Start a Vegetable Garden the Healthy Way

Posted by on Jul 9, 2015 in Grow Better Greens Podcast | Comments Off on Start a Vegetable Garden the Healthy Way

In Episode 3, we talk about How to Start a Vegetable Garden the Healthy way with the intent to grow high brix vegetables. In this week’s Backyard Brainstorm, a gardener in New Jersey needs your help solving her creeping bamboo problem; your advice might even win you our Collection of Heirloom Leafy Green Seeds from Amazon. You can listen here:

How to Start a Vegetable Garden the Healthy Way

Site Your Garden Correctly3:00
Identify What Lies Beneath4:50
DIY Considerations
Choose the Right Bed or Planter11:06
Veggie Plants that Spill, Fill and Thrill13:04
This week’s Backyard Brainstorm: Creeping Bamboo19:10

View the full transcription for this episode here.

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Site Your Garden Correctly:

Choose a spot for your garden that receives 6 hours or more of sunlight a day.

Sunlight is non-negotiable for plants. You can’t replace the essential effects the sun has on your garden with any amendment – the only solution that I can think of is to use lights outdoors. I don’t recommend this, though!

The truth is that you can grow food with as little as 4 hours of sunlight each day, but your options become more limited. If this is the hand that has been dealt to you in your current garden site, you’ll need to stick with the following options:

Greens, including: lettuce, kale, spinach, chard & collards (Check out our own heirloom collection on Amazon!)
Peas & beans: unlike Bush beans, Pole beans and peas will need a trellis or other support to climb on
Herbs: mint, parsley, oregano, chives, cilantro, lemon balm & marjoram all perform in partial shade
Root vegetables: beets, turnips, carrots, potatoes, celeriac & radishes will all develop in low light, just a bit slower than usual

Another piece of advice for low-sun gardens is to intentionally space out your plantings. You’ve already got a challenge on your hands with your limited sun exposure, so you’ll need to be careful not to cast more shadows on your plants by planting them to close to their neighbors.

No matter what you plant, you should expect smaller plants with lower yields if you’re struggling with sunlight. This doesn’t mean for one second that it’s not a worthwhile venture!

If sun is no problem (8 – 10 hours of sun/day) you are psyched! But, you’ll still need to do a tiny bit of homework. Simply note whether your garden receives morning sun, afternoon sun, or a bit of both. This will help you when seeking advice from local gardening experts and when you’re mapping out what to plant where.

Be sure to make note of any shadows that are cast and interfere with your gorgeous sunshine – buildings, trees, and lawn furniture all come into play. A greedy, heat-loving tomato won’t do well if it spends all day in the cold shadow of your neighbor’s house.

Identify What Lies Beneath:

Siting your garden will help you to make some basic decisions about what kind of beds or planters will work best for you. This section reads like a Choose- Your- Own – Adventure. Find your garden-siting scenario below and check out my suggestions.

Yard/ Lawn/ Dirt Patch:

The ability to start your garden on top of (or directly in, if you’re soil is ready as-is) the ground can give you a huge advantage, because your plants will be able to access nutrients and ground water as far as their roots will take them, instead of being confined to just 8 inches of soil mix inside of a contained bed.

This is where we really shine – helping home gardeners balance the minerals in their soils with the intention of growing more nutrients into their food. Sign up below to watch a free video series describing this DIY process:

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The first thing you’ll need to know is whether or not your soil can be trusted. Heavy metals, toxins, poisons – any chance you have those? In urban settings, this can be a huge factor and may dissuade you from planting directly on the ground without a barrier, such as a plastic tarp or liner, beneath your bed. Most university soil labs are perfectly capable of doing a basic Heavy Metals test, although some only offer it as an add-on to their standard test. (Google “your state + university + soil test” to find the closest testing service.)

If all is well (non-poisonous) in your soil then you have some choices to make. This is exactly how I would proceed:

Loose, sandy soil or loam – where grass and weeds can be easily pulled up using just your hands: you can build a Lasagna Garden. This means that you will line your bed with wet cardboard and newspapers to smother the grass below. You’ll then add your growing medium (soil mix, covered in the next section) right on top and rest assured that the papers below will eventually break down and become a valuable part of your soil.

Here’s a closer look at how Lasagna Gardening works:

Yard + Newspaper and/or Cardboard + Soil + Compost + Straw/ Leaves/Mulch/ Wood Chips or the Like

Tightly-bound clay soil – with grass and weeds so deep-rooted that you need a shovel, spade, or pick-axe to remove them and lots of breaks for massaging your back. This is my scenario and the Lasagna Gardening process above was an epic fail at my house. You, sweet gardener, will need to Double Dig. This means that underneath your garden bed, you’ll have to dig two shovel-lengths down and mix the soil all up to loosen it and create a soil structure that plant roots can penetrate.

Here’s what double digging looks like:

Remove Sod + Remove One Shovelful + Loosen Next Shovelful + Amend and Return First Shoveful
+ Water Til Muddy + Plant + Compost + Mulch

I know, it sucks. But it works really, really well and there’s no sense in putting any effort into a hopeless cause that won’t ever perform for you. Double digging means that you can grow anything – even deep-rooted plants like carrots that are usually a tragic joke in clay soil. Think of this as a short-term investment which will yield long-term results.

Ideal Method When Gardening for Health in Any soil: When you’re creating your bed is the best time to sample and amend the soil beneath your beds. After a year or two, it will be wise to re-test and determine what became of the marriage between both soils, but your ability to amend one layer down at the outset will put you way ahead of the game in terms of growing for health.

Concrete/ Brick/ or Tile Patio:

The biggest problem gardeners who need to place their beds on a flat, impervious surface face is creating good drainage. Water will run through your beds (not always the clean, odorless kind) and it will need a means of escape. Two things can happen when water can’t find it’s way out: 1) a big, ugly stain develops on your patio and 2) your plants will drown. So, right from the get-go, having a good drainage plan is non-negotiable.

Slatted, Raised Deck:

I am a proud deck gardener. I think it was one of my very first gardening projects and let’s just say, the budget was out of control. We built a series of multi-level planters around the perimeter of our deck for growing greens, edible flowers, and cascading vegetables and it’s beautiful. It’s also always full of bird seed from our winter feeders and is probably definitely rotting all of the wooden deck boards underneath.

I don’t really recommend this for anyone who doesn’t have the budget to replace their deck slats and/or rebuild their planters from natural wood every 10 years. Deck planters are ideal for those of you with plastic composite decks, which will never rot. We still don’t have exterior siding on the second floor of our house, so mostly we just don’t look up when we’re sipping wine amid the plants in our deck garden.

The biggest problem with my deck garden is that both wood and soil are heavy. I could and should (yet don’t) empty the soil out before winter when it will become wet and frozen and weigh even more. Removing the soil would definitely have helped to reduce the overall weight on my deck. My advice for saving your deck is to find a lightweight store-bought planter that you can move and store elsewhere whenever you need to (suggestions below!).

DIY Considerations:

You’re the DIY type? Yes! Awesome. Here are a couple of things to consider if you’d like to construct your own patio planter:

Your bed should be raised up off the ground at least 2 inches for drainage.

You’ll need to construct a bottom for your planter in order to hold the soil.

Since you’re going to the trouble anyhow, you might want to include a way to affix a low (1 -2 foot tall) ‘hardware cloth’ mesh fence around the perimeter of your bed. This is only important if you’re concerned about neighborhood critters eating and peeing on your garden!

I suggest that you read through the highlights of the store-bought planters below to inspire your design. While some of these showcase awesome features, don’t be afraid to go for complete simplicity if you feel overwhelmed. You can still have a great garden without every detail being pre-planned.

Choose the Right Bed or Planter:

Huge disclaimer here: I’m about to use products from a Vermont company (Gardener’s Supply Company – GSC) where I worked a few summers back as examples for things to look at in elevated beds and planters for your patio. I’ll be sure to point out the upsides and downsides of their models so that you’ll understand what to look for when you shop. If you choose to buy any of their products, to be clear, I don’t get a dime; I’m just familiar with their products, so it makes it easy for me to use them as examples .

If you’ve had any experience with another company’s planters, good or bad, please reach out and tell me! (Update, sounds like Gronomics is the bomb and I can personally vouch for them, too.)

Elevated Garden Beds/ Planters: (no bunnies eating your plants! No cats peeing in your beds!)

The most important feature in a waist or knee-high elevated bed is that it comes with a liner so that soil isn’t falling through onto your patio. Dirt and water will still appear underneath, but a liner makes everything immensely neater and keeps soil where it should be – feeding plant roots.

Second to that, an added bonus is that some of the GSC models also come with ‘Greenhouse Covers’ – a system for extending the season and getting more out of your patio garden. You’ll be able to plant great varieties of cool weather greens at the extreme ends of your regular gardening season underneath a cover. Best of all, in my opinion, is that really early on, when you’ve just planted tender and tiny, baby plants, you’ll be able to protect them from wind, hail and driving rain if a storm pops up. I love this level of protection and find that I use it often. It’s a great way to quickly eliminate plant stress.

I thought the best values here were the Veg Trugs, especially the full size ones. You could actually grow a decent amount of food in them! The link below is for a similar planter made in the USA by Gronomics and shipped through Amazon:

Gronomics Elevated Planter is a best seller, probably because of its high quality and free shipping with Prime.

Gardener’s also sells a line they call Terrazza Planters. I have mixed feelings about them and here’s why: they work really, really well but they’re just not easy to put together. If you can get one assembled, then you’re so psyched because they have this awesome self-watering reservoir that makes your gardening job easy. They’re light and easy to move around (when empty) and they come in different colors if that matters to you.

But, I still don’t understand how to put one together. It’s not about tool know-how or big, bulging muscles, but is rather one of those “you just gotta have the right touch” situations. I clearly don’t have the right touch. If you think you might know someone with the right touch, then I say ‘go for it’.

Terrazza Trough Planter from Gardeners Supply

Raised Garden Beds:

There is a direct-contact-with-the-ground option sold by this company that might be a good option for those who still want to put their beds on the ground. Remember to consider neighborhood critter activity when siting your garden on the ground. I have no experience with these beds, but hot dang, the price is right:

Grow Beds for patios and pavement from Gardeners Supply

When planting containers, designers often make sure that they have some ‘thrillers’, ‘spillers’ and ‘fillers’.

You can do this with veggies and herbs, too! Here’s a great list of plants to consider if you’re gardening in an elevated container. Many of them are compact, productive, and highly rated for flavor:

Veggie Plants that Spill, Fill and Thrill

Tomatoes that spill: Cherry Cascade, Early Cascade, Sprite, Glacier, and Grushovka

Eggplants that thrill: Fairy Tale, Emerald Isle, Ophelia, Hansel, Gretel,
Little Fingers, and Orient Express.

Peppers that thrill: Lady Bell, Mini Bell, Apple, Gypsy, Sweet Chocolate, Habanero (spicy), and Thai Bird (spicy).

Herbs & Lettuces that fill: thyme, Lemon thyme, oregano, Pistou basil, Thai basil, Purple basil (can be thrilling!), Romaine, Buttercrunch (bibb), Little Gem, Oak Leaf, Red Oak Leaf, Summer Crisp, Black Seeded Simpson

Backyard Brainstorm: Case of the Creeping Bamboo!

Liz, our resident Jersey Shore gardener has planted bamboo along the perimeter of her small suburban yard. While this creates a soothing oasis that cuts down on neighborly noise and unwanted views, her beautiful bamboo is starting to creep – potentially into other people’s yards! Do you have some advice for how Liz can control her bamboo and keep it from spreading? Leave your advice in the comments below and you could win a free 6 pack of Liz’s Heirloom Leafy Greens Seeds collection, available on Amazon!

Thanks for reading our blog. We wish you much success in Growing Better Greens!