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.

The White House Kitchen Garden

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

The schematic plan for the White House kitchen gardenPrudently scheduled for the spring equinox, the ceremonial ground-breaking for the White House kitchen garden took place on Friday and featured Michelle Obama and a group of Washington third-graders. The schoolkids will continue to assist in the garden, which, in addition to feeding the first family and guests, has an impressive political agenda: promoting nutritious local food and cooking, bringing attention to a practical energy crisis remedy, and proving that organic gardening methods have a place even on the country’s loftiest lawn.

In its initial form, the garden is mainly a utilitarian mix of greens, peas, berries, and workhorse herbs — no carrots or tomatoes in sight, yet — but Mrs. Obama has already indicated there will be a place for tomatillos in the future, and there are other signs that this garden is much more substantial than its political show. I was tickled to read that:

  • White House compost will be used in conjunction with other organic fertilizers,
  • there is a place for Swiss Chard which, in my opinion, is “the better spinach” and should become as common and popular as lettuce,
  • flowers, some of which will be edible, are included in the plan, too, providing at least the rudiments of versatile kitchen garden design,
  • and companion plants are being used — notably hyssop, which attracts just about every beneficial flying beast a gardener could want and improves the growth of nearby kale and collards.

In short, this is a savvily planned garden that might also be truly sustainable and extraordinary. For now, it’s enough for me that homegrown vegetables (chard!) have earned a place in history beside the Obamas.

Air Plants: Soiless Wonders

Friday, February 20th, 2009

Air plantsJust when I thought eating from my balcony was the height of beautiful frugality, I discovered air plants (tillandsia), sculptural plants that grow without soil. There are many varieties, all of which gather nutrients exclusively from air, water, and sunlight, with roots that serve the sole purpose of attaching them to any amenable surface. They will thrive on wood, metalwork, stone, seashells…my mind boggles at the prospects.

Imagine growing them year-round, indoors, as an alternative to a “green wall” (without the maintenance and set-up costs), or using them creatively in your small green retreat.

With the proper care, each air plant sends out a handful of “pups” each year that can be separated from the parent, meaning that, for a very small investment, you’ll soon have enough for you — as well as for friends, neighbors, and curious passers-by…

Master It: Links to State Master Gardener Programs

Saturday, February 7th, 2009

Courses for the Master Gardener Program in nearby Vermont just began, and I feel that familiar desire to “go back to school,” just for a little while, and for information I will use daily. If this describes you, then you might want to check out master gardener programs in your own area.

These are volunteer training courses run through the cooperative extension services of your state university. The curricula usually cover home vegetable gardening and a lot more. I took the liberty of updating this list of state master gardener program websites — if these fail you, then check out’s list of state master gardener coordinators for more detailed contact information.

If you have personal experience with a master gardener program, I’d love to hear about it: How much of a time commitment did it require? Are you actively volunteering in your community now, or consistently using the skills in your own garden?

State Web Page URLs — Updated February, 2009
Alaska (also, try here)
District of Columbia
New Hampshire
New Jersey
New Mexico
New York
North Carolina
North Dakota
Rhode Island
South Carolina
South Dakota
West Virginia

Our Custom List of Gardening Books

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009

Having just paid a fairly honking-big library fee, it really hits home: For not much more money, I could have bought or swapped for copies of the same titles, and they’d be mine to keep — books on gardening and sustainable living that I’m sure I’d use again and again, year in and year out. Not only are there some juicy new gardening books for the growing number of practical, small-space gardeners, but there’s also a vast quantity of out-of-print titles that are being rediscovered and newly appreciated.

This past weekend, I chose about 30 titles, both new and out-of-print, to add to the Small Green Garden Bookshelf on Powell’ Follow that link, and you’ll see the whole lineup: container gardening resources, small-space and urban garden design guides, and even some DIY manuals and cookbooks written with the home vegetable gardener in mind.

I try to pick them with a discriminating eye and always appreciate your feedback, so if there’s something in particular you’d like to see up on the shelf, or reviewed right here, shoot me an email.

Inspire Me: Vegetable Garden Design

Saturday, January 17th, 2009

Photo of garden plans and seed packetsSearch the Web for “free garden design plans,” and you’re likely to get a mass of flower garden designs that will bore the small-space vegetable gardener straight out of her gourd. To find real inspiration, I’ve turned to the blogosphere — and to Europe, actually. In France, growing gorgeous edible gardens is a much more popular pursuit, thanks to the tradition of the potager, or “kitchen garden,” and to the monasteries that originally made vegetable and herb gardening an art form.

The kitchen garden of Chateau de Villandry:  The potager of potagers! Their website has a plethora of panoramic photos — just enough to make me wish that I were actually there to see what’s what. But I guess the entire point is to appreciate it for the form and colors. Go do that.

The gardens of Prieuré d’Orsan: More gorgeous potager photos, and there might just be a lot of information there for you, if you read French better than I do.

“Potager Progress” on the Art of Gardening blog: A great post on adapting the potager style for a cramped side-yard.

Focal Points in a Formal Setting: Some first-hand advice for designing a compact, attractive vegetable garden similar to a potager.

Home Vegetable Gardening, Parts I & II: Two video lectures from botanist, professor, and avid vegetable grower Robert Norris, with excellent general tips and slide shows. (Particularly good if you grow in California.)

But if you’re aching for detailed schemata — you know, the attractively abstracted view-from-above, usually on graph paper — or you just want someone to tell you exactly what to plant, and where, then look to classic books like Barbara Damrosch’s Garden Primer, or John Jeavon’s How to Grow More Vegetables than you ever thought possible on less land than you can imagine (actually, imagine about as much land space as the full title takes up). You can also find vegetable garden plans from Better Homes & Gardens right now. (Register with them for free to access PDF’s.) Don’t waste time with their “small space vegetable garden,” but check out the Heritage Vegetable, Asian-Inspired Vegetable, and Eye-Catching Kitchen Garden designs, which are even better suited to maximizing limited space.