Town meeting day in Vermont coincides nicely with when I work on my spring garden design. In between votes and the long-winded discussion of police salaries and library funding, I am doodling in the margins, plotting out my garden. Sure I am listening, but thinking about my garden not only keeps me awake, and at the end of the day I can go home with plan that keeps me focused on good things to come.
I planted my first garden with four sticks and a ball of twine, measuring out a large square, and removing a thick layer of rugged turf. I turned the stony Vermont soil with compost before planting long straight rows for basil, lettuce and beans. I would be lying if I said the garden thrived, but the thrill of harvesting my own food gave way to a larger garden the following year. As the garden grew, the harder it was to decide in the spring where to plant until I realized I could start the design on paper first.
As any good cook will tell you, the key to success is following a recipe exactly before you let the imagination go wild. For gardeners, this means starting with a garden plan before even cracking open the seeds catalogs. When faced with the blank canvas of freshly tilled soil it's much harder to limit the choices down to just a few essential items. Fitting a long list of seeds onto a piece of graph paper require the gardener to be more selective. Taking a bird's eye view of the paths and the beds can bring out the artistic side, drawing inspiration from a paisley fabric or floral wallpaper design, rather than a straight ridge of corduroy. Adding a bench or a fanciful arbor is easy to draw in, regardless of whether they will actually take form.
I recently taught a vegetable garden design class with some of the techniques I share in my new book, The Complete Kitchen Garden. I had expected the class to be full of new gardeners ready to learn basic skills such as sowing seed and turning compost. Instead, there were fifteen experienced gardeners who were seeking fresh ideas for how to reinvigorate their tired plots. We started with a visualization exercise to envision the kitchen garden of their dreams. This simple exercise allowed these gardeners to step out of their comfort zone of straight rows to picture kitchen gardens filled with waves of color that engaged all of their senses. The results were magical.
Since my own garden follows a 4 four square organic rotation, it's fairly easy to know where to grow each crop and how to group to make the most of the soil fertility. I am never tempted to plant space hogs such as zucchini or corn, and the bush beans from last year were a total disaster since I never picked them - so those are out, too. This year, I am focused on lettuce and salad greens from Wild Garden Seeds, and heirlooms from Seed Savers Exchange. Simplicity is the key, as well as a few quirky additions such as artichokes and Italian Treviso radicchio. I have my tried and true favorites, but it is always good to try something new.