How would you turn this yard into a vegetable garden?
September 20, 2012 12:59 PM   Subscribe

Vegetable gardening experts of the green, please help me make the best use of my back yard.

We've got a nice sized back yard, and I am determined to do a year-round vegetable garden with it, but I'm not sure the smartest way to do it. (We're in Louisville, KY, BTW)

Here are some pictures of the yard ... this is the view standing at the gate and looking toward the back. This is slightly to the left (with shed left in for reference), and here's what you see if you step into the yard and turn 90 degrees left. All together it's a lot of space, much of it gently hilly (in the third pic, you can see that it drops off once you get to around the swing set).

In years past, we've done a small square garden in the spot in the third picture, just on the other side of the deck. It did okay, but not great, and now it's infested with nutgrass anyway. The area in the first picture, in front of the shed, that whole rectangular area stays damper than the rest of the yard, and the grass there grows roughly twice as fast as the rest.

So, what would you do, and where? We're determined to grow as much of our own food as possible, for as many months of the year as possible. I'd also like to do it in various aesthetically pleasing areas, as opposed to one big rectangle. Maybe with some paths between, chairs, other features. Gardening pros, if this is your palette, what would you paint on it?
posted by jbickers to Home & Garden (9 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Difficult to tell from the pics, but how much sun do the various areas get? The areas that are partially shaded by trees would work ok for leaf crops like lettuce and kale, but you'd need more sun for fruit crops like tomatoes and squash.
posted by slagerst at 1:56 PM on September 20, 2012

I'm hardly a gardening pro, but what strikes me first about the pics is the amount of shade. Especially if you want to grow food, sun is the key. I expect less so in Kentucky than where I am, in the Pacific Northwest, but still it's as essential as the quality of the soil, and not very flexible, aside from cutting down trees and moving buildings. So the first thing to do is to figure out where the sun is, and when. There are software programs that show you, or you can just pay attention and take notes.

I don't know how much basic info you have already, but if it were my backyard, and I wanted to grow as much of my own food as possible, I would immediately leave the house, go to the library, and get every book I could get my hands on about permaculture. Books by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren are particularly useful, but there are dozens of books out there (and websites), full of information. Lots of people are doing this, and it sometimes seems like most of them are writing books or blogs. Their opinions vary over details, but the basics are pretty much the same. You need that basic information about the whole system of land and plants and soil and sun and water before you start thinking about what to plant where.

My experience is that the more information about permaculture I absorbed, the less question there was of what to do, and how. It just seemed to answer itself, organically. Of course, the details still need to be worked out, but that's the fun part: what kind of potato? acorn or delicata squash? blueberries or tayberries?

Have a good time! It's so much fun, and so much work, and so worth it!
posted by kestralwing at 1:57 PM on September 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

We're determined to grow as much of our own food as possible, for as many months of the year as possible.

You want Four Season Harvest by Eliot Coleman.

Quick question. You wrote:

The area in the first picture, in front of the shed, that whole rectangular area stays damper than the rest of the yard, and the grass there grows roughly twice as fast as the rest.

Do you happen to know whether this is where your septic fields are? Not to say you can't plant over the fields, and I know some people do, but I'd be careful about that.

I'd also like to do it in various aesthetically pleasing areas, as opposed to one big rectangle.

If you can afford it, put in raised beds and pea gravel between them. It will save your back, help with weeding, make it easier to cover in late fall / early spring, and will almost certainly look neater.
posted by gauche at 1:57 PM on September 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'd maybe suggest looking into raised garden beds, I find that can really help with the weed problem and I've had great luck using them both in a very hot and dry Australian climate and in the midwest to grow veggies. I find them easier to work and keep weed free I also think they look rather attractive.

You don't mention where the sunny parts of your garden are and that in my experience is the main thing to focus on for veggie gardening. You want as much sun as you can get for as many hours a day as you can get, unless you are in an extremely hot and dry climate. From how I read your photos it appears your previous garden was in a spot that was shaded at least part of the day and near bushes, which would fight the veggie plants for nutrients and most likely win.

Watch your garden for a day and keep an eye on where it is sunniest longest and allow for the fact that the sun moves in the sky depending on the season too. That sunny area is where you want to plant, pretty much everything else can be fixed, because it is easier to add shade or drainage or to improve soil if needed, than it is to get more light.
posted by wwax at 1:59 PM on September 20, 2012

When I was planning my backyard garden (which is tiny compared to yours), I did a sketch map of the yard, and marked where the trees and house and shed were. Then I drew a little dotted line of where the house shadow fell in June, and another color dotted line for where it fell in April and September. Now you can look at your space in terms of where you have full sun and where only part sun. (The months matter because, for example, I planted sunchokes in an area that gets sun in June, but the shadows get longer and cover that bed by August; but by then the plants are tall and the leaves still get plenty of sun.)

My backyard is a lot more compact than yours, but I can tell you what I did. I have an 8' tall picket fence that runs the north side of my yard, so it made perfect sense for me to lay a long strip of 12" tall 2-foot wide raised bed all along that fence. Tomatoes/cucumbers/beans/peas climb the fence; alternate tomato plants and pea plants so the peas are dead by the time the tomatoes are ready. Then in front, a row of shorter stuff - lettuce, onions, carrots, beets, turnips, greens, etc. Almost-sun section of fence gets sunchokes in back, bush beans in front. Part-sun corner gets kale and collards; other corner gets a raspberry patch.
When things die off in fall, I can plant hardy greens, and rake the soil such that the lip of the raised bed is a few inches above the soil level; then a "cold frame" is just a roll of clear plastic tacked to the rails of the bed.

However, given that you're going for a larger space and a bigger harvest, building a ton of raised beds and bringing in all the extra dirt may be too much up-front investment. Depending on shade/directions/etc I'd still consider making use of your fence. By making a perimeter strip of garden, the keeps more area of the yard open for other stuff, and you've got great access to all your plants.
posted by aimedwander at 2:12 PM on September 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding Four Season Harvest. He's got a few books out, and will probably be able to give you the info you need. (And you really do need an entire book's worth of info- this has a lot of facets).

You'll also want to figure out what hardiness zone you're in if you don't already know. This will have a huge effect on what crops you can grow and when, and it's info you'll use a lot- even if it's just to find ways to get around your limitations.

I'd suggest you start simple. You'll find a lot of info, and it can get overwhelming. Pick ONE thing (say, overwimtering a specific crop, or starting a hoop house), and just try that. Make mistakes
See how it goes.

One thing that's quite simple is to plant spring crops in early fall/ late summer. If they like the weather of the first, they'll like the weather of the second. I don't know if it's too late for this where you sre because I don't know your growing season.
posted by windykites at 2:41 PM on September 20, 2012

When I was researching this for our yard, I found a number of sources that mentioned orienting the garden bed in a southern direction. I think the idea was to maximize the amount of sunlight the garden would receive. Nthing the raised beds-- sooo much easier than breaking up the soil you have already. You might also consider water sources-- if you intend to use a rain barrel, it might make sense to have the garden located closer to it.
posted by tuesdayschild at 3:19 PM on September 20, 2012

Do you know what zone you're in? That's going to make a big difference in terms of what your growing season is. Contact your extension office. They're going to have a lot of stuff you want. At mine, you can get soil testing information, planting calendars, names of adapted varieties, and a bunch of general gardening information.

How much money do you have? Raised beds are easy to set up and easy to maintain, but they're also more expensive.

If you're looking for production, you might look into square foot gardening. It's designed for that sort of thing.
posted by Gilbert at 6:43 PM on September 20, 2012

Just for some background, I had a back-yard mini farm for a few years and it was awesome!

For starters I'd have a traditional plot again. I'd make it kinda permanent and manageable by bordering it with treated 2x6 lumber. I sunk mine about 4" deep and it worked perfectly for keeping the grass out.

Next, I'd plan plots and spots the way one would plan flower gardens. The spots on either side of your shed door are begging for a pepper plant or tomato. The chain link fence would love to be disguised by a row of corn, and the supports for your deck could be treated so that you could grow anything with vines without destroying the wood. All of those spots can be bordered by greens, onions, garlic and maybe even potatoes.

Look at any flower/ornamental gardening book and replace the flowers with veggies. You have a great yard with plenty of useable space so you can definitely dress it up while growing food.

I think the best thing that I learned over time was to have deep borders in place. Every garden needs some weeding, but keeping the crawling grass/roots out is the best thing ever.

In my first couple of years with the really big garden I gave and bartered away about 200lbs of produce. We just couldn't eat everything. That's when I learned to can and pickle and grow stuff like pinto beans that I could dry and use throughout the year or even later.

Good luck, this is a great endeavor!
posted by snsranch at 5:45 PM on September 21, 2012

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