Today I attended my second class of the weekend at Sky nursery (the first was a fruit tree grafting demo). The Sky seminar room and I are getting so close, we should really think about moving in together. Brad Halm and Colin McCrate of the Seattle Urban Farm Company (these are the people who designed and installed the Bastille rooftop gardens) came to talk about the basics of edible garden design.
I was a little concerned the class would be a bit too basic for me, actually, so I asked Homebrew Husband if he wanted to go in my stead. In the end we opted to both attend, so we bundled up the whole fam and found a row of chairs at the back where I could discretely nurse or attend to our son. Daughter brought a book and we made ourselves comfortable.
About half the people in the class were thinking about starting their first veggie garden (yeah! more urban gardens are good for everybody!) and about half of us already had some experiencce.
Brad and Colin talked about siting your garden and the need for sun. A lot of gardening books talk about veggies needing 6 hours of sun, and so many people find a spot in their yard that’s kinda out-of-the-way and is pretty well lit for about 5.75 hours with a mix of direct and indirect light. That spot never turns out big healthy vegetables and people wonder why.
Brad and Colin made it clear that in the Seattle area, 6 hours of direct, the-sun-is-beating-down-on-me sun at the height of summer is the bare minimum to grow vegetables, and more is always better. Because we have cool summers, the risk of scalding or heat damage is pretty minimal assuming you keep your plants sufficiently watered. So while that sounds like a tall order, they also said they’d never been to a property that couldn’t accommodate that requirement. Sometimes they just had to get creative about siting.
After establishing a need for a sunny spot, they went into specific design advice. I’ll summarize the take-aways below:
- Give yourself working room in the garden. There is a natural desire to maximize every possible square foot of gardening space, but you need appropriate permanent paths and workspace to access your garden without stepping on your growing soil area or doing any Cirque de Soleil contortions to harvest or weed. They recommend 2′ wide paths between raised beds no more than 4′ wide, and seemed to mulch most of their paths with bark.
- Raise your soil. Use untreated wood, stone, recycled or plastic timbers, found brick or what-have-you to create permanent sides to your raised bed, or just mound and smooth the soil into berms 4″ or so higher than the surrounding paths. In keeping with most small-space vegetable garden advocates, SUFC does not advocate the “long-row, on-the-flat” style of veggie garden.
- Juniper timbers are a good option for a long-lasting, non-treated wood retaining wall. They are sustainably harvested and very rot resistant. This was probably the best tip we took away from the class, since the to-do list for this Spring is to build up a terraced perennial bed.
- Use a lot of compost to build good soil tilth. In fact, they seemed to advocate just buying a good garden soil mix from someplace like Cedar Grove or Sky. I can’t disagree with this since the Cedar Grove Vegetable Garden Mix we filled our 5 front beds this past summer performed extremely well. The mix was a little too free draining and required a lot of water over the summer, but as long as we didn’t think about our water bill the plants thrived in the light, compost-rich mix. However, 5 cubic yards of Veg Mix delivered cost a little over $200, so if you have a big garden and a lot of raised beds to fill you could go broke trying to save a little money by growing your own vegetables. In our case, we needed the 5 additional beds for a complete fall and winter garden (as usual, I had not saved enough room in the main garden for the fall crops-there’s never enough room!) and we were bumping up against our late summer planting window. We calculated the value of produce we would get from those 5 additional beds, and determined that even with the expense of the soil we’d be ahead at the end of the season. So we spent the money, but if you have more time than money you can build up your own soil with stable manure, compost and garden dirt. I’ve done that too and it works just fine.
- Start with a small garden and let your space grow with your success as a gardener. They recommended 100 square feet as a good starting size for an average urban/suburban family of four. This space, about 3, 4′x8′ raised beds will give a good amount of food but not be overwhelming to work or deal with. I’d agree with that, especially if in your first few growing seasons you are only interested in a summer garden. Three beds of zucchini, tomatoes, cukes and lettuce will give you a lot of produce in August and September, but your harvest will be small outside of “peak season.” If you are just starting out, that might be a fine tradeoff.
Seattle Urban Farm Company does design, install and maintenance of edible gardens. They’ve got another class at Sky coming up on 2/20/11 (see calendar for details) that will focus on Organic Vegetable Care. I felt this design class was interesting and beneficial enough that I will definitely attend their next seminar. Their website gives some idea as to their design style, though I wish it had a dedicated gallery section for inspiration design ideas.
All-in-all, well worth the time, particularly for beginning gardeners.