Food & Drink

Jon Carloftis, another expert offer step-by-step instructions in building a garden

An organic kitchen garden at the Arboretum is in its second year. Greens and vegetables in raised beds are surrounded by a tobacco-stick and netting fence.
An organic kitchen garden at the Arboretum is in its second year. Greens and vegetables in raised beds are surrounded by a tobacco-stick and netting fence. Lexington Herald-Leader

If you're trying to eat healthier, or get your kids over the "yuck" factor of nibbling a green bean, growing a small back-yard garden can be a giant step in the right direction.

Having some tomatoes, lettuce and a few herbs — even if it's no more than the ever-useful basil and dill — just a few steps from the kitchen can win over the most reluctant taste buds.

Raising vegetables is not hard, but we asked two gardening pros for suggestions to eliminate a lot of the guesswork.

Garden designer Jon Carloftis and Sharon Bale, a retired extension specialist in horticulture at the University of Kentucky, teamed up last summer to construct and plant an organic kitchen garden at the Arboretum on Alumni Drive at the suggestion of Country Living magazine.

The long list of varieties of herbs and vegetables, which Bale started from seed in the greenhouse, came from suggestions of leading chefs around the country, including Alice Waters, Peter Hoffman and Rick Bayless, early leaders of the slow-food movement; and White House chefs Cristeta Comerford and Sam Kass.

They divided the 32-foot-by-56-foot plot and made 12 raised beds.

"We had every problem under the sun. Everything went wrong," Carloftis said. "It was a wet growing season. The soil wouldn't drain. Rabbits were out there like crazy, and we got a load of tainted manure." The manure came from cattle fed on pastures where herbicides had been used. "Those chemicals don't break down as they pass through an animal," he said.

These are the kinds of problems all people have at one time or another.

"We didn't have it easy," Carloftis said.

Of course, this indomitable pair, using wisdom and wit, averted disaster and ended up with a delightful, productive vegetable garden. "When we talk about what works and what doesn't, this is from firsthand experience growing vegetables in Kentucky," Carloftis said.

Bale and Carloftis are repeating the garden at the Arboretum this year, which you can see by walking to the back of the vegetable-gardening section. Already, rows of lettuces, spinach and other spring greens are growing robustly. Six stylish white birch teepees are in place to provide climbing structure for beans and cucumbers, which will be planted later.

Here are some suggestions from Carloftis and Bale.

The site's important

Choose a location that gets eight hours of sunlight a day. Make sure it's near a water source.

Raise it up

In a raised bed, the soil warms quickly in the spring, and drainage is never a problem. A manageable size is 4 feet by 8 feet. Use cedar logs for the frame; treated lumber has chemicals that can leach into the soil. Build the sides as high as you want. Carloftis stacked six timbers for a raised bed at his house in Bucks County, Pa. Lay heavy-duty chicken wire across the bottom; staple to the sides. Line the inside walls with plastic; staple in place.

Soil's the secret

Carloftis recommends using a professional-grade growing medium. These come in 4-foot-cubic foot bales at garden centers. The medium can be a bit on the expensive side, but Carloftis likes them because they are sterile and have a loose consistency. Seeds have a high germination rate when grown in these soilless mixes. To every 10 bales of medium, Carloftis mixes in five bags of play sand.

Choose what to grow

Grow what you like to eat: beans, a few peppers, herbs. But by all means, include a few tomatoes, Bale said. "Tomatoes are more for your own satisfaction, so you can say, "I grew these,'" she said. For unsurpassed flavor, grow heirloom varieties.

Plant it

Cabbage, lettuce, spinach and broccoli transplants can be planted as early as late March. Tomatoes like warm soil and warm air temperatures, so wait until early-to-mid-May. For sowing seeds, read the seed packs for information about dates to plant, the depth and spacing.

Control slugs

If slugs turn up to munch on lettuce or other greens, sprinkle handfuls of sand around each plant. Slugs don't like crawling over the gritty surface.

Grow vertically

Use cages or teepees to grow climbing vegetables like beans, peas and cucumbers. In the middle of the teepees, plant salad greens that need protection from the hot sun. You can replant lettuce several times during the spring and summer.

Use mulch

Mulch to hold in soil moisture and suppress weeds. You can mulch with a variety of materials including grass clippings or torn sheets of newspaper covered with shredded bark. Carloftis prefers pine needles because they add a bit of acid to the soil, which vegetables like.

Keep critters out

Bales and Carloftis made a fence around the garden using tobacco sticks, screwed together and covered with bird netting that is stapled to hold it in place.

Water intelligently

When you water, reward plants with a good soaking, so the water reaches the roots. Don't sprinkle water on the leaves; it will encourage powdery mildew.

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