How to Plan a Vegetable Garden

Today I did the unthinkable and made good on one of my many New Years resolutions: I planned our 128 square foot vegetable garden a year in advance. Here’s how I did it:

Identifying Seasons
Using an Ecology Action pamphlet as my guide, Learning to Grow All Your Own Food: A One-Bed Model For Compost, Diet and Income Crops, I divided the year into three seasons. Most of you reading this blog probably have two: a cool season and a warm season. Here in Los Angeles we have:

  • warm: April-July
  • hot and dry: July-October
  • cool: October-March

Picking Planting Dates
Using the handy Digital Gardener’s Southern California Vegetable Planting Schedule I chose planting dates (in April, mid-summer and Septmber/October) for each season and marked them down on my Stella Natura calendar. I identified the vegetables I’d like to grow choosing only those veggies that have done well in the past and that we like to eat.

A planning form from Ecology Action

Deciding How Much to Plant
To decide how much to plant I rely on the charts in John Jeavons’ book  How to Grow More Vegetables. I took his three day Biointensive gardening class early last year and recommend it highly, especially for learning how to use the, at first, intimidating charts in the book. Jeavons handed out a handy planning form during the class that works with the tables in the book to help organize your garden. With experience, I also now have an idea about how many square feet of, say, lettuce it takes to keep me and Kelly in salad for a season. While not everyone likes Jeavons, I can say that my best years in our vegetable garden have been when I follow his methods (minus frequent double digging).

Planting Compost Crops
Jeavons stresses the importance of learning how to grow your own compost and fertilizer. I adapted the food/compost ratios suggested in the Ecology Action pamphlet to match our climate. Instead of growing a big winter compost crop (Ecology Action is in cooler Northern California) I decided to treat the late summer/early fall as our “winter”. Growing vegetables in the hot, dry late summer here in Southern California is, frankly, a pain in the ass and water intensive. It’s a time when I’d rather just take a break from vegetable gardening and just grow a bunch of drought tolerant sunflowers, amaranth, cowpeas etc. On the other hand, winter here is the best time to grow all those cool season crops like lettuce and arugula. Using Ecology Action’s suggestions I came up with a compost/food growing ratio:

  • spring/summer – 33.3% food, 66.7% compost
  • summer/fall 100% compost
  • fall/winter 66.7% food, 33.3% compost

The compost crops will reduce my gardening workload, build fertility and assure that there’s always something growing and no sun-baked bare soil.

Apologies for a Southern Californiacentric post, but you can use the same process to identify dates and how much seed you need for any climate. In fact, if you know of a good vegetable planting schedule for your climate please leave a link in the comments.

Update: Scott left a link for readers in Texas. The Texas A&M Extension Service has a vegetable planting guide here.

And meansoybean left a link for vegetable gardeners in Montreal which you can see here.  

Thanks to Hak, here’s Southern Nevada

Kristen sent one for all of the US based on your USDA zone here.

SunCalc: A Sun Trajectory Calculator

In attempting to figure out how to align a garden path with the sunrise of the summer soltice (that’s the way we roll at the the Root Simple compound), I came across a neat Google Maps hack: SunCalc, the creation of Vladimir Agafonkin.

According to the description on the site,

SunCalc is a little app that shows sun movement and sunlight phases during the given day at the given location.

You can see sun positions at sunrise (yellow), specified time (orange) and sunset (red). The thin orange curve is the current sun trajectory, and the yellow area around is the variation of sun trajectories during the year. The closer a point is to the center, the higher is the sun above the horizon. The colors on the time slider above show sunlight coverage during the day.

I can see SunCalc being useful for laying out a garden, window and solar panel placement, evaluating potential real estate, or for planning your own personal Stonehenge.

Rearranging the yard, yet again!

Backyard redesign, in progress.

Mrs. Homegrown here:

This is all my fault. Last fall we re-did the back yard, but I decided it still needed a few refinements. I feel a little like a sitcom wife who can’t make her mind up about the draperies (cue Erik, the long-suffering husband, moaning in the background)–but we can’t be afraid to fix our mistakes.

Perhaps I shouldn’t say mistake. There was nothing wrong with the last design. It’s just that after a year of living with it I saw how it could be improved. These are the three things that the redesign addresses:

1) Flow. Movement within the garden. The old layout looked great but lacked flow. I think gardens should have paths. They should invite you to move through them, lead you on a small journey of discovery, rather than challenging you to make left-right decisions, as if you were playing Pac-Man. The primary change in our layout is that I’ve established a new curving path that will carry you through the garden. It connects with the pre-existing path to form a loop.

One advantage of establishing a path is that once the “people space” is established, all the rest of the garden becomes useable plant space. We actually have more growing space now.

2) Perennials: The last redesign put a lot of emphasis on growing space for annual plants. In turned out to be a little more space than we needed. Annuals are a lot of work, especially here, where we garden year round and a bed can cycle through 4 crops a year. We’ll still have dedicated annual beds, but I’m going to reassign some of the beds formerly given over to annuals to useful/edible perennials.

3) Experimentation. Of late we’re very intrigued with the idea of transitioning to a natural form of gardening that is hands-off—rather like our Backwards Beekeeping methodology. We’re greatly influenced by The Ranch edible garden at the Huntington Gardens, created by Scott Kleinrock, and Erik is currently taking a class with Scott and Darren Butler that expands on some of these ideas. It would take a whole post, perhaps two or three to explain this in detail. And we’ll write those! But suffice it to say for now that it will be useful for us to have more space to experiment with.

So above you see a preview of the garden. We’ve not done much but lay down the path, move the bird bath and pull up the summer crops. Most of the greenery left consists of tomatoes which haven’t yet given up the ghost and a sturdy stand of okra. 

Stay tuned for planting! We’ll talk about our perennial choices, our layout and this whole hands-off gardening experiment as we go along.

Derek Jarman’s Garden

Photo by angusf

Avant-garde filmmaker Derek Jarman spent the last years of his life, after an HIV diagnosis, tending a bleak, wind-swept patch of land opposite a nuclear power plant on the southern coast of England. With just a few hardy plants and some scavenged pieces of wood he put together a stunning garden. He wrote a book about it called, simply, Derek Jarman’s Garden. You can also view a flikr photo set here.

Photo by angusf

Jarman’s friend Howard Sooley, writing in the Guardian, described the garden and cottage:

Prospect Cottage sits more or less in the middle, parched by baking sun and drying winds in summer, with no shade to be had for miles in any direction. In winter, sea storms rage, while biting Siberian winds push through the shingle and up through the floorboards of the fisherman’s cottages strung out along the road to the lighthouse.

You can’t take life for granted in Dungeness: every bloom that flowers through the shingle is a miracle, a triumph of nature. Derek knew this more than anyone.

Gardens give us food, medicine, solace, and the best of them, like Jarman’s, remind us of the impermanence of our lives and the inevitability of change.

Advances in Gardening Series: A Garlic Mystery

One of the new features of the garden this year is a long, trough-shaped bed that Erik installed along the edge of our patio. Its inaugural crop was garlic, which is generally a very easy plant to grow. We’ve done it before, many times, successfully. This year it didn’t work. The stalks failed to thrive. Many plants did not set bulbs at all, looking instead like green onions. The heads that were formed are quite small. 
We’re not sure why this happened. All spring Erik scoured books trying to find an obvious solution, but couldn’t make any clear diagnosis. Our winter/spring weather was strange: torrential rains and cold interspersed with heat waves. Our best guess is that this irregularity created conditions ripe for various sorts of molds and bacteria which garlic does not get along with. Another possibility is that the soil in this bed, which was transferred from another bed, may have pre-existing problems. C’est la vie, as we say around the compost heap. We’ll be buying garlic this year. 
We may send the soil in this bed off for testing, or just plant a legume cover crop in it for the summer, and decide what to do with it in the fall.
The bed newly constructed and planted. Alas, those were hopeful days…
It started off good, but just sort of declined steadily.
The original post about the garlic trough here.

Advances in Gardening Series: Thoughts on The Fan, and the problems of overabudance

The Fan late in the season, about to be pulled out. See earlier photos of The Fan here.

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Last fall we dug up a sort of feral herb bed and replaced it with a more formal, three-part bed that I call The Fan. The idea is to use this bed to plant annual herbs and flowers. While some of these plants are medicinal, it is also a bed dedicated more to aesthetics than the rest of our garden, so it’s also a place where I particularly want to plant flowers and plants of strong visual interest.

The first crop, planted in November, consisted of Calendula, chamomile and poppies. All three grew wonderfully well and provided a nice focal point for the garden. The Fan is right outside our back door, so is what most people see first. It looked professional–like we actually know what we were doing.

The downside of this season’s fan was in fact its abundance. It looked nice, but it provided too much plant material. In the case of both the chamomile and Calendula, I could have done with half the plants for my teas and salves. The poppies looked gorgeous and fed the bees, which is all I care about. I’m not complaining about those. Oh no. Wait. I will. Early in the season, thinning on a big bed of poppies was a real pain. I had to do it over and over again. It was worth it in the end, but next time I’ll not sow seed so thickly.

All in all, the result of this overplanting is that it became a make-work scenario. When I wasn’t thinning poppies, I had to be out there constantly, deadheading the chamomile and Calendula just to keep up with it all. Deadheading (chopping off the spent flowers) encourages more flower production, which is important if you want a continual harvest. It also collects seed, to keep it from spreading everywhere. Despite my efforts, I know a ton of seed fell, and when the rains come next year, I’ll be pulling Calendula and chamomile volunteers.

Moral is, know what you need, and plant no more than that. Unless you’ve got the time and energy to maintain larger, more flashy beds. I’m all about making it easy on myself, so next year I’ll plant less. Of course, it takes experiences like this to learn exactly what our needs are. This is just how it goes.

 What’s next:

The next round of plants in the fan have to be able to stand our hot, dry summer. This is a bit of headscratcher for me. Most of the plants I’m interested in grow best during our cool season. So what’s going in there next is sort of eccentric. One section will be an Echinacea patch. Another will be black cumin, which has historical medical uses, and the other is broom sorghum, because it looks to be gorgeous, and I want to make a broom. You’ll hear more about all these in future posts.

Adventures in Gardening Series: Wrap up on the Hippie Heart: Growing lentils and flax

The Hippie Heart got a crew cut

We’re clearing out our cool season crops for the warm season ones, so it’s time for some reporting on the new beds we’ve been profiling under the “Advances in Gardening” series. We’ll start with the Hippie Heart.

The Hippie Heart is a heart-shaped bed where I was intending to experiment with planting seeds straight out of the pantry, ill-advised as that might seem, just to see what happened. Erik grumbled at this plan–and for good reason, since a lot of seeds we can buy in bulk bins may be hybrid, sterile or irradiated. But I wanted to try it anyway. This first season I planted the Heart with bulk bin flax seed and lentils from a boxed lentils. The results were mixed. Sort of interesting. Not super-productive, but not a failure, because I learned lots.

First, both flax and lentils are very pretty plants. In its prime, the Heart was an attractive thing The flax grew straight and tall and made lots of periwinkle blue blooms that turned their faces to the sky.  (The mature were knocked over in a storm, so if I plant it again, I will do so with supports). The lentils, which were planted around the edges of the heart, made pleasant, rounded shapes, not big and sprawly like so many legumes can get. The folliage is delightfully delicate, almost lacy.

Fascinating flax

The flax proved fertile. The flowers died back and left pretty little round pods, each of which holds a few flax seeds. Of course, we didn’t plant enough flax to really do anything with it. I have a few bunches of harvested flax now, and if I beat the pods, I might harvest a cup of flax. This doesn’t seem worth the effort. The dried stalks are very pretty, and I might bring some of it inside to put in vases. Also, the chickens like them a lot, so the bulk of it will probably end up chicken fodder.

The harvest is in

What’s more important to me was the experience of growing flax. I hold it in my hands and say, This is linen. This is flaxseed. This is linseed oil. Henry the VIII’s shirts were made of this stuff, as were my grandmother’s best napkins. Rembrandt mixed his paints with this–most oil painters do, since linseed oil is a common carrier for oil pigments. Heck, he was painting on linen, too.  The linoleum of our kitchen floor is made with this. And at this moment, all over LA, raw foodie are subsisting on dehydrated flaxseed crackers.

Flax pods. They rattle, and kittens like them!

I love growing a plant with that much cultural relevance and history. It doesn’t matter so much to me if it’s practical, though I may not do it again, not on this scale.

The fate of the lentils

The lentils were less successful.  They came from a box of Sabarot green lentils. They were planted in November. Months passed. They didn’t flower, didn’t flower. I began to figure they were sterile seeds. At the very last moment, in May,  a few tiny flowers appeared here and there, but by that time I had to take it out. So that is the risk of growing from unknown seed raised for commercial consumption. It was a risk I took. In the future, though, I’d consider planting lentils from real seed, because the plants are compact and attractive.

A cover crop option?

Here’s a side thought–being a legume, lentils help draw nitrogen into their soil via the roots. If you want to boost the nitrogen in your soil, you can plant legumes, then cut them down when they flower, leaving the roots with their nitrogen nodules in the soil for the next crop to feed upon. (If you let them grow beans, they consume much of that stored nitrogen). This process is called cover cropping, and though it sounds like something only a farmer would do, you can do this in your garden beds to rest and rejuvenate them. The thing about these boxed lentils is that they didn’t flower for months and months, and then hardly at all, so they’re an ideal cover crop: they give you plenty of time to knock them down at your leisure.


What’s next?

While I liked this experiment, I don’t know if I want to continue with pantry seed–though I do have a lingering desire to grow sesame plants! I’m not even sure if I want to continue planting annuals in that bed. Edible perennials are always preferable to a lazy gardener like myself, so I might be leaning that way.  Will let you know what we figure out.

Previous posts on the Heart:

http://www.rootsimple.com/2011/01/advances-in-gardening-series-progress.html

http://www.rootsimple.com/2011/03/advances-in-gardening-series-were.html
http://www.rootsimple.com/2011/03/hippie-heart-horizontal.html

Hippie Heart Horizontal

Mrs. Homegrown here:
So I was wrong about the rains in that self-pitying post I wrote a week or two ago. They came again. (But this time, I really do think this is our last spate of rain.) It was a strong, blustery storm and it laid our flax flat. The poor hippie heart.

It had just started to bloom. Those little blue flowers turn to pods. Each pod holds a few seeds. That’s where flax seeds come from. As a city girl, I find this very impressive. Even more mind blowing is to look at these stalks and realize linen is made from them.

Flax is notorious for falling over from its own weight if not planted close together or supported. Rosalind Creasy, queen of the attractive edible garden, makes metal grids for her flax to grow through so it stays upright. I’d been trusting the universe. And the universe worked, until the storm. They might fluff up again when they dry. Or I might go out and see if I can encourage them into verticality.

If I can’t, I’ll harvest the stems, rot them, pound them, learn to spin, learn to weave, and make one square inch of linen.

Advances in Gardening Series: We’re maturing

November–seedlings new planted

January–all the foliage is in
End of February–the flowers really start to pop

Stuff grows. You just gotta remember to plant it!

A quick photo update on progress for the Phan of Pharmacy and the Hippie Heart, mostly for our own record keeping. Maybe it will inspire those of you surrounded by rain or snow with dreams of your own spring planting.

Back in November, I cleared ground and planted the Phan/Fan with medicinal seedlings. See some of that history here. Now we’re at the end of February, and the Calendula and chamomile plants are mature. The Calendula (the yellow flowers in the pic) is giving off lots of blossoms, the chamomile–not so much. That’s garlic growing on the far right. It’s beginning to brown at the tips, but I don’t think it’s going to be ready until May. The poppies, hidden in the back, are slow, and not near blossoming yet. Note the rogue borage in the foreground.

Meanwhile, the Hippie Heart, planted with flax in the center and lentils around the edges is coming along very well. It waves hi to the police helicopters overhead. The point of the Heart was to have a place where I could experiment with planting seeds, beans and spices right out of the pantry. Soon I’ll need to decide if I’m going to let the flax and lentils go to seed, and collect that seed for fun, or if I’ll pull it out early in favor of more experimentation with new pantry crops over the summer.

January 22nd

February 25th: I can hardly wait ’til it blooms.