Continuing a discussion about designing your home kitchen garden, I finally get to share the story of a visit I made to photograph a garden that was full of surprises. Nearly every week I drive past a property on which a collection of raised garden beds sits back just a few feet from the road. Last season I saw weekly changes in those beds as trellises appeared in some, then seedlings, and eventually mature vegetable plants.
One Saturday in mid summer, I stopped at the house there and knocked on the door. A suspicious woman came to the door, and after an awkward moment I explained that I write about gardening and had been enjoying her raised bed project. I asked whether I could photograph her vegetable garden and tell about it in my blog.
I must have been sincere enough because this woman graciously broke away from a tomato-processing project in her kitchen and took me for a rather mind-boggling tour.
First, we went around the house to a large area planted with fruit trees and shrubs. These were relatively new plantings, and she was still coaxing them along without significant harvest. It showed great promise for coming seasons.
We went back around the house, and where the entrance walk met the driveway we passed a thick stand of raspberry plants. From there, we walked down the driveway and I admired the variety of crops that grew in a series of raised beds. The woman was self-conscious about weeds (prominent in at least one photo here), but there were plenty of tomatoes, winter squash, zucchini, and other food crops—certainly enough for a couple whose kids had grown and moved away.
After I shot a few photos, I was thanking my new gardening friend and preparing to leave when she asked, “Do you want to see the rest of it?” Instant intrigue.
Of course I followed my host past the last raised bed and up the hill alongside a barn. About 50 yards from the last raised bed, we came upon a kitchen garden bed that covered at least an acre!
My new gardening friend explained that her husband loves to plant stuff. She gets to deal with the resultant produce. Most of the kitchen gardeners I visited last summer had lost patience with garden maintenance, and weeds were prominent. Goodness! When you’re dealing with an acre or more of crops, you’d be weeding for hours every day to keep them under control! No matter: as long as your crops grow taller than your weeds, you’ll have a decent harvest.
While this enormous planting bed held corn, squash, tomatoes, peppers, and vegetables I didn’t identify, that wasn’t the end of it! We walked past the chicken yard attached to the barn, and through an ornamental garden next to the house. There, up against a tree line, was another kitchen garden, this one decked out with various flowers for cutting.
My kitchen gardener friend explained that her goal is to stay out of grocery stores and farmers’ markets; if she preserves a quarter of the food she grows, I imagine she never buys produce from any other grower.
If you have four- to six-months’ lead time to start a new planting bed in your lawn, don’t cut sod! Rather, lay out cardboard in the shape of the bed, cover it with at least six inches of manure or compost, and let it cook.
Great news: You’re going to add a home kitchen garden to your yard next year! Wait: you’re adding to an existing home kitchen garden? That’s also great news! But I’m pretty sure I heard you mention that you plan to cut sod in the spring. Don’t do it!
I mean, don’t cut sod. Cutting sod to create a planting bed in the lawn is a time-honored ritual. So many people figure that to find soil they must remove the grass. But cutting and removing sod is back-breaking work, and the science of gardening is ever-changing. Coming into vogue is a method of creating new planting beds in lawns without ever cutting sod!
Because you started planning now for next spring, you can take the lazy path and slow-cook a planting bed into your lawn. Then you won’t have to cut and remove sod in the spring. Slow-cooking is relatively easy. I learned about it from the Penn State University Cooperative Extension office, though I don’t think they called it slow-cooking. In fact, I don’t think they gave a name for it.
Begin, of course, by selecting the location and dimensions for your new planting bed. I hope you’ve already thought this through carefully and have resolved concerns about sunlight, exposure to wind, drainage, and accessibility. My earlier post, Your First Small Kitchen Garden explores these concerns further. When choosing dimensions for a planting bed, consider whether you’ll need to walk in the bed; my blog post, Small Kitchen Garden Design Layout can help with this decision.
Lay corrugated cardboard on the lawn in the shape of the new planting bed. Cover the grass completely, overlapping pieces of cardboard to close all gaps between them. Cover the cardboard with six inches of compost or manure and wait until spring. A lot of good things should happen in the six months to come.
You can use raw manure when you set up a slow-cooked planting bed. If you apply the manure in August or September, it has plenty of time to leach out salt and nutrients into the soil; it will be ready for planting in the spring.
By the time things thaw in the spring, you can dig right through the compost or manure and the cardboard into what used to be lawn. Typically, there will be virtually no evidence of cardboard by this time and what used to be lawn will be relatively soft and easy to work.
When you plant in a cooked-in bed, your life is easiest if you’re dealing with seedlings or potted plants. You can simply dig a hole for each seedling, set the seedling in the hole, and back-fill with the rich mix of soil and compost that developed over the winter.
If you’re sowing seeds, it’s a good idea to turn the soil within the row in which you plan to sow. Then rake out the soil, create a furrow, and set the seeds. Of course, you can till the entire planting bed: use a power tiller or a shovel to cut deep and turn over six-to-eight inches of soil. Then rake it smooth and lay out your planting zones.