In our crazy busy lives carving out a little space for something that forces you to slow down and enjoy nature is soothing to the mind and body. Creating a small garden in California is within reach for even the most gardening challenged among us. A raised bed as small as four feet by four feet can deliver a good amount of vegetables, herbs and even a few flowers. It is easy, economical and efficient, using only a fraction of the space and resources of traditional gardening methods. The gratification of walking out to your own kitchen garden to pick a few veggies or herbs to include with dinner can’t be beat. Until, of course you take that first bite of food prepared from your own little garden. Mmm, so good!
I gardened with this intensive method for seven years and found that along with great vegetables, herbs and flowers we grew a lot of positive interaction with the whole family.
One of the keys to success with vegetables is to make sure that they get at least 6-8 hours of sunlight a day. So choose your site accordingly. We live on a hilly site, but fortunately there was one flat area that was big enough for us to place the raised beds. Our spot was also protected from strong winds, which kept the plants from drying out too quickly. If you can locate your beds near the house, particularly close to the kitchen, it will be more convenient and you will stay motivated to keep your project cared for.
My hubby built our beds out of simple 1x 6 cedar lumber and made the beds 18” tall. We lined the wood box with hardware cloth by rolling out the wire mesh and bringing it up the sides (inside the box) and then using heavy duty staples to attach it to the wood. He also installed the drip irrigation 1/2 inch lines, to which I hooked up 1/4 inch tubing that had micro emitters imbedded in it every 12 inches. This worked nicely to keep the soil uniformly moist and kept the beds very low maintenance. We had this on a timer, so watering was automatic and not reliant on me to remember it.
We used our own home grown compost (although store bought compost is a convenient alternative) mixed with equal parts peat moss and perlite to fill the raised beds. It also helped that while weeding other parts of the landscape the boys and I would come upon earthworms, which I encouraged them to add to our raised beds, and very quickly the soil was full of of those little critters, an indication to me that the soil was healthy.
Planning what to grow in the garden was the fun part for me. I often poured over seed catalogs and my favorite was Johnny’s Selected Seeds (www.johnnyseeds.com). I tried many sunflower varieties and special heirloom varieties of vegetables. Most were a success, but a few failures were all a part of the experience. Each year I let my boys pick a few of the veggies they wanted to grow and this gave them a feeling of ownership in this gardening adventure.
We were careful to plan where the plants were going in the bed. Tall plants of course go in the back of the bed, so they don’t shade out the shorter vegetables. We did make an exception to this when planting our lettuces. We would purposely plant something tall in front of them to give them some shade. That way the delicate leaves did not burn in the middle of summer. Late in the day we could go out and trim some lettuce for our salad that night, and in about a week or so it was ready to trim again. In this way we kept a steady supply of salad greens through the season and by growing different varieties our salads were always colorful and flavorful. Interplanting in this way is an idea that has been used for thousands of years and is especially successful in intensive gardening. To achieve good results light, nutrient and moisture requirements must be taken into consideration. Lucky for us a lot of this work has already been done and there are charts and diagrams on the web that make this easy. Just google “square foot gardening” and you will get all kinds of information, if you would like to dig into it a bit deeper.
Our success included zucchini, pumpkins (small varieties), every type of green bean we could find, snap peas, cherry tomatoes, chives, oregano, sage, parsley, lettuces, spinach, Armenian cucumbers, basil and many others. I kept notes of what worked and what didn’t, and whether I would plant more or less of a particular plant the next season. An intensive garden does require a bit more planning, but the time invested in planning was well rewarded with less work in the garden and increased yields. Our family found it a fun way to interact with nature and an easier way to put some fresh food on our table.