Yes, plant your vegetables right out where everyone can see. It’s a joy to look at and — with all that sun —you’ll get great veggies.Almost all Americans love a nice lawn. We stroll, play, picnic on lawns. But plain lawns can be monotonous. Think about breaking up your lawn this year with a small vegetable garden. If you are willing to spend just 15 minutes a day gardening, you can create an edible showcase for beauty: the splendid look of ripe red tomatoes, multi-colored Swiss chard or glossy green peppers. It’s not nearly as difficult as you think. And unlike the lawn, you get to eat the results of your labor. Here’s what you need to do:To grow good vegetables you need sunshine, at least six hours a day. For most people, the sunniest part of the yard is in the middle of the lawn. Instead of hiding your vegetable garden off in a dark corner behind the garage or shaded by a row of trees, place it with pride where you — and the neighbors — will see it every day. A well-maintained vegetable garden can be as gorgeous as a flower garden. And if you like flowers, you can plant some of those in your vegetable garden, too. Placing your garden in the middle of the lawn has another advantage: it is farther away from trees. Trees not only create shade, they send out their roots to find water and minerals. The roots don’t stop at the edge of the drip line directly under the tree. Think of a tree as a wine glass on a dinner plate. The wine glass is the tree; the plate is its root system. Roots from a tree 20 feet away can suck the water and nutrition out of the soil, even if you don’t notice those roots. The farther your garden is from a tree, the better, but don’t let a tree deter you if you need to plant a garden near one. You will just have to provide a little extra water and nutrition in order to get top production. Weeds are the bane of gardeners. Go to the lake for a couple of weeks in early August and you might find that the weeds have swallowed the garden by the time you get back — or so it might seem. But there are easy ways to prevent that. First, don’t bite off more than you can chew — or weed. A small lawn garden should only be 8 to 10 feet across and 12 feet long. New gardeners often start by renting a rototiller and tearing up a 20 by 20-foot piece of field or lawn. But grasses aren’t killed by rototilling, merely annoyed. Their roots persist, sending up new plants for years to come. Instead, concentrate on a small plot and get all the sod and weeds out before you start. Using string and stakes, define the borders of the garden and pry out the sod after cutting it into one-foot squares with an edging tool or a spade. Use the sod to start a compost pile.Start early enough in the season — say the first of May — so you can work just 15 or 20 minutes a day for a week or more to get all the grass out. That way you get in the habit of spending time in the garden, but don’t develop blisters or an aching back. Gardening should be fun, not hard work. Still, it can give you a workout without going to the gym.Your lawn garden will have two raised beds separated by a walkway. You can build wood-sided beds using ordinary 6- or 8-inch wide planks or, for more years of service, 2-inch thick lumber. Lee Valley Tools (www.leevalley.com) has some nice inexpensive corner brackets to go with 1-inch planks. Gardener’s Supply (www.Gardeners.com) sells a variety of brackets for building raised beds, too.Alternatively, you can just mound up the soil to form two raised beds about 30 inches wide with a walkway up the middle and a 6-inch space between the lawn and the beds all the way around the garden. To do this (after removing the sod), loosen the soil with a garden fork and rake the soil from the perimeter and the walkway onto the beds. Then spread out 5 bags of composted cow manure on each bed (each bag is usually labeled 30 quarts), and work it into the loose soil with your garden fork or favorite hand tool.
If you build wood-sided beds you will have to buy more filler than if using mounded beds. Most garden centers sell topsoil and compost by the tractor scoop, which is usually a cubic yard of material. They’ll dump right into the back of your pickup truck, or even deliver (for a price). Good nurseries will even mix the topsoil and compost so you can buy a 50-50 mix, which is what you need. A wood-sided bed 36 inches wide, 12 feet long and 8 inches deep will need about a yard of material, so you could buy a yard of each and mix them as you fill the boxes.
If you have a heavy clay soil, making the wood-sided beds and buying all new soil and compost makes sense. If not, the mounded beds make sense in terms of cost and labor. If you make wood-sided beds you can place them right on the lawn without removing the sod if you want to save labor. Just scalp the grass with the lawnmower and put a thick layer of newspapers over the lawn, then fill the box. Long carrots might hit the bottom, but most other plants won’t be bothered.
What to plant? Make a list of the veggies you like best and that taste best freshly picked. If you plant tomatoes, dedicate at least 24 inches of a row to each plant. And buy those wire cages for your tomatoes, so they won’t flop over and shade out your carrots next door. I like to plant lettuce seedlings all around the tomatoes at the beginning of the season while the tomatoes are still small. By the time the plants get big, the lettuce will have been eaten. Plant tomatoes on the north end of the garden so they will shade other plants less. Give each plant a handful of bagged organic fertilizer, stirred in at planting time.Peppers, on the other hand, like to be crowded. Plant them just 8-12 inches apart so their elbows will touch when they are producing. Unlike carrots or tomatoes, you should never give peppers any fertilizer. If you do, you’ll get big plants but little fruit. Don’t bother starting peppers from seed — they are slow and fussy indoors. Just buy plants from your local nursery. Want some hot peppers? You can buy a 6-pack of jalapeños and share plants with friends, or trade them for sweet peppers.
Most zucchinis don’t send out long vines the way cukes or winter squashes do. A single zucchini will provide you with all the summer squash you will need — and then some. Dedicate 3 feet of a row to your plant. And pick them small! Big ones get mealy, but the little guys — 6 inches or less — are sweet and tasty. Zukes, like all plants, want to produce more zukes, then take a well-deserved rest — sort of like our mothers. If you let the fruits get big, they’ll think they have done their job and stop producing.
Cukes want to spread their wings, so I recommend trellising them in a small garden. Buy one plant in a pot, and then train it up a trellis. Last summer I used two 6-foot long hardwood grade stakes (available at your garden center or hardware store). I strung wires between the stakes for their little tendrils to hold onto and set the stakes about 30 inches apart. You can also use string or ties to help them support their weight.
Smaller plants like carrots, onions, Swiss chard, lettuce and herbs can be planted in rows that run across the width of your long beds. For first-time gardeners, I recommend buying plants rather than seeds for most of those. But carrots, beets and radishes need to be started by seed. Radishes sprout quickly and will be all eaten by early July, when you can plant some more lettuce.
Thinning your plants that you start by seed is important. Carrots, if they are growing too close together, will compete with their brothers and sisters much like weeds. Because carrot seeds are so small, I recommend buying pelletized seeds. Those are seeds that are coated with clay, making them the size of BBs, instead of the dot at the end of this sentence. Much easier to space an inch apart. Thin root crops to an inch apart as soon as you can grab onto them, and certainly by July 4th. Later, thin to 2 inches apart. Johnny’s Selected Seeds (www.johnnyseeds.com) sells pelletized seeds.
Pole beans, unlike bush beans, will keep on producing beans throughout the late summer and fall — so long as you keep picking them every 3 days or so. You can make a teepee for them by drilling an eighth-inch hole near the top of three or four 8-foot grade stakes, poking a piece of a wire clothes hanger through the holes and bending over the ends of the wire. Just spread out the stakes, push them into the soil and plant 4 or 5 beans around each stake.
Oh, and about those weeds: the easiest way to prevent a problem is to mulch. Put down six sheets of newspaper and cover it with straw, mulch hay or last fall’s leaves. This will keep the soil dark, turning off the switch that weed seeds have to tell them when to germinate. Mulch also holds in the moisture during dry times. But when a few weeds do turn up — and they will — be sure to pull them before they bloom and make more seeds. That’s preventive maintenance.
Because you have created a loose, fluffy soil in a raised bed, your soil will tend to dry out a little faster than it would otherwise. So water in dry times! I like a hose with a watering wand on the end that allows me to just water the plants, not the walkways. When seedlings are new in the garden you may need to water nearly every day. Later, once a week may be fine.
Gardening is said to be a middle-aged sport. After all, what mother of three toddlers has time to weed? But if you want to reduce your food costs and feed your family well, a garden is great. And done this way, you can maintain it in 15 minutes a day. I promise. Just keep at it daily and you’ll be surprised and delighted at how good your garden looks and how much food you can grow — right in the middle of the lawn! NHCommunity GardensWhat could be more beautiful than a healthy, growing garden to replace vacant and unkempt urban lots? A community garden, of course. Not only are these shared plots beautiful to look at, but also are great money-savers, serve as a source of nutrition and create a sense of unity between fellow gardeners.
However, the founding motivation for these shared lots were not to beautify cities. Beginning in England during the Industrial Revolution, the primary purpose of these shared gardens was to help feed poor families in growing urban areas. In 1893, urban community gardens began in the United States as a relief effort during a brief 1893-97 depression.
The trend has surely stuck because today there are more than 10,000 of these community gardens across the US and Canada. Local "green thumbs" share or split up vacant lots and fill them with any plant ranging from apples to zucchini.
The only problem here would be making sure no one nabs your fresh, ruby-red tomatoes because in most community gardens fences and scarecrows are not allowed.
two sites in New Hampshire:
Dover's Cassily Community Garden
(Single plot shared by all members)
Hillside Drive/ Beckwith Park, Dover
GHHF Community Organic Vegetable Garden
137 Kensington Rd., Hampton Falls
No garden near you? No problem! Start your own community garden and then register it at http://communitygarden.org
Rethinking Urban Poverty:
A Look at Community Gardens
http://acga.localharvest.org/garden/M1753Ten Tips for the New Gardener1. Start small. Big gardens get out of control fast and you can get bigger next year.
2. Never use any chemicals. Mother Nature doesn’t, you don’t have to either.
3. Compost is your best friend. Always add some at planting time. Make it, buy it.
4. Bagged organic fertilizers are good, too. They offer much more than chemical fertilizers.
5. Visit your garden every day. Pick bugs, pull weeds.
6. Don’t let weeds blossom and set seeds. Ever.
7. Ten minutes of weeding a day, every day, will keep the weeds under control.
8. Mulch. It keeps down weeds, holds in moisture and adds organic matter to the soil.
9. Plant lettuce seeds every two weeks and you’ll have lettuce from spring to fall.
10. Buy a cheap rain gauge. Veggies need an inch of water a week — from the sky or from your hose.Get More Henry HomeyerHenry Homeyer, aka “The Gardening Guy,” is a garden designer, consultant and associate editor of People, Places and Plants magazine. His new book, “The New Hampshire Gardener’s Companion” [$14.95] can be purchased by visiting www.gardening-guy.com or by writing him at his Cornish Flat home at PO Box 364.
This article appears in the December 2009 issue of New Hampshire Magazine