Okay, we’re going to try this garden thing again (starting late, but not too late)

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.


24 thoughts on “Okay, we’re going to try this garden thing again (starting late, but not too late)”

  1. If you want carrots, some varieties are shorter and chubbier than others – that might be worth a look. Love the chard! Good luck. Our garden is currently being held hostage by a stalled construction project.

  2. Susan Tweit (Walking Nature Home) suggests trying out coconut hulls instead of the peat. That’s a fine idea. I felt guilty buying peat. We’ll be looking for a source for hulls.

    She also prefers local topsoil, amended, to a mix. I think they scraped the topsoil off around here when they built this early-1980s subdivision and all its neighbors.

    Doing the best we can with what we have . . . which now includes some lumber! We couldn’t afford the recycled-plastic options.

  3. Hi, Joy, I’ve been looking at some of those carrots. But we also decided today to make one of the beds deeper!

    Hope you get your garden unstalled very soon.

  4. I was going to tell you that there are shorter carrot varieties available – but someone beat me to it!

    You can use various materials to make “cages” to set over the garden; you can also cover the cages and use them to provide shelter during cold nights.

    Our lot is near the top of a hill and we are surrounded by trees, so lots of shade. Mostly oak trees, but we do have a yellow cherry tree and an (old) apple tree. The cherries were good last year; the apples usually are tiny and worm or bird-eaten.

    DH & Older son put in three square foot beds for me a couple years ago, in the one consistently sunny part of our yard…right by the front walkway/front door (at least there I can keep an eye on it! And it sometimes slows down the deer…). So far this year we have 2 yellow squash, 3 tomatoes, and 3 pepper plants, two bunches of chives (holdover from last year), 3 pots of marigolds, and nasturtiums. I’ve been waiting for the rains to slow down a bit before planting seeds as rains washed out some of my freshly planted seeds last year (I’m in SW Virginia, lots of rain this year).

    Good luck with your garden!

  5. Yipes! I think we’re going to pass each other in opposite directions. As you develop a grand plan, I’m going lickety-split for plants that specialize in evergreen foliage, drought resistance, and hardy temperament. Ultimate goal: restful to the eyes & no care!

  6. Jean Marie, I’m gardening in almost opposite conditions–flat, way too much sun (I know that seems hard to comprehend), and minimal rain. I miss great shade trees. We get big cottonwoods around here. They are relatively short-lived and their branches thunder down in big windstorms. Which is not to say I don’t like them. They “belong” along the rivers, and are lovely there.

  7. No-care is okay by me! Although we want vegetables, my ideal for this climate is closer to xeriscape (not the same as “zero-scape”): native and low-water-use plants that pretty much take care of themselves.

    But constructing a more comprehensive minimal-water-usage garden requires more time, research, and thought than I can comprehend having right now. Grass lawns make no sense at all in this climate, so I hate having one and am not at all good at caring for them. Yet coming up with alternatives that will not have the city code enforcers leaving notices and levying fines is a major undertaking. Lawns are the standard. You can deviate, but it’s a lot of work (and money) to do so. Once the alternative is established, it works well (Lauren Springer’s books have lots of examples).

    A few sections on the front of the house display my start toward no-care gardening. There’s a strip by the driveway that’s about 6 feet wide that never gets any additional water and is about 90 percent happy. It has a big lilac and a well-established rose, some Mexican primrose, Russian sage, and exceptionally enthusiastic Italian oregano. I’ve tried some yarrow in there, too, and catmint, both of which are hanging in but haven’t taken off.

  8. Hi Deb, First, I am wondering how you got the “I Blog for the Planet” button on your blog? I have searched all over their site (apparently not!) but cannot find a link for this.

    Secondly, kudos for providing your beautiful dog with a special harness so that you can help her with the stairs. 😀

    Thirdly, the best of luck with your garden endeavors. Victory Gardens in every yard – including the White House – YEAH TEAM!
    All my salad greens have bolted here in the dry hot Sonoran Desert. Carrots are still doing OK as are some of my herbs which manage to make it as perennials.

    Lindy in the Sonoran Desert of AZ

  9. We grow snap peas with minimal or no support! They are supposed to be helped by our silly bamboo fencing (entirely psychological, so our dogs won’t rip up the garden…they can jump it, but know they shouldn’t…) but hardly ever twine up the fencing. We still eat snap and snow peas every year. Just picked a handful for dinner yesterday. You can also use a very small wire hoop fence to support your snap peas in the soil…they are usually green and about 6 inches tall.

    Ok, back to proofing now. Good for you with the garden! We’re moving…but currently are growing garlic, radishes, lettuce, walking onions, peas, tomatoes, basil, jerusalem artichokes, beans and a volunteer potato or two. Just can’t help ourselves…

  10. Thanks for the snap pea encouragement. I do love them. We were thinking we might make bamboo tripods. I like bamboo tripods. They remind me of when I was a campcraft instructor in the north woods of Minnesota, although the things we lashed together were significantly larger and more substantial.

    I’m glad you’re growing things despite the move.

    Good luck with the proofing. There’s a lot going on here, too, this weekend.

  11. I was going to make the short carrot comment, too. Carrots do really well in raised beds, and you can scatter them here and there between other plants. Carrot seed is cheap and easy to plant – experiment!
    We plant a huge garden every year – and generally get too much rain, rather than too little. The very short growing season in Northern Vermont adds to the challenge, as well.
    Good luck!

  12. Carrots it is, then. I tend to like them a bit longer than the short guys (we eat carrots around here at the rate of about a pound a day . . . ). But now we’re doing one deeper bed, so that’ll be cool. I’ll try some short ones, just for fun, in a little bed with this “tuck in between” idea. . . .

  13. I have a garden helper too. She chases me around when I’m watering trying to get a drink out of the hose. She’s 12, so I doubt I’ll break her of that habit now.

  14. Homegrown carrots are so good and full of extra flavor compared to those in the store. Norma of nownormaknit2.typepad.com gardens using an interesting layering system that doesn’t use that much soil. You may need to look at her posts from last year to get the details.

    Good luck with your garden!

  15. I love carrots. Imagining home-grown again, which I haven’t had in more than a decade. . . . Will go look at Norma’s posts! Thank you. . . .

  16. My garden helper is 14.5 years old. Her hearing does not appear to function much any more, although that’s hard to perceive in her behavior (except she doesn’t wake up when we come home until we wake her). LOVES raspberries, walks (bad joints or not), rolling on her back at night and messing up the rugs.

  17. Oh, I love The Square Foot Gardening method. It works very well for city farming.

    I live in Southern Colorado. We use fresh, unused cooler panels for mulch. It works great, allows water and air to pass through, but shades the dirt and holds down evaporation. It also smells so nice, and it looks nice, too. It starts out so bright, and fades to a silvery grey. It is cheap, and lasts and lasts. I highly recommend it. I’ve been using cooler panels for 15 years, so I’m sure that there’s no long-term-useage problems, just benefits.

    I found a product called Coolaroo at Lowes (also available online) which we use for shade cloths in the garden. My daughter made something like tiny quonset huts out of concrete reinforcement wire and we drape the Coolaroo over it and hold it in place with clothespins. It’s especially nice for young, tender plants, but some plants live under coolaroo all summer long, and it works just great. Sometimes, especially in mid July, the afternoon sun is just tooooooo much. I use the pale grey version of coolaroo – it comes in a few different colors. It also works great as a shade on my west facing window.

    Yup, gardening on the high plains is a little different!


  18. Deb, Welcome to raised-bed gardening! You can grow carrots if you grow Renee’s baby ball carrots, a romeo-type that don’t need more than about six inches of soil depth. They mature a bit faster than the longer Nantes, and they’re quite yummy.

    As for Rosemary’s use of evaporative cooler pads, they’re fine in southern Colorado, but you wouldn’t want to use them in Fort Collins. You get too much rain, and you’ll eventually find fungus growing from your shaved aspen cooler pads (unless you use the endangered petroleum plastic pads, and I can’t see you doing that!).

    On sugar snaps–you can even grow them on tomato cages if you want. They just like something to twine on. I use bird netting thrown over the pig wire fence panels that keep the deer out of the garden. The pig wire is too thick for the pea tendrils, but bird netting gives them purchase. I anchor it with wood clothes pins.

  19. Hi, Rosemary: I’m learning so much! Susan (below) says I won’t be using cooler panels in the garden {wry grin}, but they’re fascinating to know about, as is Coolaroo. Hmmm. It’s raining right now, and I have more lumber to fasten together. Fortunately, I have an overhang by the garage, and I drilled all the boards yesterday so no power tools will be required.

  20. I have never eaten a romeo-type carrot, but it looks like I might be going to. . . . We have tomato cages! From last year’s experiment. Onward. . . . Thanks so much for the tips. . . . It’s raining. I wish everything were in the ground.

  21. Oh, no, you won’t grow a fungus on your cooler pads, not at all. I looked it up, and you get just about the same amount of rainfall as we do (unless there’s a drought!). I tell you, cooler pads make the best, most attractive mulch there is.

    The other benefit is that it really holds up to wind – now, I’ve visited Ft. Collins – you have wind! The curly nature of the pads holds everything in place so nicely. Really – try it!

    Reading about your dog made me laugh – I once had a dog eat an entire sugar snap plant – it was big and full, too. She ate the entire thing, right down to the ground. She was so round! Bad dog.

    Have you asked around – are raised beds suitable for your area? I like to plant like the native folks in this area did – waffle beds. Here is an example of one at the Denver Botanical Garden – http://www.learn2grow.com/problemsolvers/water/conservingwater/SaveWaterOldFashioned.aspx – a real water saving method which works well for our area. (Meaning, all of Colorado). Waffle gardening and square foot gardening go hand in hand.

  22. I had too much lawn in the south side yard when we first moved to this house. We put the flattened moving boxes right on top of the sod – no weeds. We get bags of leaves every fall from my in-laws and have access to good dry horse manure from a friend on Milner’s Mtn. If you would like her #, let me know.

    I can’t imagine you would get more rain then I do – along the Poudre River downstream. You can always try cooler pads on one garden to see how they do.

  23. THANKS for the moving boxes info. Truly it will be November before the beds are ready if I need to dig sod. However, I don’t want to be kicking myself for not having dug it. . . . Dry horse manure would be good. I have a bucket of not-dry camelid manure sitting here aging, slowly. . . .

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