Designing Your Garden Plot
Planning your garden on paper is a good way to begin your growing season. But, don’t feel you have to stick with the same old rectangle with thin straight little rows. This year, choose a creative, unconventional garden design that will save space, give you higher yields in the long run, and have more visual appeal.

Covering the Basics
Regardless of your garden’s final form, you’ll need to pick a location that receives a minimum of six to eight hours of sunlight each day. Make sure it’s set away from trees or other vegetation that will leach soil nutrients away from your plants. Trees can take sustenance from the soil in an area as far reaching as the tree’s widest branches. If you intend to plant a full vegetable garden, plan for no less than 160 square feet. A 10′ x 16′ garden should supply a family of four with vegetables for the summer, and provide extras to can, freeze, or give away. Remember that vegetables planted in beds make better use of your available space. They can be tucked into most areas that get enough sun, such as flower borders, window boxes, or on trellises or fences. Cucumbers grown on a fence, for example, need a space only two-and-a-half feet wide.
Organizing Your Crop
Use graph paper to lay out your garden plan. Remember that gardening in beds instead of rows does not necessarily require the conventional rectangular bed. If you have a little piece of available land in a triangular or circular shape, go ahead and prepare your soil. After all, geometry doesn’t mean a thing to a radish. Mark each bed on the paper, allowing room for pathways. That way, you can work around each bed easily without compacting the soil.
Keep taller plants like corn, pole beans, and tomatoes along the north side of the garden so they won’t shade other plants. Plant perennials, such as asparagus or rhubarb, at the end or side of the garden. Perennials can stay in one place for years, and setting them out of the way reduces the risk of damaging them during seasonal cultivation.
Make note of the sunny areas of your garden as well as duration of sunlight. Put sun-lovers like tomatoes, corn, melons, peppers, and cucumbers where the sun lingers. Put the shade-tolerant crops, or those that tend to bolt, in the shadier places. To conserve space in your garden, plant sprawling vegetables like melons, squash, and pumpkins on the ends of the beds bordering the garden, where they can get the growing room they need while using very little bed space.
Calculate your planting schedule and write on your garden plan the dates you will set out seed and plants and begin harvest. Keep it as a reference for next year’s planting dates and to manage crop rotation.
Crop Rotation
Crop rotation has two distinct advantages: it discourages disease and feeds the soil. Growing tomatoes in the same place year after year encourages soil-borne fungus, such as verticillium and fusarium wilt, which can build up in the soil. Since different vegetables attract different diseases, shifting crops around reduces the risk of losing plants.
Because legumes like peas or beans can take nitrogen out of the air and “fix” it into the soil, rotating crops will help enhance your soil. Growing the same type of vegetable year after year in one place depletes the same minerals every season, making costly fertilizer a necessity.
While it’s not practical to follow a rigid plan of crop rotation in a small garden, you’ll achieve better results when you consider the nutritional needs of each vegetable, and the best ways to help it resist disease.
Replacement Crops
Some gardeners like to set aside a part of their gardens as a “nursery row,” where they grow seedlings that will be transplanted to empty harvested areas. Others maintain their seedling nursery under a sunny window, on their porch, or in a greenhouse or cold frame. Use flats, six-packs, or four-inch pots as your nursery garden. When one area of your main bed is harvested, simply place the new plants in the vacant area for another crop.
Your plan for continual growth in the garden should include “catch cropping,” or planting quick-maturing plants in places where you’ve just harvested slower growers. When you take out large plants, toss in some radishes or green onions, even if it’s only a small space.
Catch cropping differs from succession planting in that quick-to-grow vegetables are grown before the initial crop is harvested completely, and before the succession crop matures enough to shade or crowd out the catch crop. For example, radishes, lettuce, and spinach can be grown in the space reserved for plants not yet ready to be set out, and harvested before the later plants begin to grow and take over the area.
Beds with Frames
Boxed gardens are ideal for those who yearn to garden but have limited space, or for those who have plot3  available space, but only in very small pieces. Your boxed garden can be made into any shape you like from standard 2′ x 4′ or 2′ x 8′ lumber (but do not use arsenic-laden pressure-treated lumber). While these individual gardens have no floors in them, they are used to frame what little garden space you have, and separate it from gravel and lawn grass.
The boards can be fastened with angle irons or just staked in place and sunk a few inches into the prepared ground. One box can hold salad vegetables, while a smaller box can contain a few summer and winter squash plants. Yet another box might contain a few cantaloupe plants with some watermelons. Succession planting can ensure the highest possible yield from each garden space.
Teepees and Lean-Tos(see picture on front page)
If you have a limited area for gardening, conserve space by taking to the air. Place simple teepees over vine crops and train the plants to grow up the poles. To construct your teepee, simply push four flexible poles into the ground about a foot apart, and tie them together near the top. This works especially well for beans, peas, mini-pumpkins, cucumbers, and other climbing crops with relatively lightweight fruit.
A variation on the teepee theme is a “lean-to” shape. Just push a row of poles into the ground east to west for maximum southern exposure. Tie them to a cross bar at the top, and add another pole at each end to prop it up at an angle. If you have a little more space, this works well with sun-loving vines and can also provide shade during the summer to heat-sensitive crops like lettuce planted on the north side.
Pillows for Your Beds
“Pillows”–heavy plastic bags filled with a growing compound–are used for a variety of vegetables, primarily larger plants like tomatoes and melons. There’s no drainage from these bags, so keep a careful eye on the soil inside to avoid a mixture that’s either too dry or waterlogged. You can usually grow four plants to a bag. They’re excellent alternatives in areas where a native soil garden plot is not feasible. After harvest, the growing medium can be used as mulch.
Finding Vegetables in a Haystack
Planting in a hay bale produces good results with vegetables, particularly tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, potatoes, and eggplants. If you already have established raised beds, and do not have enough room for these large plants, place some bales of hay on the ends. The bales should be at least ten inches thick to hold the plants, which are nurtured by the decomposing hay.
Soak the hay well for two or three days, then spread a mixture of composted manure, wood shavings, and sawdust on top of the bale. Water daily, and when the inside feels warm–indicating decomposition–plant your seedlings on top. This method stimulates rapid growth as a result of the carbon dioxide produced by the fermenting hay.
More Fun Than a Barrel of Monkeys
plot2 This year, don’t dig potatoes from the ground; consider alternative growing methods. Try planting your potatoes in a barrel, trash can, or some stacked tires in a medium of soil, sawdust, and hay. For drainage, bore some holes in the bottom of the growing container and cover with screening material to keep the soil in. When you prepare to plant in late spring, place soil one foot deep into the bottom of the barrel and top with several inches of sawdust. Plant your seed potato pieces, cut side down, in the sawdust. Give them a little bit of water and you’re done.
As the plants grow and potatoes start to form above the seed potato, you can increase your yield dramatically by continuing to add mulch. The plant will continue to produce potatoes throughout the barrel instead of just in the bottom. Be sure to mulch continuously. If any of the new potatoes become exposed to the sun, they may turn green and contain toxic solanine, which can make you ill. Harvest your potatoes when the foliage turns brown. Simply turn the barrel on its side and pour out the contents. Potatoes can also be grown under black plastic sheeting, which eliminates the need for weeding and helps the soil retain moisture. Prepare the ground and plant the potato pieces a foot apart and four inches deep. Unroll the plastic over the row and anchor down the edges. When bumps appear along the plastic, make slits and carefully pull the growing shoots through. Pull the plastic back as you harvest the potatoes, which will be near the surface of the soil.
Babylon Revisited
plot4 With proper care, shallow-rooted crops like lettuce, herbs, peppers, and radishes will thrive in hanging baskets. You can even grow some varieties of tomatoes, such as cherry. With adequate sun, moisture, and proper air circulation, your plants should flourish as if in an earth-bound garden. Drainage is important; if your hanging basket lacks ample drainage holes, the bottom layer of the pot should contain rocks and pebbles to hold excess water away from the roots. Since the most common problem with hanging pots is lack of water, look for hanging pots with a water-catching saucer. The potting soil should be made up of equal parts sand, soil, and peat moss, with regular feedings of a complete fertilizer formula. The following moisture-retentive mixture will supply the vegetables for weeks without extra feedings: one bushel (6 gallons) vermiculite, one bushel shredded peat moss, 1-1/4 cups ground limestone, 1/2 cup 20% super phosphate, and one cup 5-10-5 fertilizer. If the leaves of the vegetables start to lose their healthy green color, it’s time to fertilize.
Sow your seeds directly in the pot, and when sprouted, thin to the desired amount by cutting off the unwanted seedlings with scissors at the soil line. Pulling them out may disturb neighboring root systems.
A variation of the hanging garden is a hanging basket “tree.” You’ll need several half-round wire baskets and a 2′ x 12′ plank about five feet long. Stand or prop the board upright and attach the baskets to the board about two feet apart, one after the other. The board must be fastened or propped upright securely–try fastening it to a deck railing on the south side of your house. Line the baskets with black plastic, punch a few holes in it for drainage, fill with prepared soil, and you’re ready to plant. These planting ideas should offer you some new ways to think about your next vegetable garden. It’s fun to try new methods of growing–even if you’re not limited by space. Some, like the hanging basket tree, can become quite a conversation piece at your next patio party!