Photo by Carrie Koscher

Zucchini dinner art. Photo by Carrie Koscher

Everyone loves the idea of a bountiful dinner garden — the spicy tomatoes, fragrant herbs, crisp salad greens, strawberries, cucumbers, and summer squash. The harsh reality of growing your own in the backyard garden is that it’s hard labor baby! Weeds, insect pests, and fungal diseases are a few of the soil ambassadors you’ll encounter. And I hope you like bending over, a lot. But getting your hands dirty is what it’s all about, right? There is an easier way, a soil-less way. You could bring the dinner garden to the place where you actually eat dinner. If you have an outdoor dining area (deck or patio) with at least a five-hour sun exposure, you’re in business.

Hydroponic farmers can get five to ten times the yields of conventional soil farmers by eliminating variables; from plant nutrition to the air movement through the plants, they control as many of the growing conditions as possible. We can borrow a few growing techniques from these modern farmers to increase our yields and save our backs. To get started you are going to need some pots or window boxes. Definitely use what you have, even if the pots are mismatched, chipped, or earth-stained (algae, moss, etc.). Once your old pots are spilling over with summer vegetables, the aged look will just add to the ambiance.

Before the plants are installed, you’ll have to decide on a soil-less growing medium (commonly referred to as potting soil). The most readily available potting soils are peat moss mixes. Peat mixes are fine for flowers, but they aren’t the best for vegetables. Peat moss requires a wetting agent and other ingredients to be used as a potting soil; peat can also turn into a compacted brick by the middle of the summer. Look for coir, a potting soil made from coconut husks. Coir has better aeration and moisture retention than peat moss with no added chemicals. Because your potting soil will not supply any plant nutrition, select an organic granular fertilizer. Mix the granular into your potting soil before planting, and then supplement once a week with an organic liquid fertilizer after planting. Avoid chemical fertilizers such as Miracle-Gro on your edibles; these types of fertilizers contain no calcium and will lead to blossom-end rot on your tomatoes and other fruits.

Growing vertically on a trellis is standard operating procedure for hydroponic farmers — it allows for better air movement, slowing the development of diseases like powdery mildew and early-blight — two culprits in ending your crop prematurely. Building an elaborate trellis for your cucumbers and tomatoes can be quite a project. Consider trying the upside-down technique as an alternative. Place pots on pedestals and window boxes on deck railings, giving your crops the room they need to to spread downward while keeping your fruit up off of the ground, away from unwanted taste-testers.

Don’t be afraid to be creative.Try planting some edible flowers like viola with your salad greens to add some flare. There is a natural beauty to the dinner garden. Have fun with it!

Please send me photos of your dinner garden to james@farmstanza.com or on twitter @farmerbarnesy. I can’t wait to see the crops!