Getting Started at PPCG (Part 3): Garden Design

Whether you can visualize your garden’s design in your head or you need to sketch it on paper, it’s a good idea to plan your garden before you plant! I like to use graph paper to help me keep everything to scale and remind myself just how much I can (and can’t) fit in a 6′ x 12′ plot.

Electronic garden planners–some free and others free for a short trial–are also readily available. This spring, for example, I tried out the Old Farmer’s Almanac garden planner, which offered plenty of bells and whistles, such as month-by-month planning for successive crops. After a one-month trial, I ended up not subscribing to the service because I was frustrated by specific ways that it didn’t allow me to individualize my plan. Still, it’s definitely worth a try if you work well with computerized planning.

Think about sun and shade at Perkins Park

We have some shade to deal with at Perkins Park, but it isn’t always a bad thing, especially for crops that thrive with a little break from the sun.

The sun rises on the side of our garden opposite the shed and sets roughly behind the shed. Expect the shade to shift throughout the season and to broaden as leaves grow on the trees around us. In late summer and into fall, the garden beds on the southern edge (the side with our composters) get heavy shade through a large portion of the day because the sun remains lower in the sky. For a rough idea of spring sunlight hours, here’s a light/shade map of our garden.

summer-sunflower-flowers-sky-54459.jpegWithin your garden, think about which plants will grow tall and shade other plants.

Tomatoes and plants grown on trellises, for example, will cast broad shade, which may or may not be desirable depending on the plants you are growing near them. For optimizing sunlight, the best place to put the tall plants is along the northern edge. Please note we have a six-foot height restriction for structures and plants.

Consider which plants can tolerate shade more than others.

Here’s a handy chart to use as a guideline, but always be sure to read up on your plants’ growing information.

Plan where you are going to place pathways, supports, and barriers.

Knowing where you are going to walk will help you gain access to all of your garden and minimize compacting your soil.

Supports such as tomato stakes and trellises should be installed before or at the time of planting.

It sounds obvious, but from my own experience, here’s another important tip: if you are planning on installing barriers to keep out deer, make sure that you can still have ready access to your garden.


Part 4: Plant Choices

Part 5: Planting

Part 6: Garden Maintenance

In case you missed it…

Part 1: Organic Gardening and Soil

Part 2: Our Growing Season and Gardening Resources

Getting Started at PPCG (Part 2): Our Growing Season

Our growing season is short here in New England, which means that if you want to fit in a few successive crops, you have to plan carefully. You can try to extend your growing season by using tunnels and other frost protection. These lettuces that I planted out on April 1, our opening day at PPCG, survived a few bouts of temperatures down in the 20s under a grow tunnel.IMG_20180423_075227139.jpg

Other plants like tomatoes can suffer setbacks, if they survive at all, for the rest of the growing season if they’re exposed to cold temperatures.

Take a look at this handy chart from URI for a guide on when to start specific crops indoors or plant them out in the garden. URI bases their chart on a final spring frost date of May 15, which is a good guide for us as well.

Cool season crops, planted in spring, include onions, leeks, chives, lettuces, spinach, kale, broccoli, and peas. These plants not only thrive in the cool weather, but in many cases won’t grow well in the heat of summer. Broccoli, for example, can bolt to seed before you harvest any florets if the weather warms before the plant has produced. Here’s a blog post with a more complete list and some growing tips.

Warm season crops include tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, cucumbers, corn, eggplant, melons, and squash. You’ll need to start these crops indoors (if you’re growing from seed) at around the time that you’re planting out your cool weather crops.

Check your plant tags and seed packets for growing information, paying careful attention to ‘Days to Maturity.’ Since our growing season is on the shorter side, think about selecting varieties that mature more quickly.   Johnny’s Selected Seeds is a great resource for growing information. Browse through their online information and request a catalogue. Seed Savers is another good resource. UMassAmherst offers a wide range of fact sheets.


Part 3: Garden Design

Part 4: Plant Choices

Part 5: Planting

Part 6: Garden Maintenance

In case you missed it…

Part 1: Organic Gardening and Soil

Getting Started at PPCG (Part 1): Organic Gardening and Soil

Before I get in too far with this multi-post, which broadly covers the basics of getting your gardens started at PPCG, it’s worth mentioning the idea that gardening is both a science and an art. For some gardening practices, we have scientific, documented evidence to back up using a particular technique. In other cases, maybe we do things a certain way because they’re traditional, or we like the way they look, or in our own experience, we’ve found they work.

The only rules that we ask you to follow at PPCG are the ones we include in our gardening contracts, particularly the rule that you not use any synthetic herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers.

Feel free to experiment and try things out. We’ve all had successes and failures, and everyone’s site has different challenges. Don’t abandon your space if you find your plants struggling. Ask for help and keep at it. And by all means, enjoy your plot!

What is Organic?

The easy answer is that organic gardening does not use any synthetic herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers. (See here for other organic practices.)

There’s more to the definition, though. Organic gardening attempts to use nature as its guide, acting in ways that cooperates with nature.

Many hands make light work!
Many hands make light work!

By cultivating the space where our gardens are located, we’ve already disrupted natural processes. But our aim as organic gardeners is to minimize this disruption. For example, we take away organic matter when we harvest our crops, but we replace it by adding compost to the soil. (Above photo shows our site under construction, from Sustainable Braintree. See more photos on their website.)

Some people even consider organic gardening to be primarily organic soil-building. “Healthy soil yields healthy plants that are less susceptible to diseases and pests. Populations of beneficial organisms thrive in the absence of pesticides and provide further checks against problems” (Martin, 2014, p. 8).

Gary and I both get a fair amount of shade up in plots 30 and 31, but I think we do all right in part because we’ve worked for a number of years on building the soil. When I first started gardening at PPCG, right after the whole area had been been plowed under and staked out, the soil was so poor that water simply ran off and didn’t absorb into the soil.

Which brings me to the next point…

Consider Getting Your Soil Tested

If the above information hasn’t convinced you, here are some more reasons why to get it tested.

Where and how?


Part 2: Our Growing Season and Plant Sources

Part 3: Garden Design

Part 4: Plant Choices

Part 5: Planting

Part 6: Garden Maintenance


Seed Saving

Louise and her husband Chuck joined PPCG in 2014, the spring after they escaped (Louise’s word) from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She grows the most beautiful red oak leaf lettuces that decorate her garden like boutonnieres. For the first few seasons she planted them, I watched them grow tall and mangy, wondering why in the world she wasn’t eating them. It turns out she had another purpose for them…

Seed Saving

by Louise Quigley

Agriculture began thousands of years before there were garden stores or seed catalogs.  Until very recently, gardeners and farmers had seeds to plant in spring only if they saved seed from the previous year’s harvest.  This can still be done, and there are good reasons to do it.

Why Save Seeds

Before the twentieth century, people all over the world bred seeds and slowly improved crops by saving seed from the best-performing plants each year, which produced thousands of varieties of each crop, each one adapted to its native soil and climate and with potential resistance to different pests or diseases.  If one variety failed in a given season or soil or climate, there would be other varieties to fill in.  But recent commercial agriculture has focused on offering the few crop varieties that are easiest to grow with farm machinery or for mass distribution.  Often, these varieties are very high-yielding only because they’re hybrid seeds bred to respond to chemical fertilizers and requiring chemical pesticides.  Locally adapted seeds were not profitable to offer in nationally-distributed catalogs, even though they were often tastier and better suited to various local conditions and organic practices.  The result has been the unfortunate and potentially dangerous loss of some 75% of the crop varieties that existed just one century ago [Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook 2018, p. iii].

Saving seed and working with other seed savers enables you to grow varieties of garden crops not commercially available but which may be specially adapted to your conditions and organic growing methods.  They’ll taste better than anything you can buy.  At the same time, by growing heirloom crop varieties and saving and sharing the seed, you help preserve those varieties and the heritage they represent.  And as a bonus, it’s fun and very satisfying.

How to Save Seeds

  1. Start with seeds of an “heirloom” or “standard” or “Open-Pollinated/OP” variety of whatever crop you want to grow. “Hybrid” or “F1” seeds will not breed true, and should not be used. Catalog descriptions should give you this information; if they do not, get seeds from a source that does.  (See below for some useful catalogs.)  Most garden store starts are hybrids, so unless they are marked as heirlooms do not use them for seed-saving.
  2. Plant your OP seeds as you usually would. Cool-weather crops like peas, spinach, lettuce, and radish can be direct-seeded, as can fast-growing warm-season crops like beans and corn. But saving seed from longer-season warm-weather crops like tomatoes and peppers will require starting them indoors between March and early April for planting after danger of frost in May.
  3. When saving seed from more than one variety of plants that could cross-pollinate with each other, pay attention to spacing them so as to avoid unwanted cross-pollination. For example, I place my two different heirloom lettuces in different areas of my garden space. If you want to save cucumbers or squashes, note that they can be particularly complicated in this regard. For details on this and all other aspects of seed-saving, I still rely on Suzanne Ashworth’s book Seed to Seed, though I note that Seed Savers Exchange has replaced this old “bible” with a newer book, The Seed Garden.
  4. Once the plants are growing, they have to be allowed to go to seed; for some but not all crops this takes considerably longer (and looks a whole lot… seedier) than just growing them to eat. Different techniques are needed for different crops.  For example:pexels-photo-89267.jpeg

* When I save leaf lettuce, I harvest individual leaves rather than a whole plant, leaving enough of the plant to keep growing until it starts to send up a flower stalk.   Leaves then become too bitter to eat, and I leave the plants to go to flower and produce seeds.

* pexels-photo-870808.jpegFor peppers, simply let the fruits ripen fully, past green to yellow or red or whatever color that variety gets to.  Choose one pepper from each of your plants of that variety, and when you cut them open you save the seeds that are in them and eat the cases as you ordinarily would.

*Tomatoes are harvested for seed when the fruits are ripe, tomato-red-salad-food.jpgthe same as peppers, but the seeds need special treatment.  You may have noticed that fresh tomato seeds, unlike similar-looking pepper seeds, have a kind of gel around them.  This must rot off before the seeds will grow.  In nature, a ripe tomato falls to the ground and rots, and then its seeds sprout.  In the kitchen, this process must be reproduced.

Cut open one tomato from each of the plants of a given variety.  Squeeze a bunch of seeds from each fruit of that particular variety into a glass together.  Add a little non-chlorinated water (I have a filter on my tap;  otherwise use distilled water, or something similar:  plain tap water in Braintree has enough chlorine in it to taste and smell, and the chlorine is there to inhibit the mold that in this case you want).  You can then eat the rest of those tomatoes.  Place the glass on the counter and check it daily;  add non-chlorinated water as needed to make sure that the seeds do not dry out.  After a few days, it will look scummy and start to smell really really bad.  This is a good sign, and indicates that the rotting process is proceeding correctly. After a few more days, it will no longer look very scummy or smell so much.  This indicates that the rotting process is complete.  Pour out the water and scum, retaining the seeds, and spread them on a plate to dry for a few days.  Once they are quite dry, save them in a labelled baggie in a cool dry place (as described below).

*pexels-photo-768090.jpegWith peas and beans, which produce multiple pods on each plant, I harvest some or most of what grows for eating while leaving one or two pea or bean pods on each of the better plants to mature into viable seed (they’re ready when the pods turn brown and dry).

*pexels-photo-73640.jpegThen there are the crops like carrots and parsley, which are biennials:  their first year they just make roots and leaves, and you have to leave a few of the best ones in the ground to overwinter so they can put up their flower stalks in their second growing season.

And so on. Consult a book like The Seed Garden for all the details.

  1. Once you have harvested viable seeds, you may need to remove any hulls or pods from the actual seeds. Do this for one crop variety at a time, and then place each variety’s seeds in their very own baggie and Label It clearly with the crop type, variety name, and year.  Do NOT even think about trying to remember all winter which seeds were in which baggie!!!!  Really!!  Save them in a cool dry place (I use my frost-free fridge, which keeps them viable over the winter just fine).


This is all a bit more to do than just going to the garden store and buying what they have there.  But it enables you to grow crops and crop varieties that the garden stores don’t sell.  For example, the original snap pea, Sugarsnap, which I grow and save, has been superseded in many catalogs by its descendants, but is still my favorite.  Matt’s Wild Cherry Tomato, a unique kind of cherry tomato, was collected from the wild near Mexico City by someone named Matt and offered only through Johnny’s Selected Seeds;  I do not know of any other sources besides Johnny’s and SSE.  The McClintock tomato that I grow is available only from SSE.  The rarity of many wonderful varieties is therefore one reason to save seed.  In addition, it is enormously satisfying and a lot of fun to complete the circle from seed to plant to seed to plant again.  And it makes you part of the effort to preserve the crop biodiversity that we’ve inherited.  Give it a try!

Useful Sources of Seed

Seed Savers Exchange started in 1975 as a small group and has expanded to about 350 “listed members” who offer seed each year (I have been a listed member for over 20 years now).  SSE encourages gardeners to join the exchange, save seed, and share it with each other through an annual Yearbook with over 10,000 listings, all open-pollinated.  Nonmembers too can buy seed of many of the Yearbook’s offerings, and can also buy from SSE’s regular (ordinary-size) catalog.  Find the online yearbook at    The website for the catalog is   SSE’s snail mail address is 3094 North Winn Road, Decorah, IA 52101.

Other seed catalogs I’ve used that note which offerings are heirloom/ open-pollinated versus hybrid:

Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 955 Benton Ave., Winslow, ME 04901-2601

Seeds of Change, PO Box 152, Spicer, MN 56288

Park Seed,  One Parkton Ave., Greenwood, SC 29647-0001

Pinetree Garden Seeds,  or, PO Box 300, New Gloucester, ME 04260

Territorial Seed Company,  PO Box 158, Cottage Grove, OR 97424-0061

Burpee,  300 Park Ave., Warminster, PA 18974

Giving Your Garden Soil (and You) the Spring Treatment

A lot of my cool season seedling packets tell me to “Plant as soon as the soil can be worked in spring” without any further instruction.

Obviously, I’m not going to dig in frozen or snow-covered ground. But otherwise, as soon as it’s thawed, is it good to go?

Definitely not, according to the garden resources I checked. Soil that is too wet from melting snow and spring rains will compact easily when you walk on it. Dig into it with all of the energy of a New Englander who’s been cooped up all winter and your soil will break up into an uneven mess of clumps and air pockets.

Compacted soil. Clumpy soil. They don’t even sound good, and in fact, both are bad environments for your seedlings and transplants. Ideally, your soil should contain about 50% open pore space–that’s 25% water and 25% air. Luckily, no one is expecting you to measure the pore space; I’m only mentioning it to help demonstrate what can happen if you mess too much with your soil structure. Working your soil, especially when it’s too wet will alter the pore spaces, affecting water and air movement and how well all of the seeds you planted will develop roots and emerge as seedlings.

What’s the right moisture level for working the soil? Information on Rodale’s website suggests that if you can squeeze your soil into a ball that can be easily shattered by pressing into it with your finger or dropping it from a height of three feet, you should be okay. On April 1 of this year, I felt okay about prepping my bed at Perkins Park; the next day when it snowed was a different condition altogether. The point is, conditions can change from day-to-day.

Let’s say your garden’s moisture level is ideal for prepping it for planting. Time to get out pexels-photo-296230.jpegthe shovels and pitchforks and hoes and rototillers? Hold on…the more I’ve been reading and learning about soil, the more convinced I am that the less you work your soil, the better. Here is one case where laziness–no more back-breaking double digging–might be better for the long-term health of your garden.

Tom Akin, agronomist and State Resource Conservationist at the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in Amherst, MA promotes a minimal tillage approach to growing. I heard Mr. Akin speak last fall at an Urban Gardening course I was taking through the Trustees. Tillage alters your soil structure even under ideal moisture conditions– not just on top, where you’re digging, but deeper below, too. Soil that’s been heavily tilled tends to have compacted layers below the depth of the tilled space.

Also, disturbing the soil brings dormant weed seeds to the top where they’ll germinate and compete with your garden plants until you pull them out. AND, the more you dig around in the soil, the more you disrupt all of the beneficial living organisms in your soil–not just the obvious ones like earthworms, but also bacteria and fungi.

Now, having said all of that, some crops with fine seeds grow better in soil that’s been more finely loosened. Carrots and lettuce, for example, benefit from a fine bed. Hand-tilling is better. Do the least amount of digging necessary.

Bottom line, what’s the best spring treatment for your soil and you?

  1. Be kind to the pores in your soil. Check your soil’s moisture before you do anything in your garden. Hold off if it’s too wet, no matter how much you want to get in there. Organize the tools in the shed instead.
  2. Give the back-breaking, labor-intensive approach to garden bed prep a rest. Think less CrossFit and more meditation, if you like. Dig only as necessary.
  3. Consider getting your soil tested if you’re new to a space or haven’t had it done in a few years.