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Lettuce's Urban Homestead

How to Start a Garden When You Don't Know Anything: Step 1

A friend recently told me that she wants a garden, but she doesn’t know where to start so (once again) she’s just going to wait until next year. She thought that maybe by next year, she would (magically) have an idea what to do with her yard.  It made me chuckle a bit because I know all too well what she’s going through.  I am guilty of the exact same thing.

This feeling is not new to me.  In 2012, I was going to school while I homeschooled my son.  That was the year I decided to turn our entire backyard into a vegetable garden.  I figured if I didn’t start it then, I never would.  Besides, as I was not working, why not save some money by growing our own food?  It was a lot of work.  To say the previous owners of our house had not taken care of the place was an understatement.  The entire property was riddled with car parts, broken glass, pieces of siding and insulation, buried garbage, chunks of cement and more.  If you can name it, we probably dug it out of our backyard that year.  We sifted through three rows of dirt - each 5 feet wide by 20 feet long and 4 feet deep.  We filled approximately one 30 gallon garbage can (overflowing) per row that we dug out.  


One of the garbage cans we filled.


A shot of the chunks of cement we removed with one bed almost finished.

Once I felt the dirt was clean enough that I would be comfortable eating plants from it, I dove right in.  I planted a lot knowing that I had no idea what I was doing and there was a good chance that half of what I planted was not going to survive.

I was right.  Well, sort of right.  My tomatoes and sunflowers did amazingly well.  In fact, they did so well, for the next three years I had volunteer tomatoes and sunflowers popping up all over the back yard.  And the zucchini?  Ever few days, I was harvesting HUGE zucchini from the garden.  As much as we tried, we could not keep up with the amount of zucchini these two plants were producing.



One day's harvest. Every day we had more tomatoes, and every 2-3 days we had more zucchini.

However, the carrots never made it much larger than 2 or 3 inches long.  The beets and radishes were equally as small - about 1 inch wide.  The corn I planted got to about 6 feet tall, however, the corn cobs were only a few inches long and really weren't good enough for eating. I had planted a kale but that was taken over by aphids.  

At the end of the year, I honestly didn’t care what had failed, though.  I had grown very successful tomatoes, sunflower seeds, and zucchini.  That’s what mattered when I started planning for the next year.  I knew then that those would do well and I could focus on other things.  The next year I planted more tomatoes and zucchini.  I decided to forgo the corn, but I did include other varieties of squash, peas, beans and even a very small watermelon.  I realized that gardening is a lot of trial and error since everything changes from year to year.  What might grow beautifully this year won't grow at all next year.

This year, however, I am back to feeling like I did in 2012.  I want to start gardening again but I really don't know where to start.  We moved into our rental home a few months ago and were fortunate enough to receive carte blanche when it comes to the garden.

north-yard jpg

Our current yard.  So much potential!

However, this is a new city for us with new dirt and a new climate.  I have no idea what plants will work, and what will fail.   I have never had to work with as much shade as we have here, so that will be new for me as well.  Not to mention the yard is smaller so we are looking at vertical gardening options, which I never used in the past.  I too have been putting off doing any work outside.  So this weekend, providing the rain/snow stops for a few minutes, I am going to go outside, take some measurements and start planning my garden layout.

For all my fellow procrastinators, I am giving you the same task this weekend.  Take 15 minutes to walk around your yard and pick out a spot for your first garden bed. It doesn’t have to be very big.  Just make sure you find a place that is fairly level and gets a lot of sun in the spring and summer.  If possible, it is best to place the garden where you will walk past it every day.  This way, as you are walking to or from your house, you will see the garden and remember to water it.  That’s it.  Once you have that done, pour yourself your favorite drink.  We will work on step two next time.


Coffee anyone?

When Things Get Shady

Common Maple, Leaf, Green, Robinia

Shade is one of the hardest problems to work with in a garden. All plants require some amount of light throughout the day, although the minimum hours vary with each plant.  Most plants that are edible or produce flowers require at least 6 hours of light.  That leaves us living in the housing developments surrounded by other tall houses/buildings with very few options besides evergreens.  

Don’t get me wrong.  Evergreens have some benefits. They block the wind, give privacy, and even give homes to wildlife.  However, without some variety, your garden can get boring.  Fortunately for you, I’ve done a bit of digging so you don’t have to. Well, at least not until you get the plants home.  These plants below are either shade tolerant or they absolutely love shade. Bonus, all have some secondary use.



Most of your salad and Asian greens will do well in the shade.  They do still need 4-6 hours of sun, but that is manageable for most housing developments.  Try growing Lettuce, Arugula, Sorrel, Pak Choi, Mustard Greens, Kale, Chard, or Spinach.

Most of your salad and Asian greens will do well in the shade.  They do still need 4-6 hours of sun, but that is manageable for most housing developments.  Try growing Lettuce, Arugula, Sorrel, Pak Choi, Mustard Greens, Kale, Chard, or Spinach.

If you like a little spice in your life, try Chives, Oregano, Lemon Balm, Wild Ginger, Wild Bergamot, Chervil, Peppermint, Spearmint or Parsley.  If you like a lot of spice, Wasabi does very well in the shade.

There are also a lot of berry bushes that do well in partial shade.  Some varieties of Elderberry, Cranberry, Flowering Quince, Wild Strawberry and Emerald Carpet Raspberry.  I have read that Cherry Berries Wintergreen and Salal do better in full shade.  In fact, Salal has been known to grow taller in shade than in partial sun.

Bee Balm, Red, August, Flower

Pretties and Pollinators

It is also very important to include some flowers in your garden as well.  These will attract bees and other beneficial insects to help pollinate your garden.  Without pollinators, we would need to do the job by hand.  I don't know about you, but I certainly don't have time to be running around hand pollinating thousands of blooms year long so I will be planting lots and lots of flowers this year.

For plants that you would not necessarily eat straight out of the ground, try Sweet Woodruff which is typically used to help heal bruises or small cuts, as an addition to homemade wine or in potpourri.  Another good option is American Pennyroyal which is a good flea and mosquito repellant.  It is said that if you plant it by your doors, the fleas will jump off your pets as they near the plant - keeping them outside instead of in your home.  I have yet to try this, so if you try it, let me know your results.

And of course, there’s always the beautiful flowers that attract bees and other necessary pollinators.  Good shade loving flowers include Astilbe, Bee Balm, Bleeding-Heart, Foxglove, Hydrangea, Amethyst flower, Begonia, Flowering Maple, Geranium cranesbill, Yesterday-Today-and-Tomorrow and Meadow Rue, just to name a few.

What are some shade loving plants that you have had good luck with?

Deforestation and Hurricanes

Haiti deforestation

Since 2002, more than 9,500 people have died as a result of floods in Haiti.  In that same amount of time, just over 200 people have lost their lives in the United States Considering how much larger the U.S. (2.9 million sq. feet vs 10,714 sq. feet) is and how many more people reside in the U.S. (318.9 million vs 10 million), that makes the percentage of people dying of flooding in the United States minuscule in comparison to Haiti.  

Of course, Haiti is an island in the middle of an ocean. It is expected that they would see more hurricanes than the entire United States. Perhaps it would be better to compare Haiti to its neighbor, the Dominican Republic. When hurricane Matthew hit, 1,300 died in Haiti, but only 4 died in the Dominican Republic. The island these two countries share is only 401 miles at its longest point. The difference between the flooding in these two countries is a direct result of the lack of forests and vegetation in each country. If you compare the picture above, you can clearly see the difference between the levels of vegetation in the two countries.

Haiti has the single worst example of deforestation in the world and has for some time now. Starting in the 1700’s, Haiti started clearing forests to make room for coffee crops. As time went on, further forests were cut down to supply the island residents with charcoal for heating and cooking. It is now estimated that only 1.4% to 2% of the forest is remaining. Given that the country is only a little larger than 10,000 square miles, that puts the forested area at about 200 square miles, or roughly 1/5th the size of Rhode Island.

Because there are very few trees or vegetation, there is nothing slowing the water and allowing it to soak into the ground with there is a heavy rain or hurricane.  Without the roots of trees and plants, any rainfall runs unimpeded down the hillsides into the ocean. As a result, most of the topsoil is now found in the bottom of the ocean. Without a good layer of topsoil, there is a lack of nutrients necessary for plant growth, making it harder to grow anything, which of course just adds to the deforestation. They have created an environment that can no longer slow natural disasters or sustain human life. It is a vicious cycle.

Even though they have quite a bit of land available to grow food, their soil will not support crop growth. Because of this, Haiti imports approximately 50% of their food. They also receive a large portion of foreign aid in the form of food, yet it is estimated that 60% of all deaths under the age of 18 are caused by malnutrition.

Fortunately, the government of Haiti has realized the need for improving their soil and ability to grow its own food.  They understand the effects deforestation is having on their country and are working to stop the destruction. In addition, there are several permaculture groups who have taken an interest in Haiti. The permaculture groups work with the land to ensure the best practices working with nature are used. They have started building swales (large ditches) to slow the water. This allows it to soak further into the soil instead of just running down the hillsides. They are also working on planting trees and edible plants which will not only keep the hillside from further eroding but will also help with the immediate food scarcity, and any scraps can also be added to a compost pile. This compost will help improve the soil and restore the natural balance of the island.

You can find more information about some of the work being done by permaculture groups in Haiti here: Even though this is a drastic example, we should still pay attention when we are clearing land.  It is important to keep plants and trees on a site for stability.  Should you need to remove anything, it is always a good idea to replace it with something else to keep the soil stable.  Likewise, it is always good to replace any eroded soil with organic matter, like compost, to keep the plants healthy and happy.  Should you have any questions about what or when to plant, nursery’s are a good place to start.  You can also visit your county's agriculture extension office, as most counties have a Master Gardener program specifically designed for this reason.

Observations and Orientation

Elizabeth StoneThe first rule of Permaculture is to observe. For some reason this has really been in my head the last week or two. My husband had an army buddy over the other day and we sat outside by the BBQ while they got caught up. I took advantage of this to just sit and observe the soon-to-be-garden area. The first thing I noticed was the noise. On the other side of our backyard is a busy intersection and cars drive by all day and night. Being from the country, I am not used to the constant noise so I made a mental note to do more research on plants that help block sound. Our dog also lays under these plants so I will need to ensure they are tall enough that she can still lay underneath. I also want to try to find plants that are edible or medicinal so they have a secondary use besides just blocking noise.

The second thing I wanted to make note of was the sun. The southern side of the property near the house and the northern side near the fence get quite a bit of sun. However, due to the height of the houses nearby, they may not get much sun at all the early spring or late fall. I will need to plan for starting seeds indoors (maybe take over the garage?) and also put the plants that require seeds on the southern side. The plants that can grow with partial shade, lettuce for example, can go on the northern side.

South yard

I also went out and measured the yard. The square footage is not very large so I will need to experiment with either stacked beds or vertical beds. Since we are renting, we cannot attach anything to the side of the house. However, we can build standalone beds that go up as high as we need. However, as I am only 5 foot 5 inches, I suppose the beds cannot go up too high unless I want to constantly be on a ladder.

North yard

I did get another chance to sit back and observe when I went to my first Master Gardeners class yesterday. For those who aren’t familiar with the program, the Master Gardener Extension Program was started in 1972 by the Washington State University Cooperative Extension. The first clinic was held at a booth at the Tacoma Mall. They had such a great turnout that a curriculum was created and training began in 1973.

The purpose of the Master Gardener Program is to train volunteers in gardening and environmental stewardship who then provide information to local community members. They not only answer gardening questions from the community, but they also have several demonstration gardens, donate produce to local food banks and they help low-income citizens learn to grow their own food to become self-sufficient. Nearly every county in every U.S. state (and Canadian province) has a Master Gardener program. In fact, as of 2009, there were 95,000 active Master Gardeners according to the Extension Master Gardener National Survey. If you ever have a garden related question, just send them an email, call or stop by and they’d be happy to help. I also have included a few links at the bottom of this page for those who are interested in learning more about Master Gardening or one of the other many classes they offer.

This first class was mostly an orientation in which we discussed course expectations, how to access the course online, recording our volunteer hours and individual introductions. The class lasted for 7 hours and during this time, I had plenty of time to sit back and watch. It was actually quite enjoyable for me as people watching is one of my favorite activities. I first noticed that everyone in the class looked happy. It never occurred to me before, but I have never met an unhappy gardener. I am going to assume this has something to do with the natural anti-depressants found in the soil. It seemed like everyone there had smile and a kind word when you passed them. Going into this class I did have some stereotypes that I was pleasantly surprised to see were not correct. I assumed that the program would be mostly retirement age students. However, I would say at least a third of the class were in their 30s and 40s with at least one person that appeared to be in her 20s.

The teacher had us each introduce ourselves and it was fascinating to listen to all the stories. I was not the only one who had a family member who was a Master Gardener in the past. Nor was I the only one who had really just started gardening. A few had no gardening experience at all while others have been gardening their whole lives. Everyone had enrolled in the class for different reasons, as well. Some want to learn more about houseplants while others, compost. I personally find grocery shopping to be a huge chore so I would like to learn how to easily grow all the food my family needs in a year (with very little effort, of course). It was a great mix of interests and experience which makes me very excited to get started. I can’t wait to share with you what I learn from everyone in this group.

To find your local extension office, click here.

For a history of the Master Gardener program, go here: History of WSU Extension Master Gardener Program.

Want to see the impact the Master Gardener Program has on local communities? Click here.

What Is Permaculture?

Elizabeth StoneI first heard about permaculture a few years ago.  The little bit I read was confusing and implied that you would need a large piece of property.  As a single mom working full time who only had a small piece of property in the city, permaculture did not seem to fit my needs.  I filed Permaculture in my head under “someday” and my son and I started our first small vegetable garden out back.

A few years later, I met my amazing husband and I found myself with an additional 5 mouths to feed.  Shortly after, my husband was offered a job in Texas and we decided to go for it.  As I did not have a job in Texas yet, it seemed like the perfect time to improve my gardening skills.  As I was looking into local Master Gardener classes, I came across the free "Introduction to Permaculture" course through Oregon State University.  I figured it would be a great time to tackle this “complicated” subject.  It turned out to be the complete opposite of what I expected.  Not only can permaculture be applied to any size property, but it is easy!  I thoroughly enjoyed the course and now am enrolled in the full "Permaculture Design" course with plans to take the "Advanced Permaculture Design" course.

“Yeah, that’s swell.  But what IS permaculture?!” I hear you saying.  According to Wikipedia, “Permaculture is a system of agricultural and social design principles centered on simulating or directly utilizing the patterns and features observed in natural ecosystems….The word permaculture originally referred to permanent agriculture, but was expanded to stand also for permanent culture.” 

What a mouthful.  Even knowing what permaculture is, I had to read that more than once to make sure I understood it.  After trying to explain it to others a few times and watching eyes glaze over, I eventually started saying that permaculture works with nature and the resources you have on hand already to help find the easiest route to becoming entirely self-sufficient.  They key phrase here is “works with nature.”  Working against nature is time consuming and exhausting; no one has time for that.

The term permaculture was coined in 1978 by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, whom are generally referred to as the fathers of permaculture. They each have created their own “Principles of Permaculture,” which they believe are the foundation of permaculture.  Masanobu Fukuoka, another early permaculture teacher, is also highly regarded in the permaculture field if for a slightly different approach.  Fukuoka took the easy route, stating "I just emptied my mind and tried to absorb what I could from nature."  There are also numerous other individuals and groups around the world who are using permaculture to re-establish depleted areas or to increase their food production. 

The information on permaculture is exhausting.   Fortunately for you, I was able to simplify these down to just 4 steps to get you started: 

1. Observe – spend some time looking around at what you have.  Make a list (mental or physical) of everything you see, including plants, water sources, what direction the wind comes from, animals you see.  Make sure you pay attention to energy sources and waste products that you see.

2. Make a plan – Sit down and make a rough sketch of the property and what you want to see happen.  Start with the big items and things you cannot control, such as which direction the sun and wind come from and where the buildings are located.  Include any water sources from rain, gutters, ponds, streams or even just your own faucets.  End with the small items that are easily changed like garden beds and compost piles.

3. Add variety and diversity – Make sure that you have a lot of options on your property in case one doesn’t work out.  If, for example, you only plant carrots from one side of your property to the other there are a lot of things that could happen to wipe out your entire crop.  The cute little bunnies could decide to move in and take out your whole crop.  There could be a disease or unexpected frost that kills every plant.  You would be left with nothing.  But if you have variety, your carrots might die, but you still have apples, broccoli, wheat, etc. to eat.

4. Start slow and small – Permaculture doesn’t have to be setup overnight.  It is a constantly changing design, so take your time.  You may have a plan drawn up, but after putting in the garden bed you may realize you forgot that the neighbor’s trees block the sun.  You might have built a compost bin and then realized that the stream next to it overflows into the area you wanted to place it.  That’s okay because when you are done with that, you’re going to go back to number one and observe again.

Simple, right? The best part is that you can make it exactly how you want it.  Don’t like blueberries?  You don’t have to plant them.  Love ‘Honeycrisp’ apples?  Plant yourself several.  That’s where we find ourselves right now.  When we decided to move back to the Northwest, we were fortunate enough to be offered a cheap rental in a great neighborhood.  However, the lot is small.  Very small.  Our gardening area probably is less than a quarter of what we had before we went to Texas.  Not only do we have to be very picky about what we decide to plant, but we also get the awesome experience of testing out permaculture on a small scale.  I can’t wait to get started!

testing garden 

permaculture sketch 

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