LOTS of people have asked about our garden this year. So here's the skinny on the whole thing, in one brilliant article for you to refer to when you start/continue gardens of your own. A word of warning at this point. This is...sort of...a pet topic of mine, so if you don't want all the nit-picky details, save yourself while you still can. Okay, I warned you.
***A note to anyone not well acquainted with where we live...all my vegetable gardening experience is taking place in zone 8, humid northeast GA***
First of all, this garden is in boxes. There are a lot of things you can use for the edges of your beds, such as cinder blocks, railroad ties, stone, tree trunks... we chose untreated 2x12" pine planks from the Home Depot. The height doesn't really matter. With higher sides you can/have to put more soil in there, and you don't have to reach down as far. Higher sides, requiring more material, are usually more expensive. I wouldn't go below about 8", and height is up to you. You could go all the way up to wheelchair accessible height.
The beds/boxes should be narrow enough for you to reach the center from both sides. Since 8' is an extremely common lumber length, we chose to use 4', or 1/2 of an 8' board, for the width. The length is personal preference. We chose to use two 8' boards for the long sides, with a 4' board on each end, and one in the center acting as a brace. We could have used longer boards, but the truck's bed is only so long, and we had to get them home somehow. So the beds end up looking like a long, square 8. They have a length of 4x4 in the corners, and are held together with deck screws.
Once the boxes were made, we filled them with soil and compost. If your local garden center has good topsoil, you can use that, but if it's the topsoil scraped off of building sites, it's certain to contain weed seeds. Just be sure to ask.
What you need here is structure and fertility. For our structure, to add bulk to the boxes, we bought "fill dirt", which usually comes from below the soil surface, and is less likely to contain seeds. Also, it probably doesn't contain much in the way of nutrition. And, as such, is "dirt" cheap. We put about 3/4 cubic yard, or just over a "scoop" of fill dirt in each 16' box. Then we added mushroom compost, about one scoop per 16' box. Explanation of the mysterious term "scoop" and prices and a lot of good garden stuff can be found at Akin Stone.
Now we have our garden structure all ready. Here's what it cost us. 2x12s for each 16'x4' box, $50. 1 scoop fill dirt, $7. 1 scoop mushroom compost, $27.
Last task is to take a garden fork and mix all that soil up. But don't dig any weeds up from the bottom.
If I had these boxes to do over again, I would do all of it the same way, but I would put down some type of weed barrier on the ground inside the boxes before I went to town filling them up with soil. I don't know whether it would have made a difference. The weeds have actually been pretty decent this year, but we still got some of the cursed bermuda grass up in the boxes. Cardboard, lots of layers of newspaper, weed barrier fabric if you're feeling spendy, whatever will slow them down. Maybe useful, I don't know.
The paths between our boxes are still just grass. This probably contributed to the grass-in-the-boxes problem. When we had finished the boxes and all that soil hauling, we had nothing left (in the gumption or money departments) to do paths. Eventually we will, doing weed barrier and mulch.
Okay. All the work's done, now the fun part.
Here's the trick with growing your garden in boxes. (Okay, one of many tricks, but this is a good one.) Vertical real estate. Right down the middle of each of these boxes is an extra strip of ground space, but it goes straight up. That made no sense. I'll explain. When you grow things like winter squash, cucumbers, watermelons, they take up heaps of ground space simply because they have vines. They sprawl everywhere, and fuel the idea that you have to have a ton of ground space to have a decent garden. But, with a little coaxing (and I do mean just a little) they're just as happy to grow straight up.
So down the middle of most of my boxes I have a trellis. You could get fancy, construct something from wood, and so on. What we've done is taken three metal T-posts and driven them in, one right in the middle of each short box end, and one in the middle near the center brace. Then I've taken a 16' cattle panel, hoisted it up there and tied it to each pole. The virtues of cattle panels are these: they're sturdy, you can use them forever, they have nicely-sized squares for reaching through and picking vegetables. They are a little pricey, and, being 16' long, it might be difficult to get them home. (That's another story all by itself...)
There are the cucumbers. You can see the cattle panel, stakes, the whole nine yards. Here's what I have growing up those things this year:
Green Beans and Red Beans
How do I have watermelons growing vertically?
Yes, that is a leg of an old pair of stockings. I'm growing a small variety of watermelon anyway, (a behemoth variety is unlikely to take kindly to being hung), and the pantyhose helps the vine take the weight. I did try to do the same thing to the butternut squashes, but their stems are brittle, and when I tried to move them they started to break. So the watermelons and cantaloupes are the only ones that get this treatment.
All of that is to say, that what can go up, should.
So now you're going to plan your garden. And everything depends on how much space you have, i.e. how many boxes you have. Now, if I had just one 8'x4' box, here is how I'd plant it. In a small space, I'd go for variety instead of quantity, aiming for fresh spring, summer and fall vegetables.
First thing in the spring, (which here actually means late January-ish, no kidding), I would plant my one box like this:
*The diagram above looks kinda funny because I forgot that there are TWO square feet in a four-foot strip. (and I fixed it) So just extend the inner squares into the outer ones. See? The diagrams below are still correct because the plants growing on the trellis take up some space, but in the spring you can use the square foot closest to the trellis.
I would grow 72 sugar snap peas down the first foot of the trellis. I can grow this many because they go 1" apart, and I can grow 6 rows out from the trellis and they'll still climb up each other onto it. I grew shell and sugar snap peas this year, and think I'll only grow sugar snaps next year. They both did well, but the sugar snaps are less work to eat, and less waste. I wouldn't grow more peas than just the one foot, because they won't be harvested and pulled up before your summer things need the trellis.
I'd put lettuce mix in the remaining strips on the outside of that square. You'd be amazed how much lettuce just a little patch can put out. You can cut it just above the crown and it'll just grow more.
9 onion sets would go in each of the squares below the peas/lettuce. These can be used at any stage, from "spring onions" on up to full sized. I just leave them in the ground until I need them, and I'm still pulling them now, in July. If you pull out the center onions first, you can plant your summer plants in the same patch and get them started while you're still pulling the onions out around them. (One note for those of us who do live in GA. You probably won't be able to get your hands on what's called "storage onions" in any of the local stores around here, and there's a good reason. They don't form a bulb here because of our daylength. What we can grow is sweet onions, such as Vidalias and Burgundy.)
Below that, I'd put in two square of turnips. Turnips have teeny seeds, so I mix some soil in with them, shake them out as best I can, and thin out the greens for early salads. Then the rest can grow big roots.
16 beets/square (if you like that sort of thing), 144 carrots, and then jut repeat whichever of these things you like best.
Same bed, summer planting:
The 2 tomatoes you'll tie up to the trellis, leaving a little tiny strip near the edge of the bed for a basil and a couple of oreganos. (Or other herbs if you like them better.)
16 pole beans will grow up the trellis just below the tomatoes, and 2 each peppers and eggplants in the squares there in the middle.
4 cucumbers will fit on the trellis next to the beans, and you have an extra foot of trellis to play with, either for more cucumbers or beans.
Leaving you with just enough space for 1 zucchini and 1 squash plant.
In the fall, when all these summer plants are gone, you'll shovel in some more compost, and plant up your spring garden again. Except for the peas, which I don't think do well here in the fall. (I have yet to try it and/or figure out why.)
If I had one double box, one of the 4'x16' boxes, in the spring it would just have more of the same stuff. But in summer, it would look like this:
The main differences being that now I have 8 okra plants, more of everything else, and another 4' of trellis to work with, on which I'd plant 2 watermelons and 2 cantaloupes.
After that, it's simply a matter of scale. Once you've got all the varieties of vegetables/fruits crammed into your space, more boxes only offer more quantity. Consider things you can put away for the winter. I have all my current crops grouped together, for instance, I have a whole double box full of beans-two types of pole beans, soybeans, and lima beans.
As for watering, I went down and got 1/2" pvc pipe and fittings, drilled teensy holes all the way down each one, and laid one pipe down the middle of each bed. Okay, wait, that was just what I planned to do. In reality, I got all the pipes and finished the pipe that went in my tomatoes bed. Tied it to the bottom of the cattle panel in that bed, and it's lovely. I just hook up the hose and turn on the water, and the pipe does the rest. Because I didn't finish that project before the other plants became grown, I ended up taking one finished pipe from bed to bed to water them all. The only problem with this watering plan is that the pipes don't keep even water pressure all the way down. Maybe I should have used 8' lengths of pipe instead of trying to do the whole 16'.
If you have more than one box, consider rotating your plantings. This just means planting some especially disease- or pest-prone plants in a different place each year to try to disrupt the life cycle of the disease or pest. Also, plants use up different nutrients differently, and the same plant in the same place year after year will exhaust the soil for itself, where another plant might have used what was there differently.
A note about corn. We devoted a whole 4'x16' box to corn this year, but next year I don't think I'll plant it in a box at all. For some reason, the stalks on the ends of a row of corn never produce a decent ear of corn. The best corn is at the middle of the row. If you're planting in a narrow box, you end up with a lot of end-of-row corn, and not so much middle corn. Next year I think we'll come up with some type of solution for growing the corn in open ground, and save the box space for something else. Strawberries, maybe.
If all this hasn't given you a headache already, the last thing I need to mention is fertility. The mushroom compost we put in our boxes back at the beginning isn't immortal. Most of the crops we're growing in there are hungry suckers, and we need a plan to put as many nutrients back into the soil as we can. So we have some options. There is always inorganic fertilizer. It's cheap, but it doesn't do anything for the quality of the soil in your boxes. Still, if you have no other choice and your plants need nutrition, you can use that. You can buy more mushroom compost next year, and it will do as excellent a job as it does the first year. But you probably ought to aim to make at least some of your compost, so you can put as much back in your garden as you can.
Another option for fertilizer is manure. If you happen to have a lot of this lying around, great. (Well, at least your garden will think so...) If you (or your children) like animals, you might consider building a simple coop or hutch that fits on top of your garden bed(s). Then, when your beds aren't being used, you can put rabbits or chickens on top and they'll make fertilizer for you. In the summer, when the beds are being used, park the animals over near the garden and feed them your overripe tomatoes and baseball-bat zucchini, and they'll...well...make fertilizer. Oh, and eggs, if they're chickens.
WHEW!!! That's all I have to say about gardening (for now). If you do any, all, part, some of this, do let me know. I'm still trying to figure out what works, what doesn't, and how I can make it all better. What I can say about this year's garden at this point is that we've hauled in, eaten, and frozen tons of delicious vegetables from a garden I thought was really tiny.
And all because yesterday, when I cut the first watermelon, and summer itself ran sweetly down my chin, I thought...I gotta tell folks about this.