You don’t need a huge yard to have huge fun growing stuff
Spring is coming. Do you hear the siren call of dirt?
Do you catch yourself pawing through gardening magazines? Do your fingers itch for a trowel? Do you feel if you can’t get outside and plant something right now, you may spontaneously combust, possibly taking innocent bystanders out with you?
If so, please don’t deny your Inner Gardener just because you’re a town-dweller short on arable farmland. In a little space, with a little patience and a little sunshine, there is no reason you can’t grow a little garden—and even the tiniest ones often produce more than you can eat, freeze or force on unwilling strangers.
In gardening, less really is more. “The rule of thumb is to start small and not bite off more than you can chew,” said UT Cooperative Extension Agent Tom Stebbins.
Hamilton County Master Gardener Katie Bishop, interviewed the same day at the Navarre Teaching Garden off Amnicola, pointed out that the 2,000 pounds of fresh vegetables grown there this year for the Chattanooga Area Food Bank came from the facility’s 23 small (4-by-8-foot) raised beds.
The raised bed—at its most basic, four boards nailed together to make a Useful Container to Put Dirt in—is ideal for limited spaces. In fact, Bishop and Stebbins agreed, most newbies are better off sticking to a raised bed even in not-so-limited spaces. “They would probably be surprised how much work just a 4x8 is,” said Bishop. “You can spend a lot of time in there.”
The word “garden” means an enclosure or fenced-in area, and enclosure is the great thing about a raised bed: It so neatly separates the dirt you need to fool with from the dirt you don’t. We’re not talking the back 40 here, just a few square feet that practically anyone can micromanage into a little island of perfection.
How little? “You really can’t make your beds much wider than four feet because you can’t reach across them,” said Bishop. Make your bed as long as you like, she said, but keep it narrow enough you can reach the middle comfortably.
As for what to use for your frame, Stebbins says cedar is durable but you can get away with cheaper wood. “It’s OK now to use the regular lumber, the pressure-treated or whatever,” he said. “They’ve taken all the nasty stuff out of it.”
Previously, said Stebbins, arsenic, chromium and copper were used to treat lumber; now arsenic has been removed, copper is too bound to the wood to leach out into the soil, and chromium and copper are anyway present in soils naturally.
Of course, raised-bed frames need not be made of wood at all. Bishop made one with rocks at home, and on display at the teaching garden is one made by cutting a rain barrel in two.
Whatever the material, the idea is not just to enclose the garden but also to elevate it, providing a deeper, richer growing medium. How high? Typically, raised beds are bottomless, allowing for drainage and for plant roots to access the living earth below. But if for some reason you do include a bottom—the teaching garden, for instance, is on an old industrial site, so its beds are lined against possible pollutants—the frame must be deep enough to accommodate root systems. Bishop says most vegetable roots are around 8 inches.
Situate your raised bed in the flattest place you’ve got that gets a minimum of six hours of sunlight daily. “I would say try to find your sunniest spot in your yard,” said Stebbins. “You can always shade.”
That sunniest spot may be in your front rather than backyard, which Stebbins says does not in itself violate Chattanooga ordinances. “If you have a garden in the front, that’s perfectly OK, as long as your neighbors don’t complain,” he said. Inspectors must enforce anti-weed rules if they’re called in, he said, but keep things tidy—fairly easy with a raised bed—and everybody’s happy.
Another advantage of raised beds is the opportunity to give the garden the best you’ve got dirt-wise. That doesn’t mean you need to fill your bed with hundreds of dollars’ worth of bagged topsoil, though. Many gardeners prefer to work with the stuff that came with the house, pulverizing it, adding compost, building it up.
But that can take time. “Sometimes,” said Stebbins, “the bag is a lot easier for a regular homeowner.”
Bishop says why not try a combination? “Pick the rocks out, add a lot of leaf mulch and stuff like that and amend the soil with some good organic material, maybe buy a couple of bags of compost,” she said. “Grass clippings, mulch those in; all your leaves, run ’em over with the mower, break ’em up, throw that in there.”
(A note on organics: Leaves, hay and grass clippings can be piled thickly around plants and between rows as mulch, which prevents weeds, retains moisture and in general makes life so much easier it can make or break a garden. These materials then gradually compost into the soil, amending it.)
Good dirt, with sunshine, is where plants get most of their nutrition. Commercial fertilizers are more like mineral supplements than actual food, though Bishop warns if you keep using the same soil year after year you will eventually need to add more nutrients, whether with fertilizer or organic material such as manure.
Now, what to plant in your raised bed? With this deep, rich bed, lovingly tended, the answer is: just about anything. Well, corn is out, but you can fit in a surprising number of standard-sized vegetables. “You shouldn’t ignore spacing [requirements] but you can reduce the spacing,” said Stebbins.
The teaching garden grows eight tomato plants, each supported with a hogwire cage, in one 4x8. With only one bed, you’ll have more fun diversifying—two tomatoes, say, two sweet peppers and two hot, with a row of beets and carrots and maybe something vertical in the back climbing up a trellis, cucumbers or sugar snaps. In fact, any way you can grow upward instead of outward helps maximize space, says Bishop, who cages her peppers as well as tomatoes.
You can also stretch productivity by gardening year-round, planting lettuce and mustard early in the spring and clipping a couple of harvests before turning the greens under to plant summer crops. Then, after your tomatoes are spent, why not put in more cool-weather crops like turnips, kale and collards?
Bishop urges raised-bedders to include herbs in their vegetable operations.“You can do a tomato and then a big basil plant right under the tomato plant; they won’t compete at all.” Add flowers to attract pollinators as well as pretty things up.
No room left in the raised bed? Try growing herbs and flowers in pots you can deploy around the bed or even hang above it in baskets.
Which brings us to container gardening. Even if you don’t have room for a raised bed, there’s no need to turn a deaf ear to the call of dirt as long as you have a patio, stoop or roof, anywhere that gets some sun where you can put some pots.
Herbs grow happily in pots, said Bishop; so do peppers, and several varieties of tomatoes have been developed especially for containers. “I’ve grown lettuce in a pot, mustard in a pot,” she said. “It’s really very pretty on your porch.”
Another master gardener, Henrietta Morris, grows everything in pots, because she loves pushing around her containers of vegetables and flowers to achieve riots of color everywhere. “It gives your area that extra pop,” she said.
She grows tomatoes in 18- to 22-inch pots staked with scrounged bamboo (“Someone’s always got wild bamboo going crazy”) and plunks them among her perennial flowers. She puts low containers of flowers under bushes where it would be difficult to dig.
What containers should you use? That can vary, depending on your budget and aesthetic requirements, from a 5-gallon bucket with a hole knocked in the bottom to a handsome cedar planter offered by The Barn Nursery, a cross between a pot and a raised bed, 27 inches wide by 52 long, on legs 30 inches high—yours for a mere $299.
If you don’t have enough room even for containers, you can always work a plot at an in-town community gardens. Locations are listed in the TasteBuds publication of Chattanooga’s nonprofit Crabtree Farms. And if that sounds too ambitious, Crabtree’s Andrea Yeager says volunteers are always needed at the farm for everything from field-handing to answering telephones. Five hours a week will land you a box of fresh vegetables.
Crabtree, the Master Gardeners and UT Extension Service all offer gardening workshops throughout the year; check their individual websites. But Stebbins and Bishop say if you want to garden, the important thing is to pick up that trowel.
“Just don’t overthink it,” said Bishop.
“Get your hands dirty,” said Stebbins.