IT’S THE GOAL: to use each square foot of vegetable-growing space to best advantage. But the puzzle of what goes where and when, and of course how to execute the plan without wasting time or money or water can be tricky. I asked Carol Deppe, author of the new book, “The Tao of Vegetable Gardening: Cultivating Tomatoes, Greens, Peas, Beans, Squash, Joy, and Serenity,” to share some wisdom.
She is someone I have often heard called a mentor and inspiration by some of my most respected garden friends, especially in the Pacific Northwest. No wonder, because Corvallis, Oregon-based Carol Deppe–also the author of the popular book “The Resilient Gardener”–is pragmatic, but also scientific in her approach, armed not only with precisely the right hoe for the job but also with a PhD in biology from Harvard and a long background in plant breeding.
Read along as you listen to the March 30, 2015 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here). We talked about choosing vegetables to grow in combination (and when some crops are most productive and easiest grown alone); about strategic steps to avoid late blight in tomatoes, and more.
my vegetable-garden q&a with carol deppe
Q. In your previous book, “The Resilient Gardener,” the sub-headline on the cover includes five crops: potatoes, corn, beans, squash, and eggs. In the new “Tao” book, there are also five: tomatoes, greens, peas, beans, squash. I see that two of my favorite foods made both lists: beans and squash.
A. But the beans this time are green beans, and the last time were dry beans. In “The Resilient Gardener” I was focused more on staples—the things that would produce serious amounts of carbohydrates and protein. In this book, I’m focused on all the other stuff you grow, too—that people grow even if they have very tiny gardens.
If you’ve got a tiny garden, you’re not able to grow very many of your own staples; you’ll probably buy them. But you can do a dynamite job of growing your own tomatoes, and greens—and it’s almost impossible to buy good greens.
Q. In various chapters in “The Tao of Vegetable Gardening,” you touch on your approach in the home garden to pairing crops up, with different strategies. I don’t know if we call it polyculture or…
A. …you can call it multicropping, or some people call it companion planting. But the classical “tomatoes loves carrots”—I don’t go for that at all.
Q. Funny that you say that, because people ask me to write about it, and I’m like: It’s not my thing.
A. There is a lot in gardening that gets written about that’s very romantic but actually doesn’t work at all. [Laughter.]
The practical thing to do with tomatoes is to put them in relatively crudely worked soil, since you’ll be digging a hole anyway, and they’re vegetatively aggressive, and don’t need a fine seedbed.
I usually put my tomatoes that the tiller only went 1 inch deep on; you can’t really plant hardly anything else there. But since I’m digging a hole for the tomatoes anyway, it doesn’t matter.
With the tomatoes I water the planting holes for the first three weeks or so, instead of actually watering the whole patch, so the surface of the ground dries up and I don’t get any weeds. If I try to interplant anything else, that knocks that whole pattern out the window—and I have to actually invest labor in the tomato patch beyond the transplanting. I’d much rather throw the tomatoes into some rough piece of ground, and the only labor I have to do is watering the planting holes.
By the time I have to water the tomato patch along with the rest of the garden, the tomatoes have pretty aggressively sent their roots out into the space between the plants. Nothing else is really going to complete with them, anyway.
Q. So we’re not putting any carrots between the tomatoes, folks.
A. No and especially not the wimpiest, slowest-germinating vegetable around. [Laughter.] That won’t work at all. But there are combinations I really do like.
I love to plant vigorous, big, viney squashes—even summer squashes—in rows a certain distance apart, because later they will fill up all the space between. If you plan to be able to get into the patch at all later on, you need at least 6 feet between the rows.
But they don’t need all that space at the beginning of the season, so that’s a wonderful place—right in between the rows–to put anything fast-growing at the beginning of the season. Something that you can grow a whole crop of and get it out of the way before the vines need the space.
One of my very favorite multicropping combinations, I discovered completely by accident, when I put my squash patch on an area where I’d had a failed seed crop of ‘Russian Hunger Gap’ kale. I have so many birds, they’d gotten all the prime seed, but apparently the soil was full of ‘Russian Hunger Gap’ kale seeds. So virtually 100 percent of my “weeds” where I planted the squash were my very favorite kale variety.
I weeded them away from the squash, and basically harvested and ate whole kale plants, but between the squash rows I just left them. I knew the squash wouldn’t need that space until August, so we’d see what happens in August. Up till then then these plants wouldn’t compete at all.
It was perfect having what was going to become my overwintering kale right there in the squash patch that I was watering anyway. I usually have a whole separate piece of ground for overwintering kale that was mostly just empty the rest of the time.
Q. So that could be used for something else.
A. When August came, the squash plants made it out to where the kale was, but the kale was a couple of feet high, and it actually looked happier than I’d ever seen it look in August. I think it actually liked the shade of the squash.
Q. It’s funny how if left to their own devices, plants find their own home.
A. And basically they weren’t competing for soil space or nutrients—the root systems of the squash were back in the root rows, and the kale between those rows. They were really only competing for air space. Then in the fall, when the squash all died back, I had these lovely kale plants—and with practically no aphids.
So at this point I don’t ever plant separate overwintering kale beds; I plant all my overwintering brassicas in swaths—wide rows—in between the beds of squash.
Q. It sounds like it looks great, too.
A. It gives you a wonderful, jungle-like effect. You know, there are different styles of gardening—and the style you should go for isn’t necessarily the same from gardener to gardener. It’s the matter of what gives you the most satisfaction.
Something I talk about in all my books is how to get the most delicious produce from a given unit of land. I also care a lot about how to get the most delicious produce per amount of labor. In “The Tao of Vegetable Gardening,” I up the ante once more: about how to get the most joy from your gardening.
Q. Is this the “joy and serenity” part of the subtitle?
A. Yes: how to get the most joy for the amount of land or labor. Some people find things that are very ordered to be aesthetically pleasing and satisfying: everything is in rows, and the spacing is exact.
I’m exactly the opposite; I’m sloppy. I like my garden to look like a jungle, with all kinds of plants that are just thriving and if you stand still for three minutes they’ll grow over you.
It’s a very disordered look; my gardens are full of weeds. I do all kinds of things wrong, but I get good production anyway.
One of the points I like to make: You can be really sloppy, and do all kinds of things wrong, and still grow lots of wonderful food.
A. There are two style of hoeing: one where you lift the hoe and drop it, and for that you need a sharp but heavy hoe, so you can let gravity do most of the work.
The other style you’re going to be pushing or dragging along the ground, and for that kind any extra weight is unnecessary, so you want a very sharp, lightweight hoe.
My peasant hoe is the big, heavy blade—I use that if a patch of pigweed gets away from me, and wants to argue about whose garden it is. Or if the stalk’s woody—you can forget about using a light hoe on that. [Above, Carol with peasant hoe.]
Q. Do you use the Eliot Coleman or Collinear hoe for the other tasks, for finer work?
A. The other hoe I used most is the stirrup-style or oscillating hoe, for areas between the rows and paths. I also have a wheel hoe with an oscillating hoe on it that’s really good for paths.
But when it comes to fine weeding or thinning, where the plants are maybe just a few inches apart—like onion plants, for instance—you don’t want to do any chopping action, or to use a big hole. I like the smallest Coleman hoe [above], with a 3-3/4 inch blade, for that.
Q. I want to take a moment to talk not about the polycultures we discussed earlier, but about a monoculture called “eat all greens” that you discovered by accident.
A. It turns out that some greens grow so fast that if you sow them in beds at the right density, then grow them to a foot or a foot and a half high in two months or less–with the right variety, the entire plant will be succulent. You can clear-cut the whole patch about 3 or 4 inches above the ground, and produce huge amounts of food this way.
But the caveats are that the crop and the specific variety has to grow very fast, and be able to shade out any weeds, and when they’re grown in that density the entire stem needs to stay succulent. It’s all edible, and all weed-free.
[More on eat-all greens: Carol grows greens this way for freezing and drying (as well as fresh eating). Read most of the “Eat All Greens Garden” chapter from “The Tao of Vegetable Gardening” in this preview from Chelsea Green Publishing.
Carol has identified 11 specific vegetable varieties so far that work this way, provided they are planted at the right time and in the right density, and sells seed for some in her Fertile Valley Seeds listing. Huazontle, or Indian spinach; certain kales and mustards, loose-leaf Chinese cabbage and leaf radishes are among the possibilities.]
Q. I loved the section on your tactical measures to help reduce chances of late blight in tomatoes. I think this is a very good time of year to share that, too—it starts with the right plants in the first place.
A. If you buy your transplants, it’s really increasingly critical to buy from reliable local sources. If you go and buy them from a big-box store, a lot of times they’re raised in Florida, where late blight is endemic year-round. So know who you are buying transplants from, and know absolutely that they come from your region.
There have been a couple of times in the Northeast that the late-blight pandemics were traced to tomato starts that came from the South.
Q. Oh, there sure were! And we find that with downy mildew in basil, for instance.
A. So if you don’t do your own transplants, that’s fine, but buy local, from farms you know—or from nurseries, but the plants should have the farm sticker where they come from on them.
Also: If you buy any commercial tomatoes to eat, don’t put any waste from them into the compost. Those tomatoes can come from Mexico, and that is the heartland of new late-blight varieties.
One of the other measures that helps a lot is good potato hygiene.
Q. That’s the truth, isn’t it?
A. Some forms of late blight are more fierce on tomatoes, and some on potatoes—but some affect both.
Q. And potatoes can be a vector for late blight because they overwinter even in our Northern gardens.
A. Exactly—the tubers are living all winter. I think we gardeners are coming under increasing pressure to buy our seed potatoes each year. I don’t go along with that—that’s essentially saying forget heirloom potatoes. But [if you are going to save your potatoes to plant next year] it really pays to learn how to evaluate your potato tubers for late blight and other diseases—in “The Resilient Gardener” I write about that.
[Some of Carol’s tips: Rogue out any “off” plants through the growing season. Store tubers for next year’s “seed” only from plants that yielded average or above-average, because sometimes low yield is the only sign of disease. Don’t save tubers from plants that show any signs of rot, or from the plant’s immediate neighbors. Select the cleanest tubers from the best plants for your seed.]
enter to win the books
I’VE BOUGHT an extra copy of “The Tao of Vegetable Gardening” and of “The Resilient Gardener” by Carol Deppe to share with two lucky readers. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box at the very bottom of the page, after the last reader comment.
What combinations are winners in your vegetable garden–things you like to grow together, for any reason?
No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but an answer is better. Winners for each book will be chosen at random after entries close at midnight Sunday, April 5; good luck to all. U.S. and Canada only.
prefer the podcast version of the show?
MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the March 30, 2015 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
(Photos courtesy of Carol Deppe, except tomato seedlings by A Way to Garden. Disclosure: Books purchased via Amazon affiliate links yield a small commission.)