Growing Your Own:
Layered Gardening for the Urban Setting
We strongly believe in going back to basics when it comes to food. Growing a garden is something that with a little effort, knowledge and a space, most everyone can do successfully. In our great grandparents generations, almost every household had a garden which served as the primary food source for the family. Today, due to centralized farming, our dominant system of food production and delivery is highly wasteful, unhealthy, unethical and unsustainable. We’ve been sold the idea that bigger is better. Sadly, family farms and gardens have almost vanished from the American landscape. Now the produce section in grocery stores carries a very steep price tag, even though every item could be coated in wax, smothered in pesticides, not to mention genetically modified. By growing a garden, we take back our food supply, and subsequently, our health. And of course, we get fresh food, amazing taste, connection with nature, and save money.
In this blog, Bruce Stephans, Master Gardener for over 35 years, breaks it down for those of us who are far from having a green thumb. Bruce consults personally and in-home with people to help them grow amazing food with whatever space they have. He can be contacted at:
Gardening tips with Bruce Stephens:
Concentrated growing area
Ease of installation (no dig)
Readily available materials
Low water use
Site Selection and Design:
The first prerequisite is adequate sunlight, ideally about 8 hours or more a day. Remember, the sun sinks lower in the sky in the winter, casting longer shadows from buildings, trees and fences. Other factors to consider are access to water, slope of the ground and existing plants and animal activity. For example, if there are signs of gopher activity, then your beds might need to be lined with hardware cloth to keep the burrowing critters out. If the site is sloped, a dry stack retaining wall on the downhill side might be needed.
Materials for 100 sq ft bed (approx)
Newspaper (non-glossy) to cover bed 10-20 sheets deep
2 bales alfalfa hay
2 bales straw
topsoil or compost to cover bed 3-4 inches.
Installation of your new garden:
With area mapped out, lay down newspaper, 10-20 sheets thick, overlapping a few inches. (If a windy day, water lightly to keep paper down), or two layers of tapeless cardboard.
Alfalfa bales are compressed, and will pull off in 3-4 inch flakes. Spread the alfalfa apart and evenly, a 6-8 inch layer. Lay on 8 inches straw.
Apply about 2 cups each bone and blood meal, repeat layer of alfalfa and straw, repeat with bone and blood
Top with 3-4 inches of compost and/or topsoil.
Note: We recommend that you plant seeds right away, but wait for the soil to cool (probably 3-4 days) before setting out seedlings.
The compost pile is the heart of the organic garden. A compost pile is simple science project, the fostering of a system of biota (bacteria, fungi, microfauna and red worms) that breaks down organic matter into “finished “ compost, the very best thing for your garden. The conditions for the blossoming of these organisms that create the finished product is controlled by just a few factors: water, air or oxygen, surface area, and the carbon/nitrogen ratio.
Water: All life needs water, including the life in your compost pile. The composting material should be kept evenly moist, for the worms and microbes that live there. Too much water, however, will create an anaerobic environment that will inhibit decomposition and increase odor. Water your compost almost as often as you water your garden, realizing that it dries out faster around the outside of the pile.
Air/Oxygen: The microbes, fungi and worms that are desired for the compost pile are aerobic, needing oxygen. If a pile becomes too wet or compacted, oxygen containing air is not present and decomposition slows. This can be cured by turning the pile.
Surface Area: The size of the material in the pile will be one factor in the speed of decomposition; the smaller the better. Note: some material compresses easily (flat leaves, coffee grounds) and should be layered with unlike additions or inoculated with finished compost.
Carbon/Nitrogen Ratio: This ratio (along with moisture) is the main determining factor in the speed of decomposition. Nitrogen is also the major component of fertilizers, both organic and synthetic. To speed decomposition add (ideally in layers) a high nitrogen source such as manure, blood meal, coffee grounds, fresh plant matter, juicer pulp, etc. When a pile is created with a high nitrogen ratio, there will be reactions that create heat. . Although the worms don’t like the heat, as soon as it cools off they will move in and feast on the results. one can also do a great job of composting with the “slow simmer” method, ensuring good decomposition with regular turning, moistening and adding small quantities of fresh material as they come available.
Multiple bins: The best composting system uses 2 or more bins, so that one can be finishing while another is being added to.
Worms (Red): worms create the “castings” that are the epitome of soil amendments. Get a few from a friend or buy a small quantity and add to your pile and with proper care you should soon have a good population.
Turning the compost: Turning or “stirring” the compost pile ensures equal access to air, water, worms, etc, and speeds the pile to a homogenous finished product.
Inoculating: a new pile Finished compost is full of beneficial microorganisms, red worms and worm eggs. By layering some of this into a young pile you will make sure that the right organisms are present and ready to start the decomposition process. If you have no finished compost, then inoculate with some garden soil.
Sifting: When a fine finished compost is needed, a finished pile may be sifted to get a fine compost, free of material that has not yet broken down.
The management of water is one of the basic tasks of the gardener. The main tool for the gardener is the watering wand with a hose end valve (see Tools for the garden).
Times of day: Generally, the best time to water is in the mid to late afternoon, especially in the summer months. Winter crops are a lot less picky about wet leaves, and many in fact don’t mind having their leaves wet at all.
Edges- Garden beds always dry out faster at the edges.
Mulch- Keep your precious garden soil covered! Soil should be shaded at all time, IMHO, either by the “living mulch” of growing plants or by a layer of some dry organic matter such as straw, alfalfa hay, comfrey leaves, etc.
Ollas- The ingenious indigenous inhabitants of the Southwest knew how precious water can be and devised a method of burying unglazed, narrow necked terra cotta water containers (ollas) that, when filled, release their contents slowly at root level, minimizing or eliminating losses to evaporation.
Rainwater– When distilled water is delivered to your house for free, you ought to make the most of it.
Harvest generally in the morning
If plants can set seeds, it slows down or even stops more production. Keep beans and peas and chard/kale/broccoli picked. Pick marrow squash when young and tender. If there are green tomatoes left on the plant at the end of the season, the whole plant can be hung upside down in a cool dry place and the green tomatoes will often ripen quite nicely.
Vertical Gardening– Trellises allow for the growth of vining plants and maximize the yield in your garden by going up! Simple trellises can be made from concrete reinforcing wire grids.
Root infiltration– A fertile, moist garden bed is a tempting target for the roots of nearby trees and hedges. If your garden is not thriving and/or drying out quickly, then you may have root infiltration. It is sometimes necessary, once or twice a year, to slice a cut around your garden bed with a square bladed spading shovel.
If you can, occasionally let a plant go to seed, just to complete the process. When they go to seed, for the next couple of seasons they will pop up here and there.
Tools for the Garden
2×4 wire fencing
1/2in. hardware cloth
Hemp or jute twine
Plastic compost bins
Long handled Shovel
D-handled square shovel
Spading fork or pitchfork
Long handled cultivator
Contractor’s wheelbarrow (w/ solid wheel)
Compost bins (>1)
Watering Wand with hose-end valve
Narrow hand spade
Dedicated Garden knife
1 or 2 gallon pump sprayer
Southern California Vegetable Planting Calendar
ASPARAGUS, BEETS, BROCCOLI, BRUSSEL SPROUTS, CABBAGE, CAULIFLOWER, CARROTS, celery, COLLARDS, CHIVES, CHARD, ENDIVE, FAVAS, KALE, KOHLRABI, leek, LETTUCE, MUSTARD, ONIONS, PEAS, PARSLEY, PARSNIP, RADISH, RUTUBAGA, SPINACH, TURNIP
ASPARAGUS, beans, BEETS, BROCCOLI, BRUSSEL SPROUTS, CABBAGE, CARROTS, CHIVES, CHARD, COLLARDS, KALE, KOHLRABI, favas, leek, LETTUCE, ONION, MUSTARD, PARSLEY, PARSNIP, PEAS, POTATOES, peppers, RADISH, RUTABAGA, SPINACH, ENDIVE, marrow squashes, TURNIP
Asparagus, BEANS, BEETS, broccoli, brussel sprouts, CHARD, cauliflower, chives, cabbage, CARROTS, cantaloupe, collards, corn, cucumber, endive, eggplant, kale, kohlrabi, LETTUCE, limas, okra, PEAS, mustard green, onion, PARSLEY, parsnip, PEPPERS, POTATOES, pumpkin, RADISH, rutabaga, SQUASH, spinach, turnip, tomato, watermelon.
BEANS, BEETS, CARROTS, CANTALOUPE, CORN, chard, CUCUMBER, EGGPLANT, LIMAS, OKRA, lettuce, bunch onions, parsley, PEPPER, POTATOES, RADISH, PUMKIN, n.z. spinach, SUNFLOWER, SQUASH, TOMATO, WATERMELON.
BEANS, BEETS, CARROTS, CANTALOUPE, CORN, CUCUMBER, EGGPLANT, LIMAS, lettuce, bunch onions, OKRA, parsley, PEPPER, PUMKIN, RADISH, SQUASH, SUNFLOWER, N.Z. SPINACH, TOMATO,WATERMELON, swiss chard
BEANS, beets, carrots, chard, CANTALOUPE, CORN,CUCUMBER, eggplant, lettuce, LIMAS, OKRA, bunch onions, parsley, pepper, PUMPKIN, radish, n.z. spinach, BAKING SQUASH, tomato, watermelon, SUNFLOWER
BEANS, beets, carrots, chard, cantaloupe, celery, CORN, CUCUMBER, LIMAS, okra, BAKING SQUASH, n.z. spinach, bunch onions
BEANS, beets, carrots, chard, bunch onions, CELERY, CORN, CUCUMBER, leek, limas, bunch onions, squashes
Beans, beets, broccoli, brussel sprouts, CARROTS, CELERY, LEEKS, radish, summer squash, swiss chard
BEETS, BROCCOLI, BRUSSEL SPROUTS, CABBAGE, CHARD, CAULIFLOWER, CARROT, CELERY, ENDIVE, FAVA, KALE, KOHLRABI, LEEK, LETTUCE, BUNCH ONIONS, PEAS, MUSTARD, PARSLEY, RADISH, RUTABAGA, SPINACH, TURNIP, COLLARD
BEETS, BROCCOLI, BRUSSEL SPROUTS, CABBAGE, CHARD, CAULIFLOWER, PEAS, CARROTS, CELERY, COLLARDS, ENDIVE, KALE, KOHLRABI, FAVA, LEEK, LETTUCE, MUSTARD, ONIONS, PARSLEY, PARSNIP, PEAS, RADISH, RUTABAGA, SPINACH, TURNIP
BEETS, BROCCOLI, BRUSSEL SPROUTS, CABBAGE, CAULIFLOWER, CHARD, CARROT, celery, COLLARDS, ENDIVE, KALE, KOHLRABI, FAVA, LEEK, LETTUCE, MUSTARD, ONIONS, PARSLEY, PARSNIP, PEAS, RADISH, RUTABAGA, SPINACH, TURNIP