Saturday, April 4, 2020

A no-till vegetable garden in a hurry

Let us suppose that for some reason (cough, Covid-19, cough) you suddenly feel you need to put in a vegetable garden in a hurry.  What would you plant, and how would you do it?

First things first:  for decades, your tax dollars have been very well spent on several agricultural services, both federal and state.  The federal service has mapped out the entire United States by soil type and also by climate growing zone. An associated state service called "extension" brings the latest in agricultural research to farmers, gardeners and the public.  Your state extension service also has just an amazing amount of information about vegetable growing, varieties good for your area, information about the kinds of diseases to look out for, planting calendars for your region, almanacs and so on.  In your browser window, search for "YOUR STATE extension vegetable gardening." If your particular state extension website doesn't have exactly what you're looking for, search a neighboring state's extension.  Extension's website is set up differently in each state, but it is always free and has endless info.

--Pretty good choices
Some crops just give you more bang for your buck. The easiest food to grow for calories, meaning, the biggest bang per square foot of garden bed are potatoes, followed by winter squash (especially if the squash grows up a trellis).  Beans and peas are high in protein, tomatoes, eggplants and peppers are good stomach-fillers.  Squash, beans, peas, tomatoes, eggplants and peppers will all do well in an emergency garden of the type I'm talking about here.

--Somewhat iffy choices
Cabbage can last a long time in storage, but you have to actually like cabbage enough to eat it, plus cabbage likes it cool. Leafy greens like spinach are good for vitamins, but contain few calories and also need cool weather: a bit of summer heat and they "bolt" (go to seed, no longer good for eating).  Broccoli and kale like it cool, also: in many places, kale is grown as a fall crop. In my experience, the hardiest greens in all weather conditions are collard greens.

--maybe wait til next year
Carrots have a lot of vitamins and store well, but require a well prepared garden bed in which to grow--not really suitable for emergency gardening, frankly. Corn is delicious, but takes up way too much space in an emergency garden for far too little return, food-wise.

BTW: if it is mostly greenstuff you want to get out of your garden, then IMHO, sprouts grown by the kitchen sink in a jar will give you the easiest access to fresh greens without having to garden at all.  No soil, no digging, no harvesting, just (cleaned!) seeds, water and a (perfectly clean!!) jar will do the trick.

EMERGENCY GARDEN BEDS (yes, it can be done)
If you want a crop this year, and you're starting with a lawn, then IMHO, you really are too far into the season to prepare a proper garden bed.  Bed prep was best done last summer or fall.  OTOH, spring is the best time to discover the need for an emergency garden, because the whole growing season still lies ahead. Despite not having prepared a growing bed last year, you can get a crop this growing season with a trick I've often used called no-till gardening.

No-till does mean you're not digging up a big patch in the middle of the lawn.  But, no-till doesn't mean "no work."  You still have to do some digging, just much less than you would do by conventional methods.  The no-till trick shown in this post also reduces your weeding very substantially but beware: weeds are tricky customers, and no garden ever invented did not need some weeding.

This blog has shown a different method of no-till gardening, that variation was for putting in a "living path" with no need to first till up the ground under the path.  Today's post shows the specific variation I would use (am using!) for putting in an emergency  veggie garden without a whole lot of shoveling, weeding and the like.  This trick is good for above-ground crops, such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, squash. It is not good (this year anyhow) for below-ground crops like potatoes, beets or carrots.
I'm only going to talk about growing crops above ground, but if you want to grow no-till potatoes, here is a very good trick you might like to try laid out in a post (not mine).   I have not used this exact method, but have used one very like it and it worked well. Hint: you need so more mulch than you can possibly imagine to keep going with the system shown at the link, so save those leaves and grass clippings n a corner somewhere.

If there's weed-killer on your lawn vegetable plants may not live: residual weed-killer will kill pretty much anything that isn't grass.  So, if you have a wild corner where the clover grows into the grass, dandelions shoot and weeds luxuriate, that is the place to choose, but...
You have to have sunlight.  You can't grow vegetables under a tree.  Hostas, yes.  Tomatoes, no. How much sunlight?  A lot.  A half-day of sun won't really be enough. Look where your green-thumb neighbors grow roses and annual flower beds (zinnias, geraniums).  That's the kind of sun-exposure you need to grow vegetables.

You will need
--CARDBOARD (or LOTS of newspaper) This holds the weeds down, kills the grass and makes the garden "no-till"
--OPTIONAL: some 4x4's or other edging material
--LEAVES or other dry organic material without seeds in it
--TIME and a TARP
--A KNIFE and a SHOVEL (for making the planting holes)
--A LITTLE HAND-SHOVEL (trowel) for preparing the ground

Lay onto your lawn some large pieces of corrugated cardboard.  Appliances or sofas come in large cardboard, but it you have no such large pieces, get what you can and spread it out, overlapping, on the lawn. Avoid waxed corrugated such as banana- and broccoli-boxes. If you have a huge stack of newspapers, these can be used instead, overlapping the sections.
Pro tip: if using newspaper, get a bucket of water and dunk the newspaper sections in water before you lay them, so they don't disappear into the wind.  And by sections, I mean a section of newspapers minimum 6-10 sheets thick, overlapped by 25% all around. single sheets laid next to one another accomplish nothing.

If you have some 4x4's laying around (untreated is best near food) or even some 2x2;s, build a rough framework which goes around the edge of the cardboard.  This edge gives you something to mow or trim against, and helps keep running invaders (like grass stolons) out of the bed. Edging also helps keep in the leaves (next step).  If you have no lumber then you can use bricks, concrete blocks, plastic lawn edging, whatever you have.
Pro tip: If using edging, measure up what shape your edging will make (how you lay our your lumber) before laying out the cardboard, so the two match up. It's easier to lay cardboard out in the right shape than it is to saw up edging.

If you have nothing to edge with, then as the old folks said "you have no problems, just more work."  You can still grow by this method, but you are going to have to do more maintenance to keep the weeds and grass from creeping into the bed, and to keep the leaves from blowing out.

Step 3: LEAVES
Pile on those leaves.

Here is a photo of a 4x8 bed after steps 1, 2 and 3.  The last load of leaves went onto this bed a few days ago, as we finished our lawn clean-up here in southern Wisconsin (zone 5).  The edging is 4x4 cedar left laying around after a different project.

New wood-edged no-till bed under construction.  Note that the
stone-edged bed in the upper left corner is a permanent rhubarb bed

Step 4: TIME and a TARP
Now you have to wait for it to rain. Or, you have to drag the hose out and water the bejabbers out of the pile/patch.  Once it is really, really wet, lay the tarp over the whole mess, weigh down the tarp-edges and a big weight in the middle, then stand back and let everything rot under there.

Here is a photo of the same bed with the tarp on.

New no-till bed "solarizing." The tarps were put on the leaves
after a rainstorm

How long to wait depends on your patience and what you plan to plant: different plants go into the ground at different times.   I am in Wisconsin, where the planting season for squash (direct seeded) would be in mid-May.  I intend to let my pile stew under its tarp until then. Note that when it rains, I'll run out and pull the tarp off to let the pile get wet again, then re-cover when the rain stops.

Under the tarp, the pile of leaves will start to rot. The sun will heat up the whole thing (called "solarizing"). When the pile is truly wet and the day truly sunny, the pile will literally steam when the tarp is removed.

Step 5: A KNIFE and a SHOVEL
No matter how wet and hot it gets, the cardboard under the pile will actually be pretty hard to force a shovel through, even if the pile has rotted nicely.  The cardboard will take up to a year to rot, and you'll still find fragments after two years.  The cardboard is your weed-barrier, so this is all as it should be.  However, since you need to plant through the cardboard, this is where the knife comes in handy.  A sharp vegetable knife, a garden knife, an exacto blade: any kind of knife, although the cardboard will dull the blade.

So, shove the leaves out of the way (maybe heap them on a corner of the tarp for the time being) and make a hole about one foot square.    Dig into the hole with the shovel, as deep as you can.  Because you're constrained by the size of the hole, you may not able to get your shovel down very far, at least not at first. However, persevere: if the shovel is having a hard time penetrating the ground, think how hard it would be for plant roots to do the same.

After you have the soil dug up some, crouch down on the ground and work your hole as best as possible with the trowel.  You are trying to stir up the ground to a good "tilth," meaning, it has nice, even finish without too many clods.  Therefore, remove the yellowing grass clumps, any rocks you encounter etc., and do not return that stuff to the hole.  As you make the ground nicer with the trowel, you can dig around again the with shovel, also.  As you go back and forth between the trowel and the shovel, you will find that you can make the hole deeper and deeper, and the soil nicer and nicer.   You might want to dig some of the soil out of the hole and lay it on a different corner of the tarp for the time being, so you can get further into the hole with the shovel.

Note that when you first uncover your hole, the soil may be wet, in which case, you have to let the soil dry out before you start shoveling or troweling. Digging around in wet soil is a bad idea for your soil structure.  This means that between first using the knife to uncover the hole, and the time you have worked your soil to a good tilth and loosened the soil significantly, a week might have passed, where you are working the soil a little bit more every day as it gets dryer and looser and nicer.

Another important point:  The unworked soil on the sides of your hole will trap the roots and make them grow round-and-round as if they were growing in a flower-pot.  This is because the ground around the hole has not been loosened.  Therefore, shove the shovel into the sides of the hole and "crack" the surrounding soil: you need not dig it, just force cracks all around the side of your hole so the plant roots can get out and roam around in the soil under the cardboard.  If you have a long pry bar, that's a good tool, too, for cracking the planting-hole sides.

You may think you're doing your plant a kindness to work some nice amendments out of a bag into the hole--some potting soil or perhaps, some nice compost.  The problem is, plant roots prefer not to cross a soil discontinuity.  This means, when there are different kinds of soil in a layer-cake type arrangement, the plant roots prefer not to travel across the layers.  Therefore, do not layer-in your soil amendments, but instead work them in so they smoothly grade into the native soil, less amendments towards the bottom and sides of the hole, more toward the top and center, but always with some portion of native soil mixed in.

Note also that the amount of soil which came out of your hole will magically be far too much to put back in.  This is because digging the soil fluffs it up to a greater volume than it was before.  The solution is to heap the soil up a bit, letting it spill over the edges of the cardboard hole. Just make sure your plant is centered in the hole, not over the cardboard.


--Starter plants
Tomatoes, peppers or eggplants are all actually tropical plants. This means, they need warm, settled weather to germinate, so unless you live in a warm climate, it isn't really practical to direct-seed these.  These plants are usually started many weeks before the average frost-free date.  Starting seeds in the house can certainly be done, but unless you have a sterile grow-medium and an actual plant light, then no matter what Pinterest says, the plants you start in the house are going to be spindly, diseased elongated things unlikely to thrive very well out in the garden.

If tomatoes, peppers and eggplants are your aim to grow, and you are a first-time gardener, then IMHO, it is going to be worthwhile to track down some starter plants a.k.a. seedlings.  This means, little plants in a 4- or 6-pack like the kinds sold at the local garden center.  Our local garden center is shut down so you can't go inside, but they are doing curb-side pick up, and have indicated that they will be selling starter veggie plants.  Big-box lumber yards often have a garden section, and these stores are still open as being "essential."  Drive-through farmer's markets are starting to be a thing, and some sell vegetable starts. Some outfits will sell starter plants by mail.  Phone your local greenhouse and ask: many of them geared up to produce their veggie starts for sale long before Covid was on their radar, so they do have the plants, it's just a question of how to get them. However you obtain them, though, if you are a first time gardener, and these "tropicals" are your aim to grow, starter plants will tilt the balance in favor of your growing a fine crop.

--Direct seeded
If you want to grow beans (pole beans will give you more crop per square foot of garden) or squash (winter storage or summer green-types), or cucumbers, or even peas, these can be direct-seeded and will still give you a crop all the way up to zone 4 (which means, pretty far north in the USA!)

As to varieties of vegetables, heirloom organic are delicious and have a halo reputation.   However, despite 30+ years gardening experience, I've had more crop failures with heirloom veggies than any other kind.  The reality is, a hybrid plant with built-in disease resistance is less likely to disappoint and more likely to provide satisfaction in getting an actual harvest.  Luckily, most starter plants are precisely these kinds of hybrids. Also luckily, what's for sale in your area is likely to be a variety which will grow well for you.

--"Hardening" starter plants
The first thing is, you want your starter plants to get used to your weather.  If your plants were acclimatized (called "hardened off") by the grower, you have no problems.  If they came out of a greenhouse, then you must harden them off yourself.  Here's how: once you get past the last frost free date for your growing region (consult your state extension) leave your starter plants outside during the day, and bring them in at night for a couple of days before you commit them to the ground.  The amount of soil in a starter-pack is so very little that the plants can easily dry out: even if you keep them watered, direct sun would possibly dry them out too much.  Therefore, not only must you keep them watered, but also stand them in light shade, not full sun.   After a few days, leave them outside even overnight, but close to the house, which is a slightly warmer place than the open garden.  Once your plants are hardened off, then plant them out.

--Planting out
For tomatoes, get some of the stem into the ground.  The below video shows how.  Do not be discouraged by comparing the endless loose soil in the video to your little hole of loosened soil, the point is to plant the tomato plant as deeply into the ground as your particular soil will allow. Roots will form all along the stem, anchoring the plants better to the ground and gathering more nutrients for bigger, better fruit.

For other kinds of starts, plant them the same depth as they were in the pot.  Below is a little video showing how: it's child's play!  Again, however, do not be discouraged by comparing the soil in this raised bed with your little hole.  If you have followed along as stated above, the soil right in your planting hole is loose enough to grow a nice crop.  Also note that this video shows planting lettuce, but the theory is the same for all non-tomato crops.

The leaves you piled on top of your cardboard may want to cascade down and bury your little starter-plants, so set a ring of something around them: a can opened at both ends, or a rose ring, or even a collar of cardboard cut from a box.

--Planting from seeds (direct seeding in the garden)
Many plants traditionally recommended for direct seeding (seeds go into the ground where the plants will grow) have large seeds: beans, peas, squash, cukes.  This makes it easier to see what you're doing.  For beans and peas, try to buy some "inoculant" with which to coat the seed before planting: this gives the seeds a head-start on gathering nutrients by adding beneficial bacteria to the soil.

I,  personally, soak bean and pea seed for 12 hours before planting, but not cucumber or squash seed. The seed packet tells you how deep to plant the seeds, and extension will tell you the spacing for your area.  It might be best to put several seeds into each planting hole, but thin to one if and when they all come up.  It feels like murder to cut down seedlings (cut--don't pull, or you'll disturb the roots of all the seedlings). Yet, that's the gardener's life because one good plant will give you more than twice as much produce as two scraggly ones.  The extras were your insurance policy to be sure at least something comes up in each of the holes.

Your garden plants need nutrients.  The soil already contains a good deal of what they need, but they'll almost certainly need more to make a good crop, especially if they're growing in what used to be a lawn.  Concentrated organic fertilizers such as blood meal, bone meal and green sand certainly exist, but you might have a hard time finding them. Further, blood meal and bone meal are an invitation to dogs, cats, raccoons to dig everything up looking what their nose tells them is the corpse of an decomposing animal. A less-concentrated organic input, in the form of compost, is an excellent solution, but takes time.

For an emergency garden, a balanced artificial fertilizer would work quickest and most reliably: Miracle-Gro is a well-known brand which will certainly give you lovely tomatoes, but...just because a little is good doesn't mean a lot is better. Synthetic fertilizer is very powerful and concentrated.  Use too much and you interfere with natural soil processes so you get the opposite effect from what you want.  Your soil gets hard and un-fertile from over-fertilization. I would use Miracle-Gro at half the recommended strength: unless you're gardening sand, that will give you quite a good crop. Also, leave that bag of lawn fertilizer alone: that is not a balanced plant food, and worse yet, it might be mixed with  herbicide (weed-killer, which is also vegetable-killer!)

A FINAL THOUGHT: why the leaves?
Do you wonder why the leaves were necessary when the cardboard was already laid to kill the grass and keep the weeds under control? First, it's for a mechanical reason: the leaves protect the cardboard, the cardboard protects the roots and suppresses the weeds. But beyond that, the leaves will eventually improve soil structure and fertility. To explain...

Cardboard in the sun would heat up, and would heat the plant roots also.  Further, sunlight would soon disintegrate the cardboard itself. But the leaves not only protect the cardboard from the sun, they do even more: they keep the soil under the cardboard cool and damp.  Cool damp soil eventually becomes loose soil without your having to do anything at all.

You see, although this is a no-till method, in reality, the soil is being tilled all the time, just not by you.  Earthworms and other ground-dwelling beasties turn over enormous amounts of soil, and they prefer cooler, damper conditions for their work. As the cardboard becomes softer, they will actually start churning both it and the leaves into the soil. Without any particular work on your part, the cardboard and the leaves will become enriched garden soil: even by the end of this summer you will see the process get a good start. In technical terms, you are "sheet composting" on top of the soil, and the compost thus created will become part of the soil.  You can keep the compost on top of the soil topped up: it's a great place for grass clippings, as long as the grass doesn't have weed killer on it, or weed seeds in it.  One caveat: grass clippings give off a lot of heat as they rot, so keep them from touching your actual plants.  Also, stir the grass clippings into the leaf-layer: this helps both layers break down faster.

The sheet compost on your bed isn't a great place for kitchen waste or for garden waste, however--animals will dig around to get at your moldy bread, potato peels and that 2-foot zucchini which inexplicably escaped your attention, although you looked under the leaves of the plant every day.   Sheet composting is for "sterile" (no weed seeds) bulk materials like leaves and grass clippings.  A separate compost pile is best for kitchen and garden waste.

The organically enriched soil resulting from sheet composting of bulk materials is most fertile and grows excellent crops.  It's a win-win. If  you need (or want!) to keep gardening in future years, you will be way ahead--this year's patch will be much more all-purpose next year, suitable even for root crops such as beets and carrots. And, when this horrible plague is over, and you no longer feel the need of an emergency garden, you will have a souvenir of this time: a wonderfully green patch of lawn where your  no-till  garden bed lay in 2020 (that horrible year).



  1. What is the spacing you recommend in the holes in the cardboard?

  2. Hello Mary: The spacing depends on what crop you are planning to grow and your climate. Your state extension website will have the answer to this and other similar questions, "personalized" for your area.

  3. I love the theory of this method and have tried it in the past but found that all the leaves, cardboard etc. functioned as a paradise for pests (especially snails/slugs & earwigs) that ate my seedlings as soon as they came up. This doesn't happen for you?

  4. This is where the edging and the tarp come in. Given sufficient time and full sun, the tarp basically cooks everything under it, including insects and their eggs, etc. that may have come in on the leaves. Taking the tarp off on a warm day will still steam, that's how hot it can get under there.

    The edging also helps: it lets you keep the adjoining lawn clipped short, so once the tarp comes off, there isn't a grand highway for bugs, etc. to comfortably enter. Short dry grass in full sun just isn't as conducive as long, cool, damp grass, so a full-sun site with trimming around the edging does help quite a bit.

    That said, if you have a serious snail or earwig infestation, piles of organic matter will, indeed, attact these critters, and the tarp may not really have time to do its solarization work, given how far advanced the season already is. Perhaps giving the tarp more time to work would pay off in the long run, even if it means delaying planting by a month, or even more, and concentrating on all-fall crops.

    As you see, there is no free lunch anywhere: there is a reason clean-tilling with bare soil is the standard practice, and you have hit upon part of the reason--easier to keep creepy-crawlies under control, but at the expense of a lot more time and effort to establish a garden bed.