Vegetable Garden Design in brief
a handout written for the Emerson Avenue Community Garden
1) Include food. There are so many reasons we need to be growing food right now in this society (list here http://envirochangemakers.org/FoodSecurity.htm ) and this garden is the place to show people how it is done. Certainly a “working flower” is nice here or there, but these beds are predominantly an opportunity to showcase the beauty food plants can have. Scan a few gorgeous food-garden books to understand how very much is possible.
2) Pick the right plants. Select vegetable plants which are coming into season now, following a good guide that is written specifically for Southern California. Don’t use East Coast guidelines or the backs of the seed packets — they’re useless for So Calif. A good guide is the Digitalseed planting calendar http://www.digitalseed.com/gardener/schedule/vegetable.html It tells you what you can seed each month of the year. Note that you will need to adjust if you are using purchased plants. Pick good open-pollinated or heirloom seed (non-hybrids), from vendors who have taken the Safe Seed Pledge. At the Community Garden at 83rd & Dunbarton, we group vegetables and herbs that work well together (“companion planting” or “guilds”).
3) Use ergonomics. Rule of thumb says a gardener’s reach is about 2feet. Thus accessways — paths or stepping stones — should be placed so that all areas of a garden are accessible. If you use geometric blocks, typically you use 16square feet (4ft x 4ft) so that a gardener can easily reach in from all sides. If you have deeper sections, place a stone or block as a stepping stone so that the gardener won’t compact the soil throughout the entire garden. Inside your garden plot your path layout is completely up to you, but general rule of thumb says to make these internal pathways 18″ to 24″ wide. You can create a spiral, an undulating path, crisp rectangles, or unusual shapes. Some designers place a wider cul-de-sac at the end of their path so that there is room for the gardener to squat or kneel.
4) Grade to the curve. Since our cityscape is so full of hard angles, I like to bring lots of curves into the garden. Hence the Walking Spiral and the curved beds at the edges of the Mandala garden. Also think about grading. Observe where water flows on the plot you are given. You don’t want all your water running off down the sidewalk or washing away your neighbor’s seedlings. Perhaps you need to use basins and mini-dams to retain water and cause it to infiltrate. Observe and adjust. Rather than the “raised beds” which are praised so highly in East Coast garden books, here in So Calif it is more appropriate to our weather and dryness to be gardening like the Anasazi, in depressions in the earth.
5) Where’s the water? You’ll probably need to water your plot with a hose. So, how will the hose enter the plot? Will it drag across brittle chard? Will it tear out your climbing peas or sunflowers? Plan for the hose, and perhaps use hose guides. Group plants by water needs. Put drought-tolerant Mediterranean herbs like thyme and oregano in your hottest dryest spot. Cluster water-needy lettuces and leafy greens together in a depression in the earth. Place squashes and other fuzzy leafed plants in a portion of the plot where you’ll be able to water beneath them rather than having to topspray them, since they hate to have their leaves wet.
6) Tall guys to the back. In general, you’ll want to plan for height. In the winter, you might need to place taller plants like fava beans to the north of your plot so that they don’t shade your tender greens. By contrast, in the summer, some veggies might appreciate the relief from the beating sun. Thus a line of sunflowers at the south edge might be functional as well as pretty. Keep in mind what you plant around the edges of your plot, so that it does not trail into the walking path or flop across a neighbor’s plot.
7) Play with your food. In the Community Garden at 83rd & Dunbarton, we make pretty patterns in the beds. We’ll alternate red and green lettuce, or use bright lights chard for color accents. We select snow peas that have purple blossoms, black-green lacinato kale, or mahogany red mustard greens. We edge broccoli family with a row of cilantro for insect repellant, for additional food, and for gorgeous aesthetic. Grey-green artichokes are lovely with a single cosmos daisy between them. Bush beans are available in yellow and purple as well as red-flecked pods.
8) Think biointensive. Rows aren’t the only way to go. When you plant in rows, there is a lot of wasted space in your garden layout. John Jeavons and others have perfected intensive plant spacings to maximize the number of plants which you can fit into a given space. With our tight city places, this seems like wise practice. For a demonstration of planting in this offset row technique, you can read Jeavons’ books. Or stop by the Community Garden at 83rd & Dunbarton where hands-on garden training is available any Thursday afternoon from 4:30 till dusk.
9) Garden guidelines. Keep in mind the overall garden guidelines for the Emerson Avenue Community Garden. No furniture. Trellis height maximum –. No trees or thorned plants. Pathways should be garden-provided mulch. No imported soils. See the complete list at ###need link### These are what keep our community working peacefully together.
10) Know your plants. If you aren’t familiar with food plants — their aesthetic, their growing habits, their season — this is the time to learn. Good basic books on specific veggie plants include Rodale’s Vegetables by Patricia Michalak (list at http://legacyla.net/edibleLandscape.htm#selection ) To see vegetable plants growing, check out The Learning Garden at Venice High School, The Ranch at the Huntington Library, and the Community Garden at Holy Nativity (83rd & Dunbarton). Talk with garden veterans to learn which vegetable plants do well in our local area. Then share the gift: share your experiences with other garden newcomers. Welcome to growing a local food supply, the grand adventure of our time!