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.

The Founding Father of American Agriculture


Listening to my local NPR station on the way home last night, I was lucky to tune in to in interview with a gentleman from the State Ag Extension Office and Peter Hatch, the Director of Gardens and Grounds at Monticello. Rather than blather on about Jefferson’s importance, not only in writing the Declaration of Independence, serving as the first Secretary of State and third President, founding the University of Virginia, designing his own house, in addition to his influence on American agriculture, (Did the man ever sleep?) I’ll just refer you here:

Monticello is definitely on my bucket list.

Small Scale Corn

Small Scale Corn

I never had much luck with corn. Planted a few rows, watched it grow, watched the little ears tassle out, then…bupkis. I finally found the secret.

Plant in blocks. Four rows with four plants in each row, all six inches apart. The problem, you see, is pollination. If you’re growing acres of the stuff, pollen is no problem. The air is thick with it. But with limited space, rows simply don’t cut it.

So figure out how long it will take your family to eat 32 ears of corn. (That’s right, they grow two to the stalk on most varieties.) Let’s say it will take 10 days. Plant a block every 10 days. Bigger family? You can eat 32 ears in 4 days, you say? No problem, plant a block every 4 days. Start at the north end of the garden so the older, bigger stalks don’t shade the newbies. Once you’ve harvested both ears off a stalk, toss it in the compost and follow up with a cool weather crop in that spot. They’ll appreciate the shade while the days are still hot.

Corn likes rich soil, thus the bury-the-fish-head trick Squanto taught the Pilgrims. If you’re like us, with semi-trained house pets who like to dig holes, then eat or roll in what they find in them, come directly indoors and either upchuck or roll on the carpet, respectively, forget that trick. There are alternatives. If you have a fish tank, rather than pouring that disgusting, evil, nasty, stinky perfect, nitrogen-rich, free fertilizer down the drain, rinse the filter fluff in a pail of warm water, dig 6 inch deep trenches where the corn will go, and pour the stuff in there. You can toss the used charcoal in the trench. It will decompose, but the fluff won’t. Do this at least 2 weeks ahead of planting to give the goop a chance to mellow.

Fill the trenches back in, though. Your dog may not be interested in fish poop, but flies think it’s yummy.

No fish tank? No problem. You can buy fish fertilizer at your local garden store, or use that compost you’ve been collecting.

Turbocharge Your Tomatoes

My spindly little tomato plants, preparing to grow mighty roots!

My spindly little tomato plants, preparing to grow mighty roots!

This is a cool trick to give your tomato plants a head start. If you’re buying tomato sets, pick tall spindly ones. If you started yours indoors, they probably will be anyway.

For each plant, get a 2-liter soda bottle. Using a box knife or pruners, cut off the neck. (Tried skipping that step one year. Bad mistake.) Cut a vertical slit 3/4 of the way down one side. Cut two horizontal slits–across the top and bottom of the vertical slit. (So it looks like a capital H on it’s side.) Cut a notch in the middle of the vertical slit to make watering easier.

2-liter soda bottle, prepped for planting

Lay the bottle on it’s side, slit side up, and fill halfway with potting soil.

Pull off the lower leaves, making your tomato plant look like a miniature palm tree. Lay the tomato plant on the soil, with the leafy part sticking out of the neck of the bottle. Fill the bottle with potting soil, and water well. Put in a sunny place and keep the soil moist. The buried part of the stem will grow roots. You can duct tape the slit shut. Just make sure you keep the notch open for watering.

That photo didn’t come out as clear as I wished it had, so here’s a drawing. soda bottle

What I like about this is that you can move the plants indoors at night, and out into direct sun during the day. Plus the dirt stays put.

When the weather turns warm enough to set out tomatoes in the garden, dig a deep hole, once again trimming the plant back into a palm tree, cut the bottle off the plant and lay the root ball in the hole. Fill the hole with soil or compost, right up to the bottom leaf, water well, and stand back.

My experience has been that you will see noticable growth within a couple of days. That giant rootball wants a big plant.

Grandpa Jake

I never met my grandfather. He died a year or so before I was born, but I grew up listening to stories about him. His name was John Jacob Hoehing, and he went by Jake. He had three outstanding characteristics: He could fix anything. He could make anything grow. Everywhere he went, he ran into a friend.

My grandparents married in 1911. They were both factory workers. Elizabeth, my grandmother, had been orphaned at age 13. The relatives who took her in never allowed her to forget to be thankful that they let her finish eighth grade before sending her out to earn her keep. She never talked about what she did in the factory, but her wages helped her younger sister attend secretarial school and get a leg up in life. Jake was her knight in shining armor. After ten years in the factory, she was now a housewife.

They worked and saved and eventually bought an eight-unit apartment house. They lived in one of the second floor units. Lizzy kept the hallways spotless, and scrubbed the marble front steps each day. Jake kept the light bulbs on and the plumbing running. In his spare time, he turned the tiny back yard into a miniature Garden of Eden. Cabbages. Tomatoes. Espaliered fruit trees.

Good thing, too. When the stock market crashed in 1929, the jewelry factory closed and he lost his job as a stone setter. By that time, my mother had followed her aunt’s footsteps and gone to secretarial school. She’d already been working as a legal secretary in the Essex County Courthouse in Newark, NJ for 2 years. Each week she gave $10 of the $15 she earned  to her mother. When my uncle turned nine, in 1931, he got an evening job as a pinsetter at the local bowling alley. I don’t know how much he made, but it cost him part of his hearing. They made it through.

My parents married later in life than most. World War II intervened before I came along, and so they were about ten to twenty years older than most of my friends’ parents. For their parents, the Great Depression was some vague, fuzzy memory that happened when they were little, and mostly to other people. For my parents, it was the defining event of their lives, and a frequent topic of dinner table conversation. My father spent the entire decades of the Fifties’ and Sixties’ prosperity fully convinced that it would all end tomorrow.

They didn’t garden, though. Mom had survived tuberculosis and been declared semi-invalid. Dad came from lace curtain Irish stock, people who concealed their manual incompetence behind a screen of distain for anyone who “worked with their hands.” My uncle gardened. He’d married the daughter of Italian immigrants, and growing tomatoes and canning them was part of their family tradition. My father’s cousin and his wife gardened, and turned me on to Rodale and yoga. (Aunt Rita, a devout Catholic, and in all other ways a totally conventional middle-class American housewife, was a fan of Lillias, on PBS.)

So the gardening bug skipped a generation in my family, but it came roaring back with me.

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.