Suburban Garden Planning 103

Collards and broccoli, just set out.

Collards and broccoli, just set out.

So, remember how I said not to order anything yet? Hope you were paying attention, because this time we’re going to talk about an important piece of the gardening puzzle: seeds or sets?

Should you start your plants from seed, or wait until, say, April or May and buy them from your local hardware palace or farmer’s market? Well, having been through this far too many times, let me give you some guidelines.

How available is it?

Planning on growing Early Girl tomatoes? You can buy sturdy little starts almost anywhere. How about Pimentos, as opposed to Red Bell Peppers, or Armenian Lemon Cucumbers, as opposed to Straight Eights? Good luck finding sets, unless you have access to a v trendy farmer’s market. If you have your heart set on some obscure vegetable, you’ll probably want to get the seeds. Otherwise, it’s a whole lot easier to pick up the plant at a garden center.

How much window space do you have?

You’ll need a good south-facing exposure, possibly supplemented with grow lights. Indoor-grown veggie plants tend to turn out rather spindly. (Unless you click the first link at the bottom of the page.)

How much patience do you have?

Starting from seed takes consistency and attention. They need moist soil, but wet soil will grow mold that will kill the baby plant. About a week before you plant them in your garden, they will need to be hardened off: spending time outside during the days, (the first two in the shade) and brought inside each evening, then graduating to nights outside, perhaps under a plastic sheet for the first few nights, with the plastic removed each morning lest you come home after work to wilted plants. They’re babies. You have to baby them.

If you buy sets, they’ve already been hardened off and can go directly into the garden.

Is starting from seed necessary or desirable?

Some plants have a longer growing season than your location may provide. Tomatoes and peppers, for example, are tropical in origin. Direct-seeding them after the soil has warmed to 70 degrees will give you maybe two ripe tomatoes by first frost. Other plants dislike being moved around: root crops, beans, and corn are notorious for this, so direct seed them.

Succession planting means that as one plant is harvested, another goes in its place. So the fence or trellis that held peas in the Spring gets winter squash set in when the peas give up in Summer’s heat. You’ll want to drop nice, sturdy squash sets in, rather than planting squash seeds, in order to get a crop in before frost. Plant broccoli or cabbage, which can take Summer’s heat, in the place of the Spring lettuce and spinach after those cool-weather crops have been harvested. Likewise, plant lettuce, spinach, or peas in the Fall, in spots vacated by the heat-lovers.

Will you succession plant?

This means grow replacing plants as they are harvested. For example, planting winter squash by the trellis that held the Spring peas after said peas have succumbed to Summer’s heat. You can either buy the squash sets or plant seeds 3-4 weeks ahead, growing little plants close together in flats or pots to save space, and then putting them into the larger garden space to mature. You can also start cool weather crops like lettuce and spinach in August in flats in a shaded spot to have them handy to drop in when your cukes and summer squash give up the ghost at Summer’s end.

And a couple of hints:

Seeds don’t care what time of day you plant. Just keep the soil moist. I like to sprinkle a handful of grass clippings over each newly-planted row or bed. Not enough to prevent emergence, just a sunscreen to shade the soil and keep it from drying out.

Sets will go through transplant shock. To minimize that, plant in the evening or on a cloudy day. Fill the planting hole with water, then set in the plant and fill in the hole. Mulch immediately and heavily around the stem, letting the leaves show through to catch the sunlight.

I hope this is helpful. For other posts on starting plants, you can click here and here.

Collards and broccoli, a month later.

Collards and broccoli, a month later.

Suburban Garden Planning 102

After. This article is about the before part.

After. This article is about the before part.

So there you are with your hot cup of tea (or coffee, hot chocolate, cold beer, whatever) and the newly arrived seed catalogs, or your computer browser is pulled up to one. Look at all those plants! They’re beautiful! Every variety, and I mean every variety, is BETTER THAN EVERY OTHER VARIETY!! My hat is off to the people who write these things. I don’t know how they do it.

So how do you decide what to grow?

What to Grow

Look in your fridge, freezer, and cupboards. What’s there? Lettuce? OK, put that on your list. Tomatoes? Ok, grow them too. Arugula, Sea Kale, Salsify? Um, maybe not. But you get my drift. Rule One: plant stuff that you will want to eat. As you progress, you may want to add a new plant or two, but don’t waste a lot of time, effort, and space on stuff that will make your kids look at you funny and end up in the compost heap.

Which Variety?

Look carefully at the descriptions in the catalog. “Vigorous” is code for “Will try to take over your entire back yard.” “Determinate” tomato plants will set all their fruit in a short time, good if you plan on canning. “Indeterminate” plants keep bearing and bearing, and bearing until the weather cools. More useful if you just want a tomato or two a day for salads and sandwiches. (Okay, you’ll get a lot more than that.) Likewise, “Everbearing” strawberries will set fruit in small batches from late May until the weather cools, while “June bearers” will give you buckets o’berries over a few short weeks and then just sit there. Do you plan on making jam or freezing them? Go with June bearers. Prefer a daily bowl of fresh berries to top your morning cornflakes? Everbearers are your ticket.

Think about your yard, your preferences, and your available space. Maybe you have an unmowable space on a steep hillside. Prep a little (3′ x 3′) spot with a hill of compost or well-rotted manure on the north edge of it and plant, say, pumpkins or winter squash, yes, those “vigorous” vines. Watch that annoying landscape feature get entirely covered with big green leaves and harvest your crop when the vines start to die back.

Why am I not suggesting that you cover that big slope with vigorous cucumber or melon vines? Because then you’ll have to climb that hill every day looking for the ripe ones. Much easier to go with the stuff that all ripens at more or less the same time. Got a teeny little space? Go with bush squash, cukes, or zucchini.

How much bang are you getting for your buck?

In other words, we grow shallots, because they are delicious and expensive and we don’t grow equally delicious onions because they are cheap. Same thing with potatoes. I’ll throw a few sprouting potatoes into the compost heap in the spring and harvest them when the vines die back, but generally won’t plant them in the garden, since they are fairly inexpensive. If I’m going to invest garden space in potatoes, I’ll plant the pricey ones like Yukon Gold, or weird ones like purple potatoes so I can freak out my kids with the resulting potato salad.

How Green is Your Thumb?

Some plants are easier to grow than others, even though they may be closely related. For example, iceberg lettuce, that salad bar staple, demands close attention and lots of water. The fancy-schmancy spring mix is actually a lot easier to grow. (And also passes the pricey vs cheap test.) Broccoli is pretty easy, but its cousin cauliflower demands attention and lots of water. Beets are easy, but carrots want deep, rich, loose soil and can be very disappointing for beginners. Cucumbers and squash are pretty easy to grow, whereas their cousins, the melons, are picky, picky, picky. Hot peppers are easy to grow, sweet peppers more demanding.

I devoted a 5 gallon bucket to a red bell pepper plant this year and got three red peppers, plus about 5 green ones that didn’t have time to ripen before frost. Yes, they were delicious, but not any more so than the ones from the grocery store. I planted a Dragon Cayenne in another bucket and everybody’s getting Hot Pepper Jelly for Christmas this year.

Are You Building a Fence or Trellis?

If so, consider pole beans or peas. If not, plant bush beans/peas. Most squash, cucumbers, and the smaller melon vines will also grow up a trellis. Watermelons and big squash like Hubbards and Banana Squash, not so much. They’re just too heavy for the vines to support in mid-air.

So go ahead, work on that list, but before you send off your order, check back here for Suburban Garden Planning 103, next week.

Suburban Garden Planning 101

It's raining compost.

It’s raining compost.

Fall really is the time to start your garden. It’s just raining compost as the leaves fall from the trees. The days are cool and much more pleasant to work in than the muggy days of late Spring and early summer. Your soil needs to feed itself, and if you are starting a new garden, it needs time to make the adjustment from sod to garden soil.

Everybody knows what a vegetable garden looks like, right? It’s a square or rectangle in the middle of the backyard. That’s why a lot of people don’t grow gardens. They have kids who want to play in the backyard. Dogs who want to chase frisbees and squirrels.

So I’m going to suggest that you think outside of the box, or square, or rectangle. You have no problem with planting ornamentals in narrow beds next to the house. Why not put your veggies there?

Here are some thoughts on how to do it:


Veggies like sun, as a rule, six to eight hours a day. Look to the south side of your house for optimal exposure. Some crops, like lettuce, spinach, and peas, prefer cool weather. If you have a place in your garden with early morning or late afternoon shade, plant them there. On the one hand, they will grow a bit slower, but on the other, the shade will help extend the season for a longer

Land use

What path does your dog follow as he patrols the yard? Don’t plant there. Where’s home plate for your kids’ kickball games? Where’s the outfield? Put the garden behind home plate or along the baselines. (But set back, please.) Do you have a deck or patio? Consider planting a border of salad greens, herbs, and a tomato plant or bush cucumber along the edge. Leave a path or two to access the yard. (And put the paths where everybody walks anyway. It’s easier to teach plants where to grow than teach people or animals to change their habits.)

Or the end of the driveway.

DSC01065Maximize your growing space

In another article on this blog, I wrote about trellises. You can grow an amazing quantity of pole beans or cucumbers in a bed a foot wide if you give the vines support so that they grow up instead of sprawling all over the lawn. Trellises can be quite cheap and easy to make. We’ve made them from 2’x2’s, eyebolts, and string hung from the eaves; PVC pipe with fence wire held on with zip ties; old 2”x4”s and string; and 4”x4” posts sunk into concrete with wire fencing stapled to it. This last one will eventually have the wire removed and turn into the support for the south wall of our future greenhouse. You can put sticks or metal fenceposts in the ground, run wires between them, and zigzag string between the wires. Your imagination’s the limit.

2"x2s, eyebolts, and string.

2″x2s, eyebolts, and string.

Notice the DIY cold frame of plastic and the porch railing. Yeah, and the recycling bucket.

Notice the DIY cold frame of plastic and the porch railing. Yeah, and the recycling bucket.


Five gallon buckets with 5 or 6 holes drilled 2 inches from the bottom can each hold a tomato, eggplant, potato, or pepper plant. If you don’t like the look of a line of pails on your deck or patio, you can build a big box around them. (I’ll post pictures when we get ours done next year.)


This is up to you and your needs. Are your kids old enough to walk around things, or are they still in the “Damn the torpedoes” phase of child development? Does your dog dig? Rabbits? Squirrels? We’ve found the cheapest is 2′ chicken wire mounted on rebar with zip ties.

Getting Started

I’ve said this before, and I know I’ll keep saying it, but start small. If you overburden yourself with taking on more garden than your experience warrants, you’ll feel stressed and end up getting turned off by the process. If you have no gardening experience at all, keep your garden smaller than ten square feet. That’s a strip one foot wide and ten feet long, two feet by five, or three and a bit by three. If you can restrain yourself, you’ll have a garden that’s easy to manage and will leave you hungry for more.

If you go nuts and plow up a huge plot, (been there, done that) you’ll likely find that it’s more work than you bargained for. You’re simply not used to it and it becomes one more damn thing you have to do. Like any other activity, it takes time to work it into your schedule and make the few minutes of routine maintenance a day a habit. (Remember that exercise bike?)

You can always make it bigger next year. If you’re a normal suburban person with a job, a commute, a family and, well, a life, you probably won’t want to add more than ten square feet per year.

The Easy Way

Figure out where you want to plant. Build the fence, if you need one. Get your soil tested at Co-op Extension or buy a soil test kit at your local hardware palace. Sprinkle whatever minerals your soil needs over the top of your future garden. Cover it with a couple layers of newspaper. Wet the paper down with the hose to keep it from blowing away. Run the lawnmower, bagger attached, over your lawn, fallen leaves and all. Dump the chopped leaves and grass clippings on the future garden, the deeper the better.

If you have a wood stove or fireplace, spread the ashes over the leaves as you clean it out over the winter. The alkalinity from the ashes will neutralize the acidity of the leaves and help them break down faster.

If you do it the hard way, raking all those leaves and throwing them onto the garden whole, you’ll end up with an impenetrable layer of wet, slimy leaves. Chopping them up with the mower lets them decompose faster. Whole leaves can take two years to turn into humus. Chopped leaves, mixed with grass clippings or other nitrogen-rich material and neutralized with wood ash can rot in less than half the time.

If you don’t have wood ash, sprinkle dolomite limestone over the top. If you find you are gathering leaves with no grass clippings mixed in, you can add nitrogen by means of a weak ammonia solution: one tablespoon per gallon, poured on with a watering can. Add another layer of leaves on top to prevent the ammonia from evaporating. If you opt out of fencing, get some straw and put a thin layer on top, spread like a lattice to keep the winter winds from blowing the leaves back onto your yard.

That’s all for now. Put your feet up, make yourself a nice hot cup of tea, and check out those seed catalogs.

Just don’t get carried away.