Last night, just before dark, I planted the first seeds of my spring/summer garden. There was a trellis to put up, Blue Lake climbing beans to plant, and Momotaro, Sungold and Black Krim Tomato seeds to sow. I’ll start more delicate seeds in the days to come and be sure to water them as the soil dries.
As spring arrives, many people turn toward the garden. There is the promise of summer squash, ripe heirloom tomatoes, beans, corn and so much more. But before the first seed is sown, it’s vital to set up the garden for success from the start – especially when planning a vegetable garden for the first time.
The two most important things to take into consideration are sun and soil. Make sure to choose the area for your garden that receives the most sun per day. With three to four hours of direct sunlight, you can successfully grow leafy greens, such as lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard and kale, as well as a variety of herbs. In comparison, tomatoes, eggplants, corn, squash, peppers and the like will need five or more hours of sun per day to really flourish.
Once you’ve settled on a sunny patch, you can tend to the soil. Building raised beds is a great way to ensure you have healthy soil in your garden from the beginning. Use only untreated wood, such as cedar or redwood, since treated wood leaches chemicals into your soil and, therefore, your food.
Raised beds can be built on existing soil or hardscape. For hardscape, make sure to build up 18 inches high (approximately three wood boards), so that the roots of the plants have enough room to spread out and grow. To fill the beds, I like to use a good organic soil and add it almost to the top. Then finish with a final layer of compost to help the seeds germinate and to feed the soil below, as it’s watered.
If building on existing soil, your beds can be around 12 inches high (approximately two boards), as long as you amend the soil beneath by at least six inches. To do this, I follow the double dig method that John Jeavons recommends in his classic book “How to Grow More Vegetables.” The basic idea behind this technique is to enrich your soil by layering rich compost and existing soil into a kind of garden lasagna. (See full instructions here.) The double dig method is also ideal when starting your garden directly in the ground without the use of raised beds.
When choosing what to plant, I use all kinds of flowers to bring the bees and butterflies – both so necessary for a healthy garden – and to ward off pests. Plant nasturtium flowers near cucumbers, as nasturtium can help keep cucumber beetles away. Try oregano with squash to deter a multitude of garden pests. Plant borage flowers near your tomatoes, as they protect against hornworms and can even improve the flavor of the tomatoes. (The beautiful purple blooms of borage, an edible flower, can be tossed into a salad.) I start the flowers by seed and sow them at the same time as the first vegetable seeds are planted. Make sure to water regularly, keeping in mind that too much or too little water can both kill a garden.
After all, a garden, like life, is all about balance.
Lauri Kranz is the founder and expert green thumb behind Edible Gardens L.A., which builds, plants and sustains organic vegetable gardens. She also oversees a handful of school gardens in the Los Angeles area, teaching budding gardeners how to grow…
Photos courtesy Brian W. Ferry.