Spring is absolutely, hands-down, my favorite time to get out in the yard and garden. After a particularly wet winter in Northern California, our landscaping is looking especially vibrant and lush. I love seeing all of the bright green, new growth covering all of the plants.
The arrival of warmer days also mean that it’s time to get our little suburban vegetable garden planted. We have a fairly typical, suburban backyard, about three-quarters of which are occupied by our patio and pool. We have limited space left for a garden, so I rely on container gardening and a small, raised bed garden.
When planning our garden each spring, I always start with the tomato plants. Not only do we eat a LOT of tomatoes throughout the year, but with the abundant sunshine and HOT weather that we get during the summer, tomatoes are some of the easiest veggies to grow in our area.
The biggest challenge with tomatoes and small-space gardening is crop rotation. Crop rotation is the practice of changing where you plant a particular type of vegetable (or vegetable family) from year to year. Basically, you don’t want to plant the same type of plant in the same spot each year, as crop-specific pests or diseases can build up in the soil. Although all vegetable crops can benefit from crop rotation, it seems to affect tomato plants more than other types of vegetables. I’ve never had luck planting tomatoes in the same area two years in a row.
The solution that I’ve come up with (and have had success with), is container gardening for my tomato plants. I purchased these large, resin wine barrels at my local Home Depot a few years ago. (They were less expensive than real wine barrels, and have held up much better. You can order a similar planter HERE.) I drilled holes for drainage, and a slightly larger hole so that I could run a drip line up through the bottom of each barrel.
Prior to each Spring planting, I remove all of last year’s soil from the barrels. (I typically just dump it into the raised bed garden, or spread it around in some other area of my yard that may need more soil.) Dump in a bag of fresh soil and a little fertilizer and the barrel is ready for this year’s crop!
Another unexpected benefit of using container gardening for our tomato plants is that they can be moved if needed. When Santa delivered a 10 foot wide trampoline for Christmas a couple of years ago, I was able to shift the tomato barrels a bit to make room.
The tomato cages shown were purchased from my favorite local nursery, Green Acres. They were a bit pricey, but after years of struggling with those inexpensive, flimsy metal cages, I was finally willing to make the investment. These cages are more heavy-duty, and the inverted construction (with the wider rings on the bottom), helps them stay upright at the end of the season when the tomato plants are large and heavy.
This year’s tomato plants are Husky Cherry Red, Chocolate Sprinkles Cherry, Celebrity and Better Boy. When choosing what type of tomato to plant each season, I typically aim for two cherry-type varieties, and two types that produce larger fruit.
There are peppers in three different varieties, two types of pumpkins, two types of beans, cucumber, cilantro, zucchini and an acorn squash I purchased by accident. Brady is my little farmer, and other than tomato plants, his one request was for watermelon. I picked up an Icebox Watermelon plant for him. I don’t usually have luck with melons, but as long as my kiddos are interested, I’ll keep trying.
I have high hopes for the zucchini. Zucchini plants are famous for their overabundant production. After seeing dozens and dozens of recipes for Zoodles (a substitute for noodles, made out zucchini), I finally broke down and purchased a spiralizer last year. Ironically, last year’s zucchini crop was a complete flop and I ended up buying all of my zucchini from the grocery store. Hoping to avoid a repeat, I went with two zucchini plants this year.
Over the years, I’ve learned that peppers are prone to sunburn. With that in mind, I always try to plant something else that will grow up and provide some afternoon shade. Blue Lake Bush Beans and Pole Beans are planted on the west side of the peppers. As they grow, they should provide some shade as they cover the upright trellises. I’ve also planted one of the zucchini plants next to the trellis; I’m going to try some “vertical gardening” with zucchini this year.
I always save a little room in the raised bed for marigolds. Not only do they add color, but they play an important role in maintaining a healthy garden. They help repel some common garden pests, such as nematodes (microscopic worms that attack the roots of your plants), slugs, and the dreaded tomato hornworm. On the other end of the spectrum, they invite beneficial bees and other pollinators into your garden.
You’ve probably noticed the “cage” surrounding the raised bed. I like to add some organic fertilizer throughout the season, and particularly when I first plant each spring. (This fertilizer from EB Stone is my favorite.) My two dogs also like the fertilizer – it contains things that are REALLY appealing to dogs, like bone meal and dried chicken manure. My furry friends have no problem with digging up the garden that was just carefully planted. This only seems to be a problem when the garden is freshly planted, so I needed to come up with a temporary solution.
I went down to my local hardware store and picked up a roll of metal fencing and some rebar. I hammered a piece of rebar into the ground at each corner of the garden; the rebar act as the posts for the fence. Next, I cut four separate sections of fencing, about 2 inches longer than each side of the raised bed. I took one section of fencing and wrapped those extra two inches around a piece of rebar. The other side of each fence section is attached to the rebar simply using a twist tie. That way, I can easily open up any side of the fence when I need to get in.
Once the plants start to take off and fill in, I remove the fence and store it until the following spring.
In another corner of our yard, we have two artichoke plants that my mom planted a few years ago. It isn’t a very attractive plant – it looks much more like a thistly weed. But, I will happily sacrifice a little bit in the way of aesthetics to be able to enjoy homegrown artichokes. The summer temperatures in our area are a bit warm for artichoke plants, and they seem to do better when they have some afternoon shade. One of the plants is doing better than the other this year, and has already produced several large beauties. Two of the artichokes were over 1 lb. each!
There are a few containers of berry plants scattered throughout the yard. Raspberry Shortcake raspberries are a compact, thornless raspberry, and are great for container gardening. Bountiful Blue blueberries are another compact shrub, and are well-suited for containers. These fruit-producers can can even be grown as hedges!
Now that our container and raised bed gardens have been planted for this spring, I’m on to the next big project at our house – our front yard makeover! I’ll post updates throughout the growing season, and let you know which veggies worked and what didn’t grow so well.