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Jano Nightingale supervises a large raised bed garden at the Pine Avenue Park Community Garden in Carlsbad. Wooden planks are stacked to make it easier to maintain the bed without having to bend over. Photo courtesy Jano Nightingale
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Jano’s Garden: Creating your vegetable garden with help from a raised bed

Hello fellow gardeners and welcome to Jano’s Garden. This bi-weekly column will be based on my 15 years’ experience as a master gardener and as the director of the Master Gardener Program at the Cornell University Cooperative Extension in Cooperstown, New York.

I built my first successful vegetable garden 35 years ago in the backyard of my Victorian house in a small town on the Hudson River. I filled the old-fashioned wrap around porch with window boxes festooned with purple and white petunias, which created a lively entrance to our new home.

My house was just 20 feet from my elderly neighbor’s, and I often saw him working in his backyard. One day he sauntered over, “Howdy, Ma’am. Name’s Johnny. I live right next door, and I noticed all those pretty flowers on your front porch. But, ya’ know what? You can’t eat those pretty posies! So, I brought you one of my San Maranzano tomatoes. I brought these seeds all the way from Italy 50 years ago and have been growing them ever since. In my Italian family we always have at least six of these in the backyard. When my wife was alive, she would have made her own tomato sauce. Sure do miss that sauce.” He proceeded lead me back to his “back forty” which was a small 100-foot lot.  His two raised beds were filled with tomato plants, supported by slightly rusty tomato cages. Scraps of brown ladies’ stockings were tied to the tomato stems for support, and metal pie plates attached to the top of the cages “kept the crows away.”

Johnny convinced me to build my first raised bed in my yard that summer and 35 years later my 34-year-old son and I have two small raised beds on our 20-foot patio in Vista. I have spent the past three years experimenting and learning the ins and outs of gardening in North County.

This week we will look at planning a small raised bed for vegetables, and in future columns we will explore how to create vegetable and flower gardens in containers. Whether you have an apartment patio or small back yard the first thing you must do is assess your site.

Take a walk on your “back forty!” Whether your space is just a 10-foot patio or a half-acre backyard, the planning stages are still the same. Try to wake up early, just after sunrise and take pictures of where you would like your garden to be. At this time of day, you can get a very clear idea of not only the intensity of the sun but also whether or not there will be shade overshadowing your efforts. Shade can come from overhanging trees, a neighbor’s fence or a building adjacent to your property. It is useful to take pictures at noon and later afternoon as well, since most vegetables need six to eight hours of full sun to grow most vegetables.

Once you have determined the available sunlight of your space, you will begin to plan your raised bed in either a north/south direction or east/west, not on a diagonal. Stake out the beds with garden twine to establish the outer dimensions of the beds and the paths between them.

After deciding where you would like to put the beds, remove all grass and weeds. Lay down black landscape fabric before adding the wood planks. Most people use 4-by-8-by-8 foot hardwood planks, and for complete instructions about constructing the raised beds go to www.cce.cornell.edu/chemung. The local San Diego Master Gardener’s website which provides free information regarding planting vegetables can be found at www.mastergardenrssandiego.org.

Considering the poor quality of most soil in the North County area, raised beds provide a way to control not only the soil type but also the height and width of the project. They can also be constructed to accommodate a more comfortable stance by stacking two or three planks on top of each other.

While working with school groups and community organizations over the past 15 years as a master gardener, I have learned that teaching others how to grow food is the most important educational tool I can pass on to others. In the following columns we will discuss soil, fertilizer and most importantly how to choose the right vegetables for every season. And, yes, we will talk about how to grow the best tomatoes in San Diego!

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