Now, during the spring 2020 Coronavirus pandemic, I anticipate there will be new or renewed interest in planting a garden. Like the wartime Victory Gardens of the last century, this health crisis which has us all social distancing in our own spaces may inspire some new garden projects. Or millions? Maybe this is another moment in history when people are reminded that more of their food sourcing can be in their own hands, strengthening the food security of the whole country. If more people grow their own food or source it locally, transported food can be more readily available to those who do not have the opportunity to grow their own.
In an effort to support this resurgence of gardening, here are some first steps to designing your own garden. It can be an overwhelming project, full of options and choices. Be assured, there are many effective garden designs. You will find some options to fit your needs better than others, or some to be more effective at nurturing growth, but for the most part: set it up, plant it and watch it grow. You can always improve your setup in the future. Gardening is an art as much as it is a science. As you get into it, you will develop more opinions and ideas to help personalize your garden. Here are some first steps to guide you on your way.
Evaluate your space. Do you have a yard? Space for some containers on a sunny deck or front step? If your best bet is a front yard garden, consider creating raised beds or clear edges to your garden to indicate to neighbors that this is a cared for, intentional space. Consider homeowners association rules, if you’ve got em. Some won’t allow a front yard garden. If you are growing a container garden, find the biggest containers you can. Fill them with topsoil and rich compost, with monthly additions of more compost, to feed your plants through the season. A few lettuce plants can share a relatively shallow pot, maybe twelve inches wide and about that deep. A tomato plant might enjoy a five gallon bucket or huge planter all to itself.
Observe the sun. Observe the sun patterns in your yard or space, taking into consideration where more leaves might fill in as summer approaches. Find a place that stays sunny the most, hopefully full day if you want to grow peppers and tomatoes. Buy ten bags of Organic Compost and a square of peat moss at your local supply store. Hoe or till the soil, along with these supplements, to create a rich base for your garden. If you are breaking new ground from grass, you will fight grass seed and depleted soil nutrition the first couple years. Adding compost will help balance it. Research your best strategy for weed control. Some people put newspapers and cardboard down on top of grass and build completely up with purchased topsoil.
Square Foot Gardening. An excellent first garden resource is Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew. I used this technique for my first ever garden, during grad school. I followed the book, including the strings around the one foot squares. And I still remember spacing tips: 4 lettuces per square, 1 pepper or tomato plant, or 16 carrots. Square foot gardening helps organize and simplify your garden, helps you space plants correctly, and works well with raised beds.
Other garden design ideas. There are many gardening designs to choose from. Raised beds, with a wood frame or without, make great gardens. Here are my posts on Resilient Gardening with raised beds and Raised Beds with Logs Fill a plastic baby pool with soil; deconstruct some pallets to frame two garden beds; whole tree trunks cut into lengths make great garden frames; five gallon buckets; even rip open a bag of compost and plant right into it! It depends what look you are going for, what work or expense you are willing to invest, and what resources you might have on hand. Here is my Pinterest board of garden design ideas called Repurpose Garden to inspire you.
Consider your mulching options. Plan for weeds. They will join your plantings in the garden. Count on that. Have a plan. Keep your garden small enough that you will be able to manage it, ideally with an expansion plan. Weed prevention might be hand weeding or hoeing tiny weeds before they get big. These plans might work for the smaller gardens. Here are some mulch options, which block the spaces around your plants from weeds: layers of straw or newspaper and cardboard, plastic mulch, reusable landscape cloth. Find a system to try. Over the twenty years we have been farming, we have tried it all and my husband even engineered his own mulching system for farming. Read about that here.
Wildlife management. Plan for predators. They will be eyeing your lunch spot as well. Rabbits, groundhogs and deer are the most common uninvited guests to your garden. Ask gardening neighbors for advice. My best advice is to lock the door before the resident wildlife even realize a new restaurant has come to town. It is much easier to control before they’ve told all their friends about the new opportunity. A sturdy tall fence that is buried into the ground at the bottom and has small enough holes to keep out a rabbit would be ideal. Electric fencing can be effective for very rural locations. Floating row cover is impressively effective at keeping out the wildlife, but can’t help you for tall plants like tomatoes, peppers and peas. Even rabbits don’t like to crawl under it.
Imagine the impact on the local food supply if people en masse grow even a small amount of their own food. Like the wartime victory gardens of the last century, we can do this. People can feed their families and their neighbors, with peace of mind, container gardens on the front step and a garden out back.
written by Ilene White Freedman for Mother Earth News published on 4/6/2020