Where to Put the Vegetable Garden

Where to Put the Vegetable Garden

If you are completely new to vegetable gardening, one of the first things you need to think about is where to put the garden.

In a small garden you usually don’t have many options. It has to go where there is room. Don’t make the mistake of putting it where it won’t work though. If the best place is already occupied by an ornamental bed or a garden shed, it may be necessary to rearrange things to make room for the vegetables. In some situations you might have to remove sources of shade, such as a tree, in order to get enough sunlight.

In a large garden you’ll have many more options. If you have several choices you should try to take advantage of any favorable microclimate, such as a south facing slope. Ideally the vegetable garden should be fairly low down on a slope to avoid high winds and to get better soil with more moisture. However it should not be so low that it is in a frost pocket. In a dry climate you might put the vegetable garden in any area with naturally moist soil. A flat area often isn’t as warm as a south facing slope, but it is generally easier to work with.

There are certain conditions that all food gardens must meet in order to be productive. Consider the following before you start digging:

    • The most important factor in growing a garden is sunlight. More sun means more plant growth. In fact, the majority of crop plants need at least 6 hours of direct sunlight a day to grow well. So your first objective is to put the vegetable patch where it will get the most sun.

A garden's optimal orientation to the sun

  • A fertile soil is also a big help, but it is less important than sun because you have the power to improve the soil through your gardening activities.
  • Good drainage is important because plants won’t grow in waterlogged soil. This is particularly important in spring because you should never dig wet soil (it will damage the soil’s structure). And waiting for the soil to dry out can cause delays (wet soil also warms up more slowly than dry soil).
  • If your garden is exposed to strong winds, you will need to think about shelter. Strong winds can batter plants, cool winds can chill them and dry winds can increase evaporation. If there is no natural shelter you will have to think about a windbreak (without creating shade however).
  • You should never put your vegetable beds on the north side of tall objects such as buildings, walls, trees or shrubs where they will get little sun. You should also keep them well away from any trees or shrubs, as their creeping roots will move into the fertile and well watered soil and extract most of their available nutrients (this would drastically reduce your crop plant growth).
  • Consider the proximity to the house. The closer the food garden is to the kitchen the more you will use it. Ideally the garden should be within 100 feet of your kitchen door so it is easy to nip outside and harvest while cooking. If it is further away you tend to limit your trips out there , so the harvest becomes more sporadic. Someone once estimated that the harvest declined by 30% when the garden was over 100 feet away. A garden that is close to the house gets tended more conscientiously, not only because it is more convenient, but because it is so visible. You make more effort to keep it looking good because otherwise it would be embarrassing every time someone came to visit.
  • Finally it’s nice if the vegetable garden is in its own area and isn’t on the way to somewhere else. If it is right in the center of a play or entertainment area then plants may get damaged by passing children, dogs and wheelbarrows; and those tempting ripe tomatoes will keep disappearing.

SmartGardener.com creates a Smart Garden Plan for you which automatically and optimally orients all your plants in relation to the sun – so you can get out into the garden!

Smart Gardener Beta launches! The free online tool that lets you simply grow great food.

Smart Gardener Beta launches! The free online tool that lets you simply grow great food.

From plot to plate. The easiest way to plan, grow and harvest a successful organic garden.

It’s for all of us busy people, novice gardeners and even seasoned gardeners who want to integrate growing food into our lifestyle.

Smart Gardener is the simple answer to “Where do I start?” “How much should I grow?” “What do I do next?”

Here’s what SmartGardener can so for you:

Get an optimized garden plan so you can get out in the garden.
Smart Gardener combines your selected plants, garden layout, and household size with complex planting variables, to create a Smart Garden Plan just for you.

Makes it easy to find the right plants, so you can’t go wrong.
With over 500 organic seeds and starts to choose from (and buy), Smart Gardener offers personalized recommendations, along with super simple ways to select plants, suited to your taste and growing conditions.

We track all of your gardens “To Dos”, so you don’t have to.
SmartGardener calculates and tracks all your gardens “To Dos”, from prepping to picking. View To Dos at a glance and get email reminders when it’s time to get in your garden.

We manage a dynamic Journal that tracks, collects and shares.
Smart Gardener keeps your Journal, so you don’t have to. But go ahead, enter notes, and photos too. It’s also dynamic, meaning it tracks and displays all others’ entries about the varieties you are growing.

Share a garden or start one by selecting a Signature Garden.
Your garden’s plan, growing conditions, and Journal are all part of a unique “playlist” of plants. Share it or use a garden from this growing gallery of templates, ideas, and inspiration.

Link to SmartGardener to get started.

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Making your own fertilizer mix

Making your own fertilizer mix

Making your own fertilizer mix has several advantages over buying a pre-packaged mix. That’s why it’s a basic component of Smart Gardener’s approach to organic gardening. Here’s a couple reasons why we like it so much.

1) Simplicity. It makes the whole question of “Which fertilizer do I use?” much simpler. It reduces the amount of boxes, bags and bottles of lots of different fertilizers you have to buy and store.

2) Less costly. It can save you quite a bit of money (as much as 50%), which you can then use for other gardening purposes.

3) Easy. It doesn’t take much time or effort to mix the various materials together, though it can be a bit dusty and the bulk bags are fairly heavy (they usually weigh 50 lb).

4) More flexibility. You can alter the recipe to better suit individual crops and can avoid materials you don’t like (for ecological, ethical or other reasons).

5) Buying bulk and sharing. If you buy the ingredients in the large bags. it’s great for community or school gardens, as well as sharing with neighbors or friends.

Where to buy

Generally the cheapest place to buy your materials is from a farm supply or feed store (a rule of thumb says that it’s cheaper to use materials sold as animal feed rather than fertilizer). If you don’t have a local feed store or farm supply,  then your next option is a garden center. These are set up for home gardeners so everything is in one place and it’s easy to compare materials and prices.

Choosing the ingredients

A complete fertilizer mix will include a source of each of the primary nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, as well as the secondary nutrients (calcium, magnesium and sulfur) and trace elements. The materials you choose depends not only on their nutrient content, but whether your priority is cost, organic purity (the cheaper amendments are mostly waste products from commercial agriculture and may contain pesticide residues or GMO’s) or ethical concerns (we won’t use products from industrial livestock raising).

How much to buy

Some ingredients are used in much greater quantities than others, so if you simply buy one sack of each material you will run out of one ingredient before any of the others. The next time you go to buy ingredients, you will only need to buy those that are in short supply.

Mixing

For convenience you can mix all of the ingredients at once and store it in a cool dry place (though it’s probably best not to store the mix for too long). You can also store them separately and mix as needed. We use the white 5 gallon plastic pails with lids.

The recipe uses proportional quantities so you can use any container (whether a gallon pail or a teaspoon) to make as much as you need. I usually put all of the separate ingredients into a wheelbarrow and mix them thoroughly with a shovel (wear a dust mask as some of the finer ingredients are pretty dusty). It’s not a bad idea to do this over a clean hard surface, so you can recover anything you spill. For smaller quantities, a gardening bucket or pail works well.

Storage

I store the prepared mix in a plastic bin, though you could also use the paper sack the amendments came in. Some of these amendments are edible, so if you have rodent problems you will have to store them in a secure metal or plastic container, otherwise they may get eaten (and you may have a rodent explosion). They also need to be kept dry of course, otherwise they will rot.

Standard Mix

This is a mix of various amendments intended to supply all of the nutrients plants may require. It is usually incorporated into the soil prior to planting. The mix consists of:

4 parts cottonseed meal (this is high in nitrogen and relatively inexpensive)

2 parts colloidal phosphate or bone meal (for phosphorus)

2 parts wood ash or 3 parts greensand or granite dust (for potassium)

1 part dolomitic limestone (to balance pH and add calcium and magnesium)

1 part kelp meal (for trace elements)

Mix these together thoroughly. You can do this all at once, or you can store them separately and mix as needed.

Optional extra:

2 parts of sifted worm castings (This adds microorganisms and micronutrients). I prefer to store this separately and add shortly before using.

Custom mixes

You don’t have to use the recipe above, you can customize it to better suit the crop you are growing. Conventional wisdom recommends giving additional nitrogen to leaf crops, potassium to root crops and phosphorus to seed or fruit crops, so you could add extra of these as required.

 

Vegetable Seeds for the Spring Garden

Vegetable Seeds for the Spring Garden

November isn’t quite over as I write this, but already the seed and fruit catalogs have started to arrive. They will increase in frequency through December and into January and then peter out in February. No doubt they arrive at the most convenient time from the perspective of the seed production business and for the convenience of spring seed starting, but by coincidence it is also a master stroke of marketing. They just happen to arrive when gardeners are first starting to experience garden withdrawal symptoms. We may have been confined inside by inclement weather for weeks and are starting to pine to be outside doing garden things (we have already oiled the wooden handled tools with linseed oil and sharpened everything that needs sharpening).

Perusing seed catalogs has long been a treasured ritual among avid gardeners. We curl up with them by the fireside on cold winter nights (hot cocoa and fuzzy slippers are optional but recommended accessories).  Our catalogs allow us to dream about vegetables and gardening even if our gardens are actually frozen solid beneath three feet of snow (not very likely in the San Francisco Bay Area where I live, but that’s part of the mystique). We get to read and reread those descriptions of plump, sweet, tangy, succulent tomatoes and crisp, green, frilly lettuce and admire the glorious color photographs until our imaginations start to run wild, especially if there’s brandy in the cocoa.

Of course we Bay Area gardeners are blessed in that we can actually get out and garden on any day of the year, weather permitting. So we can’t get as intense a seed catalog experience as gardeners in Vermont. Nor would I say that receiving the catalogs is one of the highlights of the gardening year (they don’t actually involve any gardening), but they certainly help to keep the gardening portion of my brain busy during the gap between Christmas and seed starting time.

Receiving seed catalogs predates the electronic age, but just because you love looking at them doesn’t mean you can’t use the Internet to do your buying. One of the great benefits of Smart Gardener is that you can not only plan out your vegetable beds for the next season and get immediate feedback on what you need to do to prepare and plant your garden, but you can also buy the seeds and starts you need all in one place.

If I get all the planning work done in early December, I can look forward to receiving a fat padded yellow envelope in the mail in time for Christmas. I get a little buzz of excitement as I open it, exactly like I used to feel as a child opening my presents. These days, new seeds and the anticipation of getting back into the garden is gift enough for me.