Starting a Suburban Garden

Your playing children and cavorting dogs will thank you for planting your garden at the edge of the yard.

Backyard Border Garden

First off, start small. The #1 mistake beginning gardeners make is grabbing a garden catalog and deciding they need a vast tract of land so they can grow a row of everything. Arugula! Merveille de Quatre Saisons lettuce! Celtus! Salsify! Twenty-seven varieties of heirloom tomatoes! Did I say, “Start small?” I’ll keep saying it.

Everything in the seed catalog is absolutely the best. Their writers taught Dan Draper the art of persuasion. (Remember, he grew up on a farm, reading this stuff.) Stay strong. Do not give in. Start small. One tomato plant, one bush cucumber or bush squash, and one leafy green of your choice. Seriously, folks, that’s enough for starters. A pepper plant, maybe. The hot ones are easier to grow than the sweets, or at least that’s what I’ve found. Once you’ve successfully grown an 8’ x 4’ space, which is about what the above list of plants would take up, you can make the garden a little bigger next year. Plant what you like to eat: tomatoes, cukes, and lettuce for a salad garden, or tomatoes, hot peppers and cilantro for a salsa garden. Like Southern cooking? Collards and sweet potatoes are both easy to grow and prolific, although the sweet potato vines will want to spread.

Second, buy plants rather than starting seeds, especially for warm-season crops like tomatoes and squash. Some things you have to direct seed: corn, peas, and beans, for example, but buy tomatoes, cukes, peppers, and squash as sets, not seeds.

Third, put your tiny garden in an out-of-the-way spot. I know the conventional image of “vegetable garden” is a square or rectangle occupying the middle of the yard, but that image comes from farms, where they have lots of land and tractors to plow it. Find a nice sunny spot somewhere in the border. Your playing children and cavorting dogs will thank you.

Fourth, soil improvements will pay off ten-fold over increases in garden size. Fortunately, soil improvements are easy, cheap, and readily available in a suburban setting. They are called “grass clippings.” In the Fall, they are called “leaves and grass clippings.”

Labor-saving hint #1: Don’t rake your leaves. Suck them up with the lawn mower. This chops the carbon-containing leaves and mixes them with the nitrogen-containing fresh grass for optimal composting action.

There are a lot of things you can buy at your local hardware palace to add to your soil. Some of them even have “organic” on the label. Other than the stuff that comes out of your grass catcher, you’ll only need two: dolomite limestone (if you don’t have a woodstove or fireplace) and Epsom salts.

Labor saving hint #2: Don’t get the brilliant idea to “wait until all the leaves fall off the trees.” You will curse yourself. The drifts of leaves will clog the mower and you’ll have to lift it up every few feet to clear it, plus you’ll have to empty the bag every twenty feet or so and the carbon/nitrogen ratio will be off. Just mow once a week, more often if you have a sudden leaf drop. Putting whole leaves on the garden or in a compost bin creates an impenetrable layer that can take years to break down. (Yes, I know that this advice is out of season. Just sayin’)

Take the time and effort to dig deeply and break up the soil well. If you have compost, add it. If not, you can add bagged topsoil, compost, or even potting soil. If your soil is heavy clay, consider mixing in some sand. Sprinkle a little Epsom salts and lime or wood ash over your garden plot and mix well.

Labor saving hint #3: choose a pleasant time of day to garden. One of my worst garden experiences was working with people who insisted on waiting until 10am to start. After lunch, it was right back out into the 90°+ heat until about 5 pm, at which time, it having become pleasant outside, we would quit for the day and go into the house. Fortunately, the average suburbanite has something called a “day job” that pretty much demands that you restrict your garden activity to those long summer evenings. Looks like a win-win to me.

Fifth, grow up! This is not a personal judgment on you. I mean garden vertically wherever you can. A five foot row of pole beans will out-yield a ten-foot row of bush beans, and require less weeding, watering, and bending over. Squash, melon, and cucumber vines will yield just as much on a trellis that occupies three feet of garden as they will sprawling across the vast domain they are programmed to conquer. (Warning, do not try this with watermelons, unless you grow the mini-icebox kind.)

Sixth, just add water. Every day that it doesn’t rain, spend a little time outside and give your garden a spritz. Soak the ground so that it takes about 60 seconds to lose the shiny you get from spraying it with water.

Seventh, get the weeds while they’re small. If you’re militant about this, you won’t find gardening a chore at all. If you let the weeds get big, they will fight back, so when you see a new weed, nail it. Get yourself a Dutch (also called “scuffle”) hoe. You push it back and forth just below the soil surface and it cuts the tender roots off the tiny little weeds. (And your plants, if you’re not paying attention.) After the weeds are cut off, put a thick layer of grass clippings around your plants. That will keep the soil moist and new weeds from sprouting. Show no mercy to your weeds and your plants will reward you with more food than you know what to do with.

Easy to Grow                     More Advanced                       Not For Beginners

Beans                                    Peas*                               Eggplant**

Zucchini                               Broccoli                              Cauliflower

Hot peppers                       Bell Peppers                           Red Bell Peppers

Collards                              Lettuce*                               Celery

Kale                                     Melons**                            Endive

Swiss chard                        Onions

Tomatoes                           Carrots

Summer Squash               Radishes*

Garlic                                     Corn

*Prefer cool weather. Try planting them in a spot with some shade.

**Long-season. You may need to protect them with plastic as Fall closes in.

Eighth, and last: Start small.

About Suburbutopia

Well, I always wanted to live on a farm. Something about all that space and being surrounded by plants, I guess. Never happened, and at my age (none of your business, thank you) it’s not likely to. So hubby and I have a third of an acre in a development. It’s not our first adventure in suburban agriculture, but it’ll do. The central Delaware soil is a rich sandy loam, and we’re happy with that. The first summer’s harvest exceeded expectations, even planted late, (early June, after we bought the house in mid-May) without compost, with squirrels digging up the bean seeds and dogs rampaging through.

Ah, but we have plans. (Cue Bach’s Toccatta and Fugue in B Minor.) We’ll see how that goes, and as we find out, we’ll share it with you here.