Sow what? Planning and starting our Victory Gardens

We’ve just dug out from a mild winter storm here in northern Ohio (only a few inches of snow, but topped with a thick glaze of ice), and I’m finally able to see the ground emerge from that blanket of cold, frozen precipitation. The weather lately has fueled a number of dreams of sunny, tropical climes where one can pluck fresh citrus from the trees.

In my daydreams, though, I’m still here, but basking in the glories of summer. I see a lush garden of dark green vines, brilliantly hued fruits and vegetables, and rich loamy soil full of earthworms, and I can practically taste the fresh basil on top of a juicy slice of tomato.

I’m dreaming, in other words, of my Victory Garden, and I’m not alone. Though for some of us the growing season is still months away, several of us here at the Ethicurean have been swapping our ideas, sharing our experiences, and encouraging each other as we get started. We’re planning garden layouts, pruning the perennials, and (literally and metaphorically) sowing the seeds of our future harvest. Here’s what we’ve done so far to prepare:

Peter in Montreal, aka Nosher of the North, is enduring an even colder and snowier winter than the rest of us. Although he thus has a later start date for his garden, he is holding on to the hope of planting heirloom tomato seeds in early March in his apartment windowsill. Adding to our conversation about raised garden beds, he noted that "I helped build some raised beds in my neighbour’s community garden plot, and put one in my own plot. After that, we put the earth back in, mixed with compost. It was pretty easy."

Marc, being one of the fortunate Californians, reports that he planted eight cloves of garlic two weeks ago: "After separating the cloves from the head, I planted them root side down about 1 inch deep and a few inches apart. Already they have broken through the soil and grown a few inches." You can get a glimpse of them at left.

Kathryn, who longtime readers will remember as Corn Maven, has an already established garden that sounds like a wonderful combination of produce and flowers, with several butterfly-friendly plants throughout the yard to widen the welcome mat for her local pollinators. She adds, "I plan to move my tomato garden to another spot this year, since I grew them two years in the same place. Last year a third of my tomatoes (12 plants total) were from volunteer plants. I’m going back and forth about building a raised bed or two — and constructing it myself. This year I want to harvest bok choy, tomatillos, and peppers; do better with growing chard and spinach; and give my strawberries more attention. By end of March I should know know what I’m planting this year." For seeds Kathryn uses Seed Savers from Decorah, Iowa.

John (who blogged in the Ethicurean’s early days under "Man of La Muncha") continues to investigate plans and layouts for building raised beds for his garden, too: "I plan to put two rectangular beds next to our deck. I may put something back of our garage (we have a strange layout), but that’ll be later, after the rotting child’s fort is torn down. One thing I’d like to do, but may skip, is to add benches around the beds so we can use them for seating, or kneeling while working on the beds." He hasn’t reported yet what he will plant, but once he’s determined the size of the garden, I’m sure we’ll hear more.

Charlotte stands out as our resident gardening expert with a gorgeous place for her plantings: "I wanted a sort of European kitchen garden, so I took surveyor’s string and stakes to lay out the beds first, to get an idea of what the design was going to look like, and how much space I’d have between beds. My garden is a big rectangle, divided with two 6-foot square diamond-shaped beds in the middle, then triangular beds around the inside of the perimeter. I made short beds — one board only — and I double-dug about 18 inches into the ground beneath them. I lined the edges with landscape cloth and then put down bark between the beds. I buy a big dumptruck load of compost about every other year and just chuck it in on top. I may turn one bed over this spring for carrots, but for the most part I don’t like to mess with all the layers of microflora." She’s given us plenty of lessons already in garden design and preparation: thank you, Charlotte!

Charlotte also just did a seed order from Seeds of Italy — "they’re fabulous. I figure if I’m going to grow greens they might as well be things I can’t get around here. I start tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini in the basement in March on heat mats and under lights." And like Kathryn, she has to do some rotation cropping, which she says is going to be tricky because of shade issues, but "the tomatoes have been in the same two beds for four years now and that’s way too long. I’m not growing so many kinds of tomatoes this year — I’ve done as many as twelve varieties in the past, but I think I know the four or five that work best in my space. Also, I grew fava beans for the first time last year and completely fell in love with them — more favas this year!"

If you’re not exhausted by Charlotte’s sheer energy and excitement Charlotte generates in discussing her garden, visit her blog "Living Small" for the results of her orchard pruning. She makes even that arduous work sound so satisfying. She sent along several photos of the pruned plum trees, including this shot of the stump once she had pruned back the rest of the tree, and she added that she’s still got some cleanup to do to prevent the suckers from coming back.

Amanda has big plans for her orchard as well, which she wrote about in detail in her own post. (I’ll just add that between her and Charlotte, they’ve done a wonderful job of making me long for an orchard of my own. Someday…) And Jenni’s plans for her garage-top garden are slowly coming to fruition. We’re all hoping to see her project succeed: what an excellent example of creative use of space in an urban setting!

As for me, I’m getting restless. My seeds (ordered from Fedco and Johnny’s) arrived a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve started just a few indoors to grow an early crop of lettuce, Asian greens, and (fingers crossed) scallions. I’ve planted a few bean seeds, too, just to see if I can start seedlings on my windowsill, and if these work out, I’ll probably try to get more seedlings (beans and melons) started in March and April for early planting.

I’m an obsessive list-maker, so I outlined what I need to do to get ready to garden this year, and I’ve already talked to the friends who are hosting my Victory Garden in their backyard to find out what the planned layout will be. One garden bed, nestled close to the house, will be the ideal place for starting the late-spring plantings of greens, carrots, scallions, and the like since it should stay a little cooler than the rest of the yard. The other bed we’ll build come May, laying out a large space in the middle of the back yard (with full sun) for tomatoes, beans, and other produce. (I’ve been following the discussion about raised beds with great interest and have forwarded details to my handyman friend!) I’ve also extracted a promise from my friends for a compost bin so that we can recycle kitchen scraps into rich dirt for future gardening. (You have no idea how excited I can get about compost.)

Sure, it’s going to be a while before most of us will really see plenty of little green seedlings nestled into the dirt. But with so much work ahead of us, it’s definitely not too late to start getting everything ready for the growing season. And I know there are plenty of gardeners out there among our readers: please share with us what you’re doing to get ready for this year’s garden. You might just give us a little extra inspiration!

4 Responsesto “Sow what? Planning and starting our Victory Gardens”

  1. Cold Mud says:

    You may also be interested in Valentine Low’s blog (and soon to be book) One Man & His Dig

  2. Emily says:

    I’ve put together a little doohicky to help folks plan raised garden beds – drag “square feet” of various plants to the bed, and click the “month” buttons. It’ll show you what stage of growth the plants will be in each month (in US zone 5/6).

  3. Maria says:

    Wanted: Urban Gardeners

    We’re working on a gardening book/cookbook and are interested in talking to anyone who bucks the notion of a traditional gardener. The only pre-requisites are that you grow legal edibles in an urban environment. We’re looking for urban gardeners with an interesting story to tell—either about how you garden, what you garden, or why you garden—the more unusual the better. (Also, think gardens of newly arrived immigrants, prison and re-entry projects, monasteries, church programs, backyard vineyards, beekeepers, artist installations, etc.) Tips on edible gardens at schools and restaurants would be appreciated as well.


    Please include your name, city of residence, email, and a summary of what you garden and why, and what makes you unique. If you feel so inclined, please also list any favorite dishes you cook with the veg/herbs/fruits/berries you grow. Feel free to pass this along to anyone who you think fits the bill.


  4. Eve Fox says:

    We planted a whole mess of garlic this weekend (since we’re in California) and I’m happy to report that it’s raining now. To prep for the spring, I’ve been cleaning out all my terra cotta pots and clearing last year’s debris from the beds in front of our house. I also planted some nasturtium seeds since I love the way they look (and taste).

    One question I have about growing garlic here though (I’m from the east coast wehre you plant it in the fall, it gets a head start, dies back in the winter and comes back strong in the spring, then you clip the flowers once they get all curly and harvest in the late summer). However, last year, we planted in the fall and were able to harvest in early summer since the garlic never died back (because there is not a real winter here). Is that the right way to do it or is it better to plant now (early spring) and harvest in late summer? Maybe it does not matter as much here( in Berkeley, CA)?