Garden Design & Methods

Secrets to My Gardening Success - Tips and Methods

1. 100% Heirloom Seeds - flavor is king

If you are going to go through all the patience and hard work of gardening a 400 sq ft garden, you want start with good source material. Anybody can buy a hothouse-grown generic tomato seedling from Home Depot, but is that the flavor you want...for it to taste like something you bought at Safeway? I buy all seeds online from reputable seed houses (Territorial, Baker, and Annie's) and get ONLY heirloom seeds. Because seeds are cheap and flavor is everything!

2. Professional LED Grow Lights - stop leggy seedlings

Can't overemphasize the importance of using professional-grade LED grow lights, especially if you are growing from seed. Weak, leggy seedlings result from using weak, crappy lights. Yes, LED lights are $$$ expensive, but it is a one-time cost and you save tons on electricity. I use (2) 3x3 ft HydroGrow LED fixtures (they are clones, so I paid a fraction of the cost). These puppies put out a monsterous amount of red-blue spectrum-tuned light that is like crack to young, growing seedlings. Sunglasses are needed when these are on. Am waiting for LE to show up due to the purple radioactive glow at night. Peace bro.

3. Climate-controlled Grow Room - mimic growing conditions

Not everyone needs to build a 4x4x8 ft grow room in their garage...but it certainly helps when you are growing 144 plants indoors in March. Temperature is thermostatically controlled in 4-step increments to mimic the outdoors using a small space heater, lights are on a 16-hour timer, and a fan blows a gentle breeze for stem health. The 2x4 frame is clad in black-white poly film and a roll of insulation is wrapped around the bottom to help keep in heat.

4. 4x4 ft Garden Beds - easy reach and access

I like math, so a more formal geometric garden design is appealing. Settled on a unit 4x4 ft garden bed (14 beds total) with a central 2ft-wide walkway with branching 2ft-wide side paths. This design means you never have to reach more than 2 ft in any direction to access your plants, and it doesn't look bad either. 2 beds for flowers, 2 beds for peppers and okra, 5 beds for tomatoes, and 5 beds for cucurbits. And a back bean trellis.

5. Black Plastic Mulch - warm soil, stop weeds

Because am growing 100% warm-weather crops, soil temperature is real important. You can have the healthiest transplant, but if the soil temperature is too low, you will shock, stunt, or even stop growth. Putting down black plastic film in March means that the soil will warm up early. And black plastic is great for minimizing weed growth, ground pests, and retaining moisture. You can't go wrong - it's cheap to boot.

6. Black Plastic Water Bags - radiate heat back at night

Using black plastic over the soil is good, but you must also try to control nighttime temps. Black plastic bags filled with water will absorb heat during the day, then slowly radiate it back at night. I used gallon-sized ziploc bags, painted one side black, and filled them with water. Each bed gets 3 or 4 bags. They get surprisingly hot during the day so are ideal for keeping roots and leaves a little warmer. Alot cheaper than using Wall-O-Waters.

7. Domed Cloches - get the plants out early

After a couple different designs got ripped up by spring winds, settled on a domed cloche. These use ordinary PVC pipes cut and bent into hoops. 12-inch rebar spikes are put at the corners of each bed, and the pipe ends slip over them forming a double-hooped tent shape. Gro-Therm perforated plastic is stretched over the hoops. This heats the cloche 10F warmer than ambient, a decided advantage in the sping. Because plastic doesn't retain heat, Reemay blankets cover the plastic for each bed. Now each bed of plants is safely tucked in for the night. The plastic and Reemay is held down by garden spikes.

8. Arch Trellises - vertical gardening

How does one grow 6 cucumber, 4 squash, 4 pumpkin, and 8 melon plants in six 4x4 ft beds? By training them to grow vertically. Not only does it keep all the vines from sprawling and invading every which way, it also keeps the fruit off the ground for better air flow. And it look pretty cool. An arch design proved to be the most space-efficient in the small confines of the garden. Similar to the cloches, plastic PVC pipes were placed over rebar to form 7-ft tall arches. Stretched between them are rolls of 4ft-wide welded wire fencing from Home Depot secured with cable ties. This design proved pretty robust as it had to support 60 lbs or more of squash and pumpkins. The arches bowed but held up fine as the vines bore fruit up and over the tops of the arches.

9. Grow. Harvest. Share. Repeat.

One of the joys of gardening is sharing your bounty with others. Especially if its full-on heirloom goodness. Nothing will make you a rockstar faster than innocently holding out an heirloom Russian Paul Robeson, a Croatian Dragon's Egg, a sweet-and-smoky Italian Jimmy Nardello, or a slice of Amish Moon and Stars...and watching the surprised look on their face as they take that first timid bite and the eyes roll back. Most people don't know what real vegetables taste like, and you can't get them at Safeway, or Whole Foods for that matter. It's sharing your little part of paradise and creation that you nurtured with a handful of seeds, some dirt, water, and sun. Yes, Virginia, there is okra growing in Redmond...

Gardening is not a rational act.

Margaret Atwood