How do I turn a driveway into a vegetable garden?

By: streamishmc – CC BY 2.0
By: streamishmc – CC BY 2.0
Hey Homie Homesteaders!

We just bought a new house over the summer. Due to the moving-in process, I skipped gardening last year. However, now it's January and Spring is fast approaching so I've got planting on my mind.

Unfortunately, the beautiful, tall trees that fill our front and back yards provide us with a beautiful view, but very little space that's sunny enough for a vegetable garden. In fact the only spot that really works is a patch of yard that was paved over as a driveway extension (it looks like it may have been used for boat parking or some such).

So the question is, what is the best way to make this space useable as a garden? Do I get a bunch of cinderblocks and top soil and just build a raised bed on top of the cement? Or should I rent a jackhammer (and a day laborer) to bust up the cement so I can till the ground?

I can think of pros and cons to both, but I'm still pretty much a novice in this home-grown food thing and there is probably a lot I am NOT thinking of.

Help? -Anie

First, go check out our container garden archive — one doesn't need tillable land to grow things. Second, let's turn it over to our homesteading Homies for THEIR advice…

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  1. Raised beds (or any other container) will be OK, but I think you'll get better results if you break up the cement. That way, you'll get "capillary action", meaning that if you water too much the excess will drain into the soil, which can then get drawn back up into the soil of the raised bed if it gets too dry. Also, I would get the soil analyzed for toxins, in case a previous tenant liked to dump out his motor oil on the spot.

    3 agree
    • Yeah, if you're not going to break up the cement you definitely want to use deeper than usual containers and line the bottoms with landscaping fabric and then fill it with at least an inch of drainage rocks or something similar.

      2 agree
  2. I don't think doing a bed on top of a driveway will work if you leave the driveway intact. You could definitely do some container gardens (I'm a big fan of self-watering containers myself).

    1 agrees
  3. For a permanent, long lasting garden dig it up. You will need to do some serious soil work. It probably going to have some sort of gravel under the driveway that is often used to create a solid surface for the driveway. The soil is going to be lacking in nutrients. Fertiliser will need to be tilled through it then you will need to let that sit for a few weeks. If you need to put more soil in to top up the levels you will need to let it sit as well and make sure you water it. Soil will compact down, if you plant straight away you could end up with roots exposed or water runoff from the rest of the yard going into your garden and causing root rot etc.

    Container gardens would be the easiest option of course, you can even have them raised up on pedestals for ease of access or for high yield you could put a hydroponic set up there.

    When it comes to planting I highly suggest companion planting, it really does help keep the bugs down. Additionally stagger your planting so your yield is staggered. Don't plant ten tomatoes on the same day or you will have tomato overload for a few weeks, then none, spread them out by a few weeks (taking into account whatever seasons and weather you have in your home location of course). Also rotate your crops, don't plant the same crops in the same spot year after year, it's better for the soil.

    Good luck and have fun!

    2 agree
  4. This will really depend what you want to grow. Greens, lettuces, herbs, and small plants will most likely be fine in containers on top of the pavement. I've always had better luck with peppers in containers I think the pavement will retain heat, so this could be nice early in the season, but will probably fry the plants mid-summer, depending on your climate. The neat thing about containers (as long as they aren't too large) is that you can MOVE THEM! So if a plant is receiving too much sun or too little, you can shift it to an area with more appropriate light. Also if something gets bugs, you can easily separate that pot while you try to treat it. The downside is that containers need more supervision, either frequent watering when it's dry, or dumping out extra water when there's lots of rain.
    For this year: I would use containers and maybe plant tomatoes or other large plants in a strip beside the pavement. Then you can get to know the area and see how different plants do there. Also, ask your neighbors if they garden- they will know what works well and what doesn't. Then in the fall you can dig up the pavement and start modifying the soil using the lasagna method (layers of newspaper or cardboard, compost, leaves, etc.) until spring. In spring of next year you can reassess the soil situation and modify it further. I think it's worth the time and effort since you own the house!

    9 agree
  5. If you go the jackhammer route check with your local government to see if they have any impervious surface removal programs or rebates. Our local jurisdiction has both, a program where homeowners can apply and then get impervious surface removed for a small copay or remove the impervious surface them selves and then apply for a rebate. Its a win-win. The city (if you live in one) gets more needed green space to absorb all the rain water and you get a low cost way to remove that old driveway.

    4 agree
  6. My old boss had sidewalk and huge tree roots in his front yard and he dumped 6" of dirt on top, a few years before. I was gardening for him for months before I noticed. Between natural compost from the plants and adding a few buckets each year we never had a problem. When I converted all his back lawn to garden I winter-overed a cover crop of annual rye.

    1 agrees
  7. I don't know if you have these services where you live, but I went to a green festival and there were some companies doing presentations. They come and do an assessment of your space- yard, soil, lighting, etc… and set up your garden based on your needs. I found them to be very affordable as well. I apologize that I don't remember the name of any of the companies (there were 3 of them). I highly recommend you look into it!

    2 agree
  8. I would also suggest the container gardening, at least for a year or two before you go jackhammering. (BTW, tearing up that concrete sounds like such a blast!)
    I live in a very metro area and have successfully container gardened for 6 years before I had a small plot to call my own. Tomatoes, peppers, herbs, lettuce, carrots, potatoes, beans, cucumbers, radishes, onions, garlic, all can be grown in containers, and all have done very well for me. The containers always yield more than hubby and I can eat, and the neighbors LUV our extras.
    My best tip would be to go buy those large plastic storage containers from Walmart/Target. They are much less expensive than gardening pots, and are deep enough to allow the root growth you will need. Simply drill holes in the bottom for drainage and place them on a few bricks to keep them off the ground.
    Also, be sure to buy gardening soil, not potting soil. Makes a big difference.
    Good luck!

    3 agree
  9. Do you live in a housing development? If so, it's common for developers to haul all of the good lawn dirt out to sell it. They often level the yard with crappy dirt and tons of rock, chipped concrete and other stuff that makes gardening really bothersome–if not impossible. They then cover it with a thin layer of good topsoil or lay down sod to give you the look of a lawn. Trees grow fine through this, but gardens often struggle (as well as gardeners–digging up all those rocks SUCKS, MAN!) You can usually find out very quickly by planting a shrub–if the dirt is super duper rocky or you see chunks of busted concrete, you might be sitting on some crappy fill dirt.
    Also, not to be an OMG DOOM concern troll, but consider that it's possible that some engine chemicals have seeped and leaked in and around the driveway area.

    4 agree
    • No, but I live in Georgia so under the topsoil is clay. It takes some notable soil treatment to make direct ground planting viable, but I did it at my old house. I planted a fig tree in the front yard, so if the backyard is the same I know what I'm working with.

      1 agrees
  10. Ever thought of an edible forest garden?? Not sure if the roots of the trees allow you to plant some stuff but planting shrubs with soft fruit (bramble, raspberry) or ground cover like the hog-peanut can also give you nice things to harvests. (for inspiration) http://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/plant-an-edible-forest-garden-zmaz07aszgoe.aspx#axzz3OvN05G00

    If you want to try the sunny veggies i would suggest to try the containers the first year and if it is possible to plan a waterharvest system. Either way good luck and lots of yummie vegetables

    3 agree
  11. If you're new to gardening I would definitely start with container gardening like other people have mentioned before trying to break up the concrete. I'm thinking of my own experience as a new homeowner: good intentions, bad gardener. Not that I think you're a bad gardener, but you might find that putting in all the work to get rid of the pavement might be a waste of time and money if you discover that perhaps you don't have the time and energy to pour into lots of gardening that you thought.

    1 agrees
    • I consider myself a novice Homesteaders, but I would not call myself new to gardening. Just … very much still learning.

  12. I am a big fan of container gardening. One year we lived in an apartment and my green thumbed husband put so many containers on our 6x4ft balcony that the landlord was actually worried about structural support. Herbs are easy for containers (rosemary, mint, thyme and basil are my favorite) but we've also done tomatoes, cucumbers, hot peppers, greens, even strawberries. You can get big ol' 3ft containers that can handle pretty much anything you'd put straight in the ground besides, like, corn.

    Definitely put a layer of rocks at the bottom of your containers for drainage.

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