Gardeners are among the world’s most charming snobs. Rightly so: As with music and mathematics, the more you know, the more elegant your work. Erudition is valued, and so is a smattering of pretension. If you are a geek looking to put down roots, welcome to gardening. We offer you common ground. Think of it as localized terraforming, if that helps.
Before you start, though, contemplate your knees and knuckles, and get ready for hard, sweaty work. As with making babies, people can’t really imagine what they are getting into when they plan to tangle with the trowels and hoses. The sketches and explanations on the following pages will inspire you to stake out, nurture, and defend your tiny patch of Earth, feed your loved ones, and even sequester a bit of carbon. How smart is that?
Before you head outside, let’s get you dressed. No clogs with flowers on them. Look for some skateboard pants at your local thrift shop; they are roomy, with deep pockets and durable fabric, and readily available, given the current epidemic of plantar fasciitis among young skaters, who seem determined to inflict upon themselves the aches and pains of old men. You’ll want white socks, pulled up over the cuffs of the pants—a kind of reverse tribute to the black-socks-and-sandals look of our science-geek cousins—and heavy work boots. You will understand why no one gardens in sneakers the first time you drop your secateurs (note term, more anon) and they land point down in your flesh. Oh, and you get to wear gear on your belt—hooks, a holster for tools. No iPods. Gardeners listen to birds.
Now, the dirt on dirt. The garden is no place for it. Dirt has to do with Tide, Maytags, and Dysons. Soil is what we talk about when we talk about gardening; earth, if you are poetical.
Soil is about as interesting as anything gets in this life. It’s a mixture of rock particles, water, air, organic matter, and microorganisms—lovely creatures such as nematodes, protozoa, fungi, bacteria, and actinomycetes. O the varieties of being! Only 45 percent of soil consists of minerals, with particles ranging in size from clay (less than 0.00008 inch in diameter) to silt (0.00008 to 0.002 inch) to sand (0.002 to 0.08 inch). Clay makes for terrific soil, owing to its high cation-exchange capacity, a measure of fertility. It can also suck the boot right off your foot.
Soils can be alluvial, colluvial, loess—and it matters. You will need to familiarize yourself with the pore space and texture of your soil and learn to promote aerobic versus anaerobic decomposition. Just repeat: Friable is desirable.
The language of gardens is the Queen’s English. Why say “shears” when you can say “secateurs”? Use a trug for your weeds and a trolley to cart around compost.
The language of flowers, on the other hand, is Latin. It is imperative to swoon over the Umbelliferae, to swan around the Aspidistra, to note the Aesculus parviflora, the Acer campestre, the Acanthus mollis. And that is just the beginning. Far from being a dead language, Latin is the only tongue in which you can suggest to your mate a pairing of Dicksonia squarrosa and Farfugium japonicum, or that the Euphorbia donii should snuggle up to the Dryopteris affinis fern. Latin is the international language of identification, and all other names are just, well, common.
A prodigious memory helps. Or a hefty horticultural app. Anyway, what else is there to do during those frigid winter months but learn Latin? And don’t give me temperate zones. Everyone knows that gardening in Southern California is really more like tending houseplants that happen to be outside.
Your bookcases should be groaning under the weight of resource materials: tomes with copious footnotes, incomprehensible abbreviations, and much cross-referencing. Never mind that the only way to know whether anything will actually live in your soil is to plant it and see what happens. Plants are full of surprises; it’s one of their most endearing characteristics. The best gardeners push them around mercilessly. You could spend years studying soil chemistry; I will just point out that those are years in which you could be digging holes. Your choice.
Your night table, your pantry, your bar cart, and your bathroom shelves should be laden with seed catalogs. Heritage varieties are de rigueur. The latest catalog from the D. Landreth Seed Company, which recently celebrated its 225th anniversary, will become an heirloom. Knowing what to do with those seeds bears study—learning how to germinate, prick apart, repot, plant, transplant, pinch back, sow, and reap. Tired yet? The geek’s kitchen counter is covered with seed trays, the cellar full of tubers, the refrigerator packed with bulbs.
We haven’t even touched on rootstocks, whip-and-tongue grafting, hand pollinating, dividing, double digging, and those old standbys nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Surely you won’t buy fertilizers off the shelf? You need soil analyses (consult your local cooperative extension) for different parts of your garden, and you’ll want to push ingredients for different functions—P to help increase root growth; K for fruit formation. If you’re noticing interveinal chlorosis, reach for Mg (magnesium), check pH for acidity, and so on. (See reference books.) A couple of bags of dried blood and bonemeal lying about look, well, sexy, in that earthy, essence-of-musk sort of way.
I warn you: You cannot spend enough time preparing your soil for planting—an entire year of tilling organic matter into the ground is probably not long enough. I did not take this seriously, and as a result I may have to sell my house and start over somewhere else.
You need to know about the birds and the bees. And the worms, compost, and water. You want compost, a nd compost tea for fertilizing. No industrial black plastic bins for you, even in the city. Better to build wooden structures for stuff that you’ll fork over, and then over again. For the rest of your life. Better yet to dig a hole in the ground, start making heaps, and train your squash vines up their sides. Into the compost will go almost everything your children refuse to eat. (And if you get rats? So what?)
Worms are your best friends, your biggest helpers. You will develop a fondness for their pleasant little ways when you look over your beds at dawn and see the elegant mounds of poo they have left behind during the night. They never stop working. Unlike children.
The first time your spade cuts through a gorgeous wriggling pink body, you will tell yourself what your mom probably told you: That’s how they reproduce! Now you have two worms! Like most things your mom told you, that is what is known in the trade as a white lie. Just have a good cry and move on. You’ll grow used to the ruthless killing field that is a garden. Besides, worms are hermaphrodites and have a lot more fun than you do.
Remember the apiaries. No bees, no food. No you. Worse, no flowers. The true geek cultivates his royal jelly. So don’t touch those pesticides. A working knowledge of beneficial insects is also important. Do not swat away those yellow jackets. Welcome those aphid midges.
Capture your gray water. Irrigation is the ne plus ultra of geek cred. Hoses and siphons snaking out your bathroom windows, buckets under your trapless sinks—all that water you think has already been used is just beginning to be useful. Pay no attention to the residue of cooking oil, food particles, and chemicals from your cosmetics and toothpastes. Just remember that wastewater is alkaline, so don’t throw it on acid-loving plants. Bleach and soaps containing chlorine, boron, and sodium-based compounds are a no-no.
And I almost forgot: the garden itself. Understandably, it’s often an afterthought. Even after language acquisition and soil preparation, there is more to be done. Mainly, watching the sun. That takes at least a year. The garden geek will know where sunlight falls on both solstices, where shade, dappled or deep, is cast at all times of the year, including the dead of winter.
Finally, a word about garden design: nice. That about sums it up. Design is irrelevant to many gardeners, who would rather go deep—up to the ankles in alpines or to the armpits in Leguminosae—than wide. Or grow food. Three sister types of plantings (say, corn supporting beans, which are fixing nitrogen, and squash acting as mulch at their feet) are about as designer as it gets. Many geeks gravitate toward horticulture; consider simply pitching a greenhouse and propagating Schizophragma hydrangeoides.
This kind of thinking comes from the part of your brain that remembers all that Latin. And it’s not exactly wrong thinking, either. Those neural pathways are the ones that understand you are not merely gardening. You are tending a carbon sink. That meadow of Panicum virgatum (OK, but only this once: switchgrass) is sequestering atmospheric carbon in stems and leaves and belching out beautiful, pure oxygen. And underground, things really get cool—or rather, hot. The roots associate with mycorrhizal fungi and produce gluey stuff called glomalin. Not only does it hold soil together—a property known as tilth—but it’s full of carbon.
A different part of the brain is activated by aesthetics; it is the most human part. It bears keeping in mind. Beauty matters. You can be a garden geek and still not be a gardener. Some geeks can gaze into the fractal depths of Cynara cardunculus and see nothing but a Fibonacci sequence. The true gardener appreciates the vagaries of life. No matter what you do right—eat local, sink carbon, prepare for the zombie biker apocalypse by learning how to pickle your veggies—things will go wrong. This is the hardest lesson to learn, but also the most important. Gardens die. And then they are reborn.
Dominique Browning (slowlovelife.com) is the author of Slow Love and writes an online column for the Environmental Defense Fund
Illustration: Oksana Badrak
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Balcony Hothouse With just a few smart mods, tiny spaces can be high-yield gardens.
A narrow balcony isn’t a grower’s dream, but it isn’t a nightmare either. The key is to use your vertical space, plus a little protective enclosure, to create an adjustable microclimate that’ll allow year-round thriving. You won’t be able to grow enough to feed yourself, but you’ll find that you make (slightly) fewer trips to the grocery store. Potting mix (instead of soil pilfered from the nearest construction site) will keep your plants mostly disease-free, solar heat will help fight off frost, and a clever, inexpensive system of frames and suspended pots will increase your yield. Plus, gifts of fresh tomatoes will be a great way to meet your neighbors after the zombies control the streets.
Warm your microclimate a few precious degrees in the evenings with a wall of water bottles. The containers’ high surface-to-volume ratio means they’ll absorb heat even on cloudy days and radiate ambient warmth onto your beloved crops when the temperature drops at night. This kind of low-tech passive solar heating was a favorite of the ancient Greeks.
Pick your plants carefully—you’re trying to balance yield per plant and plants per square foot with root depth, since deeper roots need deeper earth, which weighs heavily on your balcony. While carrots need 3 feet of soil, bush beans require about half that. A single tomato plant produces up to 16 pounds of fruit; a single beet plant produces… one beet.
Doing a lot with only a little space means getting efficient, especially with moisturizing. Subirrigated planters store water at the base and rely on capillary action—plant roots suck up H2O through potting mix that lets the water move efficiently and allows plenty of room for gas exchange. (Roots absorb oxygen from soil macropores.) The planter’s reservoir protects your crops from overwatering.
Hang containers of shallow-rooted plants on a multilevel grid constructed from PVC. Improved air circulation and increased exposure to the sun for each plant should up your yields. Using separate planters also means you can choose a wider variety of vegetables with different germination and growth periods. Best of all, you’ll produce more edibles per square foot.
Mushrooms are obligate aerobes—that is, the strands that make up the body of the fungus, called the mycelia, need oxygen and nutrients to grow. After the first fruiting—when the mushroom caps appear—harvest the spores, isolate the mycelia, add agar, and put in a jar with grain. For every cup of mushrooms harvested, you’ll get 2 to 3 grams of protein.
The best protection for crops is a translucent box—polyethylene sheeting lets through the photosynthetically active spectrum of sunlight (400 to 700 nm) but diffuses it so plants don’t get sunburned. Eventually the plastic breaks down, so you’ll have to replace it every few years. But it costs only $3 a foot, give or take. Bonus: Lugging it to your third-floor walk-up is no sweat.
Illustration: Oksana Badrak
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Urban Plot Room to grill, grow food, and raise some feathered friends.
The postage stamp behind your row house has enough room for several raised beds that, combined with fence-mounted planter boxes and movable containers, should sate the fruit and vegetable appetites of a family of four in summer and fall. A small potato crop piles on some additional calories, and three laying hens will supply you with eggs for most of the year. Plus, chicken poop provides a nitrogen-rich base for your compost tumbler. Your little ecosystem won’t exactly save you money—if you figure that organic feed is 72 cents a pound and the birds will each eat 2 pounds of chow a week, the dozen or so eggs you’ll get weekly will cost around $4.
Get the most out of your land by dividing it into zones—one for people, one for vegetables, and one for hens. Hang out near the house on the paved patio area where movable planters give you maximum flexibility. Protect your crops from marauding chickens by installing access doors; throw them open in winter to let the birds scratch through the beds and pick at weeds and worms.
Amp up your caloric output with tubers. They’re susceptible to blight, though, so buy fresh seed potatoes and sow your starchy friends in fabric containers like the Smart Pot: It’s easier to control soil moisture, and the roots stay warm and aerated. Mound soil around the stems as the plants grow to coax up to 10 pounds from a 10-gallon pot. Seed these beds in succession to stagger your harvest.
A compost tumbler converts kitchen scraps and chicken crap into black gold for your veggie crop. Give it a daily spin to keep the microbial party going. The nitrogen-rich manure will get the barrel hot, hot, hot—around 140° F—killing pathogens but not beneficial microorganisms. Let the mixture cure for a few months in a sealed container so microbes complete their life cycles.
The dirt in your city plot is probably kinda crummy, but you can pack a raised bed with top-quality potting mix. Raised beds also make for warmer and better-drained soil, happier roots, easier weed control, and fewer pests—which means less work for you and more veggies for everyone. Build the frames from almost anything but be careful of treated wood, which could leach chemicals.
If city regulations permit, you have just enough room for laying hens (keep three or more for ideal flock dynamics). House your egg factories in a three-room condo with an enclosed, slat-floored nesting/laying level at a height good for gathering eggs and cleaning up; a mesh-enclosed, slat-floored lower-level platform for fowl to eat and drink; and a ground-level sandbox for scratching and dusting.
Don’t forget to use your fences: Espaliered dwarf fruit trees grow flat against the wall like vines, conserving space. (Some even have several varieties of fruit, which ripen at different times, grafted onto a single rootstock.) Walls are also great for hanging planter boxes for lettuces and strawberries and supporting trellises for veggies like tomatoes and vining tromboncino zucchini.
Illustration: Oksana Badrak
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Suburban Spread Super soil and a good flora/fauna mix produce self-sustaining sustenance.
If you plan carefully, a large portion of a small family’s diet can come from an average suburban yard—one that’s twice as productive and a hundredth as energy-intensive as a typical farm. The key: You’re not growing food; you’re growing soil—self-sustaining and self-improving, as roots bring up minerals and leave behind organic matter. Close planting practically eliminates weeds; diverse, rotating beds thwart harmful insects and fungi. Growing the amount of carbonaceous composting material required to be genuinely sustainable limits the space for produce, but the diet won’t be drab. You’ll have mushrooms, apples, and even fish. Just be prepared for a lot of digging.
Plants like soil that has proper texture (the size and composition of mineral particles) and structure (how the particles stick together). Aerobic bacteria consume plant residue and excrete polysaccharides that hold soil together. Fungi break down minerals into forms plants can absorb. Test soil annually to figure out what nutrients it needs for the first few seasons.
You’ll need to compost much of what you grow to keep from depleting the soil. Layer nitrogenous materials (food scraps, garden clippings), soil, and carbon-rich refuse from crops you’ve grown for that purpose. Splash on water. It’ll get hot; when it cools, dump it into a second bin to aerate. After three months, sift and put the leftover chunks back into the first bin.
High-quality animal protein isn’t sustainable, but it sure is delicious. A few laying hens will gobble up kitchen scraps, bugs from fallow garden beds, pests you hand-pick off crops, and crickets. (Raise your own in a tall container indoors; you’ll need a dozen males and a dozen females to start.) Rabbits are also quite tasty and breed like, well, rabbits.
A garden fence will do double duty, keeping less aggressive critters like skunks and people away while supporting espaliered fruit trees that you’ve trained to climb like vines. (Apples do well.) Meanwhile, put the power of B. F. Skinner to work by smearing a lightly electrified (5,000-volt) deer fence with a mix of peanut butter and veggie oil. One lick and they’ll learn.
Maximize yield without depleting soil: 60 percent carbon-and-calorie crops like grains and sunflowers (great for composting), 30 percent high-calorie roots, 10 percent veggies. Scatter flowers to attract and feed pollinators, then plant trees, herbs, and ornamentals to draw pest-eating insects. Rotate crops each season to vary which nutrients are drawn from soil.
Tilapia is perfect for backyard farming—it’s an African breed that tolerates a wide range of conditions, produces a harvest every 100 days, and in 85-degree water will transform a pound of dry feed into about a pound of meat (paint the tank black for passive solar heating). Plus, its nitrogen-rich effluent is ideal plant fertilizer. Figure on producing about half a pound of fish per gallon of water in your pool.
Illustration: Oksana Badrak
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Exurban Farm The biggest yard can add luxuries like honey and beer to your harvest
The exurbs were made for vast green lawns and swimming pools. But in the world of domestic terraforming, those are the first things to go. Replace them with an edible landscape. With a modest 2,400 square feet and a forgiving climate, you can grow most of what you need, plus a few luxuries. Plant your garden right and you’ll even have high-value produce like honey and herbs to barter. If you’ve got a quarter acre—probably more typical for the exurbs—you can start to think about raising a few pigs or goats. Remember, it doesn’t matter if you’re underwater on your McMansion; you’ve got enough land to eat like a king.
Chickens convert feed to flesh superefficiently. (Raise eight chicks at a time and give them the ax at two months to keep the freezer stocked.) Dual-purpose breeds like Barred Plymouth Rock also provide eggs. Supplement their diet with snails and sic them on the bugs in your orchard. Rabbits and guinea pigs also make great stew. But if it’s beef you crave, you should have bought the ranchette.
With a minimum of space and care, bees will give you honey, candle wax, and crop pollination. Bats will clear your land of mosquitoes, moths, and other winged pests—and deposit nutrient-rich poop. If the idea of pinching off snails and slugs by hand ooks you out, you can terminate them with a dish of old beer. As long as it’s deep enough for them to drown in, they will. Drunks…
Potatoes rule when it comes to calories per square foot. But calories alone don’t equal survival. For more- concentrated nutritional content, you want sweet potatoes, turnips, and greens like leeks. Intermix deep-rooting plants (carrots) with shallow ones (lettuce); shade tolerators (peas) with sun worshippers (tomatoes). Remember, monocultures are for suckers.
Don’t like beans? Tough. Plant ’em anyway. Earth’s atmosphere is 78 percent nitrogen, but it’s in a gaseous form available almost exclusively to the rhizobium bacteria that live in legume root nodules. The bacteria convert atmospheric N2 into plant-friendly ammonia. Beans and peas grow best when they grow together—let their climbing vines intertwine.
Hops are easy—run them up the back wall and you get 20-foot-high vines that keep the house cool. But barley is an indulgence. You can coax maybe 20 pounds of malt grain from a 15- by 15- foot patch. That’s enough for about 10 gallons of beer, or 18 six-packs. Share selectively. Meanwhile, wheat averages 42 bushels per acre, and corn gets 155 bushels. You want bread? Buy it.
Wastewater? There’s no such thing. The sinks, showers, and washers of a typical family of four can discharge 300 gallons per day. That’s enough to feed 375 square feet of wetland—your own personal watershed. (Rainwater keeps the pond topped up.) Plants and microbes convert waste to food for fish and ducks. Tilapia eat weeds, frogs eat insects, and ducks lay eggs.
Illustration: Oksana Badrak