The Art & Science of Designing a Vegetable Garden…

May 25th, 2009 § 3 comments § permalink

potager-furnitureCreating a beautiful and bountiful potager

harvest-basket

A vegetable garden can be an incredible source of pleasure.  Every sunny morning, my four-legged companions and I take a walk to the potager where we enjoy each other’s company while I sip my morning coffee.  I like to start my day listening to the mocking bird and watching the butterflies flutter about the herbs and vegetables from the comfort of my old wicker chair. Although my potager is relatively small, it provides me with enough vegetables for myself, and extra to share with friends and family.  For a modest plot, the garden is quite productive.

The renewed interest in vegetable gardening this year is exciting to observe. Jack Manix of Walker Farm presented a seminar on vegetable gardening earlier this May, and the turn-out was so overwhelming that he and his wife Karen decided to add a second session.  For those of you unable to attend the talk, this article will pass along some of Jack’s tips, as well as some of my own creative ideas and experiences for designing and planting a beautiful, productive and welcoming potager.

Bountiful harvests in the vegetable garden are usually the result of good planning. Full sun, attentiveness, regular deep-watering, disciplined weeding, and most importantly, good earth, make for success. Vegetable plants generally prefer deep, loose, well-drained soil. And the most delicious crops tend to grow in mineral rich earth with plenty of organic material worked in. Dark, fertile soil is home to aerating, fertilizing earth worms and microscopic life invisible to the naked eye. But the soil’s texture and quality is only one part of the good-dirt equation. Just as important to your plants is the soil’s fertility, provided by the nutrients in the earth. Natural, organic soil chemistry is what makes for fertile soil. Good garden soil provides balanced nitrogen, potash, and phosphorus.

Green, healthy, steady growing leaves are the result of proper nitrogen, (N). Nitrogen provides plants with nutrition, and its presence results in deep green foliage and balanced growth. Too little nitrogen and plants will be yellowish and stunted; too much nitrogen and plants will become jolly-green-giants, growing an over-abundance of lush foliage but little produce.  An excess of nitrogen can also result in poor quality fruit and plant disease. Overly fertile conditions and rapid growth also tend to attract pests like aphids. In addition to nitrogen, plants also require potash, (K), for strong, healthy growth.  Soil rich in potash will produce colorful, flavor-rich vegetables and fruit.  A lack of potash will result in poor root systems, curled and spotted leaves, and low yields. Phosphorus, (P), is another key nutrient in the garden. Like potash, phosphorus plays an important role in healthy, vigorous plant development. Cold, heat and disease resistant plants are the product of adequate phosphorus. Conversely, stunted growth and slow maturity are often signs of phosphorus deficiency.

It is important to check garden soil fertility at least once or twice a year.  As soon as the soil dries out in spring, pick up a soil testing kit for N, P, K and pH to test your soil.  The process is quick and easy with a kit from your local farmer’s supply store. Or if you prefer, you can send a soil sample to your local university extension service.  Test in early spring and amend your soil according to the kit’s instructions. It also makes sense to test your garden again in fall, and amend the soil before mulching the vegetable beds for winter.

Balancing plant-diet is as important to garden health as it is to our own.  But no matter how nutrient-rich the soil, plants need to be able to make use of what is available to them in order to grow. Checking both the soil pH, and the preferred pH of plants within the garden, will let the gardener know if the plants are able to absorb the nutrients in the soil. Correcting pH is best done in fall or early spring, but if you are building your garden at a different time, this is the first step to take no matter when you plan to begin, or what you plan to plant.  Even the most optimally textured, fertile soil can not help plants if the nutrients can not be absorbed.  Soil may look dark, rich and moist as chocolate cake, and it may contain a wealth of nutrients, but the improper pH will keep those nutrients out of the reach of the plant system. Incorrect pH will cause poor seed germination, and a weak, disappointing garden.

Building great garden soil is an ongoing process. Regularly adding compost to the soil helps to retain moisture, improves air circulation, and attracts earthworms and microscopic organisms. Another great addition to garden soil is green sand, which loosens clay soil, binds sandy soil, supplies potassium and helps soil hold water. Green sand is a great soil conditioner containing loads of minerals. It can be added directly to the soil, or sprinkled into compost.  Mined from ancient ocean floors, green sand is a little-known garden secret to building great soil.  Once I began using green sand, I was amazed at the difference in my garden.

At his vegetable gardening seminar, Jack Manix stressed the importance of waiting for proper temperatures to plant out your vegetable garden.  This is very important. Working wet soil too early can lead to compaction, and seeds planted in cold earth will fail to germinate.  If you must get a jump on the season, start plants on your windowsill or in a cold frame, and wait until the recommended planting dates for your area to sow seed. The Farmer’s Almanac is a great online source for planting dates. All you have to do is enter your zip code. Following the garden calendar and measuring soil temperature is an easy way to avoid disappointment and crop failure.

Planting the right plants for your area is also key to your success. Ask long-time residents about favorite crops, and buy your plants from a local grower. When buying seeds, Jack Manix recommends buying from companies testing in the Northeast, (or wherever you live). Some of these companies are listed under the seeds section on the links bar to the right of this post. I buy my vegetable starts from Walker Farm because they grow what they sell, so I can be certain that what I am buying has been tested and proven on the farm. I also care that my crops are raised organically, and it is important to me to support my local organic farm, and the people employed there. Why gamble money on a pretty picture in a catalog when I can see, touch and smell a plant at my local farm before I buy it ?

When planning your garden, try to make notes in your calendar as a reminder to rotate your crops each year.  Planting vegetables in the same location makes it too easy for insects playing hide and seek in your garden.  Make things more challenging for pests by moving crops around, and by using companion plants like calendula, (marigold), nasturtium, thyme, sage, chamomile, and other herbs and flowers. Beneficial insects are attracted to companion plants, and this helps to naturally protect your veggies from not-so-desirable creatures.  Organic gardening starts with good planning.

Regular weeding and thinning in the vegetable garden are so important, that I make them part of my daily routine. Every morning, I spend a half hour or so gently thinning extra seedlings, and removing tiny little weeds with my hand cultivator. Removing competition from weeds and excess seedlings is essential to a plant’s success. The paths between my mounded vegetable beds are lined with straw. This makes a comfortable, dry place to sit while tending to my plants. The straw paths also retain moisture and keep down weeds.  Weeds: the not-so-glamorous secret to successful gardening is weeding. Learning to love weeding, and making it a relaxing, meditative process, will help both you and your garden.  In this respect the old advice, “the best fertilizer for plants is the gardener’s shadow”, couldn’t be more true. I do some of my best thinking and problem solving while weeding.  And on my favorite days, I leave the garden thinking about nothing at all.

With this in mind, why not make your potager a truly desirable destination? Properly siting your vegetable garden is the first place to start. Almost all vegetables require full sun from dawn to dusk. This also makes the garden a pleasant place for people. An artful, winding path leading toward the potager is attractive to the eye. Make the path wide enough to easily transport plants and soil supplements via wheelbarrow. It is often true in life that the more pleasant the journey, the more frequent the trip. Adding a couple of chairs and an old table will make for a warm gardener’s welcome in a vegetable plot. Nestled amongst the fragrant herbs and flowers, a table and chairs set in the garden can be a place to read, talk on the phone, or share a glass of wine with a friend. One afternoon as I was driving home from a visit with family, I spied some cast-off wicker furniture wearing a “free’ sign, sitting on the side of the road . Now that I have found a new home for that furniture in my vegetable garden, I find that I spend much more time there. Adding annual flowers, particularly those attracting butterflies and hummingbirds, will also make a potager more inviting. My rustic fence also looks much more attractive to me with sweet peas and morning glories scrambling up the wire and winding round the saplings. A few old wicker baskets scattered about the garden are helpful for collecting weeds and spent vegetable plants for compost. And when my baskets show too much wear and tear for carrying debris, I often position them in corners to be filled with soil and trailing annuals until they decompose. This year and next, adding berry bushes and fruiting trees to the potager  are on my list. I love having a fresh pantry right outside the kitchen door, and I find the more time I spend in my garden, the happier and healthier my summer.

potager-big-viewThe potager, June 2008…

potagerRaised beds (earthen mounds) of vegetables.  Here, last year’s radish, lettuce, bunching onions and hot peppers happily mingle.

teepee-in-potagerCopper-wire teepee with pole beans

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Potager and fence design : Michaela M

Fence construction : William B / Michaela M

All vegetables starts : Walker Farm or grown from seed

Article and photos ⓒ 2009, Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden

“That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet”….. Shakespeare

May 18th, 2009 § Comments Off on “That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet”….. Shakespeare § permalink

wild-rose

Selecting and Siting Roses in Cold Climates

Damask, Moss, or Gallica?  Modern, Old or English? Call them what you will, many gardeners fall in love with roses early on, and the infatuation never ends. The moist, velvety petals and heady fragrance of this fabled flower are powerfully seductive.  It is easy to to understand the allure of roses. A garden in June, with roses climbing walls, tumbling over fences and nestled into perennial borders, is a beautiful sight. During the long, dark months of winter, many northern gardeners curl up with spring catalogues, fantasizing about the vast array of rose offerings.  I too have been tempted by this fragrant queen of flowers, and having succeeded in my first garden with a luxurious climbing-beauty named “Constance Spry”, I know the sweet rewards of success. But as a professional gardener, I also know that growing roses can be a real challenge in cold climates. And unless the rose-lover takes as much care in the planning and planting phase as he/she does in the dreaming stage, there will often be great disappointment. Healthy, vigorous roses of almost all types can be grown in New England with a bit of research and proper care. The first steps in successful cold-climate rose culture are choosing the right location for the rose within the garden itself, and of course, selection of the best plants for hardiness

Choosing and siting a rose with it’s individual lifetime requirements in mind is wise for many reasons.  A rose planted in a proper site will receive ample sun, water, nutrients and protection.  The site should also allow the rose enough space to reach its full size and shape, and provide ample air movement for healthy foliage and adequate drainage of soil for healthy roots. Focusing on the process of gardening, by providing a proper environment, is key to success no matter what the gardener wishes to grow.

Soil is important to all plant life, of course.  And roses, like most plants, have preferences about the soil in which they grow.  It is wise to test your soil pH level, as well as nitrogen, phosphorus and potash levels, and adjust your soil chemistry accordingly. Roses prefer soil rich in minerals, nutrients and organic matter.  Like most garden plants, roses prefer a slightly acid soil with a pH between 6 and 7. When soil pH becomes too low or too high, nutrients become less available to plants. A pH test is easy to do, and takes just a few minutes. Soil testing kits are readily available at most garden centers and through online vendors and more extensive soil tests can often be done through your local university extension service. Getting pH and nutrient levels right is the first step toward making sure that your roses are receiving what they need from the soil in order to grow and thrive.

Soil texture is also very important to roses. And while it is true that roses prefer mineral-rich soil, it is also critical that they receive proper drainage and air circulation at their roots.  For these reasons, it is often helpful to closely examine your garden soil, and modify the texture if necessary, before planting roses.  Clay rich soils provide the minerals roses prefer, but unless organic matter, (such as compost and peat moss or other fiber), is added to the soil,the rose will rot and suffocate in water-logged, poorly aerated root conditions. Conversely, sandy soil will provide the rose with the drainage and dry roots it prefers, but the plant will suffer as minerals and nutrients wash away from the roots in quickly draining sand. Organic matter such as compost and other fibrous materials will hold moisture, minerals and nutrients in the soil, allowing the plant time to absorb them into it’s root system.  Adding compost and other organic material will improve your soil, be it clay-like or sandy.

Protecting the root zone of roses in climates like New England,where wildly fluctuating temperatures are common, will help prevent many problems. Compost-mulch shields roots and soil from heat and cold, weeds and insects, wind and erosion.  Bare soil is not natural, and stresses plants. Caring for the parts of the rose beneath the ground is as important as the attention we give to the plant we see. The rewards of good soil-science are strong, healthy root systems and roses with access to good nutrition. a few inches of compost mulch, and perhaps the addition of herbal companion plants such as thyme and lavender, (herbs provide some natural insect resistance, and attract beneficial insects), will go a long way toward giving your rose ideal growing conditions.

Of course, what goes on above soil level is equally important to rose-culture. Full sun is an absolute requirement for healthy roses. The plant should receive bright light from sunrise to sunset. Without full sun, a rose can not properly photosynthesize, and the result is a weak and spindly plant with few blossoms. Sunlight is also critical for dry foliage, and dry foliage is key to preventing fungal infections and disease. Although some rose varieties will tolerate less than a full day of sun, no rose is truly happy in shade. Sunny-sited roses will always be stronger and healthier than their shadowed neighbors. Give the rose what it needs, and it will return the favor of what you want: blossoms.

Considering air circulation and flow is advantageous for plant health, and longevity.  Siting your rose for unobstructed growth and air movement is important for disease prevention and cold protection.  Roses protected from prevailing winds by taller trees and shrubs will grow stronger and avoid the damage of winter desiccation.  So long as neighboring plants do not obstruct sunlight, roses will benefit from the back-up provided by neighboring hedges or groups of shrubs.  It is also beneficial to plant roses on a slightly elevated portion of a site.  Cold air flows downhill, and frost settles in lower parts of the land first.  Siting roses in a raised position will help with both airflow and drainage, giving roses another advantage in a cold climate.

Providing roses with the correct growing conditions is clearly important. However, no amount of care and consideration can substitute for proper selection of the rose itself.  When selecting roses for any garden, it is important to first consider the uniqueness of the plant. Every rose has an individual habit, mature size, shape and texture.  Some roses are vigorous and shrubby, some are politely contained bushes. Certain roses are open-shaped, others are dense. A few roses may be grown as climbers or tall shrubs, others remain petite. Knowing the form of the plant will help the gardener decide if it is right for the garden’s design. Rugosa roses have very different requirements from English roses.  And of course, any rose grown in a climate with cold winters must be fully compatible with the garden’s USDA hardiness zone.

As most gardeners quickly become aware, even individual gardens can have micro-climates with enough temperature variation to make a major difference in cold-hardiness. Spots protected from prevailing winds and freeze-thaw conditions on an individual site may allow for some zone-flexibility.  However, given the temperature variations in New England, it is safest to stick with a conservative attitude toward cold-hardiness, unless the gardener is willing to take extra precautions by mounding rose-root zones with compost each fall, and in some cases providing protection for the entire shrub.  New rose varieties will be more variable than the tried and true, and for the beginning gardener, hardy and time-tested varieties are a good place to start.  USDA zone 4/5 roses are a safe bet for most gardeners in New England, and zone 2/3 varieties will be safest for very cold, windy or exposed sites.

Most rugosa roses, modern landscape roses, and many antique shrub roses are extremely cold hardy. Rosa rugosa “Sarah Van Fleet”, “Belle Poitevine” and “Blanc double de Coubert” and hybrid “Therese Bugnet” are beautiful, exceptional performers.  Rugosas are a good choice for fences, hedges and groupings in the landscape. David Austin English roses are a nice choice for mixed borders, and provided the bud-union, (point of graft), is planted at least 4 inches beneath the soil-surface, a well sited Austin rose will perform well in New England.  Tried and true landscape roses, such as “Carefree Wonder”,( and for small-bloom lovers, “The Fairy”), are excellent selections for a wide variety of perennial garden designs, including designs with stone and along walkways. For old rose lovers, the hardy gallica, alba, moss and damask hybrids are good bets. “Charles de Mills”, “Konigin Von Denmark”, “Karl Forster”, “Maiden’s Blush”, “Striped Moss” and “Stanwell Perpetual” bring some old European-style to northern rose gardens. In addition to the shrub and landscape roses mentioned above, some climbers such as  “William Baffin”, “New Dawn” and “John Cabot” are tough enough to weather the cold winds and blistering sub- zero temperatures New England dishes out. Extra care must be taken when siting more marginal climbing roses, such as “Constance Spry”, in a cold climate.  It is important to protect the exposed canes of more delicate climbing roses from desiccating winter winds. And always remember to position your rose to avoid damage from snow loads sliding off a steep roof.

When purchasing potted roses, try to buy from a local nursery, where the growers know your zone hardiness and purchase or propagate roses with cold conditions in mind. Take the time to ask the garden center staff about the roses you buy, and research the variety online to learn its habits and preferences. Knowing your rose and giving it what it needs are key to success no matter the garden climate, however this advice holds particularly true for gardeners in the north, where roses named “cold hardy” will continue to smell sweet for many years.

( coming soon…. part two roses: planting, pruning and maintenance )

Copyright 2009 Michaela H

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