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Do you really think you can’t grow fresh vegetables?

Jun 18th, 2014 | By | Category: Features, Lead Article, Uncategorized

Do you have a brown thumb? Are you a bit of a spaz when it comes to making stuff?  Do you think that you don’t have room for a garden?  Take heart.  Planning, constructing, and growing a vegetable garden is actually quite simple and is achievable by even the most inept among us.  It can be accomplished in very limited space and with relatively unskilled hands. So if fresh salads, fresh herbs, fresh greens, melons, berries, fresh peppers, and tasty pole beans cause your pulse to increase and your pupils to dilate then read on.

The opportunity to grow a vegetable garden is available to most, but not all of us.  If you live in an apartment, you’re probably out of luck; unless your apartment has some outdoor space and you are able to acquire permission to use it. The more sun you get the better and there may be some places with inadequate sun to grow a garden.  If grass grows, there is probably enough sun to grow some types of vegetables.  Everyone else, it’s a go.

Let’s begin our journey into garden design. Two principles shape all the design decisions: (1) keep it small, and (2) keep it simple and easy to grow.  The garden suggested here makes use of boxes set on top of the ground filled with homemade soil.  The first step in building a garden is to find a location for it.

Where should I put my garden?   There are two primary considerations in choosing a location. First, it should get a lot of sun, the more the better.  Always think south side of the house when trying to maximize sun.  Second, it should be close to a water spigot attached to the outside of the house.  At some point in time you will need to water the garden.  Your location decision should make this task as easy as possible.  The farther away from the house that the garden is, the more likely you are to forget about it or not recognize that it is dying of thirst.  The farther away from a spigot and hose that the garden is, the more likely you are to avoid watering it.  So do your best to find a sunny spot that is close to the house and spigot.

How do I make the boxes that hold the garden?  The boxes should be bottomless, four-sided boxes that function to hold the soil together.  There size and shape should fit the space you have designated.  It is probably best that they are between one and two feet deep (high).  The deeper they are the more soil you will neeed to fill them and that could get expensive.  On the other hand, the deeper they are the easier it is to tend the garden, that is the less you will have to bend over (this is more important for those born before the first Eisenhower administration).  More soil and deeper boxes means that there is more “good” soil to help the plants grow and drain water effectively.

Arguably, the easiest way to build these boxes is to use a sheet of exterior plywood cut to the dimensions of the box and screwed together and painted.  For example, if you decided to make your boxes 2 feet wide by 4 feet long by 2 feet deep, then you would start with a 4 feet by 8 feet sheet of plywood.  This one sheet of plywood will yield (2) 2 feet by 4 feet pieces for the sides and (2) 2 feet by 2 feet pieces for the ends (with a 2 feet by 4 feet piece left over that can be used for another box or another purpose).  B and G Lumber on West High Street will cut the plywood to your specifications, free of charge; so all you will have to do is screw the pieces together and paint them.  Any other material that will hold up to the weather and will not leach toxins into the soil can be used.  It is up to your preferences for maximizing the aesthetic and minimizing the cost.

Make soil? I thought soil was just dirt.  Soil is dirty, but it probably should not be thought of as just dirt. Soil is what you grow stuff in.  Dirt is what you wash off your hands before you eat and after you do a number two.

Traditionally, gardens were grown directly in the ground, kind of like tiny little farms.  There is nothing wrong with that method, but it has some disadvantages for growing a modest vegetable garden.  First, you are pretty much stuck with the quality of the soil in your yard.  This is often a very clayey soil.  Clay is not a very good medium in which to grow vegetables.  Second, you have to till and clean it (remove rocks and other debris).   It is surprising how much rock and stones are hidden beneath the surface of a yard.  Third, it drains excess water very poorly unless you raise the vegetable beds above the surface of the adjacent yard (the box method is a type of raised bed method).  Fourth, it is often less presentable than a tailored and contained box.  One of the advantages of using the box method is that it can be worked into a landscape plan and designed to suit the user’s aesthetic.

The alternative to the more traditional methods is to make your own soil and place it on top of the existing yard, that is, in the boxes.  You can use a recipe that makes good soil.  You make the soil when you build the garden and it requires little maintenance afterwards.

The soil recipe that we suggest here is very general and very simple.  It has only three ingredients:

  1. Top soil in bags (or other “good” top soil),
  2. Peat moss
  3. Composted manure (or other composted material)

All can be purchased at the lawn and garden store.  You can also mix in some of the existing yard soil to provide more bulk and save some money.  Peat moss is the magical ingredient.  It makes the soil very loose and friable and helps retain moisture for the plant roots.  This recipe does not offer specific measurements of the ingredients, use more or less to taste.  I would suggest that between 25 and 50 percent of the mix be peat moss (by volume–loose peat takes up a lot of space).  For the other ingredients, it would be prudent to use between a 4:1 to 8:1 ratio of top soil to composted manure.  Too much manure is not a good thing; the soil gets too hot (nitrogen rich).  You will have to un-cake all three of these ingredients when you mix them together.  The more you work them, the better.  Go as long as your patience will permit.

How do I put the boxes in the yard? This step is easy.  First loosen up several inches of the soil where the boxes will be placed.  You will need to do this in order for the boxes to seat firmly in the ground and to aid in leveling the boxes.  Then just work the boxes an inch or two into the soil and level them.  Small errors are not critical here, the soil inside the box will hold them in place.  Accuracy and level is primarily for appearance.  Then, just fill the boxes will your soil mix.

Where do I get the seeds?  You have three options.  First, any garden store will have a variety of seeds.  They are sold in packets.  The better option is to order from a mail order seed catalog.  Using a seed catalog has several advantages.  The catalogs offer more types of vegetables and many more varieties of each.  It is great fun to pick and choose which varieties you grow and vary them from year-to-year until you find the magic ones.  There are many seed companies and an internet search will identify them.  Among all of them, I have found that Pinetree Garden Seeds ( to be the best for the small garden.  Their seed packets contain fewer seeds and are less expensive than others; most seed packets contain many more seeds than you can use in a small garden.  Smaller seed packets reduce costs and permit the purchase of more vegetable types for the same cost as larger seed packets.  The third option is to purchase bedding plants.  This is much more expensive and much less fun.

What should I plant?  The choice is yours.  Some plants do well in small spaces and others require more room.  For those plants that vine and sprawl, you can still plant them in the small box garden.  You just have to grow them up (on a trellis) rather than out (over the ground).  Using a trellis allows one to grow a plant that may take up 10 or 15 square feet if left to grow out in only a square foot or two.

The first suggestion is tomatoes.  Everybody grows tomatoes and seed catalogs offer tomatoes of all types, sizes, and colors.  Radishes are a good choice also.  Even though radishes appear on very few top ten favorite vegetable lists; they are easy to grow, are first to mature early in the spring, and take less than a month to reach maturity. Spring onions (sometimes called bunching onions) are always a good choice and offer a long season of fresh scallions for cooking.  Peas in the pods for salads and stir frys are easy to grow (use a trellis) and come early.  Lettuces and greens are also a good choice as are herbs such as basil, cilantro, and parsley.  The rest is up to you and how much space you have.

How do I plant?  This type of box gardening suggests that seeds should be sown very densely and thinned, if needed.  The philosophy here is that plants grown close together depress weed growth and help retain soil moisture.  When plants are grown essentially touching one another (in all directions), then weeds cannot access the sun for growth and, at the same time, the plants shade the soil from the sun and consequently discourage evaporation.  The general method is one described by Mel Bartholomew in his PBS series and book, Square Foot Gardening.  You can learn more about square foot gardening from this site, or you can pick up the book at the library.  Our box method sows seeds even more densely that Bartholomew suggests, but fully embraces his philosophy including  making your own soil, vertical gardening, raised beds, and no till methods. You can use other references once you take the plunge into gardening, but Square Foot Gardeningis adequate as a soul source.

When do I eat?  Remember growing a modest vegetable garden does not make you a farmer.  You don’t need to harvest your crops.  Instead you pick them as you need them.  Some plants you pick as a whole plant (like beet roots) while others you just pick what you need off the plant (like tomatoes, peas, and peppers).

The philosophy:  A small box garden is a good way for almost anyone to enjoy the fruits of a vegetable garden.  The box garden is not novel, but has guiding principles that may be different from the most common practices.  Here are the guiding principles of the box garden:

  1. Plant near the house and near a water source,
  2. Make your own soil,
  3. Sow seeds densely and thin as needed
  4. Use boxes to raise the bed, provide an easier reach, and retain the
    good” soil

Photo: The author’s box garden ready for planting

Second Photo: Early season peas and pole beans grown vertically; bush beans are being grown in the remaining space in the 2×4 box.  The 2×4 box is being used to grow approximately a dozen pea plants, a dozen pole bean plants, and a dozen bush beans.


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