On Building A Vegetable Garden For Seniors

Well, it has come to this when we talk about building a garden for seniors. Sigh…

  My sweetie and I are seniors.  And I’m blaming Covid for this state of numerical affairs. Before Covid, I was any age I wanted to be or felt like being when I woke up. After Covid, I’m “at risk” because of my numerical age and it’s been impressed on me that I “should” be careful, avoid strangers and indeed look both ways before I cross the street to retrieve the mail out of the mailbox.

Well crap. (I’d use another word here but this is a family-themed garden blog.)

As Seniors We Needed A New Garden Design And Operating System

Just between us, I used this “seniors” excuse to revamp our vegetable garden and “steal” a few square feet for my perennial propagation and breeding adventures.

But having said that…

The First Decision Was About Where To Put The Compost Bins

To accomplish this new garden adventure, I’m eliminating a rather large compost bin and creating two smaller ones I can dig by hand. The older one is a tractor sized digging job and frankly between the two, I prefer that the tractor does the digging.  This fact alone apparently convinces some people I’m a senior. 

I note I’ve never liked digging and that’s why I was the owner of a nursery and employed other folks to do any necessary digging.

The Compost Bins Were Moved Inside The Vegetable Garden

I’m putting the compost bin inside the garden because it makes it easier to create compost (the garden is where a great deal of the organic matter originates) and this new location is closer to the kitchen door. (See concrete block construction below)

Closer to the kitchen door really counted this winter when I made a mad dash to empty the kitchen bucket without having to dress up like a three-year old in a snowsuit to venture out. And moving forward, who knows where we’ll be, so closer is better.

And, even if I could empty the current bins by tractor, I had to wheelbarrow and shovel the finished compost within the gardens. The tractor weight leaves tracks across the finished beds that would have to be repaired (i.e. lots of hand digging.)

gardens under construction

I Wasn’t Saving Labour

It turned out I wasn’t saving any labour by using the tractor, simply changing what I had to dig.

Note: keep your garden stuff as close to the garden as possible.

Using Raised Beds In My Garden For Seniors

I immediately started designing raised beds that would be marvels of surrounding wood construction. But my sweetie pointed out that when we were on our knees or leaning into the bed, it would be easier if I didn’t build walls around each bed. 

She felt very strongly about this and as every guy out there knows, when your beloved says, “I feel strongly about this,” you move forward in any other direction at peril of your happiness and indeed life.

My contribution to this was to increase the size of the pathways between the beds.

This allows us to get onto our hands and knees to work and makes it even easier to get back to our feet without destroying half the plants in the bed.

Note: The beds are now roughly 3-feet wide and so are the pathways between beds. And I’ll get back to you about the wood edging in another year or two.

How Many Beds Do We Really Need?

This is an interesting problem as well.  When I was on the farm, the garden was monstrous. We fed the six of us out of that garden. But the kids are grown up with families and gardens of their own so I can make our garden any size that works for my current lifestyle.

And, normally Mayo and I go south for the winter (if you don’t count this Covid winter) and we really don’t need to produce a year’s worth of food out of this garden. What we need is fresh food as early as we can get it and as late into the fall as we can get it.  This alone makes a massive difference in the kinds of plants, the numbers of plants and square footage of a garden. 

Note: no matter how many beds you have, you’ll always need “just one more”.

I might even go back a decade or three and build some cold frames for extra-early salad green production.  But that’s a next-year kind of thing.

I’ll have pictures and some other thoughts on this in upcoming posts as I sort out the actual operating systems to make our new gardens productive.

But the time is upon us now we’re seniors. 

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p.s. I’ll get back to you about this new “seniors” label. Apparently it comes with discounts at some of the places I haunt for used books (good). But still, I’m not sure I’m willing to adopt this label just yet. I just got over being “mature” so don’t expect me to go willingly into “senior-hood.”

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Shading Vegetables in High Heat Areas

The summer of 2012 was a very high heat one across the bulk of North America and gardeners had lowered harvests as a result of this. In our own shallow soil garden, yields were well below my expectations largely because of excessive soil heating and high leaf temperatures.

This study caught my attention this week – what happens when you shade a vegetable crop from this heat – because this is what I’m about to do in my own garden. I built a massive raised bed containing 2 full truckloads of top soil (52 yards in case you’re curious) so we have more depth and soil capacity.

In short, shading a crop decreases the plant activity as the shade factor increases (we know that)

Now we toss in another variable – the more you shade a plant, the larger the leaves grew to find more sunlight but the absolute number of leaves decreased. The reduced light causes fewer leave but those are bigger.

The objective was to discover the shade density at which the increased leaf size and resulting plant energy equaled the leaf size from normal plants to give you the same output.

In other word, we want to reduce heat stress on the plants so they’ll be more likely to give us a crop.

Click here for specific advice on growing vegetables.

How much shade will they take before they start lowering the harvest.

The number is 30-47% shade. Buy shade fabric with this level of sun blocking.

I will also use less water and the same harves as I would expect in normal conditions. But it will do it under higher heat conditions.

Note – this research was done on green peppers so there may or may not be exact ways to transfer this info to other crops. But for me, that’s close enough.

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The One Thing You Need To Do Before Planting Flowers or Vegetables

If you’ve started your own perennial flowers, (or any other plant) the first thing you really need to do before planting flowers or vegetables is acclimatize them.

This means slowly but surely introducing them to outside conditions.

The short version of this is to get them ready to go outside by putting them outside for:

  • One hour on Day 1.
  • Then two hours on Day 2.
  • Then three hours on Day 3.
  • Then four hours on Day 4
  • Day 5 leave them outside (unless there’s a frost forecast) all day
  • Day 6 – leave them outside all night too.
  • Day 7 – transplant into garden.

Yes, even perennials need to be acclimatized.

Tender vegetables really require this. (All vegetables are “tender”.)

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What If You Purchased Your Transplants?

I’d do the same thing if they were in a greenhouse. Start right at Day 1

If they were on racks outside, then I’d begin with Day 3 or 4.

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Raised Bed Gardens: Advantages and Disadvantages

Raised bed gardens have their supporters, that’s for sure but they aren’t a cure…

Here’s the deal from my point of view gathered over 30 years in the nursery industry. I’m not going to sugar-coat this article because I know there are a lot of folks who really think raised beds are the greatest thing since sliced bread.

In many ways, raised beds are simply big container gardens.

I think it depends on your gardening style and garden. Here’s my experience with this style of gardening. You can either make raised bed gardens by mounding up soil or by constructing boxes (of almost any material) and then filling the boxes with soil.

These are however essentially two distinct ways of gardening and I’ll explain this below.

Image by author of his garden

Our raised vegetable bed — I built it because we only had 3-inches of soil over shale rock. The overhead supports help hold the sides upright (the weight of the soil bowed them out) and used for growing tomatoes and other vertical gardening crops.

The Advantages of Raised Bed Gardens

  • The soil warms up faster in the spring. It’s above ground level so the sun gets to work on it from the top and the sides.
  • They are closer to the gardener. Which is just another way of saying the gardener doesn’t have to bend down as far to reach the plants.
  • Superb for differently-enabled gardeners who may not be able to bend or kneel comfortably. Wide rows between the beds enable wheelchair access.
  • A good raised bed can act as a garden when you don’t have enough soil (like my garden).

Disadvantages of Raised Bed Gardens

  • Raised bed gardens use more water than soil-level beds.
  • Large (taller) beds act more like containers than garden beds so you have to modify the soils and watch your fertility if you are going to have truly wonderful gardens.
  • Can’t be walked on or if too high, over top of (you have to walk around them and this gives me more grief than any other characteristic of them — from a practical point of view in my large garden.)
  • You can’t use machinery such as rototillers to till or modify soil — it’s all hand-work. On small beds, this isn’t an issue but when I tried to make permanent large beds in the old farm vegetable garden (a very large one) then it quickly became apparent that I wasn’t going to do a lot of digging.
  • Mulch is tricky to keep on top of raised beds. It seems to migrate to the sides of the beds.
  • Expensive. I have to raise my garden beds because I have very little soil and this means the costs of 6×6 beams and the extra costs of fill and topsoil to fill up these beds.
  • In-ground raised beds (where you use a hoe or rake to create raised beds in a regular soil garden) are more work every year and this extra work isn’t worth it if you mulch heavily for weed control (heavy mulching will slow down the heating and reduce the main reason for using these raised beds.
  • Perennials and woody plants might have trouble overwintering depending on the nature of climate and the size of the raised bed (bigger beds make it easier for plants to survive).
  • You’ll still get weeds and they’ll grow in the rows as well so your weeding isn’t reduced.

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The Answer to the Question…

Should you use raised bed gardening techniques? It depends.
 I use them because I don’t have much soil where I want to garden and my raised beds help me create the necessary depth.
Are you prepared to use the increased amount of water they require? Any time you raise soil above the ground level, gravity will suck water downwards to the normal below-soil-level mark.
Do you want extra early crops of vegetables? Raised bed gardening is one answer for you and combined with other early cropping techniques can really make your vegetable garden come alive earlier in the spring.
Do you have physical challenges? Then custom building raised beds may be the answer.
Are you concerned about the high heat of summer? Then raised beds might not be the answer as the soil temperatures can get too hot for good growth of some plants. For example — high heat will make vegetables such as lettuce quite bitter.

Bottom Line:

Raised beds will be useful for some folks for the reasons above. But they’re not a panacea. They don’t provide any form of garden advantage other than a physical one and/or an early crop.

You’ll find these resources helpful for creating a great garden

Container Vegetable Gardening: Do These Five Simple Things

There are only five variables that you have to worry about to be a success at container vegetable gardening. And isn’t it nice that it’s this easy? 🙂

#1 Use The Biggest Pot size

This is one place where bigger is better.
A plant such as a tomato, that can easily reach 6 to 8 feet tall and a single growing season and produce 100 pounds of fruit, requires a significant root space and water reservoir in the soil.

The minimum amount of soil that you can realistically use is 6 to 8 shovels full of soil. (plan on more) This minimum will require a daily watering most of the season, and twice a day watering in the heat of the season.

This means bigger is better (at least in this one example)

Stressing a plant such as a tomato with a slight lack of water will create disease conditions such as blossom–end-rot.

Small pots lead to watering problems which lead to this major fruiting problem. In this case, it’s a physiological disease as a result of a lack of calcium being moved to the fruit and some people think that adding calcium to the soil is the solution. The vast majority of soils do not require extra calcium, but the plant does require water to move the calcium up to the fruit.

So a lack of water will create problems in the harvest. You can read more about these black spots on the bottoms of your tomatoes here

Another variable with pot size is soil temperature. Smaller pots have higher soil temperatures then larger containers and the swing between high and low temperatures is also greater

This swing in soil temperature will also reduce harvests. When the soil temperatures get too high, plant growth will slow down or stop.
Note that stressed vegetables such as lettuce will taste bitter.

#2 Get the Container Soil Right

Container gardening requires a different kind of soil then normally found in garden soil. The bottom line is you want a soilless mix with a peat moss base rather than any kind of garden or potting soil.

The mechanical forces on the soil in a container are much greater than the mechanical forces in regular garden soil

For example, when you water a container you are applying significant depths of water and pounding the soil in such a way that it will not be replicated in normal garden soil unless there was a flood

Think about it for a minute, in a container you apply 1 inch of water in the space of 1 to 2 min

Imagine what would happen if 1 inch of water came down as rain in only a minute or two. (You *really* don’t want to be out there in that storm!) 🙂
For this reason, we use  peat-based soils such as Pro–mix that are designed to withstand this kind of watering pressure.

Do not add regular garden soil to any container. And read the label on the bag – if it says “garden soil” or “topsoil” do not use it in a container.

#3 Watering Properly – A Simple System

The rules of thumb for watering any container apply equally to vegetable container gardening.

Use your finger.

  • Put it on the soil and if it comes away dry, water heavily and thoroughly so that water pours out the bottom of the pot.
  • If your finger comes away damp, do not water at this time.
  • If you do this in the morning, check again 8-10 hours later in the shoulder seasons (spring and fall) and 4-6 hours later during the height of the summer.

Early in the season, you may find that watering is not a daily chore but later in the heat of the season when the vegetables are growing strongly, you may indeed find that twice–at–day watering is necessary.

This is why really large pots have an advantage over the smaller ones – more even availability of water.

#4 Feeding For Growth and Flowers

Doug’s first rule of gardening states, “You only have to feed your plants if you want leaves, flowers, or fruit.”

This is pretty simple gardening, you feed if you want to see good growth and good harvests.

This is not an option.

I’ve had a lot of gardeners tell me they don’t feed because their soil is “good”. (Doug goes speechless when this happens)

In a container, I try to feed at least once a week during the height of the harvest season to keep the plant growing and producing well.

A weekly feeding earlier in the season is fine. In our greenhouses when we were growing commercial tomatoes, I used to feed every time I watered (daily) with a weak solution of fertilizer so the plants were never nutrition–starved.

I normally recommend fish-emulsion because I’ve had great results with it. But any organic liquid-based fertilizer is fine.

#5 What plants can I grow?

I really do not understand the confusion about growing plants in a container. If you follow the four major rules above with regard to pot size soil, watering and feeding there’s absolutely no plant that will not grow successfully in a container.

  • It’s far easier to ask, “What plants can’t you grow?”
  • If you can grow it, you can grow it in a container.

Mind you, there’s always somebody trying to sell you some new gizmo or technique to “help” you.

But no gizmo can possibly substitute for the 4 gardening techniques above. And here are my posts about specific plants

Relax

This isn’t rocket science, it’s simple gardening. If you get your watering done properly, and feed your plants every week, then you’ll be surprised at just how easy this kind of container vegetable gardening is.

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