If you’ve started eating more real foods, I’m sure you’ve noticed that it is a little more expensive to serve your family a roasted chicken with some organic veggies than it is to throw some $1 pasta in a can of $1 sauce (though there is no comparison nutritionally!)
Growing some of your own food, even in small containers on a patio, will let you have fresh, organic produce at a fraction of the cost. If you have the room, a medium to large garden can produce enough food to feed a family, especially if you have time to devote to preservation and storage.
This is my second year doing large scale gardening, and so far, the results have been great! Even if you just have a balcony in your apartment, I encourage you to plant something! As Mark Sisson pointed out last, week, gardening offers many benefits besides just the great produce!
It can be a big job to start from scratch though, so here are a few of my favorite tips (that I learned the hard way!)
Decide What To Grow
The first year especially, it can be tough to know how much of each variety to plant. This publication (google docs) has a great list of how much to plant of each plant for desired yield. This website also lists an average of how much to grow for a family of four.
My strategy is to grow the most of the foods that (a) we eat the most of and (b) are the most expensive to buy organically. For us, this means lots of spinach, strawberries, winter squash, tomatoes (which are canned or fermented), herbs, cucumbers (naturally fermented to preserve), blueberries, sweet potatoes and peppers (usually dried to preserve).
This year, I’m growing a huge amount of tomatoes with the goal of preserving all of our tomato products for the entire year.
To help figure out how much of each plant to grow and when to plant, check out GrowVeg.com. They offer a free 30-day trial of their garden planning guide, which lets you see visually how many of each variety to plant.
Here’s a picture of what our spring garden looks like:
They also give you a great chart of planting dates for your climate:
Start Seeds Indoors Early
Starting seeds indoors lets you get a head start on the garden and a longer growing season. For plants like tomatoes and peppers, starting them inside is almost necessary for a good growing season.
To make it easy, get small seeds starter trays that can be kept on a kitchen table or counter. They even make organic versions of these! Start tomatoes and peppers about 4-6 weeks before you plant them outside, so for us that means starting early April indoors and transplanting outdoors in mid-May.
To speed up the process, you can pre-germinate the seeds in unbleached coffee filters or paper towels in unzipped plastic bags. To pre-germinate:
- Just place about 10 seeds with space in between on 1 unbleached coffee filter.
- Put another coffee filter on top and get damp with warm water.
- Fold in half and put in a quart size or larger plastic bag, but don’t zip it!
- Place the bag on a plate and put on top of your fridge or in another slightly warm place
- In 2-3 days, you should see tiny sprouts coming from the seeds.
- At this point, plant seeds in small pots indoors using tweezers.
Preparing the Garden
Figure out how much space you can devote to a garden and plan accordingly. If you just have a few containers on a patio, make sure to get quality soil and use organic fertilizer to maximize production.
If you are growing an outdoor garden, consider using raised beds to maximize space and production. We didn’t have the budget for building raised beds this year, so we made temporary raised beds by raking the dirt out of the pathways and into the place where beds would be.
This raised the dirt about 8 inches. We then packed straw (not hay!) into the walkways. This keeps weeds down and will provide fertilizer for the plants as the straw slowly composts. It also helps keep moisture in.
If you are able, you can build raised beds from untreated hardwoods like cedar. For smaller spaces, you could build and use a Square Foot Gardening system to give you the most production from the smallest space.
Once you have the space for the garden reserved, you need to make sure you have decent soil to work with. Many county extension offices offer soil testing at very inexpensive prices. Getting your soil tested will help you pinpoint what, if anything, you need to add to the soil to make sure your plants grow well.
We tilled in several truckloads of organic compost over the last couple of years. While this was a little pricey upfront, it paid off in the long run. Our soil is naturally very acidic dense clay that doesn’t drain well. Adding the compost gave us beautiful, black soil that produced veggies in abundance last year!
Making the Most of Your Space
You can easily maximize your growing space and often prevent pests with the same methods. To make sure you get the most production from small spaces, practices like intercropping, companion planting, and succession planting can really help.
Companion planting allows you to grow multiple plants that help each other in the same area. A classic example is the Indian custom of planting corn, beans and squash together. The corn provides a structure for the beans and squash, and the beans add nitrogen back into the soil to feed the corn and squash.
Another example is planting basil under tomatoes. Besides tasting great together, these two help deter pests from each other and improve the growing quality of each other. Check out this list for a chart of good companion plants.
My favorite plants to plant together are:
- Basil with tomato to promote growth and keep pests away
- marigolds throughout the garden to deter pests and reduce nematodes
- dill with cucumber
- catnip, mint and chamomile in brassicas (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, etc) to deter pests
- Beets under cabbage to maximize space
- Cucumbers with mammoth sunflowers- the sunflowers act as the trellis
Planting a variety of crops in succession will give you more yield from your garden and extend your harvest season. For instance, right now, my garden has young cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, chart, spinach and lettuce. Once those are harvested, the same beds will become a space for melons or winter squash.
Growing some plants up rather than letting them sprawl can reduce the amount of space they need and actually increase yield by reducing disease exposure.
Trellises and cages are great for tomatoes, cucumbers, vining squash and others. Here’s an informative article that explains more. I’ll be posting soon on the system we use to grow tomatoes that gives great airflow and maximizes production (its also very easy and inexpensive!)
So far, our garden is on track to produce lots of cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, spinach, lettuce, strawberries, beets, radishes and others in the next couple of months. In the next few weeks, I’ll be putting plants in the ground for summer crops of tomatoes, peppers, squash, etc.
Are you gardening this year? What are you planting? Let me know below!