Growing Your Own Food
The best-tasting produce comes straight from your yard
Erik Knutzen and Kelly Coyne's Los Angeles backyard wasn't always so full. Before there were artichokes and beans and peppers sharing space with zucchini and squash, before the rosemary and basil and chives or the towering fruit trees, there were just a few pots of soil and tomato plants on a small balcony.
"It was simply the taste of a good tomato that got us going," says Knutzen. "It's always been about taste." He and Coyne, coauthors of The Urban Homestead, have been eating off their land for a decade. They're not alone.
According to the National Gardening Association, 43 million U.S. households planned to grow their own food in 2009—up 19 percent from just a year before. "I like to think there's a return to common sense," says Knutzen. "Why have [an empty] big backyard when you can grow your own food?"
Growing your own can save you money on some of your most expensive groceries: fruits, vegetables, and herbs. Fresh-picked foods often taste miles better than those that have been shipped from distant farms or other countries. In addition to being fun, some gardening is hard work, so it can be a great workout. And the act of planting, growing, and picking fruits and vegetables gives an extra layer of meaning to what's on your plate. "I think people are craving that," says Gayla Trail, author of Grow Great Grub: Organic Food From Small Spaces. "People are more and more connected with where their food is coming from."
If you don't have a green thumb, don't worry. Growing a vegetable garden takes attention, but it's something anyone with access to sunlight and water can do. We talked to the experts to get the best advice on how to start your own plots and pots.
Seek Out Sun
No matter how often you water or how nutrient-dense your soil is, your plants won't survive long without about six to eight hours of sunlight daily. Have partial sunlight? Take your chances and expect smaller plants with less fruit. (If your yard, patio, or balcony doesn't get any sun at all, you should probably scrap the garden idea and buy from a local farmer or sign up for a plot in a community garden.)
Get Your Hands Dirty
Your soil will provide your plants with the nutrients they need to grow strong and produce fruit, so it's important to make sure that it's the best it can be. "You really need to know what your soil is like first," says Tara Kolla, owner of Silver Lake Farms in Los Angeles. "Build your soil. Focus on your soil."
To find out what nutrients your yard lacks or whether it has traces of lead, send a dirt sample to your local county extension service. For a small fee, the service will provide a rundown of your soil's composition and will suggest nutrients to round it out. Once you know which nutrients are missing, add them. Some gardeners use compost to enrich the soil. To compost, pile leftover vegetables, garden debris, dead leaves, kitchen scraps, and animal manure in your yard, then keep adding to the pile daily and mixing it up weekly. You might heap your compost in the far reaches of your lawn or opt for a container instead. You can buy compost bins (some are even small enough to fit on your countertop), or make your own out of wood, wire fencing, trash cans, or even a heavy-duty trash bag. Remember to allow for air circulation by leaving gaps in wood or punching holes in a trash can or bag. Keep anything oil-based away from the compost pile. And don't add meat scraps: Not only will they attract pests, but if you use the compost in your vegetable garden, you put yourself at risk for salmonella.
Another option: worm composting. Since she uses containers to garden on city rooftops, Trail doesn't create a typical compost pile. Instead, she uses "vermicompost," which you can buy or create on your own by filling a container (such as a plastic storage bin or gallon tub) with worms, shredded paper moistened with water, and kitchen scraps like leftover fruits and vegetables, crushed eggshells, and coffee grounds. Check with your local coffee shop; many (including Starbucks) will donate their used grounds free of charge. Grass clippings, alfalfa, and straw can also help fertilize your soil; use your own or ask neighbors or local farmers for their extras. And if you're willing to spend money on giving your soil nutrients, the easiest option is to purchase organic fertilizer, manure, or compost from a garden supply store.
Before you plant, till (dig up and turn over) the soil by hand or by using a tilling device. This will ensure the ground is broken up enough for roots to easily travel through it. For the best soil—and, therefore, the best produce—test and nourish your soil in the fall, then plant in the spring. Giving your fertilizer some time to sit will help the ground soak up the nutrients. "You think you add something to the soil and it's automatically going to be absorbed, but it's not," says Julie Thompson-Adolf, owner of the South Carolina company Garden Delights. "Sometimes it needs a few months."
Prep Your Plot
Where you'll plant will depend on the size of your space, the quality of your soil, and how hard you want to work. Container gardens are the obvious option for people who live in apartments, condos, or homes without a backyard. The steps are simple: Add soil to the pot, plant some seeds, water, and watch them grow. Since container gardens use commercial potting soil instead of dirt from the ground, you don't have to worry about soil testing—just top off your soil each year before you plant. If you plan to compost, use only a small amount, since too much compost in a container can rot your plants. Instead, you may want to try vermicomposting, which is particularly suited for small containers, or buy organic fertilizer.
Another option is a raised garden bed, which you can buy online or make yourself. Raised beds are essentially big boxes that you can fill with a mix of soil and compost before planting. Knutzen says a 4- by 8-foot bed that's about 2 feet deep is a good size for novice gardeners. Beds can be preferable for people with mobility issues, since there is less bending over involved in gardening them. They're also a good choice for those who want a large garden but don't want to spend time perfecting lousy soil—you can buy good soil and use it to fill your bed.
For both in-ground plots and raised beds, be sure to leave wide enough paths between rows so you can walk through your garden. The amount of space you should leave between seeds varies (look to your seed packet or ask your garden center for specifics), but planting them too close can crowd the plants and prevent good air circulation.
|Herbs, vegetables, and greens grow in Knutzen and Coyne's backyard and in raised beds along the sidewalk.|
Decide What to Plant
Your ideal garden may include tomatoes, peppers, corn, six different types of lettuce, and an apple tree, but don't get carried away too fast. Gardening is labor intensive. Before you plant every seed imaginable in your soil, consider how much space you have, how much work you're really willing to put in, and what you love to eat. "Some people have such a big vision of what they want their garden to be," says Thompson-Adolf. "Start small so you don't get frustrated."
Certain items are easier to grow than others. Tomatoes, lettuce, kale, radishes, zucchini, summer squash, beans, herbs, and strawberries are all easy for first-time gardeners. Peppers, broccoli, and corn are much harder. Within those categories, have fun with different varieties: Try heirloom tomatoes like the Hillbilly, Mortgage Lifter, and Purple Russian. "What people don't really get when they first start out is the wide variety of standard plants," says Trail. "Even the wide variety of peas. They don't realize peas are different colors. They have different flowers, different shoots."
If you're planting in a large container, "stick with one plant that produces fruit—tomatoes and cucumbers are examples," says Trail. "Plant them with plants that have shallow roots." So, for instance, you could pot a tomato plant with basil and lettuces.
What you plant—a seed or sprouts grown in a container—is up to you. Knutzen swears by seeds because of the large variety (just look in any seed catalog). But if you have the money and want to plant vegetables that have gotten a head start in the growing process, it's OK to use transplants you buy from a garden center. Keep in mind that some vegetables, like lettuce and radishes, won't grow well unless you plant them as seeds.
Plant at the Right Time
So, when do you actually plant? Most seed packets will warn growers to plant once "all danger of frost is past," and Thompson-Adolf says you can get the timing right by learning your frost zone. For the best instructions, seek out help. "Try to expand on your knowledge by looking into localized information," says Trail. "Ask other gardeners in your area." Local gardeners will be more familiar with your growing season than the back of a seed packet or generic gardening information you find online. You can also start your seedlings over the winter by growing them in containers indoors. Plant your seeds about four to six weeks before your last frost—your frost zone will come in handy here—then transplant the seedlings outside when you're ready to plant.
While you're likely to start planting in spring, after the last frost, you can also plant a late summer or fall garden. Lettuce, kale, spinach, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, radishes, and turnips all flourish in fall when you plant their seeds at the end of summer, as the temperature starts to cool.
All plants need water to grow, but there's a catch: "Plants respond to regularity," says Kolla. "If you start to water irregularly, you'll see a change in your plants." If your schedule is always packed, a drip system, an inexpensive irrigation method, may keep your garden greener than hand watering. "All I do is go out and turn on the faucet and walk away," says Thompson-Adolf, who has found drip lines in various sizes at home improvement stores. "I don't have to stand around with a hose." How often you'll water depends on your climate, soil type, and sun exposure, but Thompson-Adolf says to aim for an inch of water per week. "If you go into your garden and stick your finger in and it's moist about an inch down, you don't need to water," she says.
Enjoy the Bounty
After your first harvest, you'll realize that growing your own vegetables takes work—but that the fruits of your labor are worth it. You'll understand this with your first bite of tomato, cucumber, or Trail's choice: strawberries. "Those little varieties, they pack a punch," she says. "It's like all the flavor and intensity of a big strawberry compacted into a little berry."
Oh, and give yourself a break if your tomatoes still look like grapes come August 31. Gardening is a skill that you'll continue to learn each time you plant. You'll kill a few plants. Even experienced gardeners do that, but they learn from their mistakes. "That's one of the great things about gardening: It's always exciting," says Trail. "You don't know what'll happen next year."