The 9' x 12' Vegetable Garden
By Henry Homeyer
If you’re able to devote 15 minutes a day to gardening and are willing to give up a piece of your lawn roughly the size of the parking space for your car, you can grow a significant amount of good food—food that is organic, food that is tasty, food that is healthy. During World War II, Americans started “victory gardens,” growing up to 40 percent of their fresh produce. In these tough economic times, it again makes sense for us to grow some of our own food.
First, you will need some tools—at minimum a shovel, a garden fork, a garden rake (the kind with short tines), a hand tool for weeding, and a watering can or hose. You will also need to buy some compost and a bag of organic fertilizer, plus a few plants from your local farmstand or garden center, and some seeds. The second year you will just have to buy the plants (or get some from friends), and perhaps you will need a few more seeds, although most packets have more than enough for several years of small gardens, and most seeds last three years or more.
I recommend getting your soil tested by the UVM Agricultural Testing Lab before you begin. You can download the instructions and a form from the Web at www.uvm.edu/pss/ag_testing/SoilTestQuestVegEtc.pdf. (If you’re not web–connected, you can call them at 802–656–3030.) The test will tell you what minerals your soil has, although it will not tell you about nitrogen, and everybody needs some nitrogen every year. Look carefully at the percentage of organic matter that your test reveals—lawns are generally low, but you need 4 percent or more to do well. Aim for 8 percent. Also get your soil tested for lead and heavy metals, especially if the plot is near an old house that may have been painted with lead paint. You might have to move the garden to a different site if the lead levels are too high.
The hard part of starting a new garden in a lawn is getting rid of the sod. No, you don’t want to rent a rototiller to make it disappear. Chopping up the grass does not get rid of it! Even a scrap of root is enough to start a new grass plant. So you must dig it all out. Starting in April when the lawn dries out, you can slice through the sod with a shovel and cut it into one–foot squares. Pry out each square with a garden fork or weeding tool, shake off any topsoil attached to the roots, and save the sod for your compost pile.
I like a tidy garden so when I make a garden in a lawn, I want the edges parallel and the corners square. You can do this by using string, stakes, a measuring tape, and a carpenter’s framing square. If the sides are equal (and the diagonals are too), your garden is a nice rectangle.
You can then build boxes to contain the soil and your plants, although that is an added investment in time and money. Gardeners Supply Company (www.gardeners.com or 802–660–3500) sells a variety of items for making these sorts of raised beds. Or you can just make a garden that consists of two mounded raised beds of soil with a walkway down the middle.
To make the raised beds you need to loosen the soil that you exposed when you removed the sod. Use a garden fork, plunging it in and pulling back on it to loosen the soil. Then rake the loosened soil into beds. Start by raking the soil away from the edges of the lawn, creating a 6–inch perimeter around the edge of the garden. This will remain a moat that keeps the grass from creeping in. Then create a walkway up the middle of the garden, raking soil toward each of the two beds.
Because lawns generally are on pretty crummy soil, you will need to add compost. Lots of compost. I recommend buying a good grade of composted cow manure such as Moo–Doo, which is made in Middlebury. Moo–Doo comes in 30–qt. bags, and you will need 4 to 5 bags of it for each of your two beds. Dump it on top and mix it into the soil. When you are done, you are almost ready to plant.
The last addition to the soil is some bagged organic fertilizer. Pro–Gro, made in Bradford, is excellent. Unlike chemical fertilizer that only has nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (plus lots of filler), organic fertilizers are made from a variety of natural ingredients such as seaweed, oyster shells, compost, peanut hulls, and alfalfa meal. These ingredients provide the three basic minerals, plus a dozen more—the micronutrients. You will probably have to buy a 25–pound bag, which is more than you need, but you will need some every year. You’re investing in your soil and your garden. Sprinkle about six cups of it on each bed and stir it into the top three inches with a hand tool.
Lastly, mulching the garden, once planted, can be a big time saver. Put down six pages of newspaper and a layer of grass clippings, leaves, or straw. Few weeds will then bother you. It helps conserve water, too.
In one of these little gardens that I created for two elderly women last summer, I planted two tomatoes, some carrots and onions, two broccoli, three peppers, a teepee of pole beans, one zucchini, six Swiss chard plants, and a cucumber plant on a small trellis. We also got eight heads of lettuce early in the summer that grew around the tomatoes. The plants produced well, supplying more than enough for the two women eating the food. So have at it. Start small, and visit the garden daily. Pull a weed, water when the soil is dry, and pick your beans and zucchini—before they get too big! It’s as easy as that.
Photo of Henry Homeyer by John Hession
Henry Homeyer is the author of 4 gardening books including The Vermont Gardener's Companion. He writes a weekly column for several Vermont newspapers and blogs at www.dailyUV.com. He is a regular commentator on Vermont Public Radio.