How does your garden grow?

Cat Thrasher transformed the front yard of her Kellytown home into a large urban garden, where she says she’s been “trying ‘square-foot gardening’ in the form of planting some things very close together.” Photo: John Robinson Cat Thrasher transformed the front yard of her Kellytown home into a large urban garden, where she says she’s been “trying ‘square-foot gardening’ in the form of planting some things very close together.” Photo: John Robinson

Outdoor options may be limited this summer, but gardening is definitely having a moment. Whether you’re a veteran dirt-lover or a total beginner, there’s never been a better time to dive in and cultivate some earth (or even a window box) near your home. Here are some ideas to spur you along.

Dig in: Tips for veggie-garden novices

Along with bicycling and bread-baking, these homebound pandemic times have seen a rise in another kinder, gentler pastime—gardening. It’s being driven not only by all the extra hours at home, but by a certain amount of uneasiness around food supplies. Lots of us are eyeing those unused corners of our lawns, wondering if they could become more productive.

Starting a garden for the first time is both simple and daunting. Plants have only a few basic needs: good soil, water, and sun. But, for newbies, it can seem like there are a thousand ways to go wrong. If you’re a beginner, here are a few tips to help break it down.

Select your site

The ideal site is well away from trees (which compete for water and nutrients), well-drained, well-lit, and not too compacted—i.e., not a place where cars have been parking or people have beaten a path. But that ideal spot doesn’t always exist. You may have an excess of shade, a problem with swampiness after it rains, or just limited space.

The good news is that a garden doesn’t have to be large to provide food. Think small at first. Can you squeeze in a couple of tomatoes along the front walk? Is there space for a trellis along a south wall for pole beans to climb? If you already plant petunias or other annual flowers, could you intersperse them with lettuce or herbs?

If you really can’t put plants in the ground, think about containers. They can do very well on a deck or even a windowsill, as long as you water faithfully.

Prepare the ground

Raised beds have become so popular that you may think they’re a requirement. But they make it harder to start a brand-new garden—you have to get involved in carpentry before you can plant anything, and then you have to obtain soil. All this can get expensive and time-consuming. At my house, we’ve found it much easier to plant in the ground and focus on improving the soil we have.

When we want to establish a new bed, we first remove the sod with a mattock. This tool makes it easy to just peel away the grass by the roots, but if you don’t have one, you could also use a shovel or spade. Then we loosen the soil with a spade fork—again, a shovel will do in a pinch. Finally, we mix in about three inches of compost. For a small garden, you can buy compost in bags. Horse manure works well too, and stables are usually happy to give it away.

Choose your crops wisely

It feels good to succeed in a garden, so start with things that are relatively foolproof, like green beans, basil, and mint. The next tier of crops would include stuff like salad and cooking greens, tomatoes, peppers, summer and winter squash—these are not difficult to grow, but they do sometimes get hit by pests or disease. The trickiest crops, in my experience, are broccoli, onions, carrots, and cabbage. They’re well worth the space if you have room to spare, but success is far from guaranteed.

Photo: John Robinson

Timing

It’s nearly June, too late to start most veggie crops from seed. (Greens, tomatoes, and peppers get planted indoors in early March.) What you can do now is buy most crops as starts, at a garden center or direct from a farmer. And it’s not too late—in fact, it’s the perfect time—to direct-seed heat-loving crops like beans, squash, corn, and okra.

It’ll feel counterintuitive, but in the height of summer—mid- to late July—you can try planting seeds of cool-weather fall crops: kale, collards, lettuce, spinach, and beets.

Plant carefully

Find the healthiest plant starts you can—vigorous, not too “leggy” (that’s the term for plants with gangly stems)—and put them in the ground when the soil is moist, but not wet and clumpy. Loosen the soil all around where you’re making a hole for your baby plant, and dig deep enough that when you place the plant in the hole, the potting soil will sit slightly below ground level. Water daily for the first few days.

Make provisions for deer

If you’ve ever seen a deer in your yard or neighborhood, then you’ll want to think about protecting your plants. Deer can do more damage in one night than any other pest; they especially like leafy greens, but they’ll hit tomatoes and peppers too. If a tall fence is not in the cards for you, you might consider buying or mixing up some organic repellent spray (there are recipes online).

Keep an eye on water and weeds

Now comes the patience part. The plants won’t need much from you except a regular check-in, preferably once a day. Keep soil moist and pull out the bigger weeds. If you see insect pests like tomato worms or squash beetles, you can pull them off by hand.

Fertilize

That compost you added will feed your plants all season, but you can also boost their growth with organic fertilizers. Garden stores have lots of options, from blood meal (really!) to fish emulsion. And here’s a nice fact: Rainwater contains nitrogen, one of the main nutrients plants crave. So watering from a rain barrel is an extra advantage.

Enjoy the process

That daily check-in is not only for the plants’ sake, it’s a ritual that feeds the gardener’s soul. The growth of plants is a salve in times of stress, and paying attention to your garden’s progress—maybe taking photos or notes—is half the fun. Keeping a garden journal, if you intend to garden again next year, is also a helpful way to track info—things like planting dates, timing of the harvest, and when you fertilize.

Enjoy the bounty

The other half of the fun is eating what you grew. If you’re lucky, you’ll be overwhelmed —drowning in cucumbers, or unloading zucchini on your neighbors’ doorsteps in the dead of night. But there’s a lot of satisfaction in successfully growing even one tomato—one perfect, plump, tangy-sweet, deep-red tomato. Savor it!


Photo: John Robinson

Digging deeper: Local permaculturists design gardens for the longterm

If you’ve gardened in the past and have a handle on the basics, you might be eyeing the next-level approach to growing food. Maybe you suspect that you could get more bounty out of the same square footage, or you might be looking to do things in a more sustainable way. For a lot of folks, that means permaculture—a system for designing gardens (and, more broadly, homesteads and communities) that’s gotten a lot of traction in recent years.

The word is a contraction of “permanent” and “agriculture” (or just “culture”). The name implies long-term resilience. Christine Gyovai, who with her husband Reed Muehlman owns the Charlottesville firm Dialogue + Design Associates, first studied permaculture in California at the turn of the millennium. Since 2007, the couple has lived on a nine-acre homestead in western Albemarle, where they designed and built a straw-bale house. “We knew going into it we wanted to use permaculture principles here,” she says. “It was helpful that we took at least a year to observe the land before we did anything.”

That’s one of permaculture’s first principles: observing natural conditions (like water flow, sun, wind, and wildlife), and designing in a way that protects and mimics those systems. For example, in nature, plants don’t grow in straight, uniform rows, surrounded by bare soil; they form more of a multi-layered mix. Gyovai and Muehlman have a “forest garden” that uses that structure: trees over shrubs over ground-level plants.

Christine Gyovai, who co-owns Dialogue + Design Associates, abided by one of permaculture’s first principles before building a straw- bale house in western Albemarle: observe natural conditions like water flow, sun, wind, and wildlife. Photo: John Robinson

“It has an upper story including apples, pears, and pawpaws,” she explains. “Then there’s a shrub layer with nitrogen fixers”—those are plants that make nitrogen available in the soil for other plants. Among many other plants, “we have New Jersey tea, baptisia, false blue indigo, and comfrey, which is a dynamic accumulator. It draws nutrients up from deep in the soil and makes them available for plants on the surface. Once a year or more, we do chop-and-drop mulching”—cutting down the comfrey and laying the leaves on the ground as a nutrient-rich mulch. Strawberries and other plants form the ground-cover level.

Permaculture suggests dividing a property into “zones” based on how often you’ll frequent each area. Most people usually stick close to their dwellings, so gardens will get more attention if they’re in that zone one or two. Gyovai and Muehlman cultivate a kitchen garden for veggies, intentionally sited very close to their house. “They are largely keyhole-shaped beds designed to maximize growing areas and minimize pathways,” says Gyovai, adding that the compost pile is also in zone one, right next to the kitchen garden. “It’s easy to run outside and pop things in the compost. That fosters energy cycling and recycling.”

Further-flung zones include things that need somewhat less attention—like beehives and larger-scale compost—and wilderness space that only gets visited occasionally.

Connections to the community beyond one’s property are part of the philosophy, too. Danielle Castellano and her family live on a permaculture homestead in Fauquier County, where they attempt to produce quite a bit of food—this spring, for example, they’ve been busy inoculating logs with 2,000 mushroom plugs. Still, she says, it’s important to ask, “How can we be supporting farming friends and neighbors? We’re not trying to produce absolutely everything.” She sources eggs, meat, and raw milk from other farms as a way of strengthening ties within a “larger ecosystem.”

Gyovai has taught permaculture design for years, designs professionally, and helps run the Blue Ridge Permaculture Network. If you’re interested in learning more, check out that group’s Facebook page, or sign up for this fall’s permaculture design course through the Shenandoah Permaculture Institute.

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