Follow our advice to create a healthy and practical vegetable garden.

As we become gradually more aware of our collective carbon footprint and its environmental impact, it seems more right than ever to consider growing some of our own vegetables. In addition to superior quality and flavor, gardeners have the opportunity to grow heirloom or hard-to-find varieties—without having to pay premium prices for specialty produce.

Here are several important factors to keep in mind to get your vegetable patch off to a great start:

Exposure

For high-quality crops, all vegetable gardens require at least eight hours of direct sunlight daily. Ensure your garden’s southern exposure isn’t blocked by mature trees or structures, such as buildings that will cast shade on your plot.

Pathways

Throughout the grow­­ing season, you will need access to each plant (for thinning, seeding, watering, weeding, managing pests and harvesting), and paths help keep everything within easy reach.

Traditionally, a path leads up to the center of the plot, with the vegetable rows arranged at right angles to it. Conventional wisdom has it that rows should run on a north-south axis, so plants receive equal amounts of sunlight from both sides, but if this is impractical, don’t hesitate to run them in a more suitable direction. Remember to place tall crops (e.g., pole beans, corn, peas, and tomatoes) at the north end of the patch, so they don’t shade low-growing plants.

Size

It’s always tempting to start off big, but vegetable gardens take a good deal of tending, so it’s prudent to begin small and expand gradually as you gain more experience. Bear in mind some vegetables—such as squash, melons, pumpkins, and corn—require a great deal of real estate to spread out, so be aware of your plot’s spatial limitations.

Site

The ground should be reasonably level, although a garden that slopes gently to the south will produce earlier crops (colder air will flow down the slope, pulling warmer air in behind it).

If the area is covered with turfgrass, use a sharp spade to cut the sod into strips, then undercut the strips below the level of the grass roots; peel away the sod (it can be used to repair bare areas in the lawn or stacked upside down and composted).

Remove any tree roots or rocks, then aerate and amend the soil with plenty of organic matter (e.g., compost, shred­­ded leaves, or composted manure) to a depth of 12 to 18 inches (30 to 45 centimeters). This can be done with a rototiller or manually by double-digging (i.e., twice the depth of the spade or fork) to turn over the existing soil, break up clods and add organic matter.

Unwelcome visitors

Regardless of where you live, there’s likely to be some local wildlife that’s every bit as enthusiastic about your plot’s bounty as you are. Depending on the kinds of marauders in your neighborhood, you may need to install a physical barrier, such as fencing or netting.

Cool-season crops

These vegetables can be sown outdoors in early spring because they tolerate low temperatures. (Those marked with an asterisk can also be planted in summer for fall harvest.)

Brussels sprouts
Beets
Rutabaga
Broccoli*
Cabbage*
Kale*
Kohlrabi*
Leeks
Lettuce
Onions
Peas*
Radishes*
Turnips*
Spinach*

How to build a portable salad table?

Gardeners are always looking for new ways to fit more plants into their lives, and Python software developer Stephen Fryer is no exception. Not only does his portable salad table allow people to grow greens wherever they live, but it is also easy to build and transport. That means it can be moved into a protected area when necessary to extend the growing season as long as possible. By growing cut-and-come-again crops of spinach, lettuce, and other leafy greens, and the occasional reseeding of this small table garden, you can make sure you and your loved ones get their daily greens for months on end. The tray can be set up on sawhorses so that caring for and harvesting can be done without constant bending—which is especially lovely at the end of a long day of work in the perennial garden.

Stephen has also built customized forms of this table for growing tomatoes and cucumbers in sizes suited to any space. This version is 58 inches long by 33 inches wide, with a 3½-inch depth perfectly suited to growing lettuce.

The table is a simple frame with a mesh base to hold soil but allows water to drain off, allowing lettuce to thrive in the conditions it loves. Because the crops harvested will be eaten, use untreated framing lumber.

What materials do I need to build a portable salad table?

  • #2 galvanized Phillips screws, 3″ long
  • Sawhorses on which to set the finished table
  • 3’x5′ piece of aluminum window screening
  • 2 untreated 2″x4″x10′
  • Roofing nails
  • 3⁄8″ staples
  • 3’x5′ piece of 1⁄2″ mesh hardware cloth

What tools do I need to build a portable salad table?

  • Screwdriver
  • Hammer
  • Tin snips
  • Miter saw
  • Staple gun
  • Drill

1. Using a miter saw, cut two 58″ lengths out of one 10′ x 2×4 to make the long sides of the tray. Cut four 30″ lengths from the other 10′ x 2×4 to serve as crosspieces.

2. Using 3″ galvanized screws, attach the 58″ long sides to the 30″ crosspieces, predrilling holes to avoid splitting wood. The two interior crosspieces are attached 183⁄4″ from each end of the long piece, to create three equal planting sections.

3. Center window screening on the outside bottom of the frame. Stretch it tautly over the frame (a second set of hands is helpful for this), fold excess screening evenly upsides of the frame, and staple it to the frame bottom and sides using a staple gun.

4. Center hardware cloth over the window screening, pull taut, and staple to the frame’s bottom. Use roofing nails and hammer to nail hardware cloth to the bottom of the frame for additional support. Use tin snips to cut out each corner of the hardware cloth and fold over the frame’s sides. Secure to sides with staples and roofing nails. Set on sawhorses and prepare for planting.

How to plant a salad table?

What materials do I need for planting a salad table?

  • Seeds of a variety of greens, including lettuce, cabbage, spinach, mustard, radishes, beet greens, mizuna, mâche, and cress
  • Organic time-release fertilizer or cottonseed meal
  • Potting mix

1. Select a level location to set out your salad table. Make sure there is easy access to water so plants can be irrigated regularly. Salad greens grow best in full sun in colder weather. As the weather becomes hot, move to a shadier spot, since too much sunlight will make greens bolt or go to seed.

2. Fill the frame with a potting mix and create shallow furrows in each compartment about 4 to 5 inches apart. Sow seeds about 1 inch apart and water in well. If plants are too close together, any thinnings can be harvested young and used as baby greens. Most seeds will germinate in 2 to 3 days. Keep soil evenly moist.

3. Harvest as needed. By cutting some greens with scissors, you should get several harvests from one planting before needing to sow fresh seed.

How to build a customized potting station?

A fast and easy way to create a functional potting area is to customize readily available items from big box stores. This allows for more flexibility in design than purchasing a prefabricated unit, yet doesn’t take a carpenter’s skills to build. But designing an “out-of-the-box” potting station does take some thought, and finding the right elements can be an exercise in compromise—or an exciting treasure hunt—depending on your frame of mind and how much time you can devote to the project. Our completed potting station costs just under a few hundred dollars. Here are a few guidelines to get you on your way.

What to look for when you build a potting station?

Shelving Start by finding a framework for your potting station; it should be sturdy and durable, and—if the unit will be sitting outdoors—built to weather the elements. Look for adjustable shelves with easy-to-clean surfaces. We chose the Broder galvanized steel shelving system from Ikea. The solid worktop bears up to 100 kilograms of weight. Simultaneously, the upper mesh shelf allows for adequate ventilation, making it great for holding terracotta pots, which are less likely to develop fungal growths in a well-aired environment.

Storage Organizing a range of materials—from fertilizers, labels, and soil to pots and decorative mulches—calls for a variety of storage solutions and a bit of ingenuity. Look for slide-out bins (the ones we used are made for toys) that can be moved from shelf to worktop as needed, and durable stackables to hold the heavier, bulkier items. Labels and markers can be tucked away in a cutlery tray, fertilizers nestled in a wire mesh basket designed to hold CDs, and mulches neatly stored in large kitchen canisters.

Equipment Whether you opt for a pegboard or metal grid, maximize wall space with a versatile system to hold items that need to be close at hand, such as watering cans and trowels. We selected a metal grid that’s intended for reinforcing concrete, readily available at building supply stores. Cut to size with a pair of wire snippers; the grid is offset with shims about one inch (2.5 centimeters) from the wall to make it easy to tuck in tools and hang S-hooks to hold everything from scissors to dustpans for sweeping debris into a handy garbage can.

Tips for building a potting station:

For a cohesive look, choose one color scheme and stick to it (spray paint all components to match).
Do it yourself when you can, but enlist an extra pair of hands when you need it,e.g., installing shelves.
Use your imagination—from a gardener’s perspective, a pot lid holder can make a terrific glove rack, and a Lazy Susan a moveable potting surface.

Here is our recommended project list:

  • Kitchen canisters (3)
  • Pot lid holder
  • Lazy Susan
  • Broder shelving system
  • Trofast storage system
  • Clip
  • Metal reinforcement grid
  • Mini dustpan set
  • Slim Swing garbage bin
  • Metal scoops (2)
  • Wire basket CD holder
  • S-hooks
  • Recycling stacking bins (2)
  • Wire cutlery tray
  • Bag clips (2)

How to build a tomato cage?

There are many ways to support the sprawling branches and heavy fruit of tomato plants, but few are more elegant than a wood-and-wire tomato cage, which we spotted in the garden of Stephanie and Dale Peterson in Sacramento, California.

Here’s what you’ll need to build a tomato cage:

Part: Crosspieces

Size: 1 1/2″ x 1 1/2″ x 12 1/2″

Quantity: 8

Part: Corner posts

Size: 1 1/2″ x 1 1/2″ x 39 1/2″

Quantity: 4

Part: Top frame pieces

Size: 1 1/2″ x 3 1/2″ x 72″

Quantity: 4

Part: Cove moulding

Size: 1/2″ x 84″ *

Quantity: 1

Part: Screws

Size: #8 2 1/2″ coated deck screws

Quantity: 20

Part: Nails

Size: 1 1/2″ galvanized finishing nails

Quantity: 20

* Total length required. Cut to fit.

Corner posts and crosspieces for your tomato cage.

Start the project by cutting the corner posts and crosspieces to length with a handsaw. Arrange one side of the cage flat on your work surface using two corner posts and two crosspieces to form a rectangular frame.

Drill a 1/8″-diameter hole to prevent the wood from splitting before attaching these pieces with one #8 2 1/2″-long coated deck screw at each corner. Offset the screws slightly, so they don’t collide as the sides are assembled. Apply a dab of weatherproof carpenter’s glue to each joint before joining two frame members together (refer to the diagram).

Once you’ve completed two frames, join them together with the remaining crosspieces. Attach the crosspieces to the finished sides with screws and glue. Now you’ll see why offset screws are so necessary.

Top frame and cove molding for your tomato cage.

The top frame does more than just look good: it helps protect the vulnerable end grain of the corner posts from water. Start with a length of 3 1/2″-wide lumber (this is the actual width of so-called 1″ x 4″ wood). Measure and mark the 45° angles for the corners, then cut them to length using a handsaw and small miter box. If you don’t have a miter box, clamp a short span of wood at a 45° angle to the lumber to act as a guide for your saw blade. Test-fit the frame pieces together on top of the tomato cage before joining them with weatherproof glue and some galvanized finishing nails. Once the glue has dried, attach the assembled top frame to the cage with more glue and screws.

The cove molding comes next. It’s easiest to cut one 45° end first, then hold the part in position on the cage to mark the next cut. Install the first piece of molding on the cage with glue and a few finishing nails, then repeat the other three lengths of molding.

Finishing the tomato cage.

Paint or stain before adding wire panels. In keeping with its painted Victorian inspiration, I chose an opaque oil-based stain. Apply a few coats to all wooden parts to protect them from the elements.

Cut the side panels from wire fencing using a pair of wire snips or bolt cutters. The dimensions for this tomato cage are based on using fencing with 2″ x 4″ openings. If you use a different size fence, make sure to adjust the size of your cage accordingly.

Once the final coat of stain is dry, attach the wire panels using U-shaped galvanized wire staples hammered in every six inches or so. Lay the cage down on its side and install temporary braces between the corner posts to make them rigid enough to resist hammer blows.

To ensure your tomato cage stays put, drive a couple of galvanized eavestrough spikes into the ground beside the corner posts, and attach the cage to the spikes using nylon cable ties.

Which tomato varieties are best for your tomato cage?

There are so many cultivars to choose from that narrowing your tomato seed selection to your garden space limits is a challenge. Most gardeners have their favorites, the tried-and-true varieties that best suit their growing conditions and are as reliable as old friends. But it’s hard not to be enamored with all the new kids on the block.

A couple of factors to keep in mind: you only get the exquisite taste of fresh tomatoes if they have the opportunity to ripen on the vine, so check the days to maturity; we’ve had both drought and damp summers, so check disease tolerance, too.

Here are a few old and new cultivars we’ve heard good things about.

Plum

‘Roma’ (75 days)

‘Viva Italia’ (65 days)

‘Window Box Roma’ (70 days)*

Cherry

‘Golden Cherry’ (65 days)

‘Sweet 100’ (63 days)

‘Tumbler’ (48 days)*

Slicing (Medium to large)

‘Big Beef’ (73 days)

‘Early Cascade’ (65 days)

‘First Lady II’ (66 days)

‘Patio’ (70 days)*

Grape

‘Juliet’ (62 days)

‘Harmony’ (65 days)

Yellow

‘Lemon Boy’ (72 days)

‘Yellow Pear’ (65 days)

*Good choices for container gardening.