Global food prices are skyrocketing and have led to 51 food riots in 37 countries since 2007. Here in the US, food costs and food security issues are out of control, with 1 in 4 children going to bed hungry each night. Our centralized model of growing food through global agri-business entities makes us vulnerable to ‘glitches’ in the system, which could disrupt food distribution to everyone in the nation. A nightmare scenario where radical climate change, failed genetically modified crops, financial meltdown, or power grid failure could all lead to devastating food disruptions and chaos in our communities.
But we don’t have to depend entirely on this fragile system for our food; we can grow some for ourselves. It’s easy, and the food we grow will be the most nutritious and best-tasting food we’ve ever served our families, guaranteed. In addition, gardening will take us outside where exposure to the sun on our skins will give us the benefit of free vitamin D, the ‘miracle nutrient’ that medical research shows will improve our physical and mental health. Further, by gardening, we can constructively engage our children in activities that can be fun, improve their health and chances for success in life. And using community gardens as a model, we can get to know our neighbors, bring peace to our communities, and help feed our children good food.
To get started, all we need is some good seed, good soil, sunshine, water, and a little effort to have success. God has done the heavy lifting – the seeds are designed to grow, the soil is there, the sun shines, and it rains – all we need is a plan and a little ambition. Here are 5 steps to get you started.
1) Make a Plan. Your plan must reflect the amount of time and energy you have to devote to your garden. Start small, and expand as your experience and confidence grows. Make a list of the things you’d like to grow – maybe Mom’s favorite lettuces for fresh salads, or green beans for the casserole Grandma used to make. Broccoli, cabbage, onions, carrots, spinach, and tomatoes can all be grown in small plots. Decide if you want to start your plants from seed, or buy transplants from a local farmers’ market or near-by garden center. Your start date will depend on where you live – the further north you are, the later the date that spring arrives. While we could extend the season for planting (planting earlier and later in the year), as beginners we should wait for the weather to warm up a little before we begin. Plant cool season varieties (plants that like cool – not cold weather) early, and progress to warm season varieties in late spring and early summer. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different varieties to find the ones you like most and that do best in your particular location.
2) Get Good Soil. Your soil is your garden’s foundation, and its condition will determine your success. Every situation is different, so our plans have to vary to accommodate our situation. Does your house or apartment have a front or back yard (no matter the size)? Make sure that there is no history of chemical waste or spills in the area you plan to use, and that water does not collect in the area where your garden will be. Are there large trees nearby that send roots into your garden area? What is the condition of the soil in your planned garden area? Deep, black loam; hard, with rocks or gravel; light and sandy; or stiff and clayey? A correct identification of soil type is critical for assisting the soil to grow better food. Ask your friendly county agricultural agent or soil specialist for assistance if you need help. Just know that even with the worst soil conditions you can still garden there, just use containers to grow in (see the section ‘Growing in Containers’).
Use organic matter (leaves, straw, dried grass clippings, decomposing wood chips, etc) to build up your soil, no matter what kind it is. If you collect and pile up the organic materials outside for a few months, compost will happen – a rich soil amendment full of nutrients and beneficial soil organisms that plants love. Till your soil and spread organic matter to your garden site about 2 – 3 inches thick in the late fall. Over the winter it will decompose and enrich your soil in preparation for the spring planting. In this way, your soil will improve every year, and your crops will thrive with minimal applications of
3) Access Sunshine and Water. Vegetable crops require at least 5 – 6 hours of direct sunlight to perform well (there are some exceptions – lettuces will do well with 3 – 4 hours, for example). In gardens without adequate sunlight, plants will grow tall and leggy, and may be more susceptible to disease and insect pests. If tall trees are blocking the sun, pruning or removing them may be the answer. If buildings are the culprit, reconsider you garden site. If this is not possible on your property, consider collaborating with a neighbor who has a good site that is large enough to share, or lease a plot from a nearby community garden.
Water is necessary. Most vegetables are composed of 80% – 90% water. Think of them as skins filled with water to understand the importance of water to your garden’s success. In general, about 1 inch of rain or irrigated water (from hoses, sprinklers, etc) per week is required for healthy, continuous growth. As indispensable as water is in the garden, too much creates problems. Make sure you have adequate drainage for heavy rainfall, and that water does not collect and stand in your garden area.
4) (For apartment-dwellers) Grow in Containers. If you don’t have a yard that is suitable, or live in a high-rise apartment, or are unable/unwilling to dig in the earth, you can still grow some great food on patios, table tops, or even the sides and roofs of homes. Use containers filled with commercial soil mixes to grow your vegetables. The containers are available in various sizes, shapes, prices, and decorative styles, and are readily available. Everything from window boxes, to stylish planters, to large plastic tubs can be used effectively for growing. If there are no water drainage holes in the container, make some using an electric drill and bit. Watering requirements are stricter for container – grown crops than for crops grown in the ground – you must water more frequently and more carefully. Some planters are designed to self –water, and require less attention.
While you can control the soil condition better using containers, pay careful attention to fertility – use less fertilizer, but fertilize more often (always read and follow label instructions). Ask garden center staff for recommendations of soil mixes and amendments.
5) Consider the Environment. Consider plant varieties that have a compact growing habit when making your selections. Bush cucumbers will do better than the traditional ‘running’ varieties in containers, for example. Consult seed catalogues (see the attached resource guide) or garden center personnel for assistance in this area.
We are what we eat. The best food is the food you grow. Growing food is easy, fun, and necessary. If for some reason you cannot grow your own, build a relationship with a small, organic farmer, and purchase your food from her/him. Or visit your local farmers’ market. The win-win situation that will result keeps our food sources local, fresh, nutritious, and accountable.