What’s for Dinner? 20100424: Intensive Gardening

(8 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

Many people think that lots of space is required to grow a big garden. This is not always the case. Part of it depends on what you grow, but another part of it depends on how you grow it. It also depends on whether or not you want outdoor garden furniture or you just want somewhere you can walk through.

I have a garden space that is approximately 16 x 16 feet, for a total of 256 square feet. I chose those dimensions because landscape timbers are eight feet long, but this is not a raised bed garden.

I had originally planned to post pictures of each step, but the weather has been extremely dry in the Bluegrass, and the plat has been too dry to till. It is now raining, so I can get to it as soon as it stops, although it may take a day to dry out enough first. I can post pictures as comments during future installments of What’s for Dinner?.

The first trick to maximizing yield from a small space is to grow only things that you like a LOT. Thus, I do not waste space growing broccoli, because I do not like it that much. I can get all the broccoli that I want at the supermarket for under $5 a year. I have also thought about getting a well installed in my garden, I think they look so cute! My friend told me well water smells like rotten eggs how to fix and if the water does start to smell, it’s pretty simple to fix.

The second trick to maximizing yield is to grow things that have an extremely long cropping life. That means that onions, potatoes, corn, etc. are not good candidates, since you get only one picking, so the relative yield per square foot is low. Most of these one picking crops are relatively inexpensive, so I do not plant them.

That is not to say that if you really like something that you should not find a place for it, even if it is not particularly efficient. For example, I am going to grow watermelons this year, and they are not exactly the most efficient of crops in a small space, but I really like vine ripened watermelons, so I shall plant some. Besides, I have a trick so that they are not so space intensive.

A third trick is to plant things that preserve well. Tomatoes are extremely easy to can, and are the base for cuisines of all types, and they are unmatched fresh off the vine just for eating. I can eat a lot of vine ripened tomatoes. If you have a freezer, that sort of increases your options, since almost all vegetables freeze well, with proper blanching, but not everything goes into glass as well. However, a pressure canner is indispensable if you want to preserve much of what a garden will yield.

Well, then, what kinds of things to plant? TOMATOES and lots of them! If taken care of properly, tomatoes will bear until frost, and you can even pull up the plants with fruit attached when the end comes and they will continue to ripen in a shed or even in your house for several days. If you’re wanting to plant and grow a lot of your own vegetables then you might actually want to look into purchasing a shed, it could even be one of these repo sheds for sale as an example, for more storage space for tools and any other items you’ll want to put away once you’re finished with gardening for the day. So back onto tomatoes, for now, partially ripened tomatoes will redden and soften off the vine, although they are not as good as vine-ripened ones. I am raising many varieties, because, like apple cider, canned tomatoes are better if several different kinds are blended, giving a much richer flavor balance than commercial ones that are almost always a single variety, bred to transport well rather than for good flavor. Tomatoes can very well, so do not take up valuable freezer space. You can also sundry them, dehydrate them, make juice, sauce, and paste of them. Mostly I peel and quarter them and can them that way. In another post I shall go into more detail about preserving. Tomatoes are not expensive canned, but the home-canned product is so much better than commercial ones that it is worth the trouble.

I like okra very much, and it is also a very dependable and long cropper. There are varieties now that do fairly well in northern latitudes (North and South hybrid is one), so try some. If you cut it every couple of days when the pods are only about four inches long, it will keep on fruiting until frost. I like my okra sliced thin, breaded with seasoned corn meal, and pan fried. It is also the base for gumbo. Okra does not can well unless you are going to use it for gumbo, but it freezes well if blanched very quickly with steam, breaded, and then put on a cookie sheet in a single layer until frozen, then bagged, labeled, and frozen. Okra is expensive at the store, so this is a real money saver.

Summer squash is very prolific and will bear until frost. I shall raise both zucchini and yellow crookneck, as I like tomatoes and zucchini cooked together very much, sometimes with a little cheese. I am only going to raise one plant of each, because I can not eat it fast enough for more than number, even giving it away. They freeze well, so I will put a couple of bags away for the winter. Mixed with tomatoes, zucchini can well, too.

Winter squash is not quite as prolific as summer squash, but grows enough to be useful in small gardens. I like acorn squash very, very much and will grow two of three hills of them. They tend to run, but once again I have a trick to maximize space with running plants. The nice thing about them is that they are extremely easy to preserve, just cut them from the vine when ripe (leave half an inch of so of stem on the fruit), and let it dry. They will keep for months and months, in excellent condition, if kept in a cool, dark place. If you have an unused room in your house, cut off the heating vent and keep them there, on old newspaper, and not touching each other, and they will keep until you eat them all.

Cantaloupes, like watermelon, are not that efficient, but I am going to grow a couple of hills of them. Like watermelon, they can not be preserved very well, but they are wonderful when fully ripe.

Peppers of all types bear until frost and can be dried, canned, or frozen. Unlike many vegetables, blanching does not improve the keeping properties of bell peppers, so they are easy to keep. I am planting several types, some to dry, some to freeze.

Purple hulled peas are probably my favorite legume. They are not a pea at all, but more like a bean. Technically they are one of the cowpeas, and look very much like black eyed peas. However, they are much sweeter and more flavorful, and are extremely easy to preserve. They freeze well, after a blanch, can well, and can even be dried, but with significant loss of aroma. They bear heavily until frost if picked every couple of days. One really nice things about them is that they fairly shout to you when they are ripe, the entire pod turning a deep purple when ready to pick. They need support, so I took a 15 foot piece of concrete reinforcing mesh, cut off the bottom piece of wire to make spikes, and push it into the garden, then stabilize it with guy wires. I plant the seeds on either side of the wire, so one support will take care to two closely spaced rows.

Speaking of this material, I also use it to make tomato hoops. I make my hoops about 18 inches in diameter and space them about 4 inches apart, so I can get 8 of them in a 16 foot row. Two rows, 16 plants, produce a LOT to tomatoes.

Now to the “intensive part”. Some folks use raised beds to maximize production, but there are a couple of things that I do not like about them. First, you still have to hoe them, and I hate to hoe. In fact, I simply will not do it. Second, they tend to be fairly water intensive, since the further from grade the bed is, the less water from the earth can wick up into the bed. My techniques almost eliminates the need to water, even in the driest part of summer.

However, the most insidious thing about raised beds is the nature of the materials used to form them. Most all are made either with landscape timbers or used railroad ties. Both of these are made of wood treated with preservatives to prevent rot, and none of these preservatives is good for you. Older landscape timbers are treated with copper chromium arsenate (CCA), and all three of these materials are toxic and do leach from the timbers, and then are taken up by the plants. Modern landscape timbers are treated with zinc and copper salts and are not as toxic as the ones with chromium and arsenic, but still not good for you. Railroad ties are usually treated with creosote, a material produced by the destructive distillation of wood and replete with nasty organic chemicals, including the toxic cresols and the carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH’s). Untreated timber does not last long under conditions of ground contact, so is rarely used. I strongly recommend that you not use treated lumber of any kind for raised beds unless just for ornamentals. Safe alternates are concrete block or brick, and sometimes you can find used brick just for hauling it away.

My system relies on black plastic sheeting. It is fairly inexpensive, completely controls weeds, and also retains moisture. I shall step you through the entire procedure. Just before tilling, I run my lawn mower over the plot to cut down any weeds. I do not remove them, but till them in as a green manure. Next, I till as deeply as my tiller will allow in one direction.

After the first tilling, I spread 3 pounds of 10-20-10 commercial fertilizer (not a huge amount, but not organic), 1 pound of triple superphosphate, two ounces of Epsom salts, and one ounce of borax. The superphosphate supports bloom and fruit production. DO NOT use ammonium nitrate. Too much nitrogen encourages only vegetative growth at the expense of fruiting. The Epsom salts provide magnesium (magnesium in a key component in chlorophyll), and the borax supplies the essential trace mineral boron (if the leaves on your plants tend to turn purplish, it is likely a boron deficiency). Next, I take any compost that I might happen to have and spread it out evenly. Then I till again, this time at right angles to the initial tilling, once again very deeply.

After the second tilling, I rake to level the surface and water if I think that it is too dry for planting. Then I spread a single layer of black plastic sheeting (I am using 4 mil thick sheeting over the entire surface of the garden and use old boards, metal fenceposts, or whatever to weigh down the edges all around so that the wind does not blow it away. I have to use two pieces since the garden is wider than the width of the plastic sheeting, but that is OK. Only black sheeting works for this; the clear kind will let weeds grow.

When I am ready to plant, I take piece of steel pipe the diameter of the peat pots in which I have previously started my plants (or bought) and sharpen it with my grinder so that it will cut the plastic. I make a neat hole in the plastic, then twist the pipe deeply enough to make a hole in which to put the pot. I repeat this until done.

For direct seeded plants, like squashes, melons, etc., I do the same thing except just plant the seeds and sift a little soil back over them. Now another trick to make the garden larger. For things that run, like squashes and melons, take old sheeting from previous years and put that at the edge of the garden. (The sheeting can be used for about three years in the garden proper before it needs to be replaced, and you can just double the old plastic and let your vines run out on it). This makes a clean surface for the fruit to develop and keeps grass from growing.

One of the major advantages of the sheeting is that it completely eliminates evaporative water losses from your garden. In addition, each of those holes makes essentially a funnel for any rain that falls, directing it right to the roots of your plants. Except for getting small plants going, I rarely every have to water using this system except in extreme drought, and then just a little water goes a long way.

The layout is important for intensive gardening. I put the things that run along the outer edges of the garden, mostly in the south and west (I have a shed east of my garden that blocks morning sun, and the fence is just a few feet away on the north). They do not get very tall and so will not shade other things much. Then you can utilize the untilled, plastic covered part around the garden for running room, completely freeing up tilled space for other plantings.

Next I plant shorter things, like peppers, inside the running things. Since they are short, they are not prone to shade things nearer the interior. Next come rows to tall things, like tomatoes, okra, and the purple hulled peas. I may plant a few lima beans on part of my pea support, maybe a third of a row or so. Even those are “bush” beans, they do much, much better when given a support. I will never raise bush beans without a support again.

It is important to move where you grow what from year to year. For example, last year the tomatoes were on the east side, so this year they will be on the west. The okra goes to the east side this year. The peas were east of center last year, so west of center this year. The squash and melons were on the west edge and the peppers on the south, so that gets reversed this year. This keeps disease organisms from building up year after year.

Also, to control disease, I do not recommend that you compost garden plants in the fall when they are done. I think that it is better to burn them instead. The little bit of compost that you get from them is not worth the risk of contaminating your whole garden with diseased compost.

The plants that I grow are pretty resistant to insects, except that Japanese beetles seem to love okra. (My original home did not have Japanese beetles). To control them I use rotenone dust and a sifter, only when they are visible. I never treat any plant in a preventative manner. There is some anecdotal evidence linking this product with Parkinson’s disease, so I wear plastic gloves, stay upwind when I sprinkle, and try to keep it off of the pods. I wash thoroughly after application.

This year I am planting:


Roma (3), for paste

Jersey Devil (1), experimenting with an heirloom variety

Beefsteak (3), slicing, canning

Rutgers (3), slicing, canning

Large Red Cherry (1), salads

Delicious (2), slicing, canning

Yellow, unknown variety (1), for my neighbor

Giant Oxheart (3), slicing, canning

Ponderosa (3), slicing, canning

Campbell’s (3), slicing, canning


Serrano (1), seasoning, vinegar sauce, drying

Jalapeno (1), seasoning, drying

Cayenne (1), seasoning, drying

Sweet Banana (1), salads, salsa

Hungarian Hot Yellow Wax (1), salsa

California Wonder Bell (3), salads, stuffed, frozen, dried

Habanaro (1), seasoning, drying

Anaheim (2), dried for chili powder


North and South Hybrid (8), fresh, frozen

Clemson Spineless (8), fresh, frozen

Watermelon, Sugar Baby (3 hills), because I like them

Cantaloupe, Hale’s Best (3 hills) because I like them

Cushaw, unknown variety (3 hills) winter squash used like pie pumking


Yellow Crookneck (1 hill), fresh, maybe some frozen

Zucchini, (1 hill), fresh, maybe some canned with tomatoes

Acorn (3 hills), excellent storage winter squash

Whatever else strikes my fancy.

With my tiny garden, I can can, freeze, and dry enough produce such that I will not have to buy any preserved tomatoes, okra, purple hulled peas, and other things that are either expensive of that I eat lots of all year.

You can modify my planting list to suit your taste and climate. For example, broccoli might be a better choice than okra for you. Just follow the general rules and you will be astonished how much you can get from a small plot.

In the fall, take up your plastic and store it out of the weather. The nest spring, start all over again. It is important to uncover the plot for sun to sterilize it over the winter.

Please let us know about your gardens.

Warmest regards,

The Doctor

Crossposted at Dailykos.com


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  1. for fresh produce?

    Warmest regards,

    The Doctor

  2. from our small backyard garden. Everything’s looking good.

    We have a variety of lettuce and tomatoes. The cucumbers are coming up nice, and the string beans (stringless cause they’re easier to chew) will begin their climb soon. We love broccoli!

    We just put in a strawberry patch, but it will take a year to get a decent crop. Our apple tree is loaded, and the lemon tree produces all year round. Peaches are abundant on our one tree, but nectarines looking a little sparce right now. We have three orange trees. One that appeared dead just 12 months ago is going crazy, hard to figure.

    We have four berry plants, but the raspberry is looking the best, blueberries okay. We tried canteloupe last year, but it didn’t work out. Never’ve had success with corn.

    We’re skipping squash this year. We have a small section for potatoes. We don’t have a lot of space, but we try to maximize it.

    Have a good one Doc


  3. A couple of neighbors and I were going to start a garden in a plot that had been deemed a flood plain and turned into green space, but the county won’t let us put raised beds in or change it in any way.

  4. I very much appreciate it.  I am finishing up tonight’s Pique the Geek and will come back to respond to comments in a bit.  This made the Kos rec list last night, and I am grateful to you and other readers for supporting my writing efforts.

    Warmest regards,


    • RUKind on April 26, 2010 at 03:29

    I used to just rake the soil up about 8″ high and use pathways in between. Works well and there’s no wood cost.

    Now I use plain old non-treated 2×6 pine with 8″ fir legs. The beds are all 4 x 8. I crop rotate and mulch heavily. Plus I make a lot of compost each year from fallen leaves and the first two lawn trimmings.

    One great trick – take a 4 x 8 bed of tomatos (say 6 plants), plant basil in the space in between, giving everyone enough room, then line the bed with oregano, thyme, mint, parsley, cilantro. Everyone gets enough root space and light. A commercial farmer can’t do this because they don’t pick by hand.

    My favorite bed – strawberries over asparagus. Their root depths and sun needs combine beautifully.

    I’ll use the compost I started last fall – which is just about ready now – and make squash mounds. In the middle of the mound I dig out a 5 gal bucket area and mix soil, lobster compost and fertilizer with michorrizal fungi for root growth and nutrient uptake. By season’s end,   the compost is the 0purest soil you’ll ever see. It goes on top of next season’s beds.

    For mulch, I’m lucky. I live by the ocean and use dried eel grass. There is no better mulch. Salt hay is gos and just coming back on the market. Otherwise, use seed-free straw. It holds down the weeds, holds in the water, and keeps the soil surface from hardening over.

    Check out Elliot Coleman for three great books on organic gardening. They can all be translated to smaller plots.

    Intensive gardening sounds like it might make a good regular essay here. A lot can be done in the city, too. Any thoughts?

  5. for soups stews & gumbo in the winter – and is a lot less trouble.

    Thanks for all your tips.

    I’m totally into gardening these days  . . and not much else.

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