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.

2011 in Review: The Garden

It’s was a difficult year in the garden. A lead and zinc issue screwed up my winter vegetables garden plans. At least we managed to find some river rocks and put in a path.

I found this photo from December 2010. I was certainly a lot more organized that year.

For 2012, I’m putting in raised beds to deal with the heavy metal issue and we’ve already planted more native plants. But most importantly one of my New Years resolutions is to plan the vegetable garden ahead of time. And I’m going to take better notes (though I’ve been saying this for ten years now). Those notes simply being, the date a veggie is planted and the first and last harvests of said plant. That info will make coming up with a planting schedule easier in subsequent years. At least if I keep my many resolutions!

In Chaos Order, In Order Chaos

Periodically Mrs. Homegrown and I teach vegetable gardening classes. For the students, I’ve been looking for a way to illustrate nature’s complex, non-linear dynamics that, paradoxically, seem ordered. I stumbled across this cool sculpture that neatly summarizes the idea of “in chaos order, in order chaos.”

Imagine each of the hammers standing in for one of the systems in your garden, insect life, nutrients, microbes, fungi, etc. Now imagine intervening in the motion of one of those systems. The point is that, with complex non-linear dynamics, we don’t know what the end result of our interventions will be. Best not to monkey with the system . . .

You can see more sculptures by the creator of this video at

Meet the Good Guys: Beneficial Insect Poster

 The good folks at the University of California Integrated Pest Management Program (IPM) have created a handy little poster featuring some of our best insect friends–the natural enemies of garden pests.

They want it spread far and wide, so they’re promoting this link to a downloadable PDF fit for printing. This is a great resource for home gardeners, but also for teachers, schools and community gardens. Laminate it and pass it around! And please feel free to share the PDF link with your circles:

(The UC Statewide IPM website is a great resource, even if you don’t live in California. Go there and you’ll find fact sheets on residential pests and advice on how to deal with them.)

Two Vegetable Gardening Commandments

Two of our vegetable beds looking kinda shabby.

I spent the Thanksgiving weekend up on the vegetable gardening equivalent of Mount Sinai receiving a set of revelations. Someday I’ll have Mrs. Homegrown transcribe the complete stone tablets (urbanite rather than stone, technically) I received in their entirety. In the meantime, I’ll share two of the commandments:

1. Thou shalt not have more vegetable beds than thou canst maintain in a worthy condition.

We’ve already reduced the amount of vegetable space in our garden and replaced it with native perennials. I’m considering cutting more vegetable space. Having a lot of poorly maintained vegetable beds sends out a big invitation to the sorts of insect visitors we don’t want in our gardens. Better to have one well maintained and productive vegetable bed than ten poorly maintained beds. And right now I’ve got a few less than optimal beds.

Light row cover stretched over hoops protects the bed from cabbage moths

2. Thou shalt secure thy vegetable beds with bird netting or row cover material even if thou thinkest “I’ll get lucky this time.”

I do this every year even though I know that if I leave a newly planted bed unprotected it will be visited by a clumsy skunk or a cat looking for a place to poop. I hate bird netting–it inevitably gets tangled and is a pain to work with–but the fact is that if I don’t use it I don’t get any vegetables. And, if I plant any brassicas at this time of the year without first covering them with row cover material, they will get munched to the ground by cabbage leaf caterpillars.  I’ve found that once the plants gets established I can pull off the row cover or bird netting and enjoy a season of un-munched veggies.

Kelly Speaketh on this Issue:

Erik seems to need to get this off his chest–he gets dramatic when garden disasters occur, and we’ve been hard hit by the skunk and cutworm brigades this week– but I’d say he’s being way too hard on himself.

First and foremost, we learned about the possibly high levels of lead in our soil, just when we were at the critical transition stage between the summer and winter garden.The whole yard became off-limits at that point. We just let things go until we knew what we were going to do–and we’re still figuring that out. So yup, the two beds in the top pic look like crap, because they are completely untended beds–beds that have been waiting around for us to figure things out. They don’t look that way because we have too many beds.

We’ve had fallow beds, and cover cropped beds, beds gone a little wild, and beds full of things going to seed, but I’ve never thought our beds poorly maintained–except in the last two months. So I think Erik just needs a glass of scotch or something tonight.
Just to be factual, we have four vegetable beds. We used to have more ground space where we could plant food, which helped with rotation, but we’ll be doing all our veg growing in our four raised beds from now on out, and dedicating the ground space to natives and other perennials. We had planned to do this prior to the lead thing, coincidentally–to save labor. We figure four beds is plenty for the two of us.

As to the lead thing (that’s what I call it–”the lead thing”), we are still getting conflicting tests from different services. One testing service even insists we don’t have a problem at all! Until we sort this out, we’ve decided to “Keep Calm and Carry On” and plant in raised beds.

As to Commandment #2: I agree entirely! The beds must be protected. Otherwise husbands have breakdowns.

End of Summer Photos

I’ve got a backlog of random photos that, somehow, never made it into full blown blog posts. Here’s some of those pics starting with our modest passion fruit harvest. Beautiful flowers and tasty fruit.

Kelly accidentally planted some potatoes amongst her sweet potato patch. We got a few potatoes and some pretty potato flowers.

My friends Gloria and Steve, who own a small herd of goats, did a goat milk tasting at the Institute of Domestic Technology comparing their backyard milk against a couple of store bought goat milks and some cow milk. Guess what? Fresh goat milk from the backyard is delicious and does not taste “goaty”. Store bought goat milk just doesn’t compare, though the Summer Hill brand at Trader Joes is passable.

Lastly, two of my favorite things: cats and corded telephones. 

Best wishes for a happy fall for all Root Simple readers.

Urine as a Fertilizer

How do I spend my Saturday mornings you ask? Answer: scanning the peer reviewed literature for articles about using human urine as a nitrogen source in the garden, i.e. taking a leak in the watering can. As we’re currently hosting some excellent classes at our house taught by Darren Butler, a big proponent of what he calls “pee-pee-ponics,” I thought I’d take a look at the science of urine use.

Urine offers a free and readily available (at least after a night of beer drinking) alternative to organic nitrogen fertilizers such as blood meal. We’ve got a perpetual nitrogen deficiency in our vegetable beds and I hate buying industrial ag sourced items like blood meal. Urine is a great alternative.

To use urine in the garden you’ve got to dilute it with water, at least ten to one. Straight urine will burn your plants. Thankfully we don’t worry about our sauerkraut taking on a urine flavor:

Use of Human Urine Fertilizer in Cultivation of Cabbage (Brassica oleracea)––Impacts on Chemical, Microbial, and Flavor Quality by Surendra K. Pradhan, Anne-Marja Nerg, Annalena Sjöblom, Jarmo K. Holopainen and Helvi Heinonen-Tanski

Human urine was used as a fertilizer in cabbage cultivation and compared with industrial fertilizer and nonfertilizer treatments. Urine achieved equal fertilizer value to industrial fertilizer when both were used at a dose of 180 kg N/ha. Growth, biomass, and levels of chloride were slightly higher in urine-fertilized cabbage than with industrial-fertilized cabbage but clearly differed from nonfertilized. Insect damage was lower in urine-fertilized than in industrial-fertilized plots but more extensive than in nonfertilized plots. Microbiological quality of urine-fertilized cabbage and sauerkraut made from the cabbage was similar to that in the other fertilized cabbages. Furthermore, the level of glucosinolates and the taste of sauerkrauts were similar in cabbages from all three fertilization treatments. Our results show that human urine could be used as a fertilizer for cabbage and does not pose any significant hygienic threats or leave any distinctive flavor in food products.

As the study above noted, too much nitrogen (from any source) can cause pest outbreaks. And we do need to be judicious in our urine application in alkaline soils such as here in Los Angeles as urine has a high pH:

From Human urine – Chemical composition and fertilizer use efficiency by H. Kirchmann and S. Pettersson:

Stored human urine had pH values of 8.9 and was composed of eight main ionic species (> 0.1 meq L–1), the cations Na, K, NH4, Ca and the anions, Cl, SO4, PO4 and HCO3. Nitrogen was mainly (> 90%) present as ammoniacal N, with ammonium bicarbonate being the dominant compound. Urea and urate decomposed during storage. Heavy metal concentrations in urine samples were low compared with other organic fertilizers, but copper, mercury, nickel and zinc were 10–500 times higher in urine than in precipitation and surface waters. In a pot experiment with15N labelled human urine, higher gaseous losses and lower crop uptake (barley) of urine N than of labelled ammonium nitrate were found. Phosphorus present in urine was utilized at a higher rate than soluble phosphate, showing that urine P is at least as available to crops as soluble P fertilizers.

With some common sense urine application (i.e. not too much), it clearly makes a good fertilizer:

Stored Human Urine Supplemented with Wood Ash as Fertilizer in Tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) Cultivation and Its Impacts on Fruit Yield and Quality by Surendra K. Pradhan, Jarmo K. Holopainen and Helvi Heinonen-Tanski:

This study evaluates the use of human urine and wood ash as fertilizers for tomato cultivation in a greenhouse. Tomatoes were cultivated in pots and treated with 135 kg of N/ha applied as mineral fertilizer, urine + ash, urine only, and control (no fertilization). The urine fertilized plants produced equal amounts of tomato fruits as mineral fertilized plants and 4.2 times more fruits than nonfertilized plants. The levels of lycopene were similar in tomato fruits from all fertilization treatments, but the amount of soluble sugars was lower and Cl− was higher in urine + ash fertilized tomato fruits. The β-carotene content was greater and the NO3− content was lower in urine fertilized tomato fruits. No enteric indicator microorganisms were detected in any tomato fruits. The results suggest that urine with/without wood ash can be used as a substitute for mineral fertilizer to increase the yields of tomato without posing any microbial or chemical risks.

So go forth and pee (and dilute!). You can also, of course, just pee on the compost pile.

Many thanks to the always useful Google Scholar, one of my favorite gardening resources.

The World’s Most Beautiful Okra

If you live in a warm climate, okra is easy to grow and both beautiful and tasty. I spotted this variety growing at the Huntington Ranch: Burgundy Okra from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.The stems and seed pods are a deep and vibrant burgundy–a very stunning plant for your vegetable garden.

While not as striking, this year I grew Clemson Spineless okra from seeds I saved. And thanks to a tip (can’t remember where I heard this) I’m having an easier time harvesting the pods. One of the problems with a small patch of okra is that, initially, you get a sporadic harvest. And you’ve got to pick the pods before they get too big and tough. So I’ve been picking a few and day and tossing them in a bag in the freezer until I have enough to cook with.

As for cooking okra I leave the pods whole as I ve been told this reduces the sliminess some people find objectionable. And pile on the spices! My favorite recipe is this Iraqi stew called Bamia. Bamia and rice makes for the perfect late summer dinner.

Mrs. Homegrown here:

I just had to second this post–this is an outstanding, gorgeous plant, pretty enough to be purely ornamental. The picture above doesn’t sell it. Let’s just say that the second I saw it in the Huntington Ranch, I said, “We’re planting that next year.”