Photo by Joshua McNichols
Come to the free April 27th class to learn more about building healthy soil!

Backyard Feast: So you want to start a garden?

By Joshua McNichols

I heard you wanted to start a garden. I remember my first garden. It was in a P-patch. And if it weren’t for nosy P-Patchers offering me unsolicited advice, I’d probably still be buying bland cherry tomatoes in mid-summer at Fred Meyer. So at the risk of putting my nose where it doesn’t belong, I and three of my seasoned-gardener friends will now lean over our shovels and grant you the same favor.

How to Start an 8x8 Garden

Call The Dirt Exchange and have them deliver exactly one yard of “Vegetable Garden Mix” in your driveway, or even in the street (which is probably illegal so be quick). Next, find a patch of lawn and give it a military haircut. Buy one box of complete organic fertilizer (dry powder) for vegetable gardens from Walt’s under the Ballard Bridge. Then go to Limback’s and buy four 2x6 studs, 8 feet long (avoid pressure-treated) and a handful of galvanized 16-d nails. Flip the studs so the skinny side is on the ground and hammer them into a square on your short grass. Fill that square with your new dirt. Don’t be afraid if it mounds up a bit, it’ll settle. Apply some fertilizer per the box’s recommended application rate and mix in. 5 inches of soil is enough to kill most of your grass and the tiny bit that grows through is easy to remove by hand. Your garden is ready to plant.

How to Make The Most Use Of That Tiny Space.

Some crops rise from the ground and explode into maturity like zombies in a horror movie. Others sit there much longer, like an out-of-work relative with a gambling problem who won’t take a hint. Colin McCrate is the author of Food Grown Right, In Your Backyard. He writes: some plants are “ready to harvest after only a month or six weeks, some will live for three to four months, and some will take all season long to reach maturity. It’s helpful to know how long a plant will be in the garden, so you can plan to replace it with another crop once it is finished.” As a beginning gardener, you’ll have the best success planting lettuces and radishes in spring and fall and zucchini and basil in the summer.

Eat It All

Lesa Sullivan is a chef who teaches cooking classes. Her advice to urban gardeners: consider eating the whole plant! Those plants occupy valuable real estate. Make them work for it. “There’s a ton of produce that I like to call ‘bonus food,’ where you can eat the root and the green, the flower and the fruit,” says Lesa. “My parsley grows explosively. When I have enough, I eat the taproot: I steam it and toss it with some caraway and butter. Beets are another great example: their lightly steamed greens are as delicious as the bulb. Zucchini blossoms, carrot fronts, celery leaves, squash seeds… try it, you might like it.”

Extend Your Season For A Longer Harvest

Somebody really messed up when designing our growing season. It’s not long enough. I’m suing God, but the case has gone nowhere. In the meantime, you can make the growing season longer by using a cloche, says Bill Thorness. “The word cloche is French for bell, and the original cloches were individual glass bells that provided a mini-greenhouse for each plant.” Keeping plants warm outdoors in winter can seem like a big job. But in reality, a cloche can make a crisp fall day feel like a day at the spa. Bill goes deeper into this strategy in his book, Cool Season Gardener: Extend the Harvest, Plan Ahead, and Grow Vegetables Year Round. He says “as the days get shorter and the nights colder, your fall salad greens may need a plastic hoop-house to keep them growing longer into autumn.”

Joshua (that would be me), Colin, Lesa and Bill will be offering a free Gardening 101 Short Course at Sunset Hill Community Association clubhouse (3003 NW 66th St). The intense four-instructor course runs from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, April 27. It’s free and will be followed by a seed exchange run by Sustainable Ballard, so bring seeds and envelopes. Books will be available for purchase.

Joshua McNichols is the author of The Urban Farm Handbook. He lives in Ballard and is happy to give unsolicited gardening advice.

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