Implementing some of my ideas about what makes a garden truly integrated to one's life, this little spot of heaven at The Learning Garden served us for a couple of years as 'the beautiful food garden' near the faculty parking lot gate - it was considered far too shady for vegetables until I harvested a bushel of tomatoes from three plants grown here!
There are a number of questions one must ask before one can even begin to look at seed catalogs in putting together a garden. This fact finding step is often overlooked and by itself can account for a good number of neophyte gardeners failing. Some of these questions seem silly perhaps but they are not.
It seems that one would know, but often one is only vaguely aware of, why they want a garden in the first place. But this question holds the key to progress in more ways than you can imagine.
If my 'why' of growing a garden is to produce 10 pounds of pinto beans to dry and store and I have a shady spot that is as big as a large tomato plant, then perhaps I need to reconsider where I will garden and begin by investigating community gardens in the area or a neighbor who would cooperate in my vision.
One important note that holds all gardeners in good stead is to list all the reasons why and keep them close at hand. And especially to include “to learn” as one of the big reasons, providing of course, you can learn from disaster. The really good gardener is not one who has had no disasters. The really good gardener is one who has had disasters and has continued to garden learning from the past and approaching the next season more sagaciously aware of the vagaries of gardening.
So... First order of business is to make a Why I Want This Garden List and populate it with every reason you can. On that day when the wiley world of popular culture calls you to come play when the Garden needs to be watered or else it will die, then you need that list to set your priorities straight. Obviously, I'm on the side of the garden, but in our very busy world of many choices, even I can admit to wandering away from my plants more than I should perhaps ought. Right now, instead of being a conscientious author and instructor, I should be weeding the area where I plan on planting garlic tomorrow. It is the way of this world. (It also explains why I believe in having a really good flashlight among my gardening tools!)
Beginning gardeners especially should not give this question short shrift. Those of us who have been at a while probably already have this list, even if it is only in the back of our minds. It wouldn't hurt to write it down before the mind begins to forget. Just saying.
Next, one has to survey the physical space. Questions that must be answered include the obvious, for example:
- What is the size of my garden?
- Where does the light come from or where is it blocked?
- How many hours of sunlight does it get in a day in summer?
- How many hours of sunlight does it get in a day in winter? (Ah, yes, the two are different!)
- What is the nature of the soil? (This was in part answered for us in the first lecture.)
- Where do I get water from to water my garden? Is there a spigot nearby?
- Can I plant near to where I will use the plants? I'm thinking of the kitchen...
Then there are a few less obvious that are no less important, but will change based on your reasons for growing a garden:
- What do I like to eat?
- How much do I think I need to sow to get a decent harvest?
- What crops will have a higher value to me that will increase my pleasure from the garden?
- What tasks in the garden do I find pleasurable?
And, in what might seem slightly incongruent to this discussion, the next most important question after 'why' for me is: where will I sit? This well may sound like an old man bitching about his knees or his back or something yet again, but it's not. In my evolution as a gardener, the genesis of this idea came from the old saying, “The best fertilizer is the farmer's shadow,” meaning of course, the plants that are attended to by the farmer will grow better than neglected plants. I had the epiphany one day that I would be a more effective gardener, if I had a place to sit down and drink a cup of coffee, or sit down and have an ice tea, or sit down and write something, or sit down and just LOOK at my garden. The key ingredient is that “I would sit down...” I would spend more time there and be aware of subtle changes more quickly (like, 'gee where'd all my seedlings go?') and be able to interact with the garden on a much more intimate level.
So, I ask 'Where will you sit?' in your garden. I like a bit of shade, a small table to hold my computer or my pad and my drink. I don't need much else. But, simply by this one addition, I find my relationship with the space changed dramatically. No longer is the 'garden' a distant thing, it is now a part and parcel of my world and I can be a part of it – it will not only feed me, but it will soothe me, it will help to heal me after a day of being bashed about in the office or any of the other slings and arrows of modern life. In fact, a large part of the stress of modern life, I believe, can be traced back to the lack of this kind of plant interaction that used to be part and parcel of human existence. Whether it is the box that holds some tools, or a fancy little Parisian outdoor café set, find something to sit on where you can leisurely appreciate your garden for more than a few minutes at a time.
The importance of soil is covered elsewhere – but do allow for some different considerations in light requirements in the city. Typically, a southern exposure is the best for all forms of food gardening, a western exposure being slightly less so and an eastern exposure slightly even more less (is that a proper way to say that?) so. However, a large tree or a large building on the near horizon can interrupt the amount of sun your garden receives. And note that the sun is much lower on the horizon in the fall and winter. This can result in a total lack of sun during those months.
On the other hand, I have discovered that city shade is often ameliorated by the presence of large light colored walls that reflect a quantity of light into spaces that seem as thought they should be dark. In one apartment, the front door faced north with a balcony 'in shade.' However, two light colored buildings (east and north) reflected light onto that balcony all day long which made that balcony the equivalent of full sun!
The bottom line, then is that an inventory of the light available for your plants can vary from what a person sees with just a cursory glance.
If you can't tell true north easily, you need to purchase a small, inexpensive compass. In Los Angeles, most of our street grid is NOT on a true north/south axis. This is actually very beneficial because that offset means that few spaces are truly in the shaded north side of a building. Almost always there is more light than one would think and that is good news.