Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Growing Edibles - Garden Beds

I am going to write a post (or two or more?) about my approach to vegetable gardening. People ask me all the time for gardening book recommendations and I have yet to find one that is

a) not completely overwhelming for someone who wants to grow veggies for the first time
b) appropriate for our climate
c) appropriate for small urban lots

Plus, the added benefit of my guide is that it is perfect for moms who are short on time and also want to delight the kiddos.

Tender Babies
One thing I think most people don't realize at first is that veggies are the weird mutant weaklings of the plant world. Most of the seeds you will buy would never survive out in the wild alone. We humans have created them and they need our loving care to flourish.

When you plant a native grass, a dogwood tree, or even daisies - these are tough plants only a few generations removed from their wild siblings - they need very little care.

Vegetables on the other hand have been bred for years & years to create freakishly huge reproductive organs for us to eat in a relatively short period of time. On the one hand this helps them because we keep growing them, but they are completely reliant on us and need lots of help to grow into what we expect them to be. (shiny, huge and perfect like the pictures on seed packets)

But the babies (like most babies) are worth it
So don't go into it thinking you can just sprinkle seeds & let them be. Veggies take work, but as a busy mom, I love that I can go out in the sunshine for even half an hour, putter around in my raised beds and still feel like I was being very productive. (on a sunny spring day, would you rather plant seeds or vacuum?)

I really only spend maybe on average an hour a week from spring to fall in the veggie garden. Usually it is ten minutes picking slugs & aphid leaves off of plants before I head to the grocery store. Then 20 minutes on another day pulling a few weeds, fertilizing, or thinning seedlings. Then a couple times a month I will spend an hour transplanting tomatoes and pulling out the snap peas that are done.

My kids enjoy helping pull weeds, planting seeds and picking the most bizarre carrot colors to grow. And playing with the worms. I love not having to buy salad greens for most of the spring and being able to make a salad whenever I want AND having it be the most delicious one I've ever had. In the summer I always have fresh onions, tomatoes and zucchini to throw on the grill with no trips to the store.

The most important things

There are four things that are most important for veggie success
1) Soil - is it fluffy (not compacted), have some compost/organic matter in it, well draining?
2) Nutrients - Are you regularly adding fertilizers to feed your veggies
3) Sun - Are your beds getting full sun everyday in the spring/summer/fall?
4) Water - Pretty obvious

1st Step - Your Garden Beds

This is a big initial investment, both in money & time. But getting raised beds in place will make everything that follows easier for you - for years to come. No one will walk in your beds, your soil will be awesome, weeds will be few & easy to pull out and they will be ready for plants earlier in the season than just digging into the ground.


For small urban lots, I recommend raised beds. They are neat, tidy and will make things super easy because you will have amazing fabulous soil from the get go.

Build a frame out of 12"x2" wood and fill it with a truckload of gardening "3 - way" mix from Pacific Topsoils or Grow Source or your local nursery. Get the best gardening blend they have. It will pay off later. Don't even think of using 1 cu ft. bags. Borrow a truck, you will need lots of dirt. (find a website to help you calculate how much)

Make sure your beds are no more than 4 foot wide - the width most people can comfortably reach is about 2 feet, so as long as you can access it from both sides you will be able to reach the middle. (NEVER walk in your raised beds)

I grow my veggies in 3 raised beds that are each 4'x6' and about 12" deep. They are made of pressure treated wood, but many people prefer natural cedar or redwood. I've seen people cut salvaged doors in half lengthwise and use those (it is cute) but be sure there is no lead paint.

You need to do your own research and make your choice, but pressure treated is much cheaper than natural rot resistant woods like cedar. (and contains toxic chemicals that may....or may not enter your food) Kyle used metal brackets in the corners to attach them together and built them in about 2 hours.


The most important thing in placing your beds is SUN. You want your beds in the hottest, sunniest spot you can find, especially in the Pacific Northwest. My beds are all lined up against the south wall of our house. Be sure to line them up east - west so each one gets as much sun from the south as possible.
Ideally, your beds should be in the sunshine from sunrise to sunset during the summer. Don't forget that shadows are longer in winter - my beds are in almost full shade from our fence in the winter. In the summer, the fence shadows don't even come close to the beds.

Sun matters less for things like lettuces, herbs, peas, carrots and matters a ton for hot weather veggies like tomatoes, peppers, squash, etc.

It is also important to note whether there are any large trees nearby that might send roots into your beds. This is not a good thing, but may not be able to be helped. If your beds are near a large tree and only get sun for 1/2 the day in the summer - don't give up, but be aware that these will hinder your efforts. (And now you have something to blame failures on! Good for you!)

Lastly, before you fill your beds, make sure your lawn mower can fit between them. (assuming they are on grass like mine are) Two feet apart is nice I think. Put the frames where you want them and if it is on top of grass you have two options - dig it out, or cover it with wet cardboard/newspaper and bury it. I did the latter and it worked fabulously. I would use the wet cardboard method on weedy dirt areas too.

Lastly, lastly, if you ever see deer in your yard, build a cage over your beds. Look on the internet for ideas and have fun with that. I hate deer.

That's it for today, next I will talk about the fun stuff - what you can do & plant in your garden right now!


Shauna said...

Love it, you might just inspire me to get my garden going again this year. :) I wish I had more space and less deer and rabbits though... For now I'm stuck with my raised bed on the deck... I wish I could grow zucchini on the side of the house...but that project will have to wait I guess.

Kristen said...

thank you, kari! maybe you should write the book you've been looking for? (i totally think you should!!) also, i have a feeling jenny is going to love this post. i really appreciate you sharing your knowledge, insights, tips! i'm looking forward to your upcoming posts, too.

Misha Leigh. said... there's an idea... hmmm...

: )

how about I just trade you something for you actually taking care of my beds this year? I have too much unresolved grief. : )

Carla said...

yay! Now I just need a good hoe and shovel.

Rebekah said...

love love love this info - keep it coming Kari you are amazing and should definitely write a book!

Andi Mae said...

:: Oh, Kari! This is the post I have been waiting for! Thank you so so much for writing this! I was seriously planning to call you to get the whole beginning gardening run-down from you AGAIN, so this is so so perfect! I can't wait until your next installment!

02. And yes, I agree with the others...WRITE A BOOK! I would definitely buy it. You not only have the knowledge, but the inspiring passion for it!

03. Wishing you could come look at my yard again to tell me where to put my beds. I am still thinking that side corner, but I don't know...

04. I love your new banner + look! I feel totally lame, but I usually read your blog in google reader, so I am sorry if I didn't notice sooner!

Elizabeth said... make it sound so easy! but now i want to plant veggies. maybe after 5 years of thinking about it i should finally do it

amy said...

i don't have a proper yard of my own to put this advice to good use, but i will edit your book!!!

Katie Brase said...

I want so badly to be successful at growing even a few veggies. I wish you were my neighbor and could hold my hand through it!