It’s heartening to hear so many people say they want to start growing some of their food. Many also say they are overwhelmed by what it seems to require – or have no idea how to start.
However, millions of people have been gardening for thousands of years. So, it can’t be that complicated. It’s just like cooking: everybody has the ability to do it, some will do it better than others, most will be adequate, and a few will take it to an art form. You don’t need gadgets (no more than you need gadgets in the kitchen) nor the latest do-dads: they tend to run the bill up. But you do need a few simple tools, the knowledge of a few basic techniques and the willingness to learn.
Don’t get me wrong: food gardening – actually any gardening – is work. So, what? That’s no reason not to do it. But it does not have to be overwhelming work: you don’t have to grow all the fruit & vegetable you eat this year – assuming you’d want to do that anyway.
Really. Pretty simple. Start small. Then expand. Next year.
But (ah! you were waiting for that “but”, weren’t you?) there are of course a few pre-requisites.
One, you must gave a space to garden. It does not have to be large at all, it can even be a patio or roof top area, it can be rented, it can be part of a community garden, but it must be sunny. You know, it’s “location, location, location”. At least 6 hours of direct sun at any time when food is growing. That means 6 hours of direct sun (no tree shadow or building shadow) in March, April, May, June, June, July, August, September, October and November (December, January & February too, if you grow through the winter).
The next sunny day you are home, take notice of which areas of your yard receive the most sun without the shadow from tree limbs. The best place might be the front yard. Yep! When I lived in the city, I grew tomatoes, peppers & basil in the front yard, because that was the sunniest spot (see picture). Warning: if you belong to a homeowner association (or are located in an area that restricts the freedom to garden), then check the rules before starting to have an edible landscape in the front yard (or ignore the rules, and pay the price… or better campaign the get the rules changed!)
If you don’t have sun you can’t grow a successful vegetable garden. It’s that simple. If you have 4 to 6 hours of sun (and good soil) you should be able to grow most leaf-vegetable (more on that below) and some herbs. They won’t do as well as if in full sun, but you should be able to have a nice little harvest.
Secondly, you need to understand the basic needs of a plant: plants need food and water. Of course, if you already grow flowers, you know a lot of this. If not, keep reading.
Food for the plant? Absolutely. And just like humans, you can feed it a synthetic diet of fertilizers in a can or a bottle (think processed food and bottled vitamins) or you can provide wholesome nutritious food (think fresh fruit & vegetables, meat raised in a sustainable manner etc). How? The plants feed by taking nutrients from the soil through their roots and using the sun’s energy through their leaves to make the building blocks they need to live (sorts of like us cooking and eating food, and breaking it down – through digestion – into the basis components that our body needs). So, plant your fruit & veggies in a soil amended with a lots of compost, decomposed leaves, composted animal manure (vegetarian only please: do not put dog’s, cat’s and feces of other carnivorous animals in there – too many issues with parasites that can get into your body later). Making compost is easy: many books and articles on the matter exist; many community centers conduct workshops. Or you can just read here or see a video here or here.
Vegetable needs water. But not too much (they won’t do well and will probably die if planted in water-logged or poorly drained soil). Some water will be provided by rain, and sometimes you’ll have to water. And guess what: if you have a soil rich in compost, it will retain moisture a lot better than a soil with a poor organic content (organic -in that case – meaning “carbon-based” or compost, manure, leaves…). Nonetheless, you’ll want to locate your garden where you’ll be able to water easily.
OK, OK, you just want to start the garden, right?
Well, not so fast. You need to understand – a little – the life cycle of a plant. It’s a little bit like the advice given to seamstresses and carpenters: measure twice, cut once. It’s better to do a little learning now to avoid some discouraging mistakes. Not that you won’t make mistakes. Of course you will. We all do. Many a gardener worth her salt has earned her salt by making and learning from many mistakes. Nonetheless… stay with me a little longer.
A garden is not “instant”: a plant is born from a seed, grows to maturity, breeds (produces fruit which carries the seeds – its off springs) and then dies. Maturity for most of the familiar vegetable plants happens in a matter of months – or a “growing season”. After that, the plant is either killed by the cold weather or naturally dies; exceptions include hardy perennial vegetable like asparagus, sorrel and rhubarb. Fruit tend to have multi-year life, often several decades for well tended fruit trees, yielding an edible crop every year from the same plant. (By the way, this is grossly simplifying plant life cycle and the process of photosynthesis, but it gives you the idea- right?)
We eat different part of different plants. It’s important to know that for the timing of planting and harvesting. Sometimes the parts we don’t eat are poisonous (think stems, leaves, flowers or seeds of tomatoes or potatoes, or rhubarb leaves), sometimes they are just simply unpalatable (carrot leaves)… and sometimes we don’t know any better (the leaves of radishes and beets are edible, for example; as well as the stems of broccoli.)
- We eat the fruit of some plants (the result of a successfully fertilized or pollinated flower): think tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, okra, squash, winter squash, peanuts, green beans, melons, watermelons etc. Those plants tend to need a richer soil and lots of sun – and warmth and will easily take 3 months from transplanting before having fruit ready to eat. Those plants also require pollinators such as bees to fruit well.
- We eat the leaves of some plants (and must to do it before the plant flowers – or “bolts” – as the leaves often become bitter or simply disappear then): lettuce, Swiss chard, mustard, kale, spinach, arugula, cabbage, Asian greens etc. Some of those are ready to eat in as little as 6 weeks (or even less if harvested as “baby” leaves), other will require longer. Some can be harvested over time by picking selected leaves (Swiss Chard, kale, and oak-leaf lettuce), others tend to be harvested at once (i.e. the whole plant is cut): head-lettuce, arugula, tatsoi…
- We eat the roots of radishes, carrots, beets, parsnips. We plants those in the spring and summer of year 1, and harvest from summer of year 1 through late winter of year 2, before they go to flower. Sweet potatoes and potatoes are other examples of root crops: we plant them in the spring and harvest in late summer well before frost.
- We eat the stems of other vegetables: rhubarb, celery & cardoon come to mind.
- We eat the flowers of a few plants: artichokes, brocoli & cauliflowers are prime examples
- We eat the shoots of some: asparagus, pea shoots, chayote shoots, for example.
- And finally we eat the seeds of sweet corn, garden peas and dry beans.
OK: that’s it for today’s lesson. I know you want more, so come back for the next episode: making the actual garden beds, planting a few reliable plants and estimating the costs of starting. More importantly: will it save you money? Read all about it here.
You may also want to check this prior post of mine about Growing a Kitchen Garden In Containers which as specific cultivar recommendations suitable for any garden (but especially small or containerized) space, in addition to how to make a container garden.