June 8, 2011
The glorious sunshine last weekend heralded the beginning of summer and the gardening season like nothing else in Seattle can. Of course I was out in my little city garden toiling away in preparation for what I hope is a warm, sunny (and tomato friendly) summer.
Even though it is the beginning of the season, I was actually finishing up projects and preparing for the end. You see, I’ll be moving away from my home and the small garden that I’ve put 4 years of blood, sweat, and tomatoes into. Over the years my garden has gone through quite a transformation from a weedy, grass patch to a fertile food and flower producer. In the process I’ve learned a lot and I hope to pass off some of my urban gardening knowledge to the plucky few who endeavor to add color to the city and eat as local as it gets.
As a beginner, I recommend starting with a few small projects. Try things that require little more than the basics: shovel, spade, gloves, watering can, dirt, and seeds or starter plants. At this point in the season it is a little too late to start some plants from seed indoors, such as: herbs, tomatoes, peppers, and onions. (I usually plant those inside in April or early May.) For this all you need is a window, seedling soil, small plastic pots, and saran wrap to put on top to keep them warm and moist. If you plan to start tomatoes or peppers from seed, you should probably have a florescent light set up, but I have had success with peppers without one. I like planting things from seed because it gives you more options on plant breeds (but I’m also a big dork who orders heirloom varieties and gets excited about purple carrots).
If you’re just getting started now, herb starts are pretty cheap (generally about the same price as a seed packet) and tomato starts from a nursery are usually more vigorous than those started from seed at home. There are also still tons of veggies that you can start from seed outdoors: lettuce, beets, carrots, zucchini, green beans, and cucumbers. Just make sure you get some stakes and netting because the birds know it’s gardening season too and will devour your seeds before they have a chance to germinate.
Later in the season (around late August) you can start transitioning your garden towards cold season crops: peas, lettuce, fall squashes, beets, and carrots. Since I moved into my place in October, my first project was digging out a flower border around my weedy lawn to plant spring bulbs (Note: Just be sure to call 811 before you dig to avoid hitting a water main or knocking out your neighborhood’s power). For immediate gratification you can plant winter pansies right on top of the bulbs for a layered effect that will help you wait out the long months of winter until your first crocuses begin to bloom. Garlic is another great crop to plant in the fall. It is a natural pest deterrent, which helps repel nasty bugs like aphids that seek to destroy your handiwork. Garlic also doesn’t require very much space. You can plant as many as 20 bulbs in a 2’ x 3’ space and in July you’ll have enough garlic to last you all year.
Space Saving Techniques
Whether you live in a studio apartment with a sunny window or a home with a tiny yard like mine, you have a lot more space to work with than you think. An herb garden can be as small as a window box and cherry tomatoes can grow (and produce) in pots as small as 5 gallons. Parking strip gardening is also becoming more and more common and you can build your own raised bed in the space of a single afternoon. All you need for this project are nails, soil, and a few 4×4’s. I recommend painting the 4×4’s before you build since it helps delay wood rot and can also add a bright, cheery look to your garden.
A lot of people also forget that plants have another direction to grow: UP! Some breeds of many common plants like green beans, peas, and cucumbers have vertical tendencies and can climb up teepee poles, trellises staked into the dirt, and even latticed wooden pieces affixed to the side of a wall.
If you’ve got a small, weedy grass patch like I did, it generally only takes a weekend to dig it up. I recommend digging down 6 to 12 inches, flipping the grass patches over upside down (so the roots are facing up) and covering them with at least 3 inches of dirt. Again remember to call 811 before you dig and it’s probably a good idea to make sure you have a yard waste bin on site to discard any extra ripped up strips of grass.
Once the grass is gone you’ll want to add some better quality soil to your new beds. My yard, for example, had this terrible clay soil that was not ideal for much of anything except the hardest of plants like bulbs. My favorite composting soil is the cedar grove blend that you can get from Sky Nursery on Aurora Avenue. It has a nice rich, dark color and the best part is it keeps the weeds at bay for a majority of the spring and summer.
So now you’ve got a nice bed and lots of ideas, but still not that much room. If you’ve still got space constraints, I recommend a u-shaped design instead of planting in rows. In this set up you have only one main open area that acts as your entry point into the bed. This aisle runs part way down the middle of your garden and all of your different types of vegetables are clustered around it. Believe it or not in my 16’ x 10’ bed I was able to fit 3 tomato plants, carrots, lettuce, onions, two teepees of green beans, bush beans, two zucchini plants, two cucumber plants, and a forest of Italian and Thai basil.
Gardening on the Cheap
When you first get started it can seem like you are investing a lot of time as well as money, but there are lots of ways to save on cash along the way. One example I’ve already covered: using recycled plant trays or cups covered with saran wrap for your seedlings. Also seeds are generally cheaper than buying most starter plants and you can often save half of the packet for next year. If you are going to buy starts, especially tomatoes, buy them earlier in the season when they are smaller and cheaper.
For gardening supplies there are lots of cheap alternatives. Use bamboo for staking and building teepees; it is really inexpensive and usually comes in a pack of 20. Use found objects like bricks or rocks (often found while digging up your yard!) to build your foot paths. Plain cement squares at the nursery are also pretty cheap and if you want a nicer look you can make your own out of cement and get crafty by adding broken china or beach glass.
I’d also recommend buying things in bulk. For example, purchasing a yard or a half yard of compost or dirt is generally the most economical way to improve your soil. Craiglist is also a good resource for free or extremely cheap items like wood, dirt, stone, or bulbs. Installing a water barrel is a great way to save on your water bill. It’s probably only worthwhile, though, if you get it in the winter or spring so it is full by the time summer shows up or if you plan to stay in your place for a while.
I’d also recommend making really good friends with someone who works at a nursery. Most of these retailers have to toss a lot of items because they just aren’t high quality enough to sell to customers. You can get these plants at a discount price or for free if you’re lucky. I’d also recommend just getting started. I have found that having a garden helps you get to know people in your neighborhood and opens up conversations with passersby. In a few cases I’ve gotten lucky and met someone who works in a nursery or someone who simply wishes they could have a garden of their own and thus likes to live vicariously through mine, even bringing by a gifted plant or two so they can watch it grow.
So good luck to you on your gardening adventures. I hope you enjoy them as much as I’ve enjoyed mine and with that I bid my urban garden a fond farewell. In saying goodbye I’d also like to thank all of the roommates over the years who have helped me make it what it is today, especially Anna, who was really the first one to kick it into gear.
Let’s all keep our fingers crossed for a red tomato summer!