Planning your garden on paper is a good way to begin your growing season. But, don’t feel you have to stick with the same old rectangle with thin straight little rows. This year, choose a creative, unconventional garden design that will save space, give you higher yields in the long run, and have more visual appeal.
Organizing Your Crop
Keep taller plants like corn, pole beans, and tomatoes along the north side of the garden so they won’t shade other plants. Plant perennials, such as asparagus or rhubarb, at the end or side of the garden. Perennials can stay in one place for years, and setting them out of the way reduces the risk of damaging them during seasonal cultivation.
Make note of the sunny areas of your garden as well as duration of sunlight. Put sun-lovers like tomatoes, corn, melons, peppers, and cucumbers where the sun lingers. Put the shade-tolerant crops, or those that tend to bolt, in the shadier places. To conserve space in your garden, plant sprawling vegetables like melons, squash, and pumpkins on the ends of the beds bordering the garden, where they can get the growing room they need while using very little bed space.
Crop rotation has two distinct advantages: it discourages disease and feeds the soil. Growing tomatoes in the same place year after year encourages soil-borne fungus, such as verticillium and fusarium wilt, which can build up in the soil. Since different vegetables attract different diseases, shifting crops around reduces the risk of losing plants.
Because legumes like peas or beans can take nitrogen out of the air and “fix” it into the soil, rotating crops will help enhance your soil. Growing the same type of vegetable year after year in one place depletes the same minerals every season, making costly fertilizer a necessity.
While it’s not practical to follow a rigid plan of crop rotation in a small garden, you’ll achieve better results when you consider the nutritional needs of each vegetable, and the best ways to help it resist disease.
Some gardeners like to set aside a part of their gardens as a “nursery row,” where they grow seedlings that will be transplanted to empty harvested areas. Others maintain their seedling nursery under a sunny window, on their porch, or in a greenhouse or cold frame. Use flats, six-packs, or four-inch pots as your nursery garden. When one area of your main bed is harvested, simply place the new plants in the vacant area for another crop.
Your plan for continual growth in the garden should include “catch cropping,” or planting quick-maturing plants in places where you’ve just harvested slower growers. When you take out large plants, toss in some radishes or green onions, even if it’s only a small space.
Catch cropping differs from succession planting in that quick-to-grow vegetables are grown before the initial crop is harvested completely, and before the succession crop matures enough to shade or crowd out the catch crop. For example, radishes, lettuce, and spinach can be grown in the space reserved for plants not yet ready to be set out, and harvested before the later plants begin to grow and take over the area.
Beds with Frames
Boxed gardens are ideal for those who yearn to garden but have limited space, or for those who have available space, but only in very small pieces. Your boxed garden can be made into any shape you like from standard 2′ x 4′ or 2′ x 8′ lumber (but do not use arsenic-laden pressure-treated lumber). While these individual gardens have no floors in them, they are used to frame what little garden space you have, and separate it from gravel and lawn grass.
The boards can be fastened with angle irons or just staked in place and sunk a few inches into the prepared ground. One box can hold salad vegetables, while a smaller box can contain a few summer and winter squash plants. Yet another box might contain a few cantaloupe plants with some watermelons. Succession planting can ensure the highest possible yield from each garden space.
Teepees and Lean-Tos
If you have a limited area for gardening, conserve space by taking to the air. Place simple teepees over vine crops and train the plants to grow up the poles. To construct your teepee, simply push four flexible poles into the ground about a foot apart, and tie them together near the top. This works especially well for beans, peas, mini-pumpkins, cucumbers, and other climbing crops with relatively lightweight fruit.
A variation on the teepee theme is a “lean-to” shape. Just push a row of poles into the ground east to west for maximum southern exposure. Tie them to a cross bar at the top, and add another pole at each end to prop it up at an angle. If you have a little more space, this works well with sun-loving vines and can also provide shade during the summer to heat-sensitive crops like lettuce planted on the north side.
Pillows for Your Beds
Pillows-heavy plastic bags filled with a growing compound – are used for a variety of vegetables, primarily larger plants like tomatoes and melons. There’s no drainage from these bags, so keep a careful eye on the soil inside to avoid a mixture that’s either too dry or waterlogged. You can usually grow four plants to a bag. They’re excellent alternatives in areas where a native soil garden plot is not feasible. After harvest, the growing medium can be used as mulch.
Finding Vegetables in a Haystack
Planting in a hay bale produces good results with vegetables, particularly tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, potatoes, and eggplants. If you already have established raised beds, and do not have enough room for these large plants, place some bales of hay on the ends. The bales should be at least ten inches thick to hold the plants, which are nurtured by the decomposing hay.
Soak the hay well for two or three days, then spread a mixture of composted manure, wood shavings, and sawdust on top of the bale. Water daily, and when the inside feels warm – indicating decomposition – plant your seedlings on top. This method stimulates rapid growth as a result of the carbon dioxide produced by the fermenting hay.