Grow Your Own

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Heirloom tomato blossoms

Heirloom tomato blossoms

Most of us have been hearing this a lot lately. “Grow food, not lawns!” “Grow your own food!”

Why is this so commonly declared? It is one way to fight against corporate farming, one simple way to ensure that you are not getting genetically engineered food in your and your family’s diet, one very simple way to eat organic without the high cost of organic food. You will know what is in your food when you grow it yourself. You can choose seed brands and varieties that do not profit big chemical companies such as Dupont, Monsanto and Syngenta. When you grow your own you are not supporting farms (most corporate) that buy pesticides, fungicides and herbicides from these companies. You take a bite out of their profits and send a message to these farmers that you won’t buy their crops while they are supporting such companies.

Where to Begin?

Showy snow pea blossom

Showy snow pea blossom

If you have never grown a vegetable garden you will need to enter the learning phase. Take some time to visit your library. Pull gardening books from the shelves and start reading. The more you read the more familiar you will become with terminology, concepts and growing methods overall. After perusing and skimming gardening books at the library you might decide to add at least one or two books to your home library. I highly encourage this. You will reference these books regularly whether you are a beginning or experienced gardener. Yes, you can use the internet but in this case I really like having my books at hand for quick reference.

Here in the US we have Extension Services all over the country, in every state and county. They might become your best friends. Start by locating yours and drop in. Familiarize yourself with what types of services they offer, classes, and who the experts are on the premises. They are there to help you. Ours is affiliated with the University of Connecticut, which isn’t ideal (because chemical, Big Ag, biotech are all over college campuses and involved in their agricultural programs). You might not get as much support for organic gardening as you might if it was a county government run organization. There is usually, however, one person there who is an expert on organic gardening.

Sugar pumpkin

Sugar pumpkin

Community gardens are a great way to learn about gardening. Locate your community gardens, visit them and make friends. If you live in the city a community garden might be the way to go for you. When I lived in Austin, Texas in a duplex with an asphalt driveway as my front yard I had an extensive container garden and a small plot for veggies on the side yard but there was definitely not room for a full garden. I rented a plot from the community garden just down the road. You will never meet nicer people than community gardeners. And you will often find that they share their harvests with others.

Order lots of seed catalogs. Seed catalogs are like little encyclopedias themselves. Yes, they want to sell you seeds but if you order catalogs from the companies that focus on organic and heirloom (non-hybrid and non-GMO) seeds you will find a lot of information. Here are a list of seed companies that you might want to explore:

There are many, many more. You can do an internet search for “organic seeds” or “heirloom seeds”. I have only ordered and used seeds from Annie’s Heirloom Seeds. Loved supporting a small, family-owned business. Not affiliated with any of the companies above.

What to Grow?

My recommendation: make a list of the produce, legumes, and grains your family eats. Choose a few of those to grow at home.

Most home gardeners cannot grow all of their own produce, and certainly not corn and grains. Even dried beans require a lot of space if you are to grow enough for the entire year. So you must decide what you want to grow using some kind of criteria. I read a long time ago, and it really stuck with me, that it is important to consider growing the foods that are most expensive to buy. In other words, which foods make up the largest part of your budget aside from meats (if you eat meat)?

Fenced backyard garden to protect from deer and dog.

Fenced backyard garden to protect from deer and dog. Vertically growing cucumbers and snow peas.

For me the number one item is garlic. I spend a fortune on garlic. Next is tomatoes. Up here in Connecticut it is not uncommon to find organic tomatoes at $4-5 a pound. And we eat a lot of tomato products: fresh, canned diced, paste. Is a first year gardener going to grow enough tomatoes for a family of four for one year? I doubt it. That is a lot of tomatoes and a lot of processing. But you can certainly grow enough so you have fresh tomatoes throughout the growing season and possibly put some up (if you are interested in canning). The next expensive food is peppers: bell, Italian, jalapeno, and so on. Very expensive because they are difficult to grow here without a greenhouse. But they do grow here if they can get enough sun and warmth. You won’t be starting those in the early spring as you would lettuce and kale. Eggplant is very easy to grow in the hot states but also limited up here in Connecticut. But it will grow if you choose a smaller, early variety.

Here is a list of what I will be growing this year:

  • Tomatoes – slicing and paste
  • Cucumbers – salad and pickling
  • Kale
  • Sugar snap peas
  • Black turtle beans
  • Potatoes – red and yellow (in grow bags)
  • Sugar Pumpkins
  • Squash (maybe)
  • Peppers
  • Garlic (planted last fall)
  • Shallots (from seed to plant bulbs in the fall)
  • Variety of herbs: comfrey, mullein, basil, parsley, oregano, catnip (tea for humans), dill

Notice that I am not planting lettuce and carrots? Well, I will probably plant a little bit of lettuce in the garlic bed but lettuce and carrots are very inexpensive organics to buy in the grocery store. But organic kale, tomatoes, pumpkins, peppers and garlic are very pricey. I cannot afford to buy seed shallots (which are shallot bulbs pulled apart and planted individually just like garlic — very, very expensive. Not even available in any grocery stores near me organically. My food co-op does carry organic shallots occasionally but they are outrageously expensive. I let the price of organic produce help me choose what to grow. You might just want to grow 3 or 4 veggies your first year and focus on easy-to-grow crops such as carrots, lettuce, pole beans, cucumbers and peas.

Some crops take up a lot of space such as pumpkins. My pumpkin vines ended up about 12 feet long. I had the space easily but not everyone will. I grew mine in one small bed and they wandered into the grass which was fine. Ideally, though, they should have fertile ground for most of their growing space since they put down roots as they go along. I grow almost all vining crops on trellises. This is known as vertical gardening. Very important for home gardeners. Be prepared to make some simple trellises from metal and/or wooden stakes and chicken wire or welded wire. Chicken wire is inexpensive and lasts a long time. I have reused mine for over 10 years now. It is also important to stake your tomatoes. I grew indeterminate tomato varieties and had fresh tomatoes up to the first frost. But they grow and grow and grow all over. Do a little research and start simply the first year.

Tomato and cucumber bed (front) and garlic, sugar snap pea and lettuce bed (back>

Tomato and cucumber bed (front) and garlic, sugar snap pea and lettuce bed (back>

Please grow heirlooms. These are non-hybrid, non-genetically engineered varieties. I am focused on heirlooms so that I can save seeds; some to plant next year and some to preserve for the future should GMOs end up contaminating the world’s food supply. Already soy, canola, and corn are mostly genetically engineered and even organic crops are being contaminated with GM pollen. That means the seeds from those crops are no longer organic and cannot be saved. Some people insist that all of their seeds should be from organic sources. I believe in organic food but I am not sold on the necessity. They are not that much more expensive if you decide to go that route. And in a couple of years I might change my mind about my position. That said, the seeds I am saving were grown in an organic garden environment and are organic seeds (though the criteria for certified organic seeds would most likely require organic seed source to begin with or several years organically grown seed crops.

Do not buy organic seeds from the big discount stores. Those seed companies are owned by the chemical companies that have been buying up seed companies at a furious rate. I boycott those companies and stick with small, independent seed companies.

Creating the Garden

There are so many different ways to dig, create, and build gardens that I will just briefly mention the options.

Deck garden

Deck garden

  • Raised beds: This is the most popular method in the US. Build a wooden bed and fill with soil and compost. Instant garden. You do not disturb the soil beneath the bed. You won’t be digging up and germinating the hundreds of weed seeds that reside in most turf.
  • Double dug beds: These gardens are at ground level and started by laying out your bed, digging once to loosen soil and turf, remove turf and weeds, then turn one more time. You can move the turf to fill in bare spots in your lawn. The down side if you dig and pull the grass is that you will be disturbing the hundreds of weed seeds found in most turf. You will be pulling a lot of weeds the first couple of years.
  • Layer and compost: This is becoming very popular. In the fall you layer your new garden area with some kind of cover such as newspapers, burlap, even cotton rags and then pile organic material on top up to a foot thick. Cover the entire thing with a tarp. This will compost throughout the winter, killing the turf and weeds beneath and leave you with a fertile garden space.
  • Container garden: For those with no ground space, renting, or in condos and apartments this is a great option. You can grown nearly anything in a container.
  • Vertical gardening: This method is typically used in conjunction with one or all three of those above. Build a trellis and you only need a few inches per plant of soil space.
Container garden in my driveway with a vertical element for pole beans

Container garden in my driveway with a vertical element for pole beans

When to Begin?

Gardening begins in the winter with planning, pouring over seed catalogs, making garden diagrams, lists of what you want to accomplish, and lots of dreaming. I love the planning stage of gardening. Just love it! So when should you start your garden? Right now! Order some seed catalogs and start planning. Do not attempt too much the first year. Gardening should be fun. It is a lot of work, but it is the most fun work I do all year long. Start your garden right now!

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