Garden Mind: A beginner gardener wants to eat. Now what?

Keeping rabbits and other uninvited nibblers out of tender young greens is one of the threshold tasks confronted by gardeners. This screen is in a new raised plot in a community garden.

A friend writes about getting a small plot in a community garden, and he wants to know how to begin?

His plot is in a small area, fenced and locked at night; it’s a plot run by master gardeners and mostly older garden enthusiasts.

It is in a different zip code but with a climate quite similar to ours: coastal, foggy, but with a somewhat more public exposure. He asks for help in setting up the plot.

My reply? Start with what you have, and what you want, and find the middle ground. And be sure to ask for help!

How perfect that his acquisition — or assignment — comes so close to the beginning of the calendar year! For a $35 annual administration fee he has full daily access to his 4 x 8 plot, a raised bed, water and faucet and hose with shut-off, and wide paths strewn with hog fuel to make weeding easy. His inherited plot needs some clean-up and a top-dressing of new compost, and little else. It’s not as fully sunny as it could be, and backs up to a very large New Dawn climbing rose (about eight feet away), but it won’t scorch, either.

Because rabbits sometimes visit, this plot has two hinged tops, covered in one-half inch hardware cloth, which allow top growth of about 15 inches; he’s decided to take off one of the covers, to allow for taller plants, and he plans to make a scaffolding structure for vertical plants (beans and peas maybe). The sturdy frame he removes will go to a common area, to be used by another; all the plots are the same uniform size, of sturdy 2x6 or 2x8 framing.

There are about 20 plots; everyone abides by the same rules: it’s organic, at least all the tending practices; water is precious and carefully managed; things are tidy and plant trimmings composted off — site. Oh, and the gates are locked when the adjacent business closes, and open at 8 a.m. every morning. Deer are not a problem but rabbits are. He knows the small size is a serious restriction, and that he’ll have to buy plants rather than start most seeds. He’s agreed to track the general garden conditions in a garden notebook. He has a soil thermometer which can be used both in soil and for air. He’s painted a metal water can bright green, and his personal garden tools have bright green duct tape for easy ID and so they get back in the carrying bin.

Here’s his personal list: Chard, spinach, potatoes, garlic, leeks, peppers, strawberries.

Using the revised “Maritime Northwest Garden Guide,”* we first group individual plants by plant family. Garlic and leeks are the onion family. Peppers and potatoes are nightshade family. Chard is beet family. Strawberries are rose family. I suggest he add collards (mustard family), calendula (medicinal properties and color in garden), and asparagus beans from the pea or legume family, because he likes asparagus but can’t devote resources to an asparagus plot. Also sweet peas (color and fragrance). He doesn’t want lettuce because it is plentiful and cheap. He likes to cook with chard, but not kale. The strawberries are a treat and a challenge, but he’s got a fun idea about growing them; I say give it a go! Peppers may be a challenge, but he wants to try anyway. I should add this man is an amazing cook, and he gives much thought to flavorful ingredients.

In garden planning, we group by plant family because you want to keep track so plant rotations can be managed from year to year and within the growing season. As said before, plants from the same family tend to use nutrients at the same rates, and attract similar bugs. Changing the rotations confuses the cycles, to beneficial outcomes.

I’ve asked my friend to do some research on the plants he wants to grow and for us to compare what we find, to better — and jointly — manage this small plot. His resources are the “Maritime Northwest Garden Guide,” second edition, and Territorial Seeds 2016 Catalog. In the weeks to come we will create a guide for planting out, spacing, and possibly sowing seeds. I invite you to join us, in real time and space or virtual, and to add a bed or two, and gain some practice in making your own tiny garden plot. “Practice makes perfect,” said someone’s mom.

(* Book review in next edition — Seattle Tilth’s revised “Maritime Northwest Garden Guide,” April 2014; available from local booksellers or www.seattletilth.org )

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