Today's Garden

By National Gardening Association Editors

In today's current era of abundance and excesses, it's difficult to imagine that in 1943, in the midst of World War II, foods were rationed and expensive and choice was limited. Many Americans turned to backyard gardening to produce their own fruits and vegetables and become more self-sufficient. Out of this movement came a book, The Have-More Plan, by Carolyn and Ed Robinson, he being one of the founders of the National Gardening Association. It was a book about living off the land by producing not only fruits and vegetables, but by raising animals as well.

Today, looking at The Have-More Plan's vegetable garden section, we noticed how some things (the emphasis on soil health) haven't changed, while others (the dependency on harmful chemicals for pest control) have. It made us wonder what a typical food garden "plan" in the year 2000 might be.

Self sufficiency is no longer the primary reason for food gardening; the issues shaping food gardening today include lack of time and a desire for outdoor beauty, a clean environment, and high-quality food.

Time and Efficiency

The modern vegetable garden is small, only about 200 square feet on average. Although we don't expect our garden to supply all our vegetable needs, we still want it to look good and produce abundantly. Plant breeders have addressed the issue of limited growing space by developing dwarf versions of traditional space-hoggers such as tomatoes, winter squash, and cucumbers. We like variety, too. Herbs are tucked into the plan, and fruits, which usually demand lots of space, are selected primarily for dwarf characteristics, which allow them to be grown in space-saving containers.

We have less leisure time than ever, so the garden must be as efficient and maintenence-free as possible. This often translates into using intensive gardening techniques such as raised beds, succession planting, and trellising, as well as time-saving products such as automatic watering systems, and mulches to reduce weeding.

Outdoor Beauty

Because of smaller lots, a vegetable garden can no longer be hidden away in the backyard. Now it is often in plain view, so we want it to look good. It likely has attractive, edible flowers such as calendula and nasturtium growing in it. Vegetable varieties are selected for their ornamental as well as culinary qualities. 'Bright Lights' Swiss chard, 'Red Russian' kale, and 'Thai Hot' peppers are among varieties that paint the vegetable garden with colors usually reserved for flower beds.

A Clean Environment

More than ever, we're concerned about the air we breathe and the water we drink. In the 1940s, it was assumed country living meant cleaner living, and in general that was true. However, today we know pollution is more widespread, and we consciously try not to contribute to it. We want the most environmentally friendly garden possible. We are more conscious about growing disease-resistant varieties, applying low-toxic sprays such as insecticidal soap and oils, and using techniques such as floating row covers to prevent or lessen insect and disease attacks.

Food Quality

This issue hasn't really changed since the 1940s; it's just become more multidimensional. Anyone who grows a food garden has a primary goal to produce the freshest food possible. However, now we don't just want the freshest, most vitamin-packed vegetables; we are also aware that certain vegetables, such as kale and tomatoes, are loaded with cancer-fighting compounds that can help us stay healthy.

We also are much more aware of what good food looks and tastes like, and we're more open to trying unique heirloom as well as international varieties, such as multicolored tomatoes and Taiwanese eggplants, that feature unique shapes, colors, and flavors.

Today's garden might include the following characteristics and plants:

  • Wooden trellis for attaching tomatoes and peas: build at least 7 feet tall and attach to the garage but space it 1 foot away from the wall.
  • An 8-foot row of bush beans: 'Royalty Purple', 'Blue Lake', or 'Kentucky Wonder' planted in front of the peas.
  • An 8-foot-long row of peas: 'Sugar Snap', 'Maestro' English, or 'Oregon Giant' snow peas.
  • Six tomato plants spaced 18 inches apart: try 'Sungold' cherry, 'Big Beef', 'Bush Early Girl', and 'Brandywine'. To speed growth, preheat soil with plastic mulch, and plant through it. Red plastic mulch increases yields.
  • Four cucumbers spaced 2 feet apart in front of the tomatoes: try 'Suyo Long' oriental, 'Salad Bush' dwarf slicing, and 'Bush Pickling'.
  • 'Sweet Sunshine' yellow, 'Little Finger' baby, and 'Scarlet Nantes' orange carrots thinned to 2 to 3 inches apart. 'Candy', 'Sweet Sandwich', and 'Red Hamburger' onions thinned to 4 to 6 inches apart.
  • Rain barrel to collect runoff from the roof for garden watering.
  • Wood chip mulch to prevent weeds from growing; lay landscape fabric between the beds spaced at least 3 feet apart, then cover with mulch.
  • Greens bed: 'Red Sails' looseleaf, 'Deer Tongue' oakleaf, and 'Four Season' butterhead lettuces spaced 4 to 6 inches apart. Mesclun greens, 'Bright Lights' Swiss chard, 'Tyee' spinach, and 'Lutz Green Leaf' beets planted in succession.
  • Three variegated 'Tip Top Alaska' bush nasturtiums.
  • Raised beds: make temporary version by mounding the soil or permanent version from concrete, bricks, wood, or plastic framing 8 to 10 inches high, 4 feet wide, and as long as desired.
  • Three variegated 'Alaska' bush nasturtiums and six 'Bush Porto Rico' sweet potatoes spaced 12 inches apart; six 'Red Norland' potatoes and six 'Yukon Gold' potatoes spaced 10 inches apart; six 'Lemon Gem' signet marigolds.
  • Six 'Packman' broccoli, three 'Red Acre' and three 'Dynamo' cabbages, and six 'Red Russian' kale plants spaced 1 foot apart.
  • Peppers and eggplants: two 'Gypsy' frying, two 'Vidi' bell, two 'Thai Hot' or 'Tam Jalapeno' hot peppers spaced 18 inches apart; two 'Black Beauty' oval eggplants and two 'Pingtung Long' cylindrical eggplants spaced 2 feet apart.
  • Floating row covers over PVC hoops: help keep the air warm around the peppers and eggplants. To preheat the bed, lay plastic mulch over the soil.
  • Herb bed: four chive, three sage, three parsley, and four basil plants spaced 8 to 10 inches apart.
  • Two 'Cocozelle' zucchini, one 'Sunburst' patti pan, and one 'Yellow Crookneck' summer squash all spaced 2 feet apart; six 'Prince' calendulas.
  • Half-high blueberries such as 'Northcountry' or 'Northblue' in half whiskey barrels.
  • Dwarf fig such as 'Black Jack' in a half whiskey barrel.
  • Drip irrigation: run the lines the length of the beds; timer optional.

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