Planning Your Garden – Part II – Choosing a style
Great! You have picked out your location, now let’s consider of what type of garden to put in.
There are many styles of vegetable gardens. In the “old days” row gardens were common and you still see them today, particularly where there is plenty of space to put under cultivation. Also popular are raised beds. A particular type of raised bed, Square Foot Gardens™ made popular by Mel Bartholomew in his series of books and television programs dating back to the 1970’s are enjoying a bit of a renaissance today. While I am not a complete convert to this style of Mel’s, he certainly has many useful ideas that I have adopted. They just make sense, and I like things that make sense.
Also highly effective are container gardens. They are appropriate for people with limited space to garden. A particular type of container is a “self-watering” container or a sub irrigated planter “SIP.”
Let’s talk about these styles in more detail. Before we get started, I want to point out that this is not an exhaustive list and each of these methods do work, given proper care and consideration. What is important for you is to choose what method will be right for you!
Row gardens, or why I choose not to
Row gardens are decidedly old school. In the past, you would map out a garden, till up or turn the whole area, use string to mark out the rows and plant your rows of tomatoes, corn, beans, radishes etc. Most of the produce consumed in this country is grown using this method. It does work, and is possibly best for growing on a large scale. There are however, some issues with it.
You need a lot of space. Way more space than I have in my limited suburban yard.
While you can do it all by hand, a tiller or a tractor makes things much easier. I do not have either.
When you water, it’s hard to not water the paths between the rows as well. That is a waste. It also goes for any fertilizer you might broadcast.
If you have half an acre or more to put under cultivation, a tiller/tractor (or a young, strong back), don’t mind wasting water or fertilizer, want to spend more time than needed gardening and want to put in a row garden go ahead. It’s not for me.
A raised bed garden has the planting area raised above the walking area. If made narrow enough, the beds need not ever be stepped into. This helps keep the soil loose and friable. They are easier to water and fertilize directly, and because soil is never compacted, it is easy to pull weeds. They are also great for small yards as they can be made almost any shape though square and rectangular are most common.
I firmly believe raised beds are the best method for a personal vegetable garden, and there are several ways to make them.
You can start out as if you are going to make a row garden, then using a shovel, dig out the paths tossing the soil up onto where you want the beds. Be sure to make the beds no more than four (4) feet wide. This way you can reach the center of the beds from either side. The difference in depth between the bottom of the path and the top of the bed can be significant – 18” or more.
This is the type of garden I made my first year, and it worked pretty well. The beds did have a crown to them, that is, they were curved from the sides to the top so there was some portion that could not be seeded. Some erosion was evident after heavy rains when the beds would crumble into the paths. Not a big deal but avoidable.
Boxed Raised beds
A raised bed in a box is useful for a few reasons, you can use the whole bed, there are no “sides” that are hard to plant, it can be installed over a lawn with no tilling or sod removal; it’s easy to reach into, and you don’t use ground soil so weeds are reduced. They are easy to plant and weed. If made the right size, there is no chance for walking in the growing beds so soil compaction is never a problem.
A disadvantage is once they are in place they can be difficult to move. Of course an in-ground garden can just be raked and planted in grass seed should you decide to give up on your vegetables. The boxes however would need to be disassembled should you desire to stop gardening. But who would do that?
Raised boxed beds are my garden style of choice. Along with…
Mel Bartholomew’s Squarefoot garden uses a particular kind of raised bed. As I mentioned before, he has written multiple books and had a TV program on PBS for years. His system works, no doubt about it. But he has very particular aspects and dimensions that I feel are a bit inhibiting and can be improved on. For example – his beds only have six inches of soil, are made up of a very specific mix “Mel’s Mix”™ and according to him “must have a grid or they are not a Squarefoot garden.” Very well. It does work, I followed his directions to the letter in the 2011 growing season and did pretty well. However, I believe I can make small adjustments and improve upon his system for my situation.
The changes I’ve made include:
- make the beds deeper than 6” – I’ve gone with 8” for most and 16” for the deep potato bed
- don’t worry about five kinds of manure/ compost – do the best you can and have more than one
- having a single crop per square is fine but let’s have 3-4 contiguous squares of the same veggie
- I don’t bother with flowers in my raised beds, I’m growing veggies here…
- While he makes a big deal out of having the grid, I’ll only mark off different growing areas
Container gardens are an excellent choice for those people who wish to grow some vegetables but may lack the room for a full size garden. Folks in townhouses or apartments with balconies can manage to grow some produce given the right conditions. The same considerations for a general garden apply here as well. You need good light, good soil and good drainage. I’m pretty sure someone who has a balcony on the north side of an apartment building would have a very difficult time growing sun loving peppers and tomatoes though lettuce may grow.
Additional reasons for using containers include ease of maintenance; mobility (put them on wheels!) and availability. There are many sizes of containers – from 12” pots to buckets to barrels. Often it is possible to repurpose materials to use as growing vessels. It’s fun to see what other gardeners come up with, an old wheelbarrow as a spinach bed is whimsical and useful at the same time!
There are at least two things to keep in mind:
- Containers tend to dry out faster, so you have to water more frequently, perhaps daily in hot weather.
- Generally, containers are smaller than a raised bed or the available space is smaller, so your choices of larger plants may be limited.
By the way, containers are also a good way to expand your garden even if you are using boxed raised beds. In the summer of 2011 I visited a most extraordinary garden, and he had expanded out into his driveway using containers to grow figs and eggplants.
I used a few containers this summer and found them to be successful for tomatoes and peppers, but not so much for zucchini and cucumbers. I’ll learn from that and plant only the successful crops next year, opening up the boxed raised bed for other crops.
There is a specific container known as SIPS (Sub-irrigated planters). Included in this group are Earthboxes™ and Growboxes™. You can also make you own by nesting buckets or bigger containers, typically made of plastic. These containers also work, but don’t be fooled, they also require close monitoring. From experience, tomato plants can suck a full reservoir dry during the course of a single hot day.
I hope I’ve given you something to think about and made the issue of garden style a little clearer. Based on your situation, what style(s) will you choose?
Stay tuned for the next installment of Planning Your Garden where we will discuss soil, the key to a healthy garden.
Until next time, Keep Digging and Eat Well!