When I was young, my parents offered me a tiny plot of ground in our backyard for my own garden. That first season, I grew carnations, tomatoes and cucumbers. The spark was ignited. I've been gardening ever since, wherever I've lived; Colorado, California and here in Vermont. After 30 years, I continue to learn about and experiment with new vegetable varieties and plant combinations. I make discoveries every season. But over the years I've settled on a garden layout that utilizes three-foot-wide raised beds. It is, I think, the key to beautiful and productive gardens.
First, I'm going to review the essentials of a vegetable garden, then I'll describe how I make my raised beds. I believe that if you follow these directions, you'll be well on your way to an abundant harvest and an enjoyable gardening season.
There's no better way to start than by choosing a sunny spot for your garden. Most vegetables need six to eight hours of direct sun a day for best results. Leafy greens like spinach and lettuce can thrive with a bit less. As you assess your yard this winter, remember that the deciduous trees that are leafless now will cast shadows as the seasons progress.
If possible, locate the garden so that access to and from the kitchen is easy and convenient. It's best if you can view the garden from a window. When the garden is easy to see and reach, you are more apt to notice what needs to be tended and to take full advantage of the harvest.
The ideal garden location has loose soil that drains well. If your soil isn't perfect, you can improve it over time by adding organic matter such as compost.
A 20- by 20-foot garden gives you room to grow a wide range of crops, including some tasty "space hogs" such as corn and winter squash. A 12- by 16-foot plot is sufficient for a garden sampler with a variety of greens, some herbs, a few tomatoes and peppers, beans, cucumbers and even edible flowers such as nasturtiums for garnishes. By growing plants in succession and using three-foot-wide beds with 18-inch paths, you should have plenty of luscious vegetables for fresh eating and extras for friends.
Use the following plan as a guideline, substituting crops to suit your own tastes. I always include flowers in my garden because they are beautiful and a joy to cut and bring indoors. Flowers also attract pollinating insects to the garden.
If you'd rather design your garden from scratch, I recommend plotting it on graph paper. Use paper with a grid of 1/4-inch squares, with each square representing one foot in the garden. Outline the beds in pencil, then fill in the plant names.
Once you have a plan, you're ready to stake the garden. You'll need a tape measure, plenty of string, 12- to 18-inch stakes and a hammer to drive the stakes into the ground.
For best sun exposure, orient the garden so the rows run east to west, with the tallest plants on the north end. Following your plan, drive a stake in each of the four corners of the garden.
At this point you'll need to rototill or turn the garden by hand and remove existing weeds.
If you haven't had your soil tested to determine the soil pH, do it now. Most vegetables require a pH between 6.0 and 6.8. Limestone is often necessary to raise the pH in high-rainfall areas; use sulfur to lower the pH in the arid West. Your extension service will advise you on how to test the soil and make recommendations on how to improve it.
Next, measure and stake each garden bed, and outline the beds with string. To raise a bed, first loosen the soil in the bed using a shovel or a garden fork, then shovel soil from an adjacent path onto the bed. You can also stand in a pathway and use a rake to bring up soil from the next pathway.
Smooth the soil on the surface of the bed by raking. I use both the tines and the back edge of the rake. I spend a lot of time shaping the beds -- it's important to get the beds right from the start. Draw the soil evenly between the string boundaries, letting excess soil fall off the edge of the bed outside the string. The object is to end up with a flat-topped raised bed that extends fully to the string boundaries. Each bed should rise about eight inches above the pathway. Rake the paths to level them; you want them flat, not U-shaped.
I garden organically and try to address the soil's long-term needs by supplying plant nutrients with natural fertilizers and compost. Building soil takes time, and nutrients from most organic products are released into the soil slowly. As I build each bed, I broadcast several inches of compost or natural fertilizers like decomposed chicken manure over the surface and work it into the soil with my rake.
For a 12- by 16-foot garden (almost 200 square feet), use 30 pounds of aged chicken manure, 75 pounds of horse manure or 75 pounds of commercial compost; use twice as much for a 20- by 20-foot plot.
If your garden is being created in previously uncultivated soil, I also recommend you apply five pounds of an organic fertilizer with approximately 5% nitrogen per 200 square feet. (The percentage of nitrogen is the first number of the three listed on the label.) Fill a bucket with the total amount you'll need for all your beds, then broadcast it evenly over the beds (not in the paths). Rake the fertilizer into the top few inches of soil.
Many vegetables are best started from seeds sown directly in the ground (direct-sown); others go in as seedlings. You can grow your own seedlings indoors or buy them. As you plant, you'll need to keep in mind which vegetables are frost-tolerant and which are not.
In early spring, a week or two before the last frost, I sow beets, carrots, parsnips, peas, radishes, Swiss chard and turnips, as well as the many delectable salad greens such as arugula, Asian mustards, cress and leaf lettuce directly in the garden. These greens grow particularly fast from seed. After the last frost, I direct-sow beans, corn and squash. Among herbs, dill and cilantro are sure bets from direct-sown seed.
I always plant transplants of cole crops -- broccoli, Brussels sprouts, heading cabbage and cauliflower, as well as, eggplant, parsley, peppers and tomatoes.
There are several vegetables, such as summer squash, lettuce and fall-planted broccoli, that grow and produce equally well from either seeds or transplants. My choice with these crops is based on convenience and timing more than anything else.
I've found that the most reliable crops to grow in much of the country are arugula, beets, Swiss chard, green beans, leaf lettuce, parsley, peppers, radish, summer squash and tomatoes. All adapt unusually well to various regions if planted at the right time for your region.
The average date of frost in spring is the key date to use in garden planning. If you don't know the date for your region, check with your local extension service or a local nursery.
You can safely plant the "cool-season vegetables" such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, celery, parsley, peas, radishes and spinach before the last frost date. In mild-winter climates, these crops are usually planted in fall for winter gardens. Arugula, beets, endive, leaf lettuce, parsnips, potatoes and Swiss chard are a bit less frost-hardy but still grow well in cool weather. Plant "warm-season vegetables" such as green beans, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, melons, peppers, summer squash and tomatoes only after the threat of frost has passed.
Like anything else, once you go through the process once or twice, you'll make refinements. For instance, you'll discover various ways to use your space more efficiently. One of my favorites is planting a warm-season crop such as zuccini after harvesting a cool-season crop such as peas.
Another example is interplanting. My favorite trick is planting a quick-maturing crop such as lettuce close to a slow-grower such as broccoli. The lettuce is harvested by the time the broccoli needs the space.
Anytime I grow a lot of one type of vegetable -- tomatoes, for instance -- I plant several different varieties. This increases my chance of success, since some varieties will perform and taste better than others.
Finally, don't neglect the most obvious advice; ask your local experts. Your local extension service can usually supply a list of recommended vegetable varieties for your area. Master Gardeners, garden centers and gardening neighbors are other great sources of information.
My best-looking and most productive gardens are ones that utilize three-foot-wide raised beds.