Planting A First Garden

Scarlet Runner Bean, an old-fashioned favorite
Scarlet Runner Bean, an old-fashioned favorite

To curtail global warming, here are the usual tips: ride a bike, use low-energy light bulbs, hang the wash outside, plant a garden. Not just any garden, but a garden that will feed you. A garden that is pesticide and chemical fertilizer-free not only will feed your body, it will feed your soul. And it may take the pressure off global farmers who now must produce for their own people rather than ship goods to the United States and Europe.

You have no garden at all? Then check into the potential of community gardens. There may be one near you. Or, there may be a neighbor’s garden to share. You do the work and share the produce. Many neighbors will be delighted at the prospect of homegrown produce in their own yards.

Don’t have a backyard? Consider the front yard. More and more gardeners are using every available inch of land. Have only a patio? Tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants grow well in pots, as do herbs. Cucumbers will vine up a trellis.

Perhaps you live on rocky soil without a teaspoon of garden-ready soil? Build up rather than try to dig; raised beds may be the best choice.

Once you look around, you’ll find unused ground that may sprout the best garden ever.


firstgardenBJ063But how to start? Well, consider two approaches. One may be perfect for you. You’ve discovered a spot of land that gets about six hours of sun and has access to water. That’s the first part. Now you have to decide: tear up that plot of grass or scratch up the weedy dirt? You have two choices. One is called the sheet composting method. This takes a bit of time, so it’s best to set aside the winter or spring. But in a hurry, a month may do. Place cardboard on the top of the soil, overlapping the edges. The area you cover with cardboard will be your garden. Water thoroughly. Layer leaves, grass clippings, composted veggie scraps, even composted sheep, poultry, goat, llama, rabbit or horse manure. Avoid cow manure, which may contain the deadly Ecoli strain of bacteria and also arrives with too much salt. Ecoli may kill you; salt will kill your soil.

But if you have no available quality animal manure, it’s of no importance. Excellent gardens can be made from only leaf and grass clipping mulch. The major fertilizer ingredients are easy to come by, without resorting to chemical fertilizers. Grass clippings provide nitrogen; leaves, especially oak leaves, provide phosphorus. Western soils usually contain plenty of potassium. If you need extra nitrogen, alfalfa in powder or pellet form is excellent.

By the time the grass or weeds decompose under your cardboard, the layering will be soft and pliable, almost like a layer cake. You can set your transplants where you wish by simply pulling away the mulch, digging a hole, planting your tomato vine. Pull the soil and mulch back over the plant. Water and watch it grow.


firstgardenNiki005There’s another technique that requires the use of green manure, also known as cover crops. This is the sowing of rye or alfalfa, clover or vetches to enrich the soil. Legumes such as alfalfa, clover or vetches add a boost of nitrogen. This is best sown in fall and allowed to winter over. It stems erosion when those March winds arrive. By April, gently till in the thatched ground cover—but only gently. Over-tilling is now recognized as overkill. The elaborate structure of soil, complete with beneficial fungi and bacteria colonies, can be torn asunder by rigorous tilling. Farmers are getting away from this damaging practice, so it’s worth discarding. Gently folding in your cover crop as if it is a whipped egg white in batter will give you a giant boost in nitrogen and humus.

Consider trying a living mulch. Growing a sea of red clover and planting within that crop will continue a nitrogen flow from the clover roots to your plants. This technique is being used in fields to conserve water and fertilize without chemicals, but I’ve also seen it used in greenhouses.


After tilling, allow the cover crop to wilt and decompose. You’re ready to plant and line up drip irrigation if that’s your choice. Drip irrigation will get water exactly to the plants if they’re lined up. If not, you may end up watering by hand. But either way, a thick mulch will prevent water from evaporating all too quickly. It will keep the soil at an even temperature, too.

If slugs are a pest, consider using dry pine needles, which are too sharp to encourage much slug maneuvering. But other mulches will also serve you well: collected leaves from the fall, grass clippings mixed with leaves, hay, straw or compost. The earthworms will turn all into humus and you’ll have to apply several layers throughout the summer. But the addition of mulch will suppress weeds, lower your water bills and improve the soil. Once you get in the mulch habit, you’ll never break it.

Except for placing your plants in the garden, you’re finished. Of course, there’s the need to choose plants, but the hard work is done. With a garden like this, you shouldn’t require extensive water. You need little or no fertilizer. And the hard work is finished. It’s time to enjoy the fruits of your labor.