For years I lived in small apartments with little balcony space, let alone a real outdoor area to grow things in the ground. But now, with a small house and an urban back yard, we are digging into the dirt for real. There are some things I love about container gardening, but it has been incredibly satisfying to create a larger space devoted to my herbs and vegetables.
Our back yard is actually quite a garden; earlier tenants and our landlady planted up the beds over the last twenty years with some beautiful apple trees, peonies, ornamental grasses, daylilies, and all kinds of shrubs and perennials. It's the perfect place to learn how to garden, since we are learning new things every day directly from this very mature space. But it's very overgrown and weedy right now; we have been putting in a ton of work to get it back in shape. I swear I dream about the garden and yard these days; the four-foot thistles next to the deck are getting my full attention next!
But I'll spare you all those details and just focus, for now, on my kitchen garden. It's a small but rather ambitious little garden, for us first-timers. We are going with the Square Foot method for now, to keep things simple.
Here are a few tips we picked up along the way.
• My husband used Sunset's instructions on building a raised bed and even he would tell you that the process was quite simple. (He skipped the corner posts, though.) All you need is a drill, some screws, lumber, and some muscle.
• We built four beds: 2 4x4' beds, and 2 3x5' beds. Total cost of building materials for beds: About $30.
• We treated the beds with linseed oil, which is all-natural and will protect the wood from the elements a little.
• Where the cost racks up is filling the beds. We used the Square Foot Gardening mix of peat moss, composted manure, and vermiculite — plus a little of our own garden earth, to encourage worms and healthy organisms.
• Check and see if your municipal area sells mulch or compost at their biowaste treatment area. Before you get completely squicked out, let me explain. Many towns now compost their waste solids and biowaste, like yard trimmings. These have been completely treated at great heat and over a period of some time, so the final result is usually just like compost or mulch. It's also usually much cheaper than commercial varieties of mulch or compost. We are mulching our beds with a local product like this.
• We have two beds devoted to herbs and climbers like tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, and squash. The other two beds are in the center of the back lawn (fine with our landlady, thankfully!) and they have eggplant, peppers, and a lot of greens.
These are coming up a little slowly; we got a late start and completely missed the spring growing season. But we are hoping to push these beds late into the fall and grow a lot of cold-weather crops. We may even cover one to make it a cold frame and grow greens into February. Like I said, garden mad.
• 1 The garden through the gate. I am slowly working to make it as beautiful as possible within our limitations; I love the idea of a kitchen garden that is beautiful as well as functional.
• 2 Putting up the trellis.
• 3 A look at the bean bed, with lots of herbs taking up the front half.
• 4 A favorite herb.
• 5 Peeks at the other herbs, which are all flourishing. Not labeled: Basil, Thai basil seedling, lovage, summer savory, cilantro, and Italian parsley.
• 6 Oregano, sprawling happily. I think this is a beautiful herb.
• 7 The tomato bed, with my seedlings I started much too late, and the plants I broke down and bought.
• 8 Just one more tomato!
• 9 Lemon balm I "rescued" from the lawn. Don't let its wilted appearance deceive you; it is quietly plotting a jailbreak and complete domination of the back lawn.
• 10 Lots of mint, safely shut up in a pot. Apple mint, Kentucky Colonel, lime mint, catmint, pennyroyal, and spearmint.
• 11 The back beds. Unseasonable heat has been troublesome; most of the greens we planted haven't germinated yet.
• 12 A nice surprise, by the faucet: a squash or melon plant. Our landlady pointed it out. It is either a volunteer or started by a throwaway seed.
• 13 The garden at sunset.