How did your garden grow? Do you still have the taste of summer on your lips from all the luscious melons and tomatoes you grew? Or did the garden get ahead of you? Maybe you never had a chance to put one in at all.
Take heart. There are limits to a gardener’s time and space. But there are lots of little things you can do next year to make even a small plot yield more bounty, and one big thing you can do right now.
First, assess the sunny areas in your yard. We love our trees, but could one go, or at least one of its limbs? Converting just 100 square feet from shade to sun will give you space for a few sun-loving tomato plants, cucumbers and pole beans. Aside from one sprawling but productive zucchini plant, all could go vertical, on poles, teepees, trellises or strings dangling from a top bar, held up by posts.
Look for other, less obvious sunspots: An upstairs balcony, a terrace with planters, a roof. Cherry tomatoes can dangle from window boxes.
Eggplants, peppers and even baby new potatoes can inhabit whiskey barrels. Nobody ever said that all vegetables had to be in one place. Use a double row of corn as a privacy fence and for cookouts. The ears, dunked first in water, can go right onto the grill, with chipotle butter tucked inside the husks.
Let’s say the best sun is in front, facing the street. If your potager is beautiful, productive and neatly tended, it’ll be way more attractive than boxwood globes and cones of dwarf Alberta spruce. It might even turn your neighbors into kitchen gardeners. My friend Roger Doiron created such a handsome front-yard plot that neighborhood kids were always stopping by to pop sweet, orange Sungold tomatoes into their mouths. Roger called it “Sungold diplomacy.”
Unpack the whole bag of gardener’s tricks and make the most of the space you have. Plan succession plantings, with late crops such as kale and fall carrots following early peas and lettuce. Interplant a late crop with an early one: Rows of radishes or greens can grow on either side of Brussels sprouts, because the spouts will take longer to fill the bed.
Embrace edible landscaping. Let trellised grapes climb a sunny arbor and hardy kiwis a shady one. Berry bushes can make a good hedge. Instead of a spreading beech, plant an apple tree. Fruit trees suit small yards, and the shade they cast is dappled rather than dense.
Although fruiting crops like tomatoes need six hours a day of full sun, leafy ones like lettuce and kale will work with four. Even root crops tolerate part shade. So in spreading your vegetables around, look for spots where tree roots will not infiltrate the beds, then sow your greens there.
As for that one big thing you can do right now, look at the yard again and picture it in its sunnier state after autumn leaves have fallen. Then find a good spot for a cold frame.
A cold frame is a bottomless box with a glass or plastic lid that sits on the ground. It conserves the sun’s heat and keeps much of it from radiating back again at night. It allows you to grow crops that prefer the cool temperatures of fall, winter and spring but protects them from snow, ice and more severe cold.
You can build a cold frame easily with wooden boards. Collecting salvaged storm windows is one way to get lids. The back edge of the frame is built higher than the front so that the lids slope downward toward the south, for a better sun angle. In our garden, we’ve built framed glass lids called “Dutch lights.” These consist of a sheet of glass or plastic inserted into a grooved wooden frame and held in place by a stop. This reduces the amount of wood prone to rotting from water as it flows over the lids.
There are many styles of cold frames you can buy, some with both the lids and the frames themselves made of a double wall of plexiglass or a similar material, to let in even more light. Many are lightweight, portable and stackable so that you can set them up as fall approaches.
Sow them with spinach and other greens that will regrow when cut.
Try a baby lettuce mix or an Asian greens one. Maybe a row of arugula, too, and one of radishes. Your yard will suddenly be a little larger, your growing season longer and your table a little fuller.
Green waste from the vegetable garden should be chopped up before being added to the compost pile, to speed decomposition and reduce bulk. A quick pass with a lawn mower will make short work of pulled tomato plants, squash vines, corn stalks and other end-of-summer vegetation. Make sure the mowing area is free of stones and other potential projectiles.
— Adrian Higgins