One of the things I’m enjoying most about this year’s growing season is the opportunity to help others with their home gardens. Last week I had a chance to chat with a friend and former college roommate – Sara Heilig, about the garden that she and her husband Nick would like to grow this year. The garden is driven by three major factors: The family’s veggie preferences, their space and of course Assistant Gardeners – Emma and Hailey.
The Heiligs currently have an 8’ x 8’ raised garden bed in place. The bed is surrounded on two sides (North and West) with a 4’ high chain link fence and on the other sides with a custom-built gate. The sides of the bed are made of three landscape timbers stacked on top of each other. Also the bed was filled with commercially mixed garden soil about five years ago and has clay earth beneath it.
In addition to this 8’ x 8’ bed, the Heiligs are also planning to build a 4’ x 6’ cedar raised bed inspired by a picture Sara saw here.
Both beds get (or will get) excellent sun. While bunnies are a concern, there are no other potential critter problems (such as deer, raccoons or pets). Also, the 8’ x 8’ bed has a path of stepping stones running through it to allow Sara to harvest the hard-to-reach sections of the garden without compacting soil as she steps into the space. I don’t know exactly where those stones are, so please keep in mind that the plantings for this garden will need to be adjusted slightly to accommodate those stepping stones.
Because they have two distinct garden spaces, this seasonal family garden plan calls for planting each space for a different season. The larger garden will be planted now for spring and early summer veggies. The smaller garden will hold summer veggies. Meanwhile, since the early veggies will be gone by midsummer, the large garden will be replanted for a fall harvest. We’ll talk about this more in a minute, but crop rotation and well-planned companion planting are key to this second round of veggies.
The Heiligs (especially the little ones) love snap peas and beans. This plan provides them with a whole heapin’ mess of beans and peas! They’re also fans of zucchini and would like to try summer squash. Sara is interested in canning or freezing tomato sauce this year so the plan also calls for some roma tomato plants. (Her father is a tomato connoisseur with tons of plants each year so there’s no need to plant slicing tomatoes.) Here are the other plants they’d like to grow:
- Sweet Peppers
- Cherry Tomatoes
- Summer Squash
I also threw pie pumpkins and cabbage into the mix as recommendations.
Spring Garden (8’ x 8’)
The Spring garden (8’ x 8’ bed) features sugar snap peas (Sugar Ann) growing along the North and West side of the garden. Since peas grow on vines, they can be trained up the fence and no additional trellis is needed. Because the climbing peas are to the north and west, they shouldn’t block much sunlight. All the same, I designed the garden so that the sun-loving veggies are to the south (carrots, broccoli) and the veggies that can handle (and sometimes welcome) a little shade are planted to the north (spinach and lettuce). The wee bit of additional shade from the peas may even help the lettuce and spinach to last longer into the season before they bolt (grow a flower and become bitter tasting). The carrots are furthest south in this scheme because they are the shortest and that way their sun won’t be blocked by the taller broccoli plants.
Fortunately all of these cool-weather veggies play nicely together so companion planting is not a large concern. (There are no “bad” combinations to look out for.) Here are the varieties I selected for this garden:
- Sugar Ann Snap Peas. This is a common garden pea that matures early.
- Tom Thumb Lettuce. I just loved the idea of little girls being able to pick cute little lettuce heads from their own garden.
- Rouge d’Hiver Lettuce. I was initially drawn to Rouge d’Hiver lettuce because of striking purple-red color, but reviews indicate that this variety is also very low maintenance and tolerant of a wide array of growing conditions.
- Bloomsdale Long Standing Spinach. This is a common variety of spinach that resists bolting and has a great taste.
- Berlicum 2 Carrots. Just a good old fashioned orange carrot!
- Calabrese Green Sprouting Broccoli. The majority of the broccoli is this Italian heirloom variety because reviews indicate that it is easier to grow than other varieties and produces earlier.
- Waltham 29 Broccoli. This is the most common home-garden broccoli variety. Reviews indicated that this one grows well too.
All of the veggies I’ve talked about so far have high yields per square foot. The exception is Broccoli on the other hand has low yields per square foot (only one plant). Because of that, and because this family loves it, I devoted the bulk of the garden to broccoli.
This plan calls for a lot of greens. If you wanted to add some variety, good choices would be beets (the baby greens are delicious!) arugula and chard.
Summer Garden (4’ x 6’)
The summer garden is smaller and contains all heat-loving veggies. For the most part these guys play well together with one exception: Beans. Tomatoes and peppers don’t like beans so I designed the garden to keep them as far apart as possible. The end result was that I wasn’t able to plant very many beans (which, remember, the girls love) but don’t worry – we’ll make up for that in the Fall Garden.
Because there is no trellis here, the beans are bush beans. Using bush beans also helps to avoid a shade issue since these are all sun-loving plants. The tomatoes, however, will need some manner of trellis. Here are the varieties for the summer garden:
- Golden Wax Beans. These are also a common garden vegetable with a creamy yellow flesh and a sweet taste.
- Dragon Tongue Beans. I will grow these for the rest of my life. I love the flavor and they are so beautiful! For a family that loves fresh snap beans, this one is sure to be a winner.
- Roma Tomatoes. These tomatoes are also known as paste tomatoes because they are great for sauces. We also like them for fresh eating.
- Black Beauty Zucchini. A classic home garden zucchini plant. It’s a bush variety so no trellis is needed.
- Crookneck Early Golden Summer Squash. Also a classic. Matures at the same time as the zucchini.
If the Heiligs are feeling adventurous, they could try substituting Golden Zucchini for the traditional green variety.
Fall Garden (8’ x 8’)
June doesn’t seem like the time to be thinking about fall. After all , the summer is just getting started! But by the middle to end of June, the sugar snap peas will be in decline and other veggies like lettuce and spinach will be on their way out too, depending on weather conditions. What a shame it would be to leave this 8’ x 8’ space laying fallow when there is still so much fair weather left to the year. Here’s the plan for making good use of that space to continue the harvest well into Fall!
Peas are legumes, and legumes are nitrogen fixers. That means they add nitrogen to the soil. We’re going to take advantage of that by planting a second crop of “heavy feeders” in the place where the peas used to be. (Heavy feeders are crops which “eat” large amounts of nutrients from the soil.) On the West side of the garden, we’ll plant cabbage. Cabbage might not sound like the most appetizing of garden vegetables, but trust me, you will LOVE the taste of homemade coleslaw from home-grown cabbage! Along the north we’re going to plant two cherry tomato plants and another zucchini plant. (The family loves zucchini and unfortunately I wasn’t able to squeeze as much into the Summer Garden as I wanted to.) There’s also an option to plant pie pumpkins or winter squash (such as acorn squash) here… or another zucchini plant. The nice thing about planting these on the North fence is that the climbers (tomatoes, pumpkins) have a built-in trellis and all of the shade issues I mentioned above apply again. Keep in mind that any large fruit (bigger than cantaloupes) will need slings to keep them from slipping the vines.
The placement of the cabbage and tomatoes is important. These guys don’t like each other, so we need to keep them as far apart as possible. Another tricky thing about this garden is that tomatoes also don’t like beans so we need to give them some distance.
However, remember that whole thing about “heavy feeders”? The broccoli that was in this garden in the Spring has “eaten” a lot of nutrients from the middle of the garden. A great way to replace those nutrients naturally is to plant legumes – like beans! Sweet, delicious, snap, bush beans. And tons of them! To keep the beans and tomatoes happy, I’ve placed two rows of carrots between them. With lettuce and spinach to the south of the garden, essentially now we’ve swapped the “root vegetable section” with the “leaf vegetable section.” That’s important because you should never succession plant (plant a second time in the same soil) crops from the same family (because they “eat” the same nutrients).
The varieties in the Fall Garden are the same as the Spring and Summer with a couple of additions:
- Mammoth Red Rock Cabbage. Beautiful and delicious. What more could you ask for?
- Tommy Toe Cherry Tomatoes. I grew these last year – they were my best tomatoes!
- Tendergreen Bush Bean. These beans are supposed to be excellent for preserving – both canning and freezing. If the girls don’t eat them all before frost comes, there will be plenty to save for the winter.
If garden success through the year brings on a desire to try some more “exotic” crops, here are some suggestions for alternatives:
- Trade carrots for parsnips
- Trade some carrots for turnips. Just a few – turnips have a very distinct, almost spicy flavor. The greens are also edible and I like them sautéed.
- Trade some greens for kale or swiss chard.
- Swap a cabbage or two for cauliflower.
Note: Many of the selections I made for this garden came from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. You can find the same or similar varieties from other companies like Hart’s, Seed Savers Exchange, Sustainable Seed Company, Victory Seeds or Annie’s Heirloom Seeds.
The Heiligs’ garden has some other challenges to address. In the last few years, Sara’s gardens have produced wilty vegetables – or some things have not produced at all. After talking with her about the garden, it sounds like the space is just in need of a nutrient boost since the soil has never been amended in the last five years. Adding a layer (4” thick) of a combination of quality plant-based compost mixed with manure-based compost should do wonders. If necessary, a natural fertilizer like fish emulsion would help during the season. You can find other natural, organic fertilizers (as well as compost) at major home stores like Menards and Home Depot. Follow the directions on the packaging for success.
The garden also has a current, perennial occupant: Strawberries. Sara would like to keep the strawberries, however, they have only produced tiny, colorless berries the last couple of years and clearly need a boost. Once we give the strawberries a boost, they are aggressive enough that they may take over the whole garden! To combat both issues, this plan involves transplanting the berries into containers full of rich, organic soil (same compost mix as the main gardens). For more tips on successful container planting for strawberries, click here.
Another challenge is how to kill some resident grass that just won’t go away. A safe, natural, effective way to kill wayward grass in (or around) the garden is (drum roll) vinegar! The acetic acid in vinegar – especially as it interacts with sunlight – is able to destroy plants without unnatural chemicals. Because vinegar used for household purposes has a relatively low amount of acetic acid, boiling the vinegar in advance may help to concentrate the acid. Some people also say that you can use boiling water to kills weeds (I tried it and didn’t have success) so perhaps boiled vinegar has double the power? Either way, I recommend that Sara apply the vinegar before planting veggies as the vinegar will be just as harmful to desirable plants as it is to weeds and grass. It’s also recommended that the vinegar be applied on a sunny day.
And lastly, we need to talk about a garden pest: Cabbage worms. These guys stink. I ended up picking them off my broccoli by hand last year and it was a stinky way to spend my time. I found that they were also fans of non-cabbage-family things like leafy lettuce. This year I’m going to try placing nylons over my cabbage heads as a physical barrier to keeping the cabbage worms (and white moths that lay the eggs initially) off my cabbage. For more thoughts on keeping cabbage worms at bay, click here.
To download the complete Seasonal Family Garden plan (including info on varieties selected and where to buy them) click here.