Spring Planning

We moved into our new house last May. It was built for us, and I cut a deal with the missus: I’d give her more-or-less free reign over the living space, but the garage, basement and yard were mine. To be honest, I didn’t have a whole lot of leverage; she’d make most of those decisions anyway. But I digress.

We had the yard landscaped right away to avoid several issues, including fighting the everpresent weeds that immediately spring up over any patch of bare dirt, my inner procastinator, and the rock-solid deadline imposed by my homeowners’ association. I asked the landscaper to include as many native perrennial flowers and bushes as possible, so we got some serviceberries and other fauna-friendly plants to go with the usual lillies and other decorative plants. These plants were put into some wide garden beds around the house that were otherwise empty save the coating of chipped wood mulch. The bare spots were to be filled in later by yours truly. We inherited two stands of three pine trees each in the back corners of our lot. These trees are currently between 6-10 feet tall. The city planted a silver maple in the front yard as a ‘boulevard tree’, and we added a clump of birches in the front, and two shade trees for the back yard, namely a linden and another silver maple. The linden was planted fairly close to the SW corner of the house to act as an eventual shade tree. I’d eventually like to create some small permaculture guilds around the two trees in the back, but that will probably be a year or two away.

My main task for this coming year is to establish a vegetable garden in the back yard. My wife was initially less than thrilled by this idea, but a summer of eating fresh, locally grown produce from the area farmers’ market has changed her mind. My 4 year-old son is also very excited by the idea of daddy growing some green beans, so that probably helped the cause as well.

I’m a novice gardener; my only previous experience, beyond acting as forced labor for my mother and grandfather in my teenage years, was growing some tomatoes and peppers in containers in 2005. The 2006 season was wiped out by both our move and the birth of our daughter. I know I want to grow an organic garden, for it provides (in my opinion at least) healthier and better-tasting products. To this end I’ve gathered a small library of books dealing with organic gardening, permaculture, and other related topics.

Armed with this knowledge, I’ve been trying to devise a plan for the garden in the backyard. I would prefer to not do raised beds, for that means having to buy and move a lot of black dirt into the backyard. After reading both “The New Organic Grower” and “Gardening When It Counts,” I think I’m convinced that having beds in the ground makes more sense from both a cost and labor standpoint. The major problem with this strategy is that the soil is terrible; like most new suburban developments, the dirt in the yard is mostly fill with little to no organic matter, except for the sod, which is only a few inches thick. I’ll have to till in some humus of some sort, and I’d prefer to not use power tools if I can avoid it. With my luck, I’d accidentally run across either the phone line or one of the sprinkler lines and turn it into hamburger with a rototiller. With that in mind, I’m looking at doing some honest hard work (which my out-of-shape butt could use) and hand-mixing in some organic matter and then planting some green manure of some sort. With the soil starting out in such rough shape, I’m not expecting great things this first year. Just getting the beds started and doing what I can to improve the conditions will be great, and any yields I get will be a bonus.

I’m shooting for probably two beds 40-42″ wide and between 15 and 20 feet long. I’ve got a large enough strip of sunny land in the backyard to handle that without dominating everything. I also have an area to plant some raspberry cuttings I’m getting from my sister (that were originally from my late grandmother) and some hops vines.

That’s about as far as I’ve gotten on the planning so far. I know more or less what I want to grow, but I’ll save that for a later post. I like salsa, my wife likes fresh herbs, and my son likes green beans, so that gives you an idea as to what I’m shooting for. I’ll be fleshing out this post and posting it on Groovy Green later this month. In the meantime, if anyone has any hints or advice on the whole raised bed/no raised bed argument or anything else I’ve mentioned, please leave a comment. I’d appreciate the help.

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6 Responses to Spring Planning

  1. Beo says:

    We were in a very similar situation 2 years ago. I talked with our local coffee shop and started to collect there left over grounds and sandwich scraps and now get 20+ gallons of oganic matter a week for compost. Grounds make great soil! Also our village has a giant leaf pile that I take 3-4 cu yards from every year and just dump onto our beds-it breaks down overwinter pretty well.

    Go heavy on the legumes-your Tomatoes, Corn and Melons need more nitrogen than you have right now. The tomatoes might work if you side dress with some pelletized chicken manure or compost tea.

    We kinda do this for a cottage business. If you have any questions drop over to http://www.somedaygardens.com and shoot me an email. If you are anywhere near Madison we could even get together and chat it over.

    We have raised beds, but mostly due to the fact that I planted in a swale and I need the runoff protection.

  2. Bart says:

    I’ll enquire around some of the local coffee establishments in the spring and see what I can find out. That’s a great idea!

    I’m a little farther up !-94 than Mad-town… I’m in the Twin Cities metro area, but I will send you some mail once I get my thoughts a little more organized.

    I don’t need the swale protection, so I think I’ll stay with the in-ground beds.

    I’ll put in a lot of beans to help improve the soil this season.. perhaps I’ll do the tomatoes in pots this year… I was able to grow some decent paste tomatoes in a ~3 gallon pot.

    Thanks for the advice!

  3. Regardless of the method you use to dig, you may want to call your local utility and have them mark out your buried lines before you start. Many of them will do it for free. In Wisconsin, it’s called Digger’s Holtline.

    In-ground beds are certainly the easiest way to start. Beans are generally really tolerant of poor soil, but you may also want to try a green manure plant like alfalfa as a supplement. It’s a legume with a taproot that will help break up the subsoil and start bringing nutrients to the surface. Maybe plant 10-20 percent of your beds with it this year and till it under early next spring, two or more weeks ahead of planting non-legume plants like corn or tomatoes. Repeat in another section next year.

    I’ve found the most satisfying green bean to be the Italian bush varieties. Here’s one I’ve grown for a couple of seasons. Prolific and very tasty.

    For salsa, cilantro is pretty easy, and I’ve heard tomatillias are too— I’ll be trying those this year.

  4. Bart says:

    We have something similar in Minnesota, Gopher State One Call http://www.gopherstateonecall.com They will help with the power and phone lines, but I’m on my own for the sprinklers.

    The points made by you and Beo on green manures is well-taken. I’ll definitely interplant some form of legume between any crops I choose to grow this season, and I think I’ll help the process along by mixing in some compost to begin with. I’ll also top-dress with compost in the fall once my composter has some finished product to dispense.

    Tomatillos are pretty easy to grow, but seem to be very sensitive to soil moisture levels, at least in containers. I tried growing some in 2005 but made the rookie mistake of trying to put too many large plants into one container, and the Roma tomatoes won.

  5. Liz says:

    Even though you want to stay away from power tools, I’d highly recommend using a rototiller for the first year only. It helps to break the sod and get you off to a good start (and trust me, there is still PLENTY of manual labor to be done). I’d recommend you get a couple of yards of high-quality compost from an organically-certified operation (here in Maine there are two in my local area, so you might have a similar availability). After the first year, no more tilling with machinery… it compacts the soil and creates hardpan.

    I recently read that while coffee grounds can be good, as with anything, too much is not a good thing, so just be careful.

    From experience (and based on Eliot Coleman’s recommendations), we’ve found that 30″ beds are the perfect size for straddling, and working with a broadfork. Any wider and you have to make two passes. Forking is hard work to have to do it twice over!

    Do a soil test up front. Find out where your baseline is, if you have to lime or sulphur to change the pH. The big three (N-P-K) are important, yes, but if your soil’s Calcium or Magnesium is off, you’ll have troubles, too.

    If you grow in containers, I know it’s hard, but try to keep one plant per container. The root matter tends to be just as bountiful as what grows above the soil line, and if you crowd them, your plants won’t be happy.

    Most importantly, good luck and keep it fun! 🙂

  6. Bart says:

    Good points, Liz. I’ll definitely do a soil test.

    I’ve seen the broadforkin “The New Organic Grower” and am thinking about purchasing one at some point this year. A wheelbarrow comes first, though, along with the compost.

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