I grew up around gardens in the Midwest, and my mother and my sister both garden, and I didn't notice that I had trouble growing things in the Pacific Northwest and New England, but so far this semiarid bit of the West has not encouraged my efforts. I did manage a few tomatoes and herbs and asters and marigolds at the first house we lived in here, but the second house (which we are still in) still has one of those blank back yards, not because I haven't tried.
Last year, we put some containers on the deck and harvested tomatoes and basil. It was fun. We probably could have bought the produce cheaper, but it finally gave us a taste of success in this environment. I've spent some time and energy seeing if anybody wanted to take on this yard as part of a SPIN farming project, exchanging use of the space and of water for a small share of the produce. Although there's an active SPIN network in Boulder, an hour away, nobody here has been interested beyond conversation.
So this year, we're taking it to the next level on our own.
Here's part of the space, and some of the supplies:
Here's my plan, and a resource book I learned about through Twitter and Facebook (with both of which I am only moderately acquainted and active):
One of the challenges for me is that square-foot gardening is pretty rectilinear, and I prefer a more natural or cottage-y aesthetic. However, I'm telling myself that anything we do is going to be aesthetically more interesting than what we have now.
When I was browsing for ideas, I came across garden plan 18 at the bottom of this page. I really like that big maze, and we have room enough for it. However, we can't afford to buy the components or fill the beds with dirt. Plus it might be too much for neophytes. . . . Just maybe. . . .
I also like labyrinths, arbors, garden seats, shade. Those are not in the plan.
Moving right along. . . .
I did figure out an arrangement of simple square and rectangular beds that appeals to me for its slightly maze-y feel. Right now, we are only putting in the beds that are drawn more darkly on the graph paper, but we wouldn't know where to place them without the whole concept (which, of course, is subject to change). We'll see what happens after we get those going. There will be two 4×4 beds and one 4×2 one. They will be 6 feet from the fences, leaving room for 2-foot beds and 4-foot aisles on those edges, should we get even more ambitious in the future. Aisles between the beds are a generous 3 feet, but I want plenty of room to play with a wheelbarrow around the periphery, if we decide we want to do things that involve wheelbarrows.
One thing that's appealing about the square-foot method is that the book gives enough information but not too much . . . especially for someone who wants to do everything right the first time, if possible, by researching the heck out of it, and is already involved with many work projects involving masses of material and looming deadlines. Another appealing aspect is that the soil amendments (of which we need plenty, being perched here on clay) get applied in a focused way to exactly where they're needed. If I'm going to use items of limited global supply, like peat, I want to use them efficiently.
While I was looking at hefty bags of compost (our home compost isn't ready yet), my daughter wandered over to the seed section at the garden center. I hadn't planned to buy any seeds without thinking the whole project through a bit more: I just want the beds in place in time to have a place to plunk down the tomato and basil plants we intend to buy at the farmer's market on Sunday.
Here are the seed packets we bought yesterday:
My daughter wants a zucchini plant (which will consume most of one of the larger beds), broccoli raab, kale, the yellow beets, and several of those lettuces. I added the red lettuce, the red beets, and the chard (I sense a color theme in my selections that I hadn't noticed before).
What's missing? Two of my favorite vegetables on earth: carrots and sugar snaps. I'm contemplating those, while browsing the Renee's Garden online catalog. Carrots need more depth than our beds will have, so I am thinking about that. Sugar snaps require support, which is beyond what I can think about right now. So do the tomatoes, but we have tomato cages from last year.
What else is missing? Wood to frame the beds. Cedar Supply is cutting up rough 2x6s for us and we'll pick them up this afternoon. I'm trying to decide if we can get away without cutting away the sod if we lay thick strata of newspaper and cardboard, topped with weed barrier, beneath each of the beds.
And here's the primary garden helper, who loves raspberries and will pick them for herself:
We don't currently have any raspberries. She probably likes strawberries, too. We're pondering this situation: it's one reason we find the square-foot gardening concept appealing. Because of the modular nature of the beds, we could make wire cages to set over the plants to limit the self-sufficient tendencies of certain critters. Although this helper is quite capable, she would probably need to ask us to grant her access to the strawberry beds (she probably, although not for certain, couldn't lift the cover off herself). We don't mind sharing. She would, however, cheerfully and daintily eat every morsel.
Our gardening assistant is ever-so-fond of the back yard even without anything other than grass to nibble on, and even though she can no longer get up the stairs by herself (that's why she wears a harness, so we can give her a little extra support when she needs to climb). She will be happy if we spend more time in the yard, even if we don't grow any berries for her this year.