garden planning

my raised bed garden

The picture shows my raised bed. Steve built this for me several years back when I was much more disabled than I am now. It is 4 x 24 ft long. Because I also didn't have the energy to dig soil to fill it, the bottom half was filled with logs ala hegelkultur. Then we added a couple bales of straw to give it a flat floor on top of the logs. Finally, we filled it with a mixture of about 1/3rd each vermiculite, peat moss and compost. The net on the north side is for growing peas and beans on the outside; when it was all I had, I grew tomatoes on the inside. I have a little seat, a piece of wood with foam rubber nailed on, to use to sit on the cinder block walls and garden from a sitting position.

Growing vegetables very close together is a feature of Square Foot Gardening or Biointensive Gardening. To do so, you need lots of fertility, hence the soil mix that is 1/3 compost. It works well if you have little space, or if you're disabled like I was. In my opinion, gardening beats not gardening, even if all you have is a raised bed or even containers.

However, my disability progressed to the point where it was easier to do stuff from a standing position rather than having to get up and move repeatedly. So we tilled up a big chunk of yard last year.

my big garden

The area we tilled up has 5 areas I could easily see as rectangles, each 13 x 25 ft wide. (There's theoretically a sixth one, but it's cut through by a sidewalk, losing both space and it's regular shape.

For me, being ridiculously anal, I started with a spreadsheet, listing all the crops I could grow, how much they would cost to buy, and how much square footage it would take to grow. In short, I figured what would save us the most money if I grew it. Of course, some choices are based on what I like; if tomatoes become free to me, I'll still grow them!

After choosing what to grow, I started laying out my primary rotations.

  1. Given that flour corn can only be bought as seed, it's outrageously expensive. I can't buy seed to try to cook with! So my first plot was dedicated to corn. Since corn is a heavy feeder, the previous fall when we clean out the chicken coop, it gets spread on this plot and tilled in. Come spring, we repeat that.
  2. My second plot is nightshades, for which rotation is particularly important. Of course, this includes tomatoes, but also peppers and eggplant. The previous fall, this plot is seeded with field peas and oats, to be tilled in before putting the transplants out. When the plants are all doing well and the ground is warm, I mulch with straw to retain moisture and plant white clover between the rows.
  3. My third plot is brassicas: cabbages including Chinese ones, broccoli, cauliflower, kale and rutabaga. I also grow carrots here just because there's room (the family carrots are in only includes parsley and I don't need a parsley/carrot plot). That these are spring and fall vegetables has 2 repercussions. First, this plot needs planted before the ground is ready to till in spring, so it must be tilled in fall. Second, if both spring and fall crops are grown from transplants, there is enough of a space in between to grow a crop of buckwheat and mow it down after the spring harvest and before planting the fall crops.
  4. My fourth plot is primarily potatoes. I said my choice was based on cost, and most people probably think potatoes are cheap. However, potatoes are a "dirty dozen" crop, very high in pesticides. Organic potatoes are darned expensive, so I needed potatoes in my garden. It is spaced in the rotation so it is separated by the other nightshade plot by a minimum of 2 years. Because I only use about 2/3 of the plot for potatoes, my alliums are here also. Garlic and shallots are planted in fall; yellow and red storage onions, sweet white onions and leeks are planted in spring; spring onions are separated and transplanted to here in fall also. Alliums are my favorite crop and this provides a wide variety of timing so I always have some. Again, this plot has to be tilled in fall since the plants go in before the ground is ready to work in spring.
  5. My final main plot is the cucurbits: cucumbers, zucchini, melons and watermelon. This area is planted in field peas and oats the previous fall, then tilled in spring before transplants are set out. White clover is interseeded between the rows during the last hoeing before I lose all control of the vines entirely.

My raised bed garden is still used. I plant peas on the outside of the net, then later plant green beans on the inside. Because I don't want to keep buying dirt to refill it as it settles, half of it is planted in clover in spring, then replanted to field peas and oats in fall. The other half gets used for lettuces, other greens like chard, and various herbs.

I also have the space in my big garden that is dissected by a sidewalk to do various things with. Okra is a crop I enjoy, and it's not available fresh here in central PA. I throw a few plants in. I like marigolds and a few of those get planted here and there as well. This year, I'm planning for one triangle to be entirely neck pumpkins, which are dead cheap here, but I miss growing them. Some of gardening must be for the pleasure of the gardener; I can't be practical all the time!

Seed Ordering (no affiliate links!)

The next step is inventorying my seeds and seeing what I need to order. I get bazillions of seed catalogs each year, but only order from a few.

First, let me explain that the "Safe Seed Pledge" where a company promises not to sell you GMO seeds is worthless. In order to buy GMO seeds, you must sign a contract with Monsanto. The seed companies would have their pants sued off if they sold GMO seeds.

However, a few companies refuse to do business with Monsanto, including refusing to sell their seeds from child corporations (Seminis Scott's Miracle Gro, etc.) That strikes me as worthwhile as I really don't want a cent of my money ever going to Monsanto, even secondhand, if I can possibly avoid it..

Some companies sell only open-pollinated varieties instead of hybrids. Their catalogs are easier to read since I don't have to sort through descriptions of crap I don't want. Even if I'm not seed-saving myself, I want to support companies keeping these varieties alive.

I also prefer when a company is regrowing seeds rather than just reselling that it be relatively local or at least in a similar climate to me.

And some companies have a mission beyond selling seeds. Sometimes, it's worth a bit extra to me to support those missions.

  Fedco Seeds is my first choice to order from. They are located in Maine and market primarily cold-hardy varieties to the New England crowd. Many of their seeds are provided by locals. They are a co-op, owned 60% by customers and 40% by employees. Because they are not profit-driven, their seeds are dead cheap. In addition to seeds, they have 4 other divisions selling tubers (potatoes, sweet potatoes, onion sets, sunchokes, ginger), gardening supplies, trees (which includes cane fruit), and fall-planted bulbs.
  Fertile Valley Seeds is Carol Deppe's seed company. She is doing a lot of breeding with flour and flint corns and breeds specifically for the ability to produce flavorful food under minimal fertility in organic scenarios. Besides corn, she provides unique varieties of beans, beets, greens, kale, lettuce, radish. squash, tomatoes, turnip and watermelon. But I NEED her for the corn; no one else is doing this work.
  Southern Exposure Seed Exchange is located in Virginia. They are concerned with sustainability and hence do not sell anything associated with Monsanto in any way and do a lot of work both educating and fund-raising to protect farmers against GMO lawsuits. Many of their seeds are grown by local farmers. They are a worker-run co-op. They sell unusual southern seeds a good bit: collards,okra, cotton. They also sell potatoes and sweet potatoes in spring and perennial onion bulbs (including leeks!), garlic, ginseng and goldenseal in fall. Their prices are reasonable, not dead cheap, but not high.
  Bountiful Gardens is located in northern California. Again, the prices are neither high nor dead cheap. They are part of Ecology Action, a nonprofit working to teaching the biointensive method of gardening. They send interns to Latin America and Africa to teach their methods, which include growing for serious calories plus growing fertility via compostable crops, in short, a method of growing real food in a sustainable manner on mini-farms.
  Baker's Creek is located in Missouri, but bought a storefront in California a while back and an old Connecticut seed company a bit later. They have a gorgeous catalog; it's my favorite to receive. They run a very useful online forum, have multiple print publications, run spring and harvest festivals. However, the primary thing they do that I like is collect seeds from all over the world, grow them out and make them available. They collect seed from very remote places as well as war-torn areas; many Iraqi seeds might have been lost forever if not for them. They also seem to despise Monsanto as deeply as I do and actually test each batch of corn seed for GMOs. They are a bit more on the expensive side for seed.
  Seed Savers Exchange is a nonprofit that works to save and spread heirloom seeds. If you join them, you get a catalog of what every member is offering. In addition to member offers, they maintain a huge seed bank themselves. Their catalog includes what they have grown out that year so variety availability can differ year-to-year. Their catalog prices are a tad high also.
  Pinetree sells smaller packets of seed than most, but dead cheap. They do have a lot of heirloom and open-pollinated seeds, but a lot of hybrids too. I'm not entirely sure, but I think they are mostly resellers of seed others have grown, so their location in Maine is probably not very relevant. They have bought Seminis seed in the past before they were acquired by Monsanto, but pledge not to in the future. This is one of the tiny seed companies that has not been bought up by a larger company, so not bad to throw some business their way.
  Territorial Seed is located in Oregon and grows a lot of trial seeds in their location as well as does a lot of breeding. Unfortunately, this is a very different climate than I live in. Further, their prices are medium-high, but shipping to me is expensive, especially for supplies. They do sell much larger packs of multiplier onions and such than Southern Exposure, so if you want a crop the first year rather than just growing out to multiply for a second year harvest, they're a good choice. If I lived on the other coast, I'd likely order from them a lot more than I do.
  Johnny's Seeds is located in Maine. I am very sad about Johnny's. As a new gardener, their catalog with detailed growing information and germination tables for every crop was more valuable than any gardening book I ever owned. Now that they are online, they have a huge gardening library, videos, etc. But they sell Seminis seeds, so can't be a favorite anymore. I order from them if there is a particular variety I am looking for and none of the above companies has it.