by Bruce Sachs
I’ve been growing a garden in my small urban backyard for the past 5 years. It’s taken some trial and error to learn what works best for me, but I’ve also discovered some new vegetable varieties that I love. Planning and building a garden requires work, but a fresh, delicious harvest makes it all worthwhile.
Where to Grow
My advice for newbies is to keep it simple and plant 2–4 things that you like in containers. Tomatoes are the most popular, but be sure to try other plants that also work well in containers such as herbs, peppers and eggplant. When purchasing plants, ask for help identifying varieties that work well in small spaces. Container gardens can be surprising versatile. Last year, in addition to green beans, I planted carrots and radishes in large plastic storage containers. They are both root vegetables that don’t grow well in Missouri’s hard clay soil. I plan to try the same technique with beets this year. A lot of books are available on container gardening, and I’m a big fan of Vertical Vegetables and Fruit. It has great advice on growing a wide variety of vegetables in small spaces.
If you want to get your hands dirtier, find a good area in your yard to dig up the ground. You’ll need a spot that will get at least 8 hours of sun for the most productive plants. Planting directly in the ground will give your plants a chance to develop bigger root systems and larger fruit. If you plant against a fence, try to place your garden on the southern side to give it more light. Some plants — such as cabbages, broccoli, green beans and cilantro —tolerate shade more and prefer cooler temperatures. Try these in slightly shady spots and see if you have success, however, if they don’t get enough light, you’ll end up with smaller plants that take longer to develop fruit.
Make a Plan
I have a garage that takes up half of the space of my backyard. My first garden was a 4 x 30 plot alongside my fence. In it, I planted tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, lettuce and herbs. I add to it each year, and last season I planted four beds — one along the fence, one against the garage, and two around the chicken coop. Containers were also scattered around the yard with squash, green beans and tomatoes. I grew up in the country, so I’ve tried to pack as much of a farm as possible into my urban backyard. Every year I create a detailed blueprint for the garden using Adobe Illustrator, a tool I use everday as a designer. You don’t need to get that technical, but it helps to have a plan. Keeping track of what you plant and where it’s located will help you with spacing and crop rotation. You don’t want to plant anything in the same spot two years in a row. Apps can also help you plan your garden. I like Garden Plan Pro from growveg.com, but there are many others.
Prep the soil
There are three basic kinds of soil that you’ll find at your garden center. Top soil is dirt pulled from the upper layer of the ground without any amendments. Garden soil is dirt with some fertilizer added in. More expensive varieties control moisture or are formulated for specific plants. Potting soil is designed for containers and has extra ingredients to prevent the dirt from compacting in the pot. Do not try to use garden soil in your containers. In addition to these, you’ll see other ingredients that you can mix in to improve the quality of the soil such as humus, peat moss, manure and perlite.
Prepping your containers for planting is fairly simple if you start with a good potting mix. You can add more nutrients to the soil by mixing in some extra organic matter like compost or manure. When I plant root vegetables such as carrots, radishes or beets, I add in extra perlite. It’s the white stuff in your potting soil that looks like styrofoam. It helps keep the dirt loose so the roots can grow more easily and maintain a uniform shape.
Preparing the ground for planting takes a little more work. If the spot is covered in grass, you’ll need to dig up the grass or till it under. Even if you plan to build a raised bed, you’ll need to break up the grass to get to the top soil just below the surface. This is the area with the most nutrients. I rented a rototiller at Home Depot to dig up the biggest area of my garden. Some muscle and a garden hoe did the job for the smaller areas. After the grass is broken up, you'll need to mix in extra garden soil and compost. The grass that is tilled under will also decompose and add some extra nutrients to your soil.
Pick Your Plants
The best part of the process is picking out what you want to grow. Pick plants that you like. It’s not worth the trouble to tend to a vegetable that you won’t want to eat. Everyone plants tomatoes. I love them, but for me they’ve been one of the hardest things to grow. It takes a lot of energy to grow a beautiful beefsteak tomato. They need great soil, a lot of sun and plenty of water throughout the summer. I’ve had better success with smaller tomato varieties such as Black Cherry and Yellow Pear. Check your local farmer’s market or garden center to find what grows best in your region. If you have space for a small trellis, cucumbers are fairly easy to grow. I’ve had great success with two varieties of kale, Lacinato and Blue Curled, but very little success with other crops in the same family, such as cabbage, broccoli and brussels sprouts. St. Louis summers are too hot for these plants that prefer cooler temperatures.
If you want to grow beets, carrots, radishes, beans, corn and lettuce, you’ll need to seed them directly into your garden. They often aren’t available as potted plants, but are easy to start from seed. Except for these varieties, I suggest beginning gardeners buy established plants. Developing your plants from seed takes patience and experience. I’ve read numerous books and online resources, and after three attempts at starting plants from seed, my success has been sporadic. It takes the proper conditions and the right timing to get from a seed to a plant growing in the garden to food on your table. Nonetheless, I still love flipping through seed catalogs and dreaming about growing exotic varieties of vegetables. Even if I’m not starting from seed, I use seed catalogs as a reference for tips and additional information that often isn't on the small tags in potted plants.
Maintaining your garden
It takes patience waiting for that first tomato. Be sure to water your plants regularly. I like to water each plant one at a time with the garden hose. If you are strapped for time, invest in a water timer and some soaker hoses. Most garden and potting soil comes with fertilizer pre-mixed into the dirt which can last from 1 to 6 months. You’ll want to add some organic fertilizer when that runs out. Follow the directions and be careful not to add too much. Excessive nitrogen in the soil will give you giant leafy plants without any tomatoes.
Start small and be patient. There are many more things to think about that I didn't cover here: such as seed germination, testing soil pH and controlling garden pests. The more you grow, the more you’ll learn about what works best for you.
For more information I recommend these four books.