Carson Arthur is in the middle of garden show season when he takes time away from his busy schedule to speak with me about his suggestions for growing the best food at home. His new book, Vegetables, Chickens, and Bees, hit the shelves in February of 2019 and is already topping the favorites list of many gardeners.
Part of Arthur’s appeal is the way he shares his #gardenfails along with his successes. “I want growing food to feel accessible,” he says. “The number one reason people don’t garden is that they think they can’t.”
He compares his method to the chef in the children’s movie Ratatouille, who says over and over again, anyone can cook. “Anyone can grow food,” Arthur says, “as long as you know what the food needs to grow. If you can make the food happy, it will happily grow—and off you are.”
But in order to succeed, new gardeners benefit from some advice. Ever generous with his knowledge, Arthur shared the following tips for those of us who, like him, grow their food in raised garden beds. To hear more about growing vegetables, farm fresh eggs, and honey, check out Vegetables, Chicken, and Bees published by Appetite (Random House).
1. Start simple with herbs.
If you’re new to gardening and want to start out small, you might find yourself tending a single raised bed or deck planter as a way to get your feet wet. With limited space and time, you might also be tempted to cram in as many plants as you can—to the detriment of those you choose. Everyone grows tomatoes and eggplant and peppers in deck pots, right?
While those are rewarding plants to grow, they also require a lot of care and attention, not to mention water, especially if you’re growing them in pots. Instead, Arthur says, start with something simpler—and easier.
“I tend to drive people towards plants that are going to survive—like perennial herbs. Things like thyme are so simple to grow once you get them established. Things like mint, same thing. Very little water, very little care, so much so that you need to pay attention, because they’ll take off on you. But when it comes to growing, dead simple.”
2. Understand the needs of your plants.
If you’re ready for something more challenging and you have the time to care for a larger selection of edible plants, Arthur has this advice: “The things that people get wrong the most often, especially first time growers, is misunderstanding the needs of the plants. We know plants that produce food, like tomatoes and peppers, need a lot more energy from the sun, a little bit more water, and a lot of nutrients in the soil.”
Before you choose plants or seeds for your bed, do some research. How much sunlight do your beds get throughout the day? Are there amendments you should be adding to your soil before you sow your plants for the year? Thinking about the answers to these questions will help you avoid some of the garden fails Arthur talks about—and get the best results possible.
3. Plant leafy vegetables in the shadier areas.
If, like many gardeners, your plot is challenged by shade at certain times of day, fear not. Some of the easiest vegetables to grow don’t mind a little shade.
“Anything big and green and leafy does better in low sun situations,” Arthur says. “So lettuces, spinach, kale… Their leaves work just like little solar panels, so their ability to turn sunlight into energy is significantly better than a plant that has small, skinny, tiny leaves.”
Choose a leafy salad mix, or stock those shade-dappled beds with enough leaf or head lettuces to supply your family’s salads for the season. Many fabulous greens are now available.
4. Start with the right soil.
If you’re gardening in raised beds or patio planters, chances are you’ve purchased a soil mix to fill the space. That’s a good thing, because one concern Arthur has for people, particularly those in urban centers, is that their backyard soil might be contaminated.
“The reality is that more contractors are burying garbage than ever before, and often times people purchase a property that—while it’s new to us—may have had a previous owner and you don’t know what was done in your area. If you’re growing food in the backyard, unless you get that soil properly tested, you’re really gambling with what’s in the ground.”
Plants absorb nutrients and other ingredients from the soil and pass those on to the edible parts of the crops we eat. That’s why Arthur opts for raised beds in his own garden. “It allows me to control exactly what’s going on in that space. I don’t have to worry about what was there before. I don’t have to worry about nutrient levels, because I am starting fresh with the soil that I want to put in.”
For the best all-round soil to get your beds off to a good start, Arthur recommends triple mix. This commercial term refers to soil that has other things mixed into it, like manure, sand, perlite, or vermiculite.
“Put your triple mix in for the first year,” Arthur says. “Everything will be happily growing and you won’t have to add anything.”
5. Track what you plant from year to year.
Keeping accurate records about what you put in each bed from year to year will help you make informed decisions about what amendments your soil needs each time you plant. Since each plant has different needs, Arthur’s book provides a handy table for exactly what sort of amendments plants remove from your soil—and what you need to put back in.
Tomatoes, for example, like calcium rich soil, so treating a bed previously used for tomatoes with calcium before planting another crop is a good idea. Sketch out a simple map of your plantings and store in a safe place for future reference. Review each year before you plant.
6. Pair plants carefully.
Gardeners often notice that certain plants grow well when planted next to other specific plants. In the same way, some plants don’t grow well when paired with a particular plant family. This idea of companion planting has been around for some time, and gardeners like Arthur pay attention to both the anecdotes and the studies that tell us companion planting really works.
“We now know with all the new studies out there that things like beans and tomatoes not only don’t mix in the garden bed, they hold such a grudge against each other that they don’t want to be planted in the same spot even within two years…they’re the West Side Story of the garden.
“You can actually see, when you put the right pairings together, how much happier the plants are. They’re perky, they’re lively, and they grow.”
– Carson Arthur
In contrast, anything in the onion family loves to be paired with anything in the tomato family. “I love that combination,” Arthur says. “Whether it’s because the onions protect the tomatoes from insects, or that they just happily love to grow together, I always make sure that I’ve got some garlic or chives in with my tomatoes.”
Arthur also recommends planting beans and broccoli (or any member of the cabbage family) together. “They’re a match made in heaven. You can actually see, when you put the right pairings together, how much happier the plants are. They’re perky, they’re lively, and they grow.”
7. Plant in rows to make weeding easier.
How should you plant your seeds when the time comes? Should you broadcast your seed across the bed to prevent weeds from sprouting, or buy one of those seeding squares from the local nursery to get the most from your space? With so many options to choose from, it’s hard to know which way to turn.
According to Arthur, there’s only one way to go if streamlining your weeding time is your goal. “I like to weed in long swaths, so I like beds planted at least six inches apart in rows. That way I can run a hoe straight down the middle.”
And while he has tried seeding squares (which, he says, are great for small spaces) and broadcast seeding (which is good for production), nothing simplifies weeding like good old fashioned rows. That’s because weeds will sprout no matter how you sow your crops. Gardening in rows means you don’t have to be a botanist to tell a weed from an edible garden seedling.
“I find if I don’t get to the weeds right at the beginning, my plants don’t even get established before the weeds take over,” Arthur says.
8. Get into xerophytic plants.
When considering what to plant in patio containers, think about how often you’ll have to water on a sunny day to keep your plants from shriveling up. Planters often sit on a sunny balcony or patio, since (as noted above) many plants need 6-8 hours of sunlight each day to grow. To make your life easier, Arthur suggests planting drought tolerant plants in these locations, saving the high-needs plants for raised beds in the garden.
“I tend to put plants that are Mediterranean based [in pots on my deck], so a lot of the rosemarys, the basils, a lot of the plants and herbs that come out of the Mediterranean, because they’re used to being hot and dry.”
He’s also had great success with lavenders and winter and summer savory, along with many xerophytic plants (plants that have special adaptations to thrive in low water situations).
“Xerophytic plants tend to have gray leaves, or a greyish sheen to the leaf. That’s a very good indictor that they can handle a hot dry situation.”
9. Make use of mulch.
To conserve moisture and prevent weeds from growing, consider using mulch on your beds. Once a year in fall, Arthur covers all of his raised garden beds with newspaper. Then he buries the newspaper in composted amendments. “In my case I’m adding things like composted chicken manure, any of the extra soil that I had left over in bags…”
The newspaper takes 4-6 months to decompose. In that process, it adds amendments to the soil and blocks weeds from coming up. “When I come to spring, I till everything in and away we go.”
Tilling for Arthur involves a small and light hand-held tiller. “It’s about 8 inches wide, quick and easy and painless. And because it’s hand-held with a long handle, I’m not compacting the soil.”
You can also mulch in season once your plants are established, taking care to leave enough space around each plant stem.
10. Just do it.
Whether you have a few hours a week or a whole lot more, gardening is possible for everyone. From raised beds to planters to a few pots on a window sill, you can grow food to eat in and around your home. Knowing the needs of your plants and the limitations of your location is key, but eventually you have to take the leap.
Using Arthur’s motto, RIGHT PLANT, RIGHT PLACE, you can buy seeds or seedlings that work with the space where you plant them. And you can learn along the way.
“I really just want to instill that this book is designed for a new generation of gardeners…” Arthur says, adding that while gardening can be challenging at times, the rewards are well worth the effort.