When we bought our house in the summer of 2009 we quickly realized there was no simple spot for our garden. Our larger backyard was simply too shady and the front yard was engulfed by a tree and a 20-30 year old hydrangea bush. That front spot got plenty of sun though, so we knew the veggies were going to have to go there.
My husband spent many hours removing that hydrangea. It was massive and well-rooted. Thankfully it had been there so long that with its annual shedding of foliage it created its own rich compost all over the ground. In 2010 we used the place where it was to grow a few things, but knew we needed more space.
For 2011 Chris and a friend tore down the tree. This was a bit crazy due to the fact that they had to pull it down between the house, some power lines, and the busy street we live on. Then Chris had to get under the roots and dig them up. That was a nightmare and I still remember my son Jack down in the hole near the roots with a small shovel scraping dirt away to loosen the root system.
All of the hard work paid off though. We now have a very decent sized garden, that is plenty enough for us, with some to spare. This year I added another section of garden too. It’s approximately 2’x8′ and it’s on the other, smaller section of our front yard. At this point I really hope whoever lives here next can appreciate gardening more than well-manicured lawn!
I know grass can be pretty and you can run around on it, but it doesn’t feed me so it had to go. For the new section I used a method similar to Jillian’s and for both garden areas I’ve made sure to work in some really good compost from Willow Marsh Farm. I’m convinced that proper growing consists of good soil, lots of sun, some water, and just a little bit of care. Really and truly, if the foundation is good, nature will (mostly) take care of the rest.
A lot of the success of my garden spaces has been the combination of good soil and sun. I have learned some valuable lessons along the way though, and most of those are by accident. Here are a few of those important lessons, and I hope they can work for your too.
-I still use my son’s old crib rails as a cucumber trellis. After a season and a half in the sun they don’t look as nice, but they get the job done. The top is secured with plastic zip ties. Anything of a similar nature could work though. Look around your house or at garage sales and see what you can get for free or cheap.
-Peas and green beans can work on the same trellis, especially if you have limited space. This is a trick I figured out this year. Spring peas need to be planted when it’s cool and they are ready right at the beginning of summer. Pole beans like it a little warmer and thus have to be planted at the beginning of summer. The peas went on the front this year, and my pole beans are on the back. By the time I’ve harvested all of my pea pods and yanked down the plants, the beans are starting to climb and won’t compete for space.
-Get some straw to use as mulch. Watch out for straw with lots of seed heads in it, but a nice, deep cover of straw between plants is cheap, keeps the bulk of weeds at bay (some will still manage to get through), and holds moisture in. In a dry year like this, the straw has been invaluable. Also, when you have melons or squash that rest on the ground, you can place straw under them to protect them while they grow.
-If you have shadier spots, find plants that work well there. One end of the garden gets more shade because of the neighboring house. In that whole area I plant my greens and radishes. They appreciate a break from the heat, unlike my tomatoes and peppers which like the sun as much as a teenager at the beach. (Oh the memories of being young and careless about melanoma….)
-Don’t waste space growing things that will be space suckers (unless it’s something you really love) or a burden later. This is the first year I haven’t planted canning tomatoes. This was after two frustrating Augusts where I was getting boxes of canning tomatoes from the farm I work for, and then still having more outside I needed to deal with. Sadly, a lot spoiled or were given away. This year I put in slicers and tomatillos and I plan on getting boxes of tomatoes for canning. My first year I also grew summer squash which takes up an obscene amount of space and in the height of the summer the farm has a crazy amount of squash as well.
-Most important, don’t be afraid of failure or foolishness. Things will go wrong. You will make mistakes. You will plant an entire packet of cosmos along the edge of your garden and then a day later will cover it with six inches of straw because you completely forgot they were there. By the time you realize, it will be too late. You will leave greens outside until they bolt because you will, “Get to them tomorrow, I promise!” And if your garden is on the front side of your house which faces a busy street, you might have to harvest in your pajamas while the morning commuters drive past wondering what is wrong with you.
But you also might have garden admirers. There might be people who leave tomato and pepper starts on your front step to add to your garden. When this happens, abandon your perfect garden layout and fit them in, and put them into pots you weren’t planning on having to use, because free plants from a secret garden admirer are the kind of gift that should never make their way to your compost pile.
And I bet those tomatoes and peppers will taste the best of all this August.