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Want to plant vegetables? Think outside the old-fashioned garden bed

  • Author: Jeff Lowenfels
    | Alaska gardening
  • Updated: May 16, 2019
  • Published May 16, 2019

Closeup of leek seedlings lying on freshly plowed garden bed, prepared for planting. (Getty)

It used to be that every yard in temperate Alaska had a traditional vegetable garden. You know what I mean, a rectangular garden, maybe fenced in, located someplace in the back or side yard, depending on the sun. Not today. I see fewer and fewer traditional backyard vegetable gardens, though I am not sure why this is.

I get it when it comes to a condo as there is no space. Perhaps homeowner associations have covenants against them or the builder’s removal of all the decent soil discourages the homeowner from putting in a vegetable garden. Or, maybe those gardens are perceived as too much work? No matter. The truth is there are other ways to plant and many would argue they are both better than the old fashioned 10-by-20 plot.

The easiest thing is to plant all your vegetables in containers. There are so many lightweight ones available and they have really come down in cost. Think of containers as raised beds. They allow you to move plants around which would be impossible in a traditional veggie bed. They are also much easier to work, less bending and they get far fewer weeds. And, unlike traditional, in-ground vegetable gardens, in a container you can adjust water amounts for the specific plants. Finally, many would argue the aesthetics of containers are better than ground beds.

A second method to grow vegetables is to stop distinguishing between vegetables and flowers and mix the two in your “flower” beds. This has been a movement in the gardening world for a long time as there is nothing particularly attractive about lollipop rows of kale next to carrots next to beets, etc. However, the same vegetables can be used for texture and color in the perennial and annual beds where they can be quite attractive as well as practical.

Of course, you may still think of your garden as your farm and want a traditional plot or two to plant rows of crops. There is nothing wrong with this, so go ahead. You will need at least 12 and much better, 18 inches of good soil in which to plant. This means you may have to import some. (Tip: Use an online soil calculator to figure out how much.)

You can create a garden bed in your lawn without digging it up first. Cover the area you want in newspaper, eight to 10 sheets thick, or with two or three layers of cardboard. Then dump the soil right on it. The grass underneath the papers will die. You may want edging to prevent new grass from growing in from the sides. Just remember: no rototilling.

If you have an existing vegetable garden and wonder how to plant when you can’t till, it is easy: For rows, make a planting trough 1 to 2 inches wide by pulling a hoe, stick or trowel down the bed. Of course, you can use a dowel or tomato stake to make individual seed holes, too. Use a trowel to put in starts. There is rarely a reason to dig up an entire garden and screw up its supporting soil food web.

The next few weeks are when gardeners “plant their gardens.” Regardless of whether you plant in the ground or in containers, you must follow the first rule of planting outdoors: make sure all plants grown indoors are hardened off for at least four or five days before they can be used outdoors. There are no exceptions. Put everything that needs hardening in a shaded spot with no sun, protected from the wind for four or five days.

Jeff’s Alaska Garden Calendar

Buy plants now: You will need to harden off plants. Get yours now as it takes about a week to acclimate them to the outdoors.

Bareroot sales: If you are going to buy trees and shrubs, might as well pay lots less. Get them before they are potted up and save up to 40%. They are going on now.

Delphinium and cotoneaster caterpillars: Now is the time to have the bacteria that kill the defoliators on your delphs and the rollers on your cotoneasters. It is known as Bt and comes in several products. Get it now as these pests will be here in a week.

Plant a Row For The Hungry: Don’t forget that gardener’s share. Dedicate one row (or container) to grow food for the hungry. Then donate the harvest.

Dandelions: They are in flower. Each one you pick and dispose of properly prevents hundreds upon hundreds of seeds from germinating. You won’t win the war, but you will win a battle and perhaps feel better.

Spruce beetle spray: I am not a believer. In the end, Nature always wins and we do so much harm in the meantime as the pesticide used is not selective. Water trees, aerate the lawns around them, don’t damage the bark.