By Su Reid-St. John
My husband and I have always taken a rather lackadaisical approach to our garden. We’d plant a few tomatoes, a bit of rosemary, maybe some okra, then pretty much let them fend for themselves. Our harvests, unsurprisingly, were as mediocre as our caretaking.
But this past winter we began wondering what sort of message this was sending to our 6-year-old daughter, Zoe. Shouldn’t we be teaching her that growing our own food is worth a bit of time and effort? So this year we vowed to make a change and turn our side yard into a real, productive vegetable garden. Why our side yard? Not only does it get a lot of sun, but, more importantly, it’s right next to the driveway. Translation: It’s hard to ignore.
Here’s what we wanted to accomplish and how we made it happen, bit by bit, over the course of a couple of months. All of the materials used in the makeover are available at your local home improvement store, so feel free to steal and tweak these ideas to make them your own.
Open up the space. Our side yard is a small one, so the first step was to take down (and recycle) most of the metal fence separating the side and back yards. Sensing an opportunity for some creative repurposing, we left one section up to serve as a trellis for cucumbers and melons. To give it a more polished, less industrial look, we painted it black.
Improve the growing areas. Our soil’s okay, but I was eager to see just what kind of harvest we could produce with “new” soil. Plus, we’ve got chipmunks who love to tunnel up through the soil and nibble our veggies. The solution to both challenges: build a collection of raised beds.
The frames for the beds were super-simple, made of 2” by 10” boards secured with screws at the corners. We had a total of five built: two 4’ x 8’ beds, two 4’ x 4’ beds, and a 1’ x 11’ bed to run along the fence trellis. To foil the chipmunks, we stapled ¼” hardware cloth to the bottom of each, and to keep weeds at bay we laid down several layers of newspaper atop the cleared soil beneath each bed. Finally, we filled the boxes with a nutrient-rich mix of potting soil and composted manure.
Add containers. Five beds is a lot of planting space! But with my veggie and herb to-get list growing as quickly as the weeds around our compost bin, we decided to also add several large containers – a mix of steel tubs and plastic pots – for extra growing room. To keep them close to the water source (since containers tend to dry out faster than in-ground plots), we grouped them in a friendly cluster on the side of the beds closest to the house.
Plant a bit of everything we love. In past years, we’ve frequented farmers’ markets to bring home all the veggies our family adores. No more! We made a list of our favorites that includes black cherry tomatoes, Roma tomatoes for sauce, pickling cucumbers, lettuces of all kinds, cantaloupe, red bell peppers, Swiss chard…it’s a long list. Over the past couple of months, we’ve planted nearly all of it — creating, in essence, a farmers’ market in our own yard.
Make watering easier. I must confess, however, that neither my husband nor I has the patience to keep such a sizeable garden sufficiently watered throughout the hot Alabama summer. So we came up with a solution: soaker hoses.
Now before you start thinking, “that’s too complicated for me,” hear me out. Once the beds were planted, all we had to do was wind a soaker hose around the plants in each box, peg the hose down with landscaping pins, and connect it to the spigot via a regular hose. Voila – irrigation! Next, we covered the soil in all of the beds and pots with wheat straw mulch to help keep all that precious water from evaporating too quickly. To make things even easier, we attached a timer to the spigot and hoses so we don’t even need to remember to turn on the water. As a finishing touch, we added a rain barrel to catch all the previously-wasted water that gushes out of the downspout when it rains.
Cover up the ugly patches. We still had to contend with a couple areas of bare ground, one where we’d grown okra last year and the other a mound of barely-covered roots from a long-gone maple tree. We tilled the ground, mixed in some compost, and planted some pollinator-friendly plants like pineapple sage, bee balm, and dill, then mulched with pine bark to add a bit of visual contrast to the lighter-hued wheat straw in the rest of the garden. Next, we covered the root mound with a layer of soil and planted some phlox, a creeping perennial flower that thrives in shallow soil.
Done! Now, not only does our garden-filled side yard look lush and fertile, but putting so much work into it has made all of us – including Zoe — feel much more invested in our plants. Now when I get home, the first thing I do is head for the garden to investigate what’s growing, what’s flowering, and what’s ready to be devoured. Often, passing neighbors will stop by for a chat and leave with a basket of lettuce or some strawberries. Our side yard doesn’t just look better, but it’s become a source of fellowship (and food) for both us and our friends. Now that’s what I call a makeover!