Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Starting a New Vegetable Garden

When we moved into our home in Watertown, MA starting a garden was easy.  The previous owner had established raised beds in a sunny opening in the back and along the south-side of the house.  The beds were small, but the soil was great.  Over the next 17 years the sunny spot in the back became only partly sunny (maybe 4-6 hours of full sun) due to the trees growing up and out.  Now with our new property in Maryland we are starting with a clean slate.  There are no established kitchen garden beds, so we need to determine which space works the best for us.

In selecting the site for the garden we considered accessibility to the garden, water, exposure, soil quality and protection from wildlife.  I consider solar exposure and soil quality as the most important factors; those are the most difficult to change.  All the convenient locations near the kitchen have less than optimal solar exposure.  A location off the garage offers better protection from wildlife, but it impinges on the septic field and is surrounded by trees (too much shade).

Garden site looking to the NNW.  Parts of the electric fence can be seen
The site I am considering with now is fairly open, with evergreens to the north and only a couple of trees nearby.  It has an open south-east aspect (the topography tilts to the SE), so it should warm-up quickly in the mornings and have good light throughout the day.  There is a water faucet nearby and the previous owners had installed an electric fence around the area, so we have the beginnings of an enclosure to keep the deer out.  I just need to take some soil samples for analysis to learn about any problems with the soil chemistry (crazy pH or nutrient deficiencies).

In addition to a deer fence I will surround the immediate area of the garden with a low mesh fence dug 6" into the ground to discourage the rabbits and ground hogs.  I have ordered a quantity of False Pennyroyal seeds (Hedeoma pulegioides) to plant on the perimeter.  The strongly aromatic scent is reported to repel many animals; we'll see just how effective it is.  Some other deer resistant plants planned for the perimeter are: Aquilegia canadensis, Asclepias tuberosa, Monarda fistulosa and Rudbeckia hirta.  These plants should also help in attracting pollinators.

Since I am planting a garden from scratch, I spent a little time reading about companion planting in order to make some better decisions about which plants will benefit from interplanting in the same part of the bed.  Two books that I found useful for this are "Companion Planting," by Bob Flowerdew and "Little House in the Suburbs," by Deanna Caswell and Daisy Siskin.  I can not speak about the benefits of companion planting yet, but these books did offer some explanation for some of my past vegetable garden failures such as Kohlrabi with Pole Beans and Snap Peas with Tomatoes.

Since I am interested in growing Native Edibles as well as 'regular' vegetables, I have ordered some tubers of Jerusalem Artichoke, Helianthus tuberosa, known as a Sunchoke in culinary circles.  These can get out of control on their own, so we will need to harvest the tubers annually to keep them in check.

I have also ordered some tubers of Groundnut, Apios americana.  They can be used like potatoes, but have a nutty flavor.  These sprawling vines may find their home along the shady woodland edge, rather than the center of the garden, for both cultural as well as aesthetic reasons.

To prepare the planting beds I will be using techniques described in Lee Reich's book "Weedless Gardening."  This is a top down method where the existing plants are cut to the ground then covered with multiple layers of paper.  NO DIGGING!  After wetting the paper it is covered with several inches of weed-free material.  In my case this will be soil that I will plant seed directly into.  For the garden paths I will use cardboard cover with wood mulch as a more resistant barrier layer.  The existing plants are smothered and since the soil was not turned over no new weeds from the seed bank are brought to the surface.  I will refer you to this easy reading book to get the details.

I've seen this technique work successfully for converting lawns to ground cover beds.  This will be the first time I've tried it over a more robust planting.  Since we still have loads of paper and cardboard left over from our move this is a perfect way to use existing resources.  The only materials I will need to bring on site are a couple of yards of planting soil and some organic fertilizer.  The best part of this method is that I will not need to turn over a large mass of the soil, only to be followed by a long season of weeding.

I will update this information as the garden installation moves along.