CHARLES TOWN – Have you thought about putting in a vegetable garden this spring? Most of us live in a home surrounded by a small plot of ground. But just because you don’t have a lot of acreage doesn’t mean you can’t have a very productive vegetable garden. You will be amazed at how much produce you can harvest from one very small plot.
Initially, it is a lot of hard work to set up. But once it’s in place, it’s so easy to open it each spring and plant once again.
Choose a sunny spot in your back yard. Decide the size of the garden (I chose 12-foot x 12-foot) and mark the spot with string so you know where to dig. Scalp off all the grass in that area. You don’t need to dig down far, just deep enough to remove the sod. (Maybe you have some bald places in your yard to where you can move this sod; maybe a neighbor will want it.)
Perhaps you are lucky enough to own a tiller; if not borrow or rent one to till the earth, breaking up the clods. Rake the soil smooth, picking out the zillions of rocks and pebbles that occupy this rocky West Virginia earth. Now you must “amend” the soil buy adding bags of cow manure or top soil or garden soil.
If you can find sterilized play sand, add that to give some lightness to the clay. The more amendments you add, of course the better the garden soil will become. In a 12×12 plot, I initially added four bags of play sand and four bags of cow manure. Once again, till it all in and you will be pleased by the light texture the soil has taken on.
Measure the length and width of your garden and purchase four lengths of weather-treated lumber. I used some scrap we had in the basement. The boards are about one inch thick and about six inches high. If you don’t have access to a saw, perhaps the people at the lumber counter will cut it to the proper length; it doesn’t hurt to ask. Nestle these boards down in the soft garden soil to make a border for your garden.
Purchase upright stakes; I use plastic ones, about three feet tall, which have hard plastic loops down one side of the length of the stake. They have a pointed metal shaft on the end so it’s easy to push into the dirt. I placed them about every three feet along the garden.
At Lowe’s, I found green plastic poultry netting, called “hex netting.” It’s 36 inches tall. There are many kinds of chicken wire; I selected the plastic because I could cut it easily with garden shears. This netting has been bordering my garden for probably seven years now and seems to be indestructible.
Get a package of cable ties; I prefer the longer, 11-inch ones. Choosing a spot for the garden entrance, begin unrolling and securing the hex netting to the upright stakes using the zip ties. Run a tie through a stake’s loop, then through the netting, back through the loop again and pull it snug through the tie’s lock.
Use three or four ties per stake, so the netting is taut. Stretch the netting tight and fasten to the next stake. After you have enclosed the entire perimeter, choose your entrance and cut a flap several feet wide and about half-way down the netting. Fold the flap into the garden side of the fence. That is your gate; you can get in, but the wild critters that would love to feast on your spinach and carrots cannot. Use a heavy-duty stapler to staple the netting to the wooden board base you’ve put down. So far I haven’t had any bunnies burgle their way in.
Now you have a permanent garden plot; each year you just need to add soil amendments, till again, add new mulch film, and you’re ready to plant.
I cover the entire garden plot with two layers of “mulch.” At Lowe’s, I found organic garden fabric, which is not actually “fabric” but is paper. It looks like the pink paper painters put down when they are working, and it comes in a long roll. I use this as the first layer, covering the soil. Whatever is in this first layer of mulch is going to eventually leach into your soil and be taken up by the plant, so you want to use care in choosing this product.
I do not use permanent landscaping fabric, the type that is used for keeping down weeds in flower beds and walkways. I tried using only the organic garden fabric paper last year, but it fell apart after a couple of rains. So I cover the mulch paper with a product I found at Walmart called “General Purpose Garden Fabric: Short-term landscaping application weed barrier.” The producer is Dalen Products Inc. It’s a very, very thin plastic sheet, in a roll 3-feet by 25-feet. It’s perforated with tiny holes to let the water in.
Roll out strips of the first layer of mulch paper and cut it to the length of your garden, covering the entire plot. Using garden staples, secure the paper to the earth. Cover this layer with the thin, perforated plastic, fastening it down with the garden staples.
When you are ready to plant, simply cut an “X” in the spot where you want to put your vegetable plant, and lift the flaps back. Pour water-soluble fertilizer solution in the hole you’ve dug, put in your plant and replace the soil you’ve removed, tamping it down gently.
Now comes the fun part: Visit the many excellent nurseries in Jefferson and Berkeley counties and select your plants. First arrange them, still in their pots, in your garden for planning purposes. Remember to leave a path in the middle so you can walk through and tend the plants. I put the caged tomato plants along the fence, as when they fruit they become so heavy the cages may need to lean a little on your fencing stakes.
Be sure to add lots of herbs to your garden, too. Rosemary will probably over-winter, as will thyme and winter savory. I have harvested pieces of these herbs all winter; they add zest and flavor to soups and stews.
Keep your garden consistently watered during growing season, and soon you’ll harvest a bounty of fresh vegetables.
– Sue Guay has lived in Charles Town for more than a dozen years. Send feedback on this column to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.