Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Dig in to get started on food garden

I talked with Mary Beth Breckenridge from The Akron Beacon Journal for about an hour last week about starting your first vegetable garden.

Due to the unseasonably warm (and dry) weather, mine is already plowed to turn under last year's straw compost. Although it's a little late, I am going to put in some peas and spinach. Lettuce is already started but probably couldn't catch it's breath in nearly 90 degree heat; it much prefers cooler spring weather.

Dig in to get started on food garden

Begin with small, sunny space, well-fed soil

By Mary Beth Breckenridge
Beacon Journal staff writer

Want to know more about vegetable gardening? In Wednesday's Food section we'll tell you how to choose what to grow; and in next Saturday's Your Home, we'll provide tips on planting and maintaining your garden.

If you have a few square feet of land or even just a patch of sunshine, you have the makings for a food garden.

It doesn't have to take up the back 40. And it doesn't have to be a huge undertaking.

Granted, the idea of growing food can seem daunting, especially if you grew up thinking basil comes from a jar and lima beans from a can. And yes, it takes work. But we'll help you get started.

Today we'll guide you through choosing a spot, creating a place to plant and getting your soil in shape.

Let's get growing.

Start small

It's easy to get carried away when the weather warms, but rein in the desire to turn over half your yard to a kitchen garden. Otherwise, you could quickly find yourself overwhelmed, said Tamara Mitchell, a personal chef from West Akron who also provides gardening coaching under the name Green Thumb Diva (

''It's easier to start small and have success than go too crazy,'' she said.

A small raised bed — say, 4 feet long on each side — might suffice for a first garden. Or you might tuck a few food plants among your existing flowers or shrubs, or maybe start with a container or two on a sunny patio.

Once you've learned how much garden you can reasonably handle, you can expand next year, she said.

Location, location

Where you situate your garden will have a big bearing on its success. You need a site that drains well and gets at minimum six hours of full sun a day, said Denise Ellsworth, a horticultural educator with the Ohio State University Extension in Summit County.

Remember that the trees are still bare, she said. A spot that's sunny this time of year might not be in July, when the leaves are out.

In fact, it's a good idea to observe your yard over a few days before selecting your site, said Geri Unger, director of education at Cleveland Botanical Garden and the person who oversees its Green Corps youth gardening program. Notice the path of the sun, so you can avoid shadows during part of the day and plant taller things where they won't shade shorter plants.

Make sure a water source is nearby. That could be a rain barrel or a garden hose, but Ellsworth noted that if you have a water softener, you'll need to bypass it when you water your garden. Otherwise the salts used to soften the water will build up in the soil, she said.

Make a place to plant

Forget double digging. There are easier ways to create a garden.

Probably the simplest method is lasagna gardening, a no-dig approach named for its layered materials. Ideally you'd have started your lasagna garden in the fall to give all the materials time to break down and turn into rich soil, but it's possible to use the method even now.

Start by covering the area with a layer of newspaper five to 10 sheets thick or a single layer of corrugated cardboard, overlapping the edges. Wet the cardboard or paper well, and then cover it with alternating layers of compost and topsoil until the garden is at least 12 inches deep. Expect some settling over time as the layers break down.

Then just plant. If necessary, you can cut through the paper or cardboard and dig planting holes into the sod below.

By the way, if you wait till fall to start your lasagna garden, you can skip adding topsoil and use just layers of organic material — ground leaves, grass clippings and the like. Nature will work them into the soil below by the time next planting season comes.

The raised-bed approach

Another way to create a garden is to build a raised bed. That involves building a sturdy frame on top of the ground out of wood, concrete blocks or another material, and then filling the frame with soil and compost.

If you wish, cover the sod first with wet newspaper or cardboard as you would with a lasagna garden. Regardless, Ellsworth said the soil will smother the sod, and by the time your plants' roots grow long enough to reach that deep, nature will have broken up the layer enough for them to penetrate.

The bed can be as long as you like, but limit its width so you can reach everything easily without stepping into the garden and compacting the soil. Assuming most people can reach about 2 feet, a bed should be no wider than 4 feet, or 2 feet if one side of the bed is along a fence of wall.

A raised bed can be any depth, but Ellsworth recommended at least 6 inches. Keep in mind, however, that you'll need a source of topsoil to fill your bed, which probably means you'll have to buy it. That can get expensive, particularly for a deep bed, she said.

Dig if you must

Of course, you can also create a garden the old-fashioned way, by digging. That can be laborious, so it helps to rent or borrow a rotary tiller to break up the soil.

Remove the sod first and add it to a compost pile, or just till it into the soil, Ellsworth said. If you're digging the garden by hand, she said, turn over the sod and just leave it awhile till the grass dies. As it breaks down, the sod will add nutrients to the soil.

Past practice involved tilling the soil every year to break it up, but research has shown that overworking soil harms its structure. That's especially true when the soil is wet, as it usually is in spring.

Instead, Ellsworth recommended top-dressing with compost to make the soil rich and crumbly enough to plant without tilling. Once you get your garden established, you can do that each fall so the compost has time to work into the soil by spring.

Test your soil

Soil health is critical to gardening success, so Unger recommended having your soil tested to find out what's in it and what it needs.

Testing soil involves taking samples and sending them to a laboratory for analysis. She recommends the soil tests offered by the University of Massachusetts ( or 413-545-2311). A standard soil test costs $9; a test that also analyzes the amount of organic matter in your soil costs $13.

Home test kits are available from garden centers, but Unger said their results aren't always accurate.

When you know what your soil needs, you can add the specific fertilizers or other amendments that are recommended and avoid adding unneeded nutrients.

Add compost

One of the best things you can feed your soil is compost. Besides adding nutrients, it improves soil structure — especially important with the clay soil that's common in our area.

You can mix several inches of compost into the soil, or just spread it on top and let nature do the work. Over time, earthworms and microorganisms will incorporate the compost into the soil.

Unless you've started a compost pile already, you'll probably have to buy it in bulk or in bags. Ellsworth likes using composted cow manure; it doesn't contain weed seeds, because cows digest them, she explained. Horses, on the other hand, don't digest the seeds, so she said it's best to avoid horse manure unless it's been aged for eight to 10 years.

Take a look back

It's also wise to consider whether anything you used on your yard last fall could have a residual effect on your garden plants, Ellsworth said. Some herbicides can stay in the soil and thwart plant growth.

She suggested checking the packages, if you still have them, or calling your lawn-care company to ask what chemicals were used on your lawn and request the EPA registration number for each product. Then call the National Pesticide Information Center at 800-858-7378 to ask whether residue should be a problem. That will depend not just on the product, but the rate at which it was applied, the formulation used, the type of soil you have and the amount of organic matter in your soil, Ellsworth said.

Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or

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