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.

2010 Garden Planning: Does ‘Less is More’ Apply to My Spreadsheet?

Monday, February 8th, 2010

Trying to get a clear overview of this past year’s garden is like trying to recreate in the kitchen a meal fantastically dreamed.  I have a hazy overview, a generally very positive impression of events, and a real desire to recreate it, but most of the essential details completely elude me now: I made something according (at least in part) to some recipe (source now lost), I remember enjoying it a lot, I probably snapped photos and talked about it at length with friends/fellow gardening geeks — but, for the life of me, I can’t remember how, exactly, it all went down.

Now, in the deep of winter, I’m craving some very exact and detailed memories from the garden. Because, in planning next year’s garden, I’m trying to hash out all the hits and misses, every step I need to take, along with those I’d best never, ever try again.

As of this morning, that urge has become a totally unruly and aggressively boring spreadsheet of succession planting. (Insert plant name, insert days to maturity, copy, paste, repeat.) I almost want to forget it all for another couple months, almost just want to scrap planning until I can realistically use the outdoors as a growing area and not as a deep freezer — almost, but then again, not quite. This year, you see, I have a newly outfitted laundry room for starting seedlings, and a tiny greenhouse on the balcony for coaxing them out into the weather. It’s not much, but it’s a lot more than I had at my disposal last spring, and so it feels like I have great potential to live up to, and fewer chances to fail.

Having thought better of presenting this turgid spreadsheet to the world, let’s continue on, instead, with a more free-form reflection on went wrong last year in the balcony garden, and what went right. If nothing else, it’ll be a start.

The “right” category is topped, no contest, by the peas — particularly since my in-ground peas were decimated by early-rising furred marauders. In the absence of a fenced plot, growing dwarf snap peas on the balcony turned out to be the only way to go. I guess peas don’t like being transplanted, but I actually had luck last year starting them in a paper grocery bag in the cold frame and then carefully transferring the whole shebang to a larger pot once the weather warmed. Plan is, do a similar thing this year, but earlier, and put those fluorescent lights and balcony greenhouse to use.

Last year’s second best discovery: ball carrots. I planted Tonda di Parigi from Fedco, but have recently slobbered over “Parmex” from The Cook’s Garden. Wherever you get them from, ball carrots are small, tasty orbs that win my heart for ease of use in the kitchen: there’s a lot less chopping involved in their prep. That’s why I’m going to persist in growing them again this year, because they weren’t easy; it was tough to hit the sweet-spot of regular moisture, fertilizing, and good growing temperature out on the balcony, which heats up to boiling very early in the summer. The only harvest to speak of came late last fall. For this year, the rough plan is: plant them in containers early, but not too early, and keep ‘em fed and watered so they’ll fill out quickly before the weather turns stifling.

The big fails last year? The sad little anti-garden of bush beans in a windowbox, which fizzled out early (I ate five, seven beans, tops), the unintentional “bonsai bloom garden” of stunted nasturtium, lavender, and marigolds, and, most regrettably, bush tomatoes felled completely by blight. I think I’ve given up growing Swiss chard in my balcony containers — they just need more soil than I’m willing to give ‘em, and get positively mummified in the heat out there.

Lettuce and greens, which neither did stunningly well nor failed outright, I will certainly grow again, along with alpine strawberries. Then, later this spring, I’ll start tomatoes indoors. Radishes will go in wherever there’s space and shade in a pot — my only ambition for radishes this year is to have a show-off crop late in the fall that we can eat in a festive Christmas salad.

<!– @page { margin: 2cm } P { margin-bottom: 0.21cm } A:link { so-language: zxx } –>Time to pot-up the strawberries and figure out where to put the peas, radishes, and spinach that are overcrowding the propagation shelf: Ruthlessly give them up as a failed experiment already? Plate them for the table as “micro-greens”? Or perhaps continue to coddle them on into warmer days…

I believe I just wrote the answer.

Time to pot-up the strawberries and figure out where to put the peas, radishes, and spinach that are overcrowding the propagation shelf: Ruthlessly give them up as a failed experiment already? Plate them for the table as “micro-greens”? Or perhaps continue to coddle them on into warmer days…

I believe I just wrote the answer.

Storing Seeds: Saving My Top Crops for Next Year

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

This is a first: a combined video-cast and written rundown…all this for the topic of storing seeds successfully. Watch and/or read more.
Beans and tomato seeds drying for storage | Small Green Garden

It’s late fall here — the bush beans finally dried a papery tan on the plants so that I could collect some for seed, and we’re really loving  “Carnival” acorn squash from the farmers’ market; With a freakishly beautiful, mottled skin of bright orange, olive green, and creamy white, they’re real lookers on the table, and, halved and stuffed with couscous and maple sausage from Hogwash Farm, they are now a critical component of my family’s favorite autumn meal.

All this good eating also means handfuls of acorn squash seeds, which I’m eager to save and try my hand at growing next summer, alongside the wildly prolific “Provider” bush green beans.

Other crops that have made the grade and will be saved for subsequent seasons: gorgeous burgundy-and-blond “Solar Flashback” calendula; seeds codged from our summer CSA, including butternut squash, mini pie pumpkin, and bell pepper; and every last tomato seed I could save from the pervasive blight — mostly “Glacier,” a small variety which fared the best during our strangely cool, rainy summer; some “Striped German;” and a precious few “Brandywine.” I had absolutely no luck harvesting “Black Krim” or “Super Bush” tomatoes this year, alas, and although we ate a lot of delicious “Costata Romanesco” zucchini the size of small zeppelins, these puppies really do not give up their seeds easily. I saved a teaspoonful, but suspect I’ll have to buy new seed, if I want any kind of crop next year.

Believe it or not, I’m still waiting on certain seeds: The last of the calendula, which are holding out despite hard frosts, and my favorite “Tonda di Parigi” carrots, which won’t actually produce seed until their second year. I’ll overwinter some in containers on my balcony, protected in my new mini-greenhouse, and hope for the best. A heirloom variety shaped like diminutive ping-pong balls, they’re tasty, sweet, and perfectly suited to my lazy-chef ways: I just wash them and pop them into stews whole.

I’ve found that seeds like tomato, pepper, and many flower seeds store well in small, sealed glass jars.  Baby food jars, thoroughly dishwashed, lid and all, are my favorite containers this year. To give these seeds additional moisture protection, try adding a small sachet of home-made “desiccant,” which I make from nothing more than a one-ply square of napkin and a scant spoonful of powdered milk — roll, bend, tie into a neat knot, and drop into your seed jar.

Winter squash seeds are easy to collect by the handful, but, I’ve found, tricky to preserve long-term — they will just fester in a sealed glass jar, and seem to need a good amount of airflow. So, after I’ve washed them and removed all flesh — which is a tedious task, at best, but I use a colander under running water for the best results — I spread them out on paper towels and allow them to dry for a couple days, just to be on the safe side of mold formation. Then, I simply fold them into a loose envelope of paper towels, a package that allows them to “breathe” better. I’m pretty confident that paper seed packets would work well, too.

Once they’re bundled, or coddled and sealed, respectively, these seeds need a dark place to spend the winter — mine are ultimately destined for our condo’s basement storage area.

Small Garden Plan: My Balcony Container Vegetable Garden

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Using the free demo of GardenCAD, this is the plan I drew for my main garden in 2009: A balcony full of greens (lettuce, chard, watercress, and spinach), vegetables, alpine strawberries, and herbs. My balcony faces westward into the condo development’s front yard, the de facto local dog park. Love dogs, but think it’s a good thing my edibles will be growing on the second level.

The balcony gets enough sun to be insufferably hot in the summertime, so the plan is to provide some shade by training nasturtiums up a folding-screen trellis. Have trellis, will grow peas, so I’m going to set some containers there, as well.

I’m afraid the plan’s not to scale, but I also don’t think it’s too far off. We’ll see how far optimism has led me astray this year: I’ll be taking photos of the real balcony set-up, once it develops beyond a small cold frame and a stinking batch of compost tea.

Have a garden plan of your own? I’d love to see it, and I’m sure the folks at GardenCAD would, too. I have only scratched the surface of the software’s capabilities and I can tell you, now that I’m getting used to its ways, I’ll be using it every year. Give it a go yourself and tell me what you think.

The Right Tomato for Your Garden

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

The selection of tomatoes available to the home gardener is vast and has just one thing in common: In a taste test, any could go head-to-head with a mass-produced, grocery store variety and come out the winner. Knowing that you’re ahead of the game from the start, what’s the best tomato plant for your small green garden?

In order to maximize a limited garden area, it’s wise to seek out determinate or “bush” tomato varieties. These grow more compactly than other (indeterminate, vining) varieties, which means a better usage of tight space. It’s harder to find this information than it should be — it’s not typically printed on seed packets, so if you planning on starting seeds indoors, look to a regional mail-order seed company that will tell you exactly what kind of ‘mato you’re dealing with. Alternatively, you can find young tomato plants — and all the knowledge that went into starting them — at a nursery or spring farmers’ market.

If you’ve got room for several plants, then you might be able to grow a couple different varieties that mature at different times. This is crucial for getting the most out of your harvest when you’ve got limited kitchen and/or freezer space: No one likes to see tomatoes curdling on the countertop, but this happens to the most resourceful of us when we’re dealing with armfuls of ripe tomatoes all at once (sounds like a dream, can be a nightmare). Early ripening varieties can produce fruits weeks earlier than their late-season counterparts. Most seed packets include “days to maturity” information that you can compare and contrast, but you can usually find early producers based on name alone: “Early Girl,” “Siberian,” “Glacier”…the colder the name, the sooner you’re likely to have ‘em.

Which is not to say that these beauts will tolerate anything but the sunniest spot on your porch; tomatoes love sun and heat from their earliest days, so give them pride of place in your kitchen garden!

Seed Starting Mix: The Scoop

Thursday, March 26th, 2009

Seeds contain all the nutrients they need to produce their first set of leaves, so most will sprout happily on a damp paper towel. (Easy, yes; efficient? No!) If you’re starting seeds indoors in the springtime, there are better ways to get them off to a good start and stave off diseases from the get-go.

Commercial seed starting mix, fine vermiculite, coarse horticultural vermiculite

You might have already checked out a bag of seed-starting mix and wondered, what gives? Why would I need something special to start seeds? The big advantage of these commercial mixes is that they do not contain soil and are sterile, which prevents a host of maladies from plaguing your tender sprouts. Aptly named “soilless mixes,” they’re typically composed of peat moss, vermiculite, perlite, and some added bells and whistles, such as lime for pH balance and a wetting agent that improves moisture retention. If you are using a mix with peat moss, or peat moss alone, be advised that it absorbs hot water much more easily than cold — useful information, when all your sprouts want is to stay moist!

All of the things that soilless mix does are wonderful, but not essential for a budget seed-starting operation. To start my seedlings, I have actually enjoyed more success using horticultural vermiculite alone. This is mica that has basically been popped like popcorn, a process that yields a light, pebbly mixture that does a wonderful job of capturing precious moisture, and of being cheap and easy to store.

Vermiculite does come from a mined resource (mica), so some might object to using it. It’s true that coco-coir, a growing medium produced from coconut husks, is arguably your most sustainable option. This lovely stuff has yet to really penetrate the American gardening market, however, so unless you’ve planned in advance and ordered it online, you’re probably going to be limited to what’s on the shelves at your local gardening supplies store. In that case, opt for coarse horticultural vermiculite, and rest assured that you won’t need a lot. I can make a small, 8 quart bag last me two or three seed-starting seasons. There’s no need to fill a bunch of 4-inch pots from the get-go; one cup of vermiculite will fill an egg carton or two and will be more than sufficient for your sprouts’ initial needs.

In sum: Learn to love the strange, soilless substance that is vermiculite, and save your bucks for later in the season.