Here it is...the mud bath of a backyard that I am dreaming will be a salad bowl soon, delivering fresh greens to our mid-day and evening meals. Photo credit: A.K. Streeter
Every year I have good intentions for a backyard garden. Last year, strawberries and tomatoes were the big harvests, but my greens were prey to heavy nematode infestations. This year, my intentions probably surpass my skills, so I decided to scan the annals of TreeHugger for the best designs for lazy armchair gardeners who want the greens and the garden goodies, but have a black or just-not-green thumb. The results were encouraging - here's a sampling of the easiest ways to get an urban garden growing today.
1) Square Foot Gardening On A Shoestring.The idea of sectioning off segments of my old raised bed has some appeal to me, as last year's garden quite quickly became a desegregated mess, with the tomatoes inappropriately mingling with the arugula. I found help in a TreeHugger gardening forum, which recommends Mel Bartholmew's book Square Foot Gardening. According to Mel's site, you don't need a lot of equipment, which was a plus for me. Bartholomew says a family of four needs a 4' by 4' (16 squares) for greens gardening for a four-person family. My backyard doesn't exactly conform, but I'll be trying a 1' by 4' trial garden following Mel's advice. I'm not too keen on Mel's vinyl garden grid for $25 dollars - try segmenting with what you have on hand.
Photo courtesy ECHO.
2) Old Wading Pools Finally Good For SomethingFrom ECHO, the Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization, is the idea of backyard wading pool gardens. Employing the old baby pool is great re-use, and it is also nice to have this size of confined space for new gardeners. If you had the space for the pool, surely you'll have the space for wading pool garden. ECHO'S founder Martin Price says these wading pool gardens are very cheap to set up and easy to maintain. Punch drainage holes up the sides of the pool. Price inserts a "monitoring well" - basically an old plastic flower pot - into the pool after it is filled with soil so that he can constantly check the garden's humidity conditions. He says watering the whole garden through the monitoring well can also be a way to not get plant leaves too wet, which can spread plant diseases. For wetter climates, Price also recommends putting a couple of slitted plastic plant trays, upside down on top of bricks, into the bottom of the pool before adding the soil, to improve aeration. Price adds that wading pool gardens are great for rooftops and other areas that might not have previously been considered as good places to grow food.
3) Swedish-Inspired Garbage Bag Gardening.This is the ultimate low-tech version of vertical farming. These great instant gardens use not your regular garbage bag, but one of the reinforced plastic bags used to cart building debris away from building sites. If you don't have access to something exactly like this, look around at what you do have that could serve as garden-in-a-bag. My first thoughts after a review of the backyard in a rain-free moment was old plastic recycling bags I used to use. In order to make gardens-in-a-bag light enough to move around with ease, follow ECHO's tip of lining the bottoms with sock-wrapped soda cans. Bricks and corrugated slitted plastic you might have lying around to help with aeration, then fill with potting soil, a mini management well like Martin Price decribes above, and perhaps a layer of mulch. Poke big holes in your bags to insert plants sideways, and grow a row at the top as well. IKEA bags work!
Photo courtesy keeping it real via flickr and Creative Commons.
4) Gutter Gardening Keeps Pests Away.Last year, gutter gardening was the big rage. But it should be even bigger this year, and is especially good if you don't want to bed, squat, or get down and dirty just to retrieve the tender lettuce shoots. Plus, while this photo shows the gutter garden attached to the house siding, there are other ways to do a gutter garden. Attach the gutters to a fence (make sure that they will get enough light) or simply hang them up wherever the best light is. Here's a tip from the ECHO non-profit - old soda cans stuffed in mismatched socks and put into the bottom of the gutter will solve a few issues: less need for soil; lighter gutters, and the ability to become a water trough. Just put potting soil on top of the socks. Well, that's my plan, anyway - there are no shortage of old socks at our house, though the soda cans might be harder.
5) Grow Your Garden On A Table.TH stalwart Warren and Tech Wiz Jaymi both covered the Roll Out Veg Mat, which is a pretty nifty concept, because it doesn't require a lot of digging. Just roll out the mat, cover with soil, and presto. At Planet Green, Jaymi adds suggestions for how to make your own mats. But you might want to combine the idea of mats with the University of Maryland's idea of a salad 'table' - this is a way to lift the plans off the ground, and just use an old table or slab, or door on sawhorses, to locate the garden. The video clip tells you everything you need to know. Salad table gardening does require the work of a regular garden, but with the added benefit that you don't have to stoop to harvest the greens, and you can pick the best spot in your back yard for your table.
Whichever style of garden you decide to try, getting chummy with another experienced urban gardener is great for when things go wrong or your enthusiasm starts to flag. My favorite urban gardener is Rachel Freifelder from Handmade Gardens. Rachel has some ending wisdom for how to plan your garden to take most advantages and provide the most protection for your veggies and greens.
"Imagine your plants facing the sun." Rachel says. "Large plants will cast a shadow both directly below them and also on their north side. In spring and fall, we want every one of our vegetable to get the most sun possible. So put the largest and tallest plants, such as collards, on the north side of your garden, and let the little ones sit in front - your lettuces, radishes and carrots."
Rachel goes on to say that in mid-summer, the situation is reversed - while many plants need the heat, they also need shade. In northern climates it is challenging to get melons and peppers to ripen at all, she said, so put them in the front. Peppers and
eggplants can take the heat, so put them front and center. Cucumbers and squash, susceptible to heat, should be in the middle, trellised if necessary.
Ultimate rules of thumb, she said:
"When it is cool, spring and fall, put tallest plants on the north, shortest on the south. In summer, arrange heat-loving vegetables in this manner, but put cool-season on the north, in the shade of the summer crops."
For more, follow April at Twitter.
More on urban gardens:
Swedish Garbage Bag Grow Instant Vertical Gardens
Top Ten Most Nutritious Vegetables and How to Grow Them
Beyond Salads: Grow A Garden to Feed a Family
66 Things You Can Grow At Home, In Containers, Without A Garden
Family of Four Grows Their Food in a Swimming Pool