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.

Plan Your Plot: Free Demo of GardenCAD Software

Saturday, January 17th, 2009

I’ll reiterate the “free” part, because that’s what grabbed my attention. What’s free: A nice demo version of GardenCAD — design software meant for professional landscape designers, but why should they have all the fun? You can customize the built-in plant symbols and use the drawing tools to plan your next container vegetable garden. The demo version will allow you to save your work upon closing, and you can print plans, too.

Right after I downloaded the demo, I started using it to mock up my next balcony garden. If you (like me) have limited/no experience using CAD programs, it takes some getting used to. Try the tutorial, or at least check out the GardenCAD quick-start video on YouTube (!).

Very fun (at least when you’re trapped indoors by arctic weather). In the next couple weeks I’ll be uploading some of the small-space garden plans I’ve created.

Plant This: Nasturtium for Pest Control and Edible Beauty

Monday, January 12th, 2009

Red nasturtiumNasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) is an excellent choice for small-space gardeners who want to make a limited area really work for them: it’s edible, attractive, grows well vertically and in containers, and will help rid your garden of certain pests. It is an irrepressible, flowering vine — annual here in the Northeast US, so I can’t even imagine having too much of it, but apparently it will self-sow readily in warmer areas — with distinctively saucer-shaped foliage and summertime blossoms that are typically red, orange, or yellow.

Nasturtium has been observed to repel whiteflies, squash bugs, and striped pumpkin beetles, so it’s an excellent companion plant for these, in addition to radishes and cabbages. Writing from personal experience, the summer I planted nasturtium around a small vegetable plot, I had far fewer whiteflies to contend with than in the previous summer. Not exactly scientific, but more fun and gorgeous than a pesticide spray. And, if you’d like to single-handedly thin the neighborhood aphid population, then nasturtium might work for you: It has been observed to act as a trap plant for aphids, who eat them and die off. I have grown nasturtium without noticing this, so I’m not sure how this is all supposed to go down, exactly, but it is recommended as a planting around fruit trees, and as a home-grown spray for them, for doing away with aphids.

Growing a healthy nasturtium requires no more than average soil and a sunny spot. In shade, the vine will grow, but might not flower as much.

Its edible flowers have a peppery zing that’s an interesting element in a salad or sandwich, I think. A few suggestions:

Use in salads and as a garnish, or in sandwiches. Add minced fresh flowers to butter.

Eat as is, or pickle them: Wash the seeds, boil up some cider vinegar, add enough to the seeds to completely cover them, and keep stored in a sealed jar.

Flower buds
Pickle as you would the seeds.


Plant This: Tansy is a Potent Pest Repellent…And an Easy Keeper

Sunday, January 4th, 2009

Common Tansy | © you’re going for the kind of urban oasis that’s untamed and colorful, than tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) is for you. It’s a rangy herb, growing over two feet tall with fern-like foliage and big heads of button-like, bright yellow flowers that bloom for most of the summer.

Tansy, however, is a potent plant whose traditional medicinal and culinary uses have been overshadowed by its dangers; it contains substances that can cause miscarriage or birth defects, and can accumulate to toxic levels if ingested regularly. Don’t use it in the kitchen unless you’re consulting with an herbalist, don’t let your animals eat it, and use gloves if you find it irritates your skin.

Its chemistry is also a powerful insect repellent, though, so it might be just what you need to deter ants, flying insects, and beetles. To corral its invasive roots and reap its benefits, plant tansy in pots near roses, blackberries, raspberries, peppers, potatoes, and squash. It will tolerate partial shade and likes a dry soil (read: can take some neglect). Think about planting it at the outer edge of your container garden to create a useful and visually interesting border…and create the perfect setting for a roof-top picnic.


Plant This: Mints Benefit Your Garden and Kitchen

Tuesday, December 30th, 2008

Mints are versatile herbs with both culinary and pest-repellent uses. When growing mint, the one caveat to observe is actually a plus, for container gardeners: Most varieties are rampant growers and should be confined to a pot so that they don’t choke out neighboring plants. (If you’ve already situated mint in the ground, and don’t want to move it, then you can corral it, with some diligence: Just cut any runners that grow beyond a six-inch radius of the main plant.) Bring the container indoors for the winter, and your mint will be a productive member of the garden for years to come.

If your primary goal is to use mint in the kitchen, then you can go hog-wild with flavorful varieties: apple, pineapple, lemon, orange, chocolate — you name it, they’ve probably “minted” it.

But even if you’re not crazy about mint, you might still consider including it in your small-space garden for the sole reason that it benefits other plants and rids the area of many insects. There’s a wealth of anecdotal evidence to suggest that mint improves the health and flavor of tomatoes and members of the cabbage family, and repels a host of pests to which they’re particularly susceptible. It is also said to attract beneficial insects and to be a good companion plant for beans and squash.

Peppermint, in particular, has been proven to contain volatile compounds, and deters ants, aphids, the cabbage looper and worm, flea beetles, moths, squash bugs, and whiteflies. Spearmint, too, has repellent properties that are only slightly less potent.

Mint tolerates a variety of growing and lighting conditions, so it’s a particularly good choice for that tricky spot in your urban garden that doesn’t receive a lot of sun, or is even subject to splash-backs from summer rainstorms (mint actually prefers wetter soil, as long as it also has good drainage).

And, if you need it, here’s one more reason to cultivate mint:

Mint Julep

Muddle together in a glass:
10-20 fresh mint leaves
1 tsp sugar
2 Tbsp water

Fill with crushed ice, then fill to 7/8 full with Bourbon. Pour 1/2 of rum on top, and garnish with another fresh sprig.


Garden Planning: Geek Out. Have Fun. Start Now.

Monday, December 29th, 2008
seed packets

Holiday shopping is over, so, as an enthusiastic vegetable gardener, you’ll probably pause for one deep breath, and then dive into the next round of seasonal decision-making: Planning your next edible garden. It might seem early yet, but you’re assured of a good selection if you put your order in soon. I know my favorite supplier has limited quantities of certain seeds, even before they distribute their catalog, and the demand for seeds is only going up.

If it’s important to you, choose a supplier that doesn’t traffic in GMO seeds. This Organic Seed Suppliers Search is very user-friendly and robust, to boot.

Above all, focus on those suppliers in your area — their inventory is pre-selected for success under your region’s growing conditions. You’ll have an advantage over the pest and disease issues particular to your area right from the get-go.

    Most (all?) state universities have “co-operative extensions” that provide locally relevant info on crops, pests, and scourges. If you’re lucky, you’ll find in-depth vegetable variety trials for your area — now that’s garden geekery.

    My personal state co-op is a little thin in this regard, so I did some more digging, and found that the USDA has a search engine for what they call “alternative crops” — those that might work best for “small scale farming by limited-resource farmers and small landowners”. Check, check, and check.

    Radish greens and appleblossoms

    Lately I have been doing a lot of additional “research” (read: mid-winter escapism), and have found some juicy new resources, and rediscovered old favorites.

    • Flickr, the ultimate resource for full-color social networking, is a good place to find like-minded, snap-happy gardeners, particularly if you use the “groups” functions.
    • is social networking specifically for gardeners, with very clever and enjoyable features for showing off your own garden, and finding others’.
    • Use Picsearch to search for “organic vegetable garden” or something similar. Picsearch is a little like Google image search, but I find the results more relevant…and attractive. Oh, eye candy.