has worked out so well that I’m eager to make more edging in the same way, and I am almost looking forward to pruning that kiwi again. We have come to a mutually beneficial agreement.

Something for Nothing

Sunday, April 14th, 2013

Mid April, and the inch of sleet that fell on Friday didn’t do anything to dissuade the crocuses that it’s time to go. Same for the several pink and purple trumpet flowers by the back windows — I will call them hyacinths until I learn otherwise — and the snowdrops that have been going strong for a couple weeks. These little guys that start the season come from blunt spears and go so quickly to soft color; they last long enough to mark and appreciate, to get just big enough to warrant walking around in this meadowy yard, and then they blink out. Last week there was a cluster of pale purple crocuses at the base of the quince tree (dang, if that isn’t the most pastoral sounding thing?), and then, by yesterday afternoon, they had gone without a trace. Whether it’s because these were particularly delicate, or because that’s how these early plants go, as though yanked back into the ground by a trained Fraggle, I just don’t know.

It is also possible they were sheered off at the ground by deer, like some of the perennials in the front bed, the ones I uncovered yesterday while raking (one mature maple, enough leaves for a lifetime of raking — and we have two of them). There is a resident troupe of 10 — witnessed as 40 silouetted legs striding from the compost heap to the road one night last month — that is inspiring me to new heights of dedication in deterring. That really just means I have paid money, something that I don’t do easily for garden stuff, and then only because I can also use the deterrent as fertilizer: it’s blood meal, which is said to ward off deer when spread or hung in pouches around a garden, and which also happens to be an excellent source of nitrogen. Much better, in my mind, to fertilize the soil than to hang the fruit trees with slowly dissolving pyrethrin, etc., from mothballs, another method I considered to deter deer, because it’s cheap and because it’s supposed to also deter squirrels, and, no doubt, moths. But, ultimately, I try to stick to a mathematics of health improvement when gardening, and mothballs don’t have anything going for them in that column. Blood meal, while gnarly, has more to offer because of that nitrogen boost it gives plants, and also because the PBS channel taught me long ago that things naturally die and are bloody (that “Nature” show on the doomed cheetah totally eclipsed every episode of the “Electric Company” I ever saw), so it’s a thing that is there, already.

As nature is tough, so are plants, and the honed moxie that is propelling the crocuses and daffodils is also bringing the rhubarb back from nothing. And that is very rewarding for a tough budgeter.

Hairy Moss Seeks Shade-loving Evergreen

Tuesday, May 1st, 2012

Tonight’s garden design inspiration is this luscious photo of partridge berries growing in a bed of moss. The contrasting textures here is what I really love — that, and the absurd little snouts on these berries, which keep them just on the sour side of the sweet. Speaking of sour, I read on the Internet (and that carries with it all those old fogey caveats about veracity) that partridge berries are edible, at least to the extent that they are not poisonous, and have been used medicinally*. What’s more, they’re native to New Hampshire (among other New England states) and produce berries into the winter, which means they’re potentially lovely when other plants go dormant, and could be incorporated into festive decor — that is, when combined with, say, sparklers or a potted succulent and large, frosted white LED tree lights. Anything to keep ‘em this side of sweet.

Partridge berry in bed of moss

Mitchella repens (Partridge berry) 0662, The Botanical Photography of Alan S. Heilman, © Alan S. Heilman, © The University of Tennessee Libraries, 2011

These beautiful piglets, Mitchella repens (I write the science that I might also learn it), might work in a small area of the yard by the side door. There’s an unlovely wall there that’s asking for some fresh color and texture. So much the better if it’s easy to come by on a shoestring budget. That remains to be seen. It’s possible that they grow on the land of a friend or relative, but they also seem to be getting scarcer. I’ll come clean: I have dropped money on prettily potted weeds before (such as comfrey, noticed soon afterwards totally freely available one the edge of a community garden), and, although I still have love for the plant, would have rather come by it with good old Yankee mettle. This partridge berry is either going for a premium at a native plants nursery or one that could be — carefully, respectfully, and not at all with just a plastic bag and a hot car, no I wouldn’t — harvested in the nearby woods. Wow, just the kind of ethically dubious, potentially wild goose chase I like. For real.

*Seems like, especially in northern New England, they could be easily confused with what many Canadians call partridgeberry, or Lingonberry –Vaccinium vitis-idaea — which is something completely different, and even more charming on the Internet because they’re on restaurant plates combined with choice baked and/or whipped dairy confections.

Community Garden Commute

Monday, August 2nd, 2010

This is the first summer of commute gardens: two rented plots in public gardens 3 and 30 miles from my home, respectively. It’s also the first time I have actively looked into eating weeds — things I never thought I would grow so successfully. I fully intended to work in each garden on alternating days, to harvest lettuce several times over, to max out those plots with rotation-succession-(trans)plantings, to cultivate two well-managed food gardens so well, family members and then neighbors w0uld be pressed to accept bags of vibrantly colored lettuce, exotic tomatoes, basil, heirloom squashes, and nasturtium (“Yes, yes, they are so beautiful, and you can eat them, too.”). All this without buying tools or soil improvements; all this on the cheap and outright fanatically organic, and, I hoped, mostly by bicycle.

In my springtime of enthusiasm, it was going to be as easy as getting up every morning at 5.

Yeah. Exactly.

Yes, at first, I did get up early, but probably not that early, and definitely not that regularly, and my old bike’s tires are pumped up, but to essentially no avail — I’ve used it twice to get to the nearer garden. Lettuce I have harvested — big bags of it, fresh and colorful and only lately bitter — and pushed on family members, and I might get one more round in, but first I’ll have to tug out the remaining old plants and find a rabbit warren to feed, or just accept the idea that it’s worm food.

Where did I trip up in putting plan into action? Well. At the end of the long winter I suppose I was drinking more coffee than was wise or productive, which, for me, results in a sort of cruel catch-22: a clarion call to action (“Carpe diem! Move, move, move!”) coupled with an almost paralytic level of indecision. What’s more, since I have never had this much garden to deal with, I completely underestimated the amount of time it would take to really thrive. What was initially planned to be 20 minutes a day in the garden, at dawn, soon turned into 2 hour weeding marathons, once a week, whenever the Hell I could wedge it in. Once the weeds really took hold — some time in June — I lost all chance of maintaining “the land” with just a little bit every day.

In sum: the gardens are growing, but I have relinquished a lot of that control I aimed for earlier in the year. What’s been soothing, however, is the container garden on the balcony. For every five plants I have neglected in the community plots, there is one green, good-looking hot-pepper plant growing in a carefully converted watering can. I’ve put a lot of creative juice into this garden that only grows enough food for snacking. But, ultimately, it has been the most satisfying garden because, every day, I look out at it (or up at it, from the road or the yard) and know that I can bend it to my will in a matter of minutes — that I am still an O.K. gardener. Here I can actually notice and dispatch of bugs, shift plants around to suit them, and satisfy some oddball whims like birch bark planters and peanut shell potting mix.

And — and, and, and — this is the garden in which I hide quietly at the end of the day, when there’s nothing left to do there but enjoy it.

Tiny Harvests in Early Spring

Saturday, March 13th, 2010

This week’s balcony garden yield (?) included a negligible salad, early and utterly doomed squash blossoms, and initially unwelcome radish flowers — a bunch of quote-unquote mistakes I have been really thoroughly appreciating.

The salad just kind of happened when my daughter and I were outside on a sunny morning and “thinning lettuce” became the spring’s first harvest of “micro-greens.” Earthy, early season mache, arugula, and red ‘Merlot’ lettuce. Later, at lunch, that first forkful was just too pretty to eat right away. And then I did eat it, and it was crunchy and, just, important.

The flowers came from the same flat of early-sown stuff, namely from the failed radishes — which started bolting under the fluorescent lights of my new propagation shelf — and the accidental squash seedling planted in a very oh-what-the-Hell moment also involving my toddler daughter, and a February afternoon some ridiculous number of weeks before the last frost date. Happy accidents! Those little go-nowhere blossoms truly smelled like garden.

Depending on the weather — so, literally, from one moment to the next up here in New England — it can feel like early December or like late spring. Either like the tail end of a growing season, or like it’s so close to summer, I get the impossible urge to throw peas (seeds) every which way and grow them, damn it, before it’s too hot! This is because my goal as a relatively new gardener is to have an earlier harvest of something (really, of everything) each year. Logically, I know that’s impossible to keep up, but it is still so fun to try. I think that might be the definition of spring fever.

However, so far, I have actually practiced more restraint when getting this small space growing: no peas yet planted, because the new everbearing strawberry seedlings have priority of place and precious potting mix; no tomatoes started yet, either, because that feels like hurrying past spring right into summer. And I’m not actually ready for summer yet — I’m just starting to really enjoy spring.