Welcome to part two of your first week of Urban Homesteading Boot Camp. Yesterday I talked about the basics of selecting and preparing a site for your vegetable garden. Today, we’ll cover layout, crop rotation, and, the best parts: planting and maintaining.
If you are planting in pots, the scale on all of this will be much, much less.
Once you have decided what to grow in your garden, you need to decide where in the garden to grow it. One of the first things to consider is the height of the plants, at their maturity, that you intend to grow. This is more important than companion planting because, as some friends of mine learned the hard way, while carrots do love tomatoes, carrots also love sunlight. So first think about what grows high up and what stays low. Tomatoes can get very tall, so can pole beans, corn, and cucumbers if you trellis them. Summer squash can also shade out neighbors with their big leaves. Most of the root crops stay low, as well as the peppers and lettuces; even peas can be kept pretty compact. You will want to plant low growing things to the south of high growing things (here in North America, obviously).
You can see from my garden plan that I made in 2009, I did just that: Tall tomatoes in the back along the north border, middle size squash next, and short onions, kohlrabi and beets at the bottom on the south edge. It worked great.
But I bet if you read my post in October on crop rotation, you spotted the problem with the layout. If not, here was my 2010 garden plan:
See the problem yet? Tomatoes up top, squash and peppers in the middle, and onions and kohlrabi along the bottom. I did this also in 2006 and 2007. Yeah. Some people are thicker than others. It took me a while on this one.
Finally, finally, I wised up. I had to turn my beds 90 degrees. You can see this year’s plan is much better for crop rotation.
So yes, it took me years and years to find a way to rotate our crops. But why is it so important? Most of the veggies we like to grow in our gardens come from certain plant families. There are about nine families for the main crops most people like to plant.
- Tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and eggplant
- Peas and beans
- Cucumber, squash and melons
- Spinach, beets and chard
- Cabbages, kale, kohlrabi, turnips and broccoli (the brassicas – they only “real” family name I know)
- Onions, leeks and garlic (oh wait, I know two, these are alliums)
- Sunflowers, lettuce and other leafy greens
- Carrots, celery, parsley, parsnips
- Corn, rye, oats, wheat
The varieties in each family need similar nutrients to grow, and they are susceptible to the same diseases and pests. So if you plant your tomatoes in the same place year after year, you can expect them to deplete their soil and/or die from a disease. If you rotate things though, the nutrients that the tomatoes take from the soil in 2012 will get replaced by another plant, say beans, the next year. And if a tomato disease came knocking at the end of 2012, the 2013 beans might not get it, since they aren’t necessarily open to the same sicknesses. Make sense?
Clearly, it is pretty important to switch things up. Your original layout needs to accommodate this, and you have to think a few years ahead. Here is what I’ve done with our 2012 garden.
First I oriented the beds so the tall stuff didn’t always have to go in the same place (North is at the top of the page). Then, the coup de grâce – sticky-notes. Yep. Instead of writing in my plants, I put each thing we want in the garden on its own sticky-note. You can tell, I love tomatoes. The little circled letter corresponds to a plant family. Now I can arrange and rearrange, and rotate.
Yes, I know, I have more veggies than room in my garden for them. Decisions are hard around here. That’s why I’ve enlisted the neighbor’s yard.
When playing with your layout and rotation, don’t forget about plant height. In 2008, I tried rotating things in that old layout by switching the tomatoes to the bottom (the southern edge). Guess what – nothing grew because the tall plants shaded out everything else. Learn from my mistakes, grasshopper.
Here’s where I want to take a minute to mention square foot gardening. Square foot gardening is a very good way to get a lot of plants into a small space. It would probably be a great way to keep things rotating as well. I am not very good at it, I’ll be honest. I lack the self control. But if you have a very small space, you should consider it. It looks like a great way to pack a lot into a small area.
So, to the planting.
First off, I’m totally skipping the starting seeds indoors thing. I’m sorry if this is a big disappointment. I only began gardening when Rick and I moved to this house 8 years ago, and we have no good place at all to start seeds indoors. I’m thinking of getting some lights this year, but so far all my seed starts have failed.
Because of this, we buy seeds to sow directly in the ground for most things, but we buy already started tomato and pepper plants from the garden center. The growing season in Colorado is a bit short to start these outside if you want much of a harvest.
To plant your seeds, read your seed packets. Planting depth is important. From the tip of your finger to your first knuckle is about one inch; the depth you would want to plant peas. I am somewhat flexible with plant spacing, however. If my packet says to plant seeds every six inches in rows 18 inches apart, I just go with six inches in any direction. I know, I’m a rule breaker. But it seems to work just the same for us, and I want to conserve space as much as possible.
Some seed packets tell you to plant in hills. Squash like hills. Tomatoes do too. So, for the first timers, this is what a row is (notice Henry, spacing rows with a yardstick – it’s ok to measure if it helps you):
And this is a hill:
I use my fingers or the side of my hand to make rows for most seeds, but I use a hoe to make a row for things that should be planted deeper than an inch. I just drag one corner of the hoe in a straightish line where I want the row to be. The line is sort of a valley with the extra soil piled up along the sides. Drop the seeds into the valley and use the soil next to the line to cover them. Don’t use all the extra soil, especially if your seeds should be planted shallowly. Some of that soil will be used to make the sides of your row so that it will hold water. Tap the soil down well with your hands, making a long trench that will retain water to feed your seeds.
To make a hill, I use the back of a rake. And by I, I mean Rick. Not that it’s hard, it just seems to be Rick’s job. Anyway. Rick pulls the soil with the rake into a mound, and then we use our hands to sort of flatten the top, and move the dirt until it’s sort of a crater. You plant inside the crater, not around the sides. This is a nice bowl to hold water for your seeds or little baby plants. We usually plant one tomato per hill and we plant three summer squash in a (larger) hill.
Then what? You guessed it – water your seeds. Water them well. Give everything a good soaking. Then wait a couple of minutes and soak everything again. Don’t use hard jets of water – sprinkle or use a soaker or drip hose. You don’t want to wash your seeds away.
Now is the time to set your tomato cages and trellises around your plants. As the plants grow, thread them up through the cage, so they don’t break off any vines, or so the tomato doesn’t shoot off to one side.
After planting, there are three things left to do to keep your garden on track: watering, thinning, and weeding.
Your baby seedlings and newly planted seeds need to stay moist. We like to use a drip system for our garden, which basically consists of a back-flow preventor at the spigot, and a bunch of tubing with little plastic drip heads on the ends where each plant is for the hills and lengths of pre-drilled drip-tube for the rows. The heads release so much water per hour. We love it because it conserves water and only puts water at the plants so it cuts down on weeds. And, I just have to step out the door, turn on the spigot, and it waters everything for me. I have three kids, people.
The drip system is not complicated, but explaining it thoroughly could be a post in it of its self. (Perhaps in the near future?)
Anyway, that is one method for watering. We have also watered by hand with the hose many a season, and last year our neighbor put his corn and potatoes on a timer connected to his sprinkler system. Bottom line is during the summer you need to water. Here in Colorado, we need to water everyday. Technically, it’s an arid climate here. If you live in the rainforest, gauge your water accordingly.
All that water will make your seeds sprout into seedlings. And you will have to thin them. That means, heartlessly grabbing those tender green shoots and ripping them from the ground (gently – don’t kill the ones you want to leave). You have to give your plants room to grow. If you leave every carrot seedling growing, you’ll get lots of tops and no carrots. So leave one strong-looking seedling every few inches for your root crops. And for heaven sakes, thin your zucchini. It’s really, really hard the first time. But just do it. Now is the time to nut up or shut up.
And weeding. You have to rip ‘em out too. They will grow fast and steal your veggie’s water, sunlight and room. Take ‘em down. Show no mercy, troops. Defend your hills! And your trenches! If you do a little everyday, the enemy won’t gain any footing in your garden.