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Saturday, February 7, 2015

Garden Design: What Should you Build

Special Thanks to www.learningandyearning.com, www.untrainedhousewife.com,
and www.thefarmerslamp.com for allowing me to use their photos for this header.


It is that mystical, magical time of year again. It is time to start thinking about planning your garden and starting seeds. Over the past couple of years I have had several questions about both of these topics. I am going to try to cover as many of these questions as possible.

What should I consider when planting any type of garden?

There are some things that should be considered first. The answer to these questions will determine where the garden should be placed, what type of garden you should consider, and what type of plants will do well in your area and your situation.

Garden Considerations

  • Solar Aspect Solar aspect is a fancy way of saying "Where is the sun shining?". If you are just starting out, you might be interested to know that there are long day onions and short day onions. Long day onions are grown further north than I (if you are in the northern hemisphere). The further north you are the more hours of daylight you receive in the summer. Some things require full sun like tomatoes and okra, others can deal with and may even benefit from some shade like greens.

    To learn your solar aspect all you have to do is stand outside at different times of year and look at your shadow. In the winter your shadow will be the longest because due to the tilt of the earth the sun appears further south in the northern hemisphere or vise versa. You do not want to plant tomatoes in the shadow of your home.
  • Soil Type If you have a heavy clay or a extremely sandy soil you might want to consider container or raised bed gardening. Heavy clay can be difficult for roots to break through as well as it can slow the absorption of moisture, once the moisture has been absorbed this type of soil can become soaked and not allow for the dispersal of excess moisture. Pooling may result. This can drown your plants.

    In extremely sandy soil, what moisture you do get doesn't stick around long. The moisture just drains right out. Soil that drains too quickly tends to be lacking in nutrients. The nutrients simply leech out as the water passes through. Very sandy soil tends to lack organic matter.

    Both of the above soil types can be made better, but it can be a long and arduous task. Funny thing is both soil types can be improved with the exact same prescription, compost. Compost can thicken up a sandy soil and break up a clay based soil. Compost is your friend.

    A Loam based soil tends to be the best starting point. It is not too heavy as to impede root growth and contains enough organic matter to provide nutrients to the plants. Testing can still be done to determine the soil pH and amendments can be made to improve the soils "friendliness" to plants. Again, compost can help balance soil pH. Sometimes however, you may just have to choose plants that will do well in the soil you have.
  • Rainfall Amount There is nothing you can do about the amount of water that falls from the sky, but knowing how much annual precipitation occurs in your area will help you plan. Water catchment will be covered in a later post. Containers dry out quicker than raised beds or in ground gardens. No matter which type of garden you choose, water is important.

What type of garden should I have?


There are three different types of garden and several variations of each. There is the raised garden bed, container gardening, and the in ground garden. The considerations as to garden types depend on soil type, money you have to invest, what type of dwelling you have, and physical ability. We will start at the bottom and work our way up. As we go you can actually stack these types.

Apartment or Condo Gardens (Container Gardening)


If you live in an apartment or one of those condos that only have the postage stamp sized yard, you are limited on what you can do. Even if you have a small yard, many times you are not allowed to do anything that actually changes the space. In this situation container gardening may be the answer for you. 

Container gardening has some limits. Plants with a large root system or plants that require several in order to have enough production to be worthwhile are not real high on the list. Corn, beans, peas, okra, and things like that don't do real well in containers in general. There are varieties of beans and peas that can grow well and produce well in containers, but unless you have a bunch of containers,  I just do not see it as being worthwhile.  

Most root crops do quite well in containers. Beets, onions, garlic, carrots, radishes, and the like can do great in containers. You must consider the depth of the container and the length of the root crop that you intend to grow. I have seen a friend of mine plant Danver carrots in a shallow container and as they grew the pushed the top of the carrot out of the ground. What should have been the pointy end was blunt. Many carrot varieties'  roots are around 8 inches long, others can be as long as 11 inches. Make sure to select a variety that fits your container. Spacing must be considered with things like onions. If planted too close together you could get some really odd shaped onions.

Tomatoes and peppers do quite well in containers, there are even patio varieties that do not require as large containers. These patio varieties are hybrids. Hybrids are not the same as GMO. A hybrid is selectively cross pollinated to create a plant with the desired characteristics. This cross pollination is normally done in a greenhouse. GMO plants are products of a laboratory first, then are tested in a greenhouse or field. I am not opposed to hybrids, but I do not support GMO. Do your research on specific varieties. 

Herbs are great for containers. If you use a lot of herbs and consider the price you pay for many herbs they can also be the most cost effective thing you can grow. Chives, basil, cilantro, parsley, you name it, most herbs can do great in small containers. There are several companies that actually offer a windowsill herb garden. I selected the one with the best reviews to add a link to below. 


A word about potato towers. There are two different types of potato towers, one is made from wood and the other is made from chicken or dog wire. I tried the one made of wood. If you have been doing any research on this at all I am sure you have seen photos of potato towers, possibly with titles like "Harvest Up To 25 lbs. of Potatoes From Two Square Feet". I tried it and in theory it worked. Here are the drawbacks that I found of the wood design. The wire design may be better.
  1. You need a lot of materials. When you plant a potato tower the seed potatoes go at the bottom and you cover them with a layer of soil. When the plant gets to about 6 inches high you add a layer of soil and a set of sides. Each time you add a layer of soil and sides the potato plant will put on another layer of fruit. If you do not have the addition material on hand or you do not get them in a timely manner, you might as well have planted them in the ground.
  2. You need really light growing medium. Your growing medium is whatever the plant is supposed to grow in. Some soils are heavier than others.Heavy soils are not good for this type of tower. I used soil and our soil is a little on the heavy side. I did add layers as I mentioned, but every time I added a layer the lower levels compacted just a little. The upper levels produced nice sized potatoes, the lower levels produced small potatoes because the plants had a hard time pushing the soil out of the way for the tubers to get larger. It may have done better if I had used straw or compost or a mixture of both.
  3. You are never done with the tower until you harvest. With everything else that we have going on around here it was difficult for me to take time to make sure that all of the additions were done in a timely manner. I work a full time job, plus try to homestead, plus try to write as much as I can, plus I am active in our church, plus, plus, plus. I am not whining, I am just stating that this method requires more time than I had thought.
  4. If I try a potato tower again It will be the wire type. With the wire type all of your investment in supplies is up front. There is no additional input that is required that is not required by the rest of the garden. Watering and fertilizing are really it. 
If you have a small backyard like some of the nicer townhouse apartments you could do this, but check your rules because this will not be movable. 


Containers can be store bought or homemade. The easiest homemade containers are out of wood, but if you have talent or time containers can be made out of concrete or even clay. It is not difficult to build long shallow containers for most of what you are growing. A box can be made with a 1 X 12 cut into pieces. If you use spruce or pine they will last a couple of years and there are no chemicals to worry about. I would not use treated lumber for these containers. 

If you shop around you can sometimes get really good deals on what is called grower's pots. They are not pretty, they are just the plain black plastic pots. When the growing season is done you can just empty the soil out of them and stack them nicely.  If you take care of these pots you can use them for several years.

Very Small Yard

Containers are still an option, but if you have the room you might want to step up your production a bit. A raised bed could be the answer. There are as many ways to build a raised bed as there are gardening enthusiasts. I am just going to give the basics here. There are lots of resources available.  

There are several benefits of raised beds. Since you are creating your growing area, soil conditions are negated. Raised beds can be built up for those who have mobility issues and they can be placed wherever you want them. Once built raised beds only require maintenance. They can be moved, but it takes a lot of effort.

There is really only one drawback to a raised bed and that is the cost, but the cost can be a one time investment. Be sure you build it where and how you want it.

Here are the basics of building a raised bed:

Step 1. Lay down a double layer of cardboard. This acts as a weed barrier and does well at this job. Cardboard can be obtained from many places. I personally know that home improvement stores will save boxes for people if they ask in advance.

Step 2. Build frames. Frames can be built with treated lumber or even cross ties. If using cross ties make sure they are old. New cross ties will leech creosote during the summer. I would not want this anywhere near my veggies. If you are going to use cross ties I would suggest you put a heavy mil (mil is the thickness) plastic against the frames and back fill soil. I still wouldn't plant anything really close to the edges. If you are buying the materials I would avoid the cross ties. The new treated lumber is treated with copper and not arsenic like it was in the old days. I do not have a problem building with new treated lumber.

Step 3. Fill the bed. If you have a place close where you can buy a truckload of topsoil mixed with compost this is best. If necessary you can purchase topsoil and Black Cow composted manure and mix them well. Top soil and retail compost is one of those situations where you get what you pay for. I have bought compost that was mostly sand while trying to save a few dollars. Locally sourced compost and topsoil is best.

Step 4. Plant. Sow your seeds or transplant your plants. All of your smaller plants should be to the south and the plants should get taller as you move north in the bed. You do not have to have traditional rows. In fact in a raised bed I discourage them. Plant things as closely together as they can be. Things can be planted much closer together than suggested on the seed packets. Onions for example (depending on variety) can be planted as close as 6 inches apart. If you have ever read square foot gardening, I suggest 1/2 again wider than they suggest. I have tried their plan as presented and believe that in my area, the plantings are too dense. In your area the square foot gardening densities might work.

A Larger Property

A larger property allows for a lot of flexibility. I am not necessarily talking about a really big piece of land. Even a half acre can be considered a larger property when it comes to gardening. You can still use both of the above types of gardens, but you can also have an in ground garden. This is the traditional garden style. 

In a traditional garden you can do rows if you want, however this is beginning to fall out of grace. I have begun to plant things in squares and learning about companion planting. Some plants do better when grown in conjunction with unrelated plants. Tomatoes and carrots do well together. Any legume will help corn grow, but don't plant pole beans or peas in sweet corn. They can actually strangle the corn. 

In ground gardening is the least expensive, but it requires a lot of work. Weeding is a constant chore. But it is worth the effort. I really enjoy working in the dirt, seeing the plants grow and harvesting food for my family. I am planning on using a combination of container gardening and in ground gardening at my home.

Check back next week for a post on seed starting.

If you would like more information on compost you can check out our previous post.


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