This week’s post is a little different. I want to share a few thoughts on growing your own food on your own property. I am a huge advocate for growing and eating your own fresh fruits and vegetables. You can start with some herbs in a container. You can build raised beds. You can start with a small corner of your yard. Warning: it’s addictive! My entire urban property is filled with fruits, vegetables, herbs, and medicinal plants. These notes were written for Western Pennsylvania, but you can adapt them easily for use in your own location.
Why grow my own fruits, vegetables, herbs, and medicinal plants?
- You can choose what you want to eat and even grow organically, avoiding pesticides and genetically modified seed crops
- Your produce will be fresh (most produce travels an average of 1500 miles before it gets to – and sits in – your local store) with maximum nutritional value
- Local farmer markets may be unavailable for several months out of the year. If you have canned, frozen, pickled/fermented, or cold stored your own vegetables, you are assured high quality nutrition all year.
- Vegetables are a source of protein. Though normally less than meat in concentration, vegetable protein is easier to digest and is a natural source of a broad array of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. See http://www.health-alternatives.com/vegetables-nutrition-chart.html .
- Fresh fruit is packed with vitamins, minerals, and amazing natural sweetness.
- Fresh herbs are the single most expensive food item per ounce sold in stores. They are among the easiest plants to grow and typically take up very little space, can be grown in containers, and are attractive as well as delicious.
- Medicinal plants have been used for millennia to address countless health, wellness, and recovery concerns.
How do I know what to grow and where?
- Decide what kinds of plants will help you meet your goals.
- Decide whether you want to plant vertically or horizontally, in the ground with rows and walking spaces, in raised beds, or in pots. If that’s too much to decide in the beginning, start with pots or a plot in the community garden (Ambridge plots are 4’ X 8’).
- Observe how the sun and shade patterns work in your yard from late winter through the following fall so that you will know what areas get adequate amounts of sun for various crops (leaf vegetables need the least, but plan for 6 hours even for them). If you haven’t done this observation before, start small in an area that you know has sun or on a sunny windowsill.
- Observe the layout of your yard (slope, drainage, damp or dry spots, etc.).
- Understand what grows best locally (http://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb/). Talk to a local nursery and neighbors who have had success growing what you want to grow.
- Learn about companion planting (http://deepgreenpermaculture.com/companion-planting/companion-planting-table/) so that you can maximize plant growth and minimize pests.
- Measure your planting spaces and DIAGRAM where each planting will go, keeping in mind how big each mature plant will be and what should and should not be planted together. If you are growing a number of different plants in a relatively small space, this step is crucial to the success and health of your garden.
When do I plant?
- Most vegetables are planted sometime after the last hard frost in the late winter or early spring, and some require the soil temperature to be warmer. Seed packages will tell you what works best for your zone.
- Some crops can be planted continuously throughout the growing season or can be planted once in the early spring and once in the early fall.
- Some crops – especially garlic – are planted in the fall and harvested in spring through early summer, depending on your zone.
- Crops have different needs for growing time and growing temperature. Fall harvested crops like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage have very long growing seasons. Cilantro comes up quickly and is done in about a month (I have planted cilantro in the garlic bed between garlic plantings). Get used to how this works for a season or two before you begin to plant multiple crops in the same growing season.
What about soil fertility?
- Soil is the diet you feed your plants. It MUST be alive (worms, not compacted or dried out, full of proper levels of nutrients and air, able to hold or dispel water as needed, etc.)
- Have your soil tested by the county extension service (http://agsci.psu.edu/aasl/soil-testing/soil-fertility-testing) to determine whether your soil needs is lacking or has an oversupply of essential nutrients.
- The traditional method of preparing soil is tilling (digging down at least a foot and turning over the soil to break up clods and add air). CAVEAT: Every time you till, you lose 30% of your organic matter, so only till if you need to add matter into “dead” soil. If you till, walking on any part of the tilled soil compacts it again (a good argument for raised beds).
- Once the soil is “alive” or if you have time/patience to amend an untilled area without tilling, you can simply add compost and mulch on top and allow them to decompose.
- Put down a thick layer of newspaper first if you are amending on top of grass – see http://www.lasagnagardening.com.
- If you have enough room and want to fertilize without digging down and at the same time avoid the need to water, try building one or more Hugelkultur berms and plant different crops at different levels (http://www.richsoil.com/hugelkultur/)
- Some notes on Composting:
- Compost is organic matter that you should add to the soil every year to replenish nutrients
- Nearly all commercial composts contain persistent herbicides that have a 7 – 11 year halflife. It’s best to produce as much of your own compost as possible. If you compost in a composter, you will need about 10x the amount of inputs as you will get in output. This means that you might consider putting kitchen and yard waste directly on the soil (probably better in your backyard than in your front yard for aesthetic reasons ;*) rather than waiting until they are completely decomposed.
- You can also GROW your compost if you have room. One of the best crops to grow for compost as well as for its own healing properties is comfrey.
- Fish emulsion liquid is natural “Miraclegro”. You can buy it or make your own. Native Americans taught the Pilgrims to bury fish bones under hills planted with corn and beans.
- If you just have leaves, you can put them in a big barrel or drum and cover them with water. After they rot, strain off the “broth” and pour out the rotted leaves (thinned with more water if necessary) with a watering can.
- You can mulch with rocks to keep down weeds and discourage bugs
Do I sprout seeds indoors or direct plant in outside soil?
- Planting in the ground from seed rather than transplanting is always the safest course because of possible transplant shock. Some vegetables, especially warm weather varieties, must be sprouted inside and then transplanted once the soil and ambient air are warm enough. TOMATOES are the easiest/hardiest vegetables to transplant.
- If you want to sprout seeds for transplanting, you will need an inside environment that maintains a steady temperature of about 70 degrees F. and provides several hours a day of light whether natural (on a sunny windowsill or enclosed heated porch) or by grow lights. For great starter advice on techniques, supplies, and artificial lighting, I highly recommend going to a HTG Supply store if there is one near you (www.HTGSupply.com).
- If you choose to buy seedlings to plant directly in the soil, be very careful to check for bugs, fungus, etc. before planting them
- Whether you are planting sprouts or seeds outside, be sure to follow carefully the directions for depth (and orientation in the case of bulbs). After the seeds are covered, water them thoroughly with fish emulsion added to the water. Make sure that proper water levels are maintained throughout the growing season.
- There are many reputable vendors of heirloom seeds. I have used:
What crops give consistently good yields throughout a season without replanting? (a few of my favorites)
- Chard = CHAMPION
- Provider bush green beans
- Everbearing (multiple crops per season) raspberry bushes
- Tomatoes (be sure you trim suckers or you will have a forest rather than lots of fruit)
- Cucumbers (I have grown in both containers and in soil from seeds and from purchased transplants)
- Dill (use together with cucumbers for amazing pickles)
Can I use essential oils on my crops?
Yes, essential oils can be used in lieu of or in addition to companion plants, as pesticides, and as attractors of pollinators. Connect with me if you want to learn more.
Have more questions about yarden crops? Want to learn more about preparing snacks, meals, and beverages from your own harvest?
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