This post is the 2nd of how to plant a lot in your urban garden, and up your production in a small space! Please also see the 4.17.10 post! Thanks, and good planting to you!
Gophers and other Blessed Pests First! When I give this as a talk, you should hear the groans from my listeners when I say we must start by talking about gophers. They know what I’m talking about. I want to emphasize to take care of this before you even think of doing anything else. I’ve seen so much heartache over lost plants, literally tears, some of them my own. You lose the months it took your plant to grow, and the food you would have gotten from it. All that work raising your little plant, having a personal relationship with it, and suddenly, with no mercy, our hungry little friend takes it, gone. Just gone. So, before you start planting, install 1/2″ aviary wire or hardware cloth barriers. Aviary wire is cheaper, doesn’t last as long. How long it lasts depends on your soil. I’ve heard anywhere from 3 to 10 years. Do what your budget lets you. Not taking care of this means a lot of lost production time. If you can’t do the whole bed, do parts, or buy or make gopher wire baskets, especially for your favorite plants you use all the time, the most.
What to plant: experiment with how much you need, KEEP RECORDS! Over planting a veggie cuts down on space for variety, and may produce more than you can or want to eat. In your records include where you got your plant, the name of its variety, planting and harvest dates, yield, what you liked about it, didn’t, could have done better for it, comparisons with other varieties of the same plant, other kinds of plants.
Avoid loss of production time by choosing plants for success!
- Choose disease & pest resistant varieties for your area.
- Choose slow bolting varieties for longer harvest per square foot.
- Choose heat tolerant varieties that need less water, cold tolerant.
- Choose tomato and pepper varieties that produce small fruit. The smaller the size of the fruit, the more fruit the plant will produce.
- Choose a plant that produces year round, year after year.
- Don’t raise onions, potatoes (unless you are Irish 🙂 ), winter squash and cabbage. Those crops are relatively cheap to buy and don’t rely on “just picked” freshness for quality.
When to plant: In a small garden this becomes critical mass. If you plant a seed when the ground is too cold for it, it rots, no plant, you lose time. If you plant too soon, it may be too cold and no blooms are able to form, or if they do, no set fruit. Learn your plants’ needs.
Greenhouse! Getting a head start is an age-old planter’s trick, just about required repertoire for a gardener’s tool basket! There are so many ways to do it! Greenhouses are the cat’s meow! But if you don’t have one, don’t let that stop you. Dig a protected underground spot, cover with glass or plastic and raise your plant babies while the over head winds are howling! Start ’em in your south-facing kitchen window, in the garage with grow lights, in a free-standing clear plastic wardrobe closet you pop into your garden, use a protected spot in your garden as a mini nursery! Be creative! While your winter or summer plants are finishing, start your next season’s plants! You will be 6 to 8 weeks ahead! Now that’s excellent use of production time!
How much to plant: Think of how much production per square foot you will get. Will that serve your needs compared to the variety of the production of the entire garden, that plant itself? For example, would a wide Romano bean be more productive than a slim bean? Would a plant that has a longer production period be more useful? Are you wanting to can and have a lot of harvest at once, or do you want table tomatoes all summer?
Don’t plant too much of one vegetable. Two zucchini plants may produce more than enough.
Or, plant a lot of what you grow well, grows well on your space, then trade for other goodies?
Where to plant: Do you need to assure having that plant? Biodiversity, planting in different places throughout your garden, may be more effective that row cropping or putting all of one plant in one place where if disease or a pest comes, you lose them all as the disease or pest spreads from one to all. See also Rotation, below.
Succession planting: Limited by a small available area, choose your favorites that you want a steady supply of and use your self-discipline to wait to periodically plant another installment of your crop. We have heard about spring planting, and most of us ask, ‘Did you plant your garden?’ With succession planting, part of your garden is going to be bare unless you have planted successively before, and each area that is finishing becomes available sequentially. The question, ‘Did you plant your garden?’ no longer applies.
If you have a short season garden, fast maturing plants like radishes, lettuces, can be planted successively as fillers in any spare spot.
With succession crops, plant in the northmost area first; later plantings will not shade previous plantings too much as the first plantings finish.
Rotation: Hard to do in a small plot. What is the size of a ‘small’ plot? 10′ X 20′ would be considered a small plot. Small for what? In a 10′ X 20′ plot, the length north to south, it is logical to put tall plants to the North, shorter to the South so they don’t shade each other. That is especially true in winter when the sun is low in the South. So where do you rotate your tall tomatoes too?!?
You can space them with 2’ open space between them one year, plant in the open spaces the next year. But is that enough tomatoes? Do you want more? In a small plot, dig your planting hole, fill with compost and worm castings and any other amendments you want to use, ie mycorrhizal fungi, then plant in the compost! If your plant is a manure lover, add some. As you water, the compost, etc., juices (compost tea), go down into the soil below feeding the roots as they grow. You have to ‘build’ new soil as you go.
If your 10′ X 20′ plot is lengthwise east to west, you have more ‘tall’ area to plant in the north. But it is still hard to rotate in small plots. Feed your soil well.
Soil Depletion: In a small plot, this is an issue. The soil simply gets used up, turned into plants, pulled up with the roots. If at all possible, make compost! Bring in alfalfa/manure/fresh organic green trim and make a hot pile. You can do this simply with a removable reusable chicken wire enclosure. When not in use if folds up into little space. You can plant where the compost was made. Start your pile in enough time to use before major planting.
- Compost: You put in your soil. It contributes to the slow release of Nitrogen, the prime ingredient plants need for good growth. It can also be used as mulch, 2” minimum, 4” better! http://www.ag.ndsu.edu/pubs/plantsci/hortcrop/h885w.htm
- Vermicompost: Worm castings are very low in N (Nitrogen) but have special plant-growth hormones. The humus in castings improves your soil’s capacity to hold water. Castings suppress several diseases and significantly reduce parasitic nematodes, aphids, mealy bugs and mites.
- Mulch – You put on the surface to preserve your soil, keep it cool and moist, to prevent light germinating weed seeds from sprouting. Organic mulches, like barks, straw, leaves, what you chop and drop, deliberately grown mulch plants that are then felled in place, can be nutritious to your soil as they decompose. Mulch especially makes sense if you are a busy person since it cuts down on weeds. Weeds use up your soil, nutrients your plants need. So in the long run, as it prevents weeds and feeds your garden, you also have less expense feeding your soil.
Irrigation: In a tightly planted biodiverse veggie garden where things are changing rapidly, soaker hoses may not be the answer. They are more useful for row planting and more permanent non-veggie plantings. It is hard to tell how much water your plants are getting when water pressure varies much, not just from others using water at a community garden, but from the part of the hose nearest the spigot to the end of the hose. If you use mulch it may be hard to tell how much water your plants are getting, and in time, the hoses can get buried more deeply than your most shallow rooted plants! Plants that no longer need water, some tomatoes, mature onions that you want to dry, may get water you no longer want them to have and it may be difficult to move your hose far enough away unless you plant at the end of the line, remove the hose, double it back on itself. But all that finagling may be tiresome if not time-wasting. If you are a vigorous farmer, you may cut your hose while digging. And there are going to be times when the hose simply gets old and tired and the holes get bigger. Repairs are easy, but it does take your time.
I have come to prefer hand watering and I find I have a closer relationship with my garden as I watch and water. It is difficult to water underneath when you hand water, but keep it in mind to do, especially if you have just done some foliar feeding – don’t wash away all that food on the leaf. Water plantings of small seeds very gently with a low flow, or by hand with a sprinkler can so seeds don’t get washed away, buried or unburied, or tiny seedlings damaged.
That said, it is easy to lay soaker hoses in a small plot. If you intend to leave them there once laid, put them about 8” apart, so you can plant just about anywhere without relaying the hose. Slightly bury or lay mulch on top of your hose, to prevent evaporation loss and to keep your plants from getting wet and mildewing, reduce snail/slug habitat! Well laid hoses save time and water. You can be watering while you do maintenance and harvesting.
If you are really busy or are gone for periods of time, get an automatic timer. Some water is better than no water.
Pollination: Put some buzz in your population by having a few bee attractor plants either in your garden or nearby! Pollination equals production, so this is critical. Otherwise, you hand pollinate.
Managing Pests and Diseases: First rules are to keep your plants healthy – well fed, make healthy soil, and reduce risky habitat. Make habitat, plants for beneficial insects, poles for birds, rocks for lizards!
The small plot advantage is you can hand manage pests, cutting expenses. You can track individual plants and see what they really need when they need it, remove immediately if necessary. The disadvantage is it you lose it, it’s gone and you have to start over if there is time. For some plants, if you miss the growing window, you are out of luck.
Harvest: In a small plot you can’t afford not to harvest plants that stop production if not harvested frequently, peas, beans, cucumbers.
Seed Saving: There may be little space or time to let plants grow to the seeding stage. But if you have a very favorite plant – tasty crop, strong, exceptional production, it may pay to let it seed.
Cover cropping: If you need to miss a season or want to give your soil a rest and a boost, plant nitrogen fixers that as they grow, are living mulch, then later you knock down, chop into the soil, becoming green manure.
Your rewards: The freshest, most nutritious, tastiest organic veggies ever! And the outdoor enjoyment, therapy, and relaxation a garden can give.
Go ahead, do it, turn off your cell.