Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Small Gardens, Big Potential

Sad to say, the lawn size of the average American home seems to be steadily shrinking by the year. I can fondly recall how the backyard of my first childhood house, hardly a palatial estate, was still spacious enough to accommodate a pretty decent doubles volleyball match, not to mention the giant igloo my brothers put together during the heavy Seattle snowfall of 1990. Along the sides of the yard, my grandfather, a natural gardener, planted fruit trees, garlic, lettuce, and fragrant sesame that he’d harvest year after year to use in our kitchen and send along as gifts to our friends down the street.

My parents’ current house in the suburbs east of Lake Washington possesses many of the accoutrements popular with modern homeowners—e.g., granite-top counters, hardwood floors, a roaring fire at the flip of a switch—but alas, volleyball games are a thing of the past, and any attempts to insert a fruit and vegetable garden onto the property will take a good deal of creativity. The problem is compounded for the thousands of city dwellers who yearn for homegrown goodies of their very own but despair of ever finding ample space for them on their tiny urban plots.

If either of these scenarios sounds familiar to you, here’s cause for hope: with a little bit of well-informed planting and care, even a small patch of earth is capable of sprouting forth a surprisingly substantial quantity and variety of produce. So take in the following suggestions, stop despairing, and start planting!

1. Make use of semishaded areas unsuitable for tomatoes or root vegetables by growing leafy vegetables like lettuce, chard, mustard, or endive there.

2. Don’t overplant herbs. Two parsley or chive plants can quite likely produce all you need unless your family is large.

3. Avoid sprawling varieties. You can plant six rows of carrots, beets, or onions in the same square footage that one row of squash would take because squash simply will spread out all over the place, but root vegetables don’t. So limit or refuse summer squash, winter squash, cucumbers, watermelons, muskmelons, cantaloupes, and corn, because they take more space than they’re worth. Or use the recently developed compact “bush” kinds of melons, squash, cucumbers, and pumpkins.

4. Consider interplanting so that fast-maturing vegetables use the space between slower-maturing ones that will later spread; for instance, plant radishes or lettuce between vine plants like squash or pumpkin. They mature so fast that you get a crop before the vines need that space.

5. Give preference to continually bearing vegetables; for instance, choose chard over spinach, because spinach has a brief period of productivity but then is done for the whole summer. Chard will keep making harvest for you until frost kills it. Other continual bearers are tomatoes, broccoli, kale, lima beans, squash of all sorts, eggplants, peppers, cucumbers, chard, and Brussels sprouts.

6. Use wide-row and succession planting methods to give you the most vegetable productivity per square foot. For instance, peas have a relatively brief production season, but they produce heavily while they are at it, and then you can till up the ground they were in and plant something else. Succession planting works best with a long growing season, but in most places peas, lettuce, radishes, beets, and carrots mature quickly enough that you have time for a second crop if you plant as soon as the first is harvested.

7. Harvest daily in season. Broccoli, cucumbers, summer squash, beans, and chard, for example, will stop producing if they aren’t harvested. But if you keep them faithfully and regularly harvested, then they keep producing and you maximize their production.

8. Encourage your garden to grow up rather than across: Try climbing beans (poles or runners) or cucumbers trained to grow up something. Use a big vine such as runner beans, kiwi, or grapes to screen out an ugly area, make shade, or hang from a basket.

9. Plant tall crops such as corn or sunflowers on the north end of the garden so they don’t shade other plants.

10. Practice deep watering; it allows you to plant closer together because the roots will go down instead of spreading sideways.

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