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How to garden in the back yard

May 26, 2010

I am going to be published!  Here is the rough draft of an article I am writing for a local cooking magazine hope you learn something from it
Gardening Simple Vegetables in your Back Yard

Ever wonder why you don’t find crooked carrots in the grocery store?  Or veggies like kohlrabi and diakons that you’ve barely ever heard of? Often when we buy food we are looking at the perfectly prepared bunch that someone took a lot of time on growing harvesting washing packaging and shipping usually from California.  Many kinds of food we don’t see commercially because they don’t ship package and store well.

Imagine instead when you are cooking dinner that you suddenly fancy some parsley or basil or broccoli or zucchini and all you have to do is walk right outside your door and pick it. Convenient, fresh and oh so tasty!

When we grow food ourselves we can eat produce that is ugly, too small, too big, has three “ legs” and has one little bad spot.  Suddenly you open yourself up to a whole new world of food eating that doesn’t come from a can and taste like mush.  The time you spend makes ups for itself in taste convenience and health. Have you ever tasted a tomato in the middle of February that tasted like well… not much and then later been given a home gown tomato from a friend?  Need I say more?

In this country we are so disconnected from our food source that many kids haven’t even seen a cow or even been to a farm. When we have a garden and practice seasonal eating and bring food and farms back into our lives we remember that veggies taste good, health is important, the environmental impact is lower and food is better fresh and in season.   And there is always one more fresh vegetable to look forward to.  When you are sick of peas, out come the green beans, sweet corn, eggplants, peppers and zucchini in all their colors. And if you get sick of them by fall you are thinking of pumpkins and cauliflower.

But are you scratching your head and saying how do I get from lawn to something to eat? It’s a lot easier than you think. Start with one or two beds and don’t overwhelm yourself thinking you need to grow everything you eat the first year!  A few favorite crops will build your confidence so you can expand next year.

The most important first step is finding the sunniest spot in your yard. Observe the sun pattern for a day but consider how things look during the entire season because some things need more sun in September while others need that first sun in April. Vegetables will not grow well in the shade. If you don’t have a lot of sun there are many kinds of berry bushes that handle a little more shade.  Some that taste great but aren’t all produced commercially are goose berries, currants, raspberries, blue berries etc.

The basic tools you will need are at least a shovel, a digging fork, and a rake. A spade also makes nice clean edges and cuts the grass roots clean so they won’t come back as much. Rototillers are useful but not needed if you are starting small. A weeding tool is also useful.  The hula hoe is one that works great.

Once you have tools and have determined your sunniest spot, create a nice soft nutritive place for your plants to land.   Make your beds narrow enough so you can reach the middle from both sides and run them east to west for the greatest amount of sun. There are two possible methods of building beds depending on your existing lawn how fast you want to eat your produce.  You can either build up or build down.   The building up method takes less work up front but takes longer to make nice soil. The building down method works if you don’t hit huge boulders or sand.

The very easiest planting down method is to take an already existing bed that has flowers or something else in it and adding fertility (more on that later) for vegetables.  Or if you are digging down cut out the sod in squares and shake them out and add them to your compost bin. If there is too many for the bin stack them upside down and cover the top of the stack with a little bit of soil. They will turn into compost eventually. Once you have the soil bare, take a fork and dig it up and loosen and take out any leftover roots. Add a couple good wheel barrows of either compost or some kind of digested animal manure and your amendments listed below.

Planting up is used in an area that has been mowed for many years or is super rocky. The soil is usually super compacted in pretty poor shape and hard to dig or has a lot of sand.  In this case stick the fork in the ground in many places and wiggle it back and forth to make some air flow.  Lay down cardboard the size of the bed with the tape removed right on top of the grass.  Get it wet and if you have leaves or grass clippings or any green plant material lying around layer this on top of the cardboard. If you can save your leaves from the previous fall they make a great base layer though don’t make them too thick because then tend to matt. Usually any town transfer station will give you leaves and wood chips for free. On top of this add a good thick layer of compost or manure. Manure is cheaper to get in larger amounts than finished compost. Some farms will scoop a whole load into your truck for cheaper than the price of packaged bags at the store.  Add a nice layer of soil and your amendments and then mix together the top layer of soil ammmendments and compost.  The cardboard will kill the grass underneath while the stuff on top makes the bed plantable.  Some plants are better adapted to new beds usually squash and cucumbers and things that tendril. Or something with nice long tap roots that can help loosen the soil over time. Each year plants take nutrients out of the soil and it’s a good idea to refresh the soil in the fall with more manure and let it rest up for the next year of good eating.

In organic backyard gardening, soil is the most important factor. If the soil has everything your plants need they will be happy. In most places the ground lacks the trace minerals that the plants need to grow well.  As a gardener you can rebuild the soil through adding some amendments each serving a different purpose. At any garden store has these things and will explain how much you need.

For Nitrogen add bone meal alfalfa or cotton seed meal. Replace trace minerals with green sand rock phosphate or kelp meal. Wood ash and lime help bring the Ph back to basic. Need more here???If you notice pine trees around or even understory blueberries your soil has some acidity and could use balancing.

Mix all of the ingredients together and rake out your bed nice and smooth. You are ready to plant but what and how much and where?  Focus on a few things you really like to eat that you would enjoy running outside to pick.  Many of the coops and garden stores all sell really nice starts and keep you from having to baby the plants for the hardest six weeks of their life.

The season goes in three waves. The early cold weather crops like peas, fava beans and spinach get planted  first usually by direct seeding rather than transplants.   Then comes seedlings  of cabbage broccoli beets collards brussel sprouts  chard and kale in April. And then by the end of May out comes the hot weather crops like peppers tomatoes basil squash and cucumbers as we cross our fingers and hope the temperature will not dip below 32 degrees.  If this happens the warm weather crops usually pull through by being covered with a single sheet of plastic over night.  By June salads are being eaten and peas are busting off the vine.  And by the end of July you wonder what you are going to do with zucchinis the size of baseball bats. (Maybe they really do make good bats!)

Often people plant their seedling way too close together.  Plants that are too crowded will not have enough nutrients to support all the plant life.   And don’t put the tall tomatoes in front of the lettuce where they won’t get any sun.  It’s also good to keep in mind companion planting. Plants are kind of like people. There are some you like some you are indifferent to and some you really don’t like.  Do you want to spend all your time with that one in law who drives you nuts? Yeah tomatoes don’t like it either.  Companion planting is the method of creating symbiosis between plants. It includes creating microclimates, using other plants to fight disease or adding nutrients to the soil and space management. If you plan it right there are immense rewards to how you organize things in the garden. There are some great books that talk about companion planting and backyard gardeing including Carrots Love Tomatoes by Louise Riotte or   How to Grow More Vegetables by John Jeavons.

When planting tuck them in gently their beds just like one of your own kids! Give them I mean a good watering making sure not to drown them with too powerful of a spray.  At first they will just sit there and not do much until they have adjusted to their new homes.  But when you least expect it they will get bigger and start to hold their own.  Give them enough water when they are young.  If you stick your finger in the soil the ground should be wet a little ways down.

People often get scared by weeding.  But if you get them when they are just a fine carpet on the bed it will save hours of time later. Run over the whole bed with a hula hoe scratching up the surface and your plants will gain on the weeds.  It makes all the difference later.  Most of the garden stores sell hula hoes which are one of my favorite hand tools.

By mid summer your efforts will have paid off and your kids though they may still hate zucchini and brussel sprouts will go for that nice looking tomato.

Growing your own food is a form of empowerment. There was an era when everyone was farmer and we are forgetting how and loosing our connection with the land….

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