Turning a shady backyard into an urban food garden

Click image to view Kathy Martin's detailed garden plan. (Illustration by Mary Ellen Carsley)

Click image to view Kathy Martin’s detailed garden plan. (Illustration by Mary Ellen Carsley)

Kathy Martin, who runs the popular blog, Skippy’s Vegetable Garden, is well aware of the challenges many urban gardeners face. Her own kitchen garden near Boston, is small, at just 250 square feet. As well, she battles encroaching shade cast by two large trees that take away a little more sun each year.

Martin has learned to work around these issues by growing the right plants for her dappled light conditions and relying on space at a local community garden to supplement the edibles she grows in her home garden.

Martin's blog is named after her Portuguese water dog, Skippy. (Photo Credit: Kathy Martin)

Martin’s blog is named after her Portuguese water dog, Skippy. (Photo Credit: Kathy Martin)

Martin’s blog launched in May of 2006 and was named after her Portuguese water dog, a faithful garden companion. “My garden was actually just a muddy patch of soil then, but that was the beauty of it, knowing that it had such potential,” she recalls. Through hard work and practical design, she has built it into a beautiful and productive space, and in 2011 the site was named one of the best gardening blogs by Horticulture magazine.

Martin’s home garden includes both the 250-square-foot area for her edible plants as well as a spot for a 10- by 10-foot cold frame bed. To organize the plot and maximize space, she divided it into five manageable raised beds, separated by narrow 2-foot-wide pathways, mulched with hay.

The five beds each measure 3 1/2 by 9 feet. Opposite these tidy beds, Kathy has included an area for ornamental and fruiting plants, which add both color to the garden and habitat for birds and beneficial insects.

Martin’s husband, Steve, built the 10- by 10-foot cold frame a few years ago. “I like to fill it with greens that are ready to harvest by November,” she says. “They hold well in the frame, and we eat them as we want them during the winter.” Once that winter harvest is finished, she fills the frame with fresh seedlings in March for more greens in April and May. A 4-foot-wide cobblestone walkway runs down the center of the garden, linking the beds together and providing comfortable access for a wheelbarrow.

Adaptability to shade

At the beginning, Martin’s kitchen garden received enough sun to grow a wide variety of edibles, but as the years passed and the surrounding trees grew to shade more of her garden, she has had to alter her plant choices to select for edibles that can still produce with less sun.

“I’ve watched the shadows move across my garden and mapped out which parts get more and less light,” she shares. “Most parts of my garden now have 4 hours of midday light, but I do have a small ‘prime’ section that gets 5 to 6 hours of light.”

An aerial view of Martin's shady urban garden. (Photo Credit: Kathy Martin)

An aerial view of Martin’s shady urban garden. (Photo Credit: Kathy Martin)

Like many small urban spaces, Martin’s garden is also sheltered by nearby homes, creating a microclimate. This gives her an earlier start to the planting season, but also means that she needs to concentrate on heat-loving, shade-tolerant crops. “I’ve found that the best ones are beans, basil and other herbs, cucumbers, and kale,” she says, adding that she also plants tomatoes and eggplants in the ‘prime’ beds with the most sun.

To discover the best crops for her garden, Martin relies on trial and error, testing a wide range of varieties. For example, because she finds beans grow very well in her small plot, she is always on the lookout for new varieties to test.

“I plant pole beans like red runner beans, Chinese pole beans including yard-long and a pale lemony variety that was given to me by a colleague, bush beans, dried beans, and soybeans,” she says. “I have begun saving most of my own bean seeds and sharing them with other gardeners — a process that I am really enjoying.”

For gardeners with less room, growing pole beans is an easy way to boost food production as the vertical vines use less ground space than bush-type plants. “I grow them on 8-foot-tall teepees, five plants per pole,” says Martin.

Cucumbers are another standout crop in the small-space garden. “I’ve had great luck with cucumbers in my part-sun beds,” Martin says, noting that they don’t do well with less than four hours of light. “‘Diva’ is my favorite variety, but I also love the blocky white fruits and chartreuse interior of North Carolina pickling cucumbers.” She uses 4-foot-tall lattice trellises to support the scrambling vines, and she plants them at the edge of the garden so they can scale the fence and roam into the yard.

Niki Jabbour, author of the best-selling The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener, has collected 73 plans for novel and inspiring food gardens from her favorite superstar gardeners in her new book, Groundbreaking Food Gardens. Each plan is fully illustrated and includes a profile of the contributor, the story behind the design, and a plant list.

To keep production high in her challenging low-light conditions, Kathy adds generous amounts of compost. “I compost all of my kitchen and yard waste and end up with a very rich compost,” she says. “In spring, I put 2 inches (5 cm) of compost on each bed and then I use liquid fish fertilizer or organic fertilizer during the growing season.”

Because shade and lack of space limited her plant choices, and because she wanted the experience of growing with others, Martin turned to a local community garden located just a mile away to supplement her home garden. Her 40- by 40-foot plot gives her plenty of sunny garden space for her edible crops and ornamental plants, which include perennials such as asparagus, rhubarb, raspberries, and several espaliered pear trees.

Having a sunny alternative to her shady home garden has made a world of difference. “Growing in full sun and very fertile soil is incredible,” she says. The community garden has also given her the chance to learn many new gardening methods, watch a wide assortment of gardens grow, and connect with the other members. “Sharing the experience of growing food with others — in the community garden, in my home garden, and on the blog — is amazing,” she says.

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