In the midst of the last rainstorm (indeed, one of the few we’ve had this winter) I spent a glorious few hours planning out the upcoming season’s garden. Though our lot of land be hampered by its urban nature, it is generously proportioned at just shy of .20 of an acre. To folks in the broad expanses of sprawling country land, that may sound tiny, but it is roughly twice the size of the average city residential lot, here. That being said, merely 1/4 of the back “yard” is dedicated to growing vegetables, an approximate 20’x20′ area, bordered on two sides by fence and is backed by a rather dull gray cinder-block wall.
One of my favorite winter pastimes is re-organizing the arrangement of beds and steppingstones of my little garden space, always searching for that perfect mix of shade and sunlight, bed angles and plant placement in order to coax the most veg, herb and fruit from the dark, rich soil.
Planning your garden can be as rudimentary as sketching on the back of a snail mail spammer’s envelope, normally so vulgar in its printed coat of primary colors and exclamatory slogans. Ignoring the urge to hop online and find fancy plan-out-your garden software, I took up the envelope and set about planning in conjunction with a humble pencil.
As the rain fell outside in torrents, I hovered by the back windows drawing and then erasing lines on the fledgling garden plan, only pausing now and again to sip on a cup of hot tea. After five successful seasons of gardening on this lot, I feel as if I know each and every handful of earth before me, as well as exactly what it will tolerate–and what it won’t–and yet the number of variables and options of what to grow where seem endless in the winter.
“Green beans or peas by the cinder block wall?” I thought, scribbling notes by the torn-off edges of the envelope’s top. “Carrots or turnips for that corner? Broccoli or eggplant by the front border wall?”
I scrutinized each bed by its allotment of diurnal sunlight and wondered how I could make my very functional garden more visually appealing this time around. Perhaps I could enhance the annual planting of squashes by introducing a tiered system to my slightly-down-hill garden plot. I have wanted to weave wattled raised beds for years now–a thing prized in many an old-world cottage garden–but never have had the time. This winter however, I spent several weeks pruning my plum, alder and myrtle trees and managed to save a goodly number of bendy, green branches for just such a noble purpose.
Just below the alder tree, I decided, would be the perfect place for a large, shallow wattled bed; I imagined what it would look like as the rain littered the brown surface of the garden soil with with pools of murky water. Under the protective shade of the alder, I’d plant shallow rooted plants that like afternoon shade: spinach in front, lettuce behind, then red and white veined chard, and finally cilantro. The latter I’d let grow into great bushes with clouds of tiny, white flowers; not only would they look lovely in front of the fence, but they’d eventually produce scads of coriander seeds, one of my favorite seasonings.
To the right of the alder–towards the front of the garden–I mentally carved out two spaces for raised wooden beds, ones my husband and children made for me the first year we moved to a house with outside growing room. In those beds, I envisioned eggplant and zucchini, basking in the 6-8 hours of light that area usually receives. Across the central path I saw two more boxes, each harboring four heirloom tomato plants, mortgage lifters and cherry tomatoes, favorites of the entire family. Next to these I planned a bed of California Sweet bell peppers, arugula and broccoli, set back in the half-sun/ dappled shade area just before the compost piles. One sandy bed in the corner I’ve reserved for celery, later in the year.
The plan included a curving central path of re-purposed stepping stones, which–in my mind–makes a fetching visual contrast to the rectangular beds of veg. I filled my cup of tea from the kettle, content–for now–with my plan. I chose the veg according to proven menus and dishes I want to make for my family in the upcoming months.
Next week will come the harder part of gardening: The Digging.
L. R. Styles is an author with Belator Books