You Can Grow Your Own Food – No Matter Where You Live
I’m not saying it’s easy, but nearly everyone can grow something. From sprouts in the kitchen and herbs in a window, to a sprawling acre-plus country market garden, I would argue that growing your own food in any form counts as gardening. You just need to decide what works for you – where you are with what you have.
Grow What You Eat
Rule #1 – If you (or your family) won’t eat it, don’t grow it. If you’ve got limited space and time, focus on the fruits or vegetables that your family enjoys the most. It’s no accident that the most popular produce item grown in backyard gardens is the tomato. The taste a homegrown tomato is worlds apart from tomato shipped green from a thousand miles away to your grocery store. Other garden crops might not be quite as dramatic in their taste differences, but you will notice a difference. Some foods store better than others, too, so give some thought to storage crops.
Be Prepared to Spend Time in Your Garden
There’s an old saying that says, “The best fertilizer is the gardener’s shadow.” If you’re not prepared to make time in your schedule to tend to your plants, you may be betting off hitting the farmer’s market, or sticking with extremely low maintenance items like sprouts or herbs. Depending on the size of your plantings, time requirements may range from a few minutes per day to a full time job.
Start Small, Scale Up
A small, well-tended garden can produce as much or more than a large, poorly tended garden. It’s so easy to get overwhelmed and give up if you get overextended. Pick your favorites, estimate the amount of time and space you have available, and go from there. Ask others who garden in your area how much time they spend in their gardens, and that should give you a ballpark figure for the time your garden may require.
Test Your Soil
A basic home soil test kit can be found online or at most hardware stores for around $10, or you can contact your local cooperative extension office. “The Cooperative Extension System is a nationwide, non-credit educational network. … These offices are staffed by one or more experts who provide useful, practical, and research-based information to agricultural producers, small business owners, youth, consumers, and others in rural areas and communities of all sizes.” See more about using a soil test kit in this post.
Most garden crops prefer soil with a pH around 7 (neutral), although some like conditions that are slightly acidic (potatoes, for instance) or slightly alkaline (brassicas). Balanced nutrient levels are also important, as is the presence of organic matter. Ideally, most plants prefer a deep, well-drained, fertile soil rich in organic matter. Each year I add a combination of different types of organic matter. I have also added rock powders, used cover crops, weed tea, and other fertility boosters. In general, I work to improve the soil, not just to feed the plant.
Find a Good Seed Source
Sometimes, you get what you pay for, sometimes not. When I first started gardening, I used some of the same companies my mom used to order from, and I tried some new ones that seemed to offer great deals, like Burgess. I don’t order from any of those companies any more. My favorite seed sources can be found here. Dave’s Garden Watch Dog is a great place to check out a company before you order from them.
Consider Starting Your Own Transplants
If you want to grow specific varieties, especially heirloom varieties, you’ll probably need to grow your own transplants from seed. Starting your own transplants is a great way to save money, too.
A chart showing weeks to plant before last frost free date can be found at about.com, or you can check the seed packets themselves for this information. The book The Natural Food Garden has some handy planting charts. You can view my seed starting setup in this post, and view more detailed information on tomato transplants in this post. The Old Farmer’s Almanac has some handy charts available to determine the best dates for planting and seed starting in your area.
Garden Up Instead of Out
If you grow up you can squeeze more crop in less space. The best book I’ve found to date on the subject is “How to Grow More Vegetables, Eighth Edition: (and Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains, and Other Crops) Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine“. I trellis/fence or otherwise grow vertically my tomatoes, beans, peas, cucumbers, and occasionally other crops. You can view how I do it here.
Use Organic Pest Control
In theory, bugs are more attracted to plants that are stressed or in some way deficient, so if you have healthy, well-nourished plants, your pest problems should be minimal. I guess I haven’t quite reached that point.
In all honestly, my pest problems vary by year. I haven’t had an “ideal” garden year yet, and I do notice that when conditions stress a particular plant type, that’s when the pests typically show up.
Last year, it was really wet and cold, and I use a lot of mulch, so I had slugs. Beer traps, crushed eggshells, and some diatomaceous earth knocked them back to reasonable levels.
We have a LOT of cabbage butterflies in the area. I use a limited amount of Bt, but I also make my garden very bird and wasp friendly by putting perches throughout the garden, as well as bird baths and companion plants.
I’ve had problems with flea beetles, which make plant leaves look like they’ve been hit by buckshot. Coffee grounds have saved my plants from destruction now for several seasons running.
If you’ve got a problem, chances are there’s an organic solution. If you’re going through all the effort to grow your own food, why would you want to put toxins on it?
Invest in Good Tools and Take Care of Them
Don’t buy cheap plastic tools if you can avoid it. Shop yard and estate sales for bargains on real metal tools, or visit your local garden center. Get tools that are sized properly for you to reduce the risk of injury.
Good tools will same time and effort, and your back. Keep tools clean and sharp, just like you should treat a good knife. (Learn how to clean and sharpen tools here.)
Stick Seeds and Plants in Dirt, Water as Needed, But Not Too Much
Once you’ve done the ground work (literally), you just need to jump in and plant. Just give it a try and you can learn the rest as you go. One of the reasons I love gardening is because if things don’t work out right the first time, there’s always next year. There are dozens of different ways to do just about everything, but you won’t know what works best for you and your garden until you try. If a plant/crop does bad the first time you plant it, try again. I usually try a crop for at least three years before I give up on it, because different varieties grow best under different conditions.
A rule of thumb for watering is that plants need around one inch of water per week during the growing season. If you don’t get rain, you’ll need to water. Overwatering is as bad as underwatering, so always check the soil before turning on a tap or hitting the rain barrels.
Use Your Weeds
Weeds are often my garden companions and allies, not simply something to be removed as a nuisance. Many are edible, medicinal or both. Get to know your weeds (and your bugs), and put them to work for you instead of against you. You can get started by checking out the Weekly Weeder series.
Hopefully this post has given you enough basic info to get fired up and find some dirt to call your own. If you’ve got questions, please leave a comment. I’ll be working my way through more of the basics as the weeks go on.
View other posts in this series at the “Getting Started Homesteading” page.