The aftermath of both September 11 and the 2008 economic collapse brought a renewed interest in home gardening, and our current catastrophe looks to be no different. Garden centers have started operating online, seed companies are back-ordered for the foreseeable future and lots of people are reviewing their HOA regulations and eyeing available space in their suburban backyards. While it might not be practical to expect a backyard garden to provide all necessary food for a standard American family (how do you grow dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets, anyway?), gardening offers an active yet meditative experience, an immense sense of satisfaction and self-sufficiency, and a deeper appreciation for how much work it takes to grow food. With that in mind, we offer a few basic tips for people looking to start their own garden.
The current seed-starting set-up in our sunroom, expanding by the day.
Start small, and plant what you’ll actually eat. In moments of stress or panic (or when we suddenly have an unexpected amount of free time on our hands) we might be tempted to dig up our entire backyard and start an urban farm. This is great in theory, but if you’ve never grown a single basil plant before, we highly recommend that you start small – maybe just a couple of herb pots or a tidy little container garden on a sunny patio. It’s easy to think big and abundant, but when things return (somewhat) to normal, whenever that may be, you may not have the necessary time to devote to your garden. You can always expand if it turns out you love growing food.
Also in the interest of keeping things manageable, plant what you’ll actually eat. I’ve decided this year that I’m no longer going to devote precious garden space to eggplant, because although we don’t hate it, we don’t love it, either. And our vegetable real estate is exceedingly valuable – more so every year – and I want to plant things we adore, like tomatoes and peppers and interesting culinary herbs. When you’re choosing what you’ll grow, make sure you have a selection of vegetables and herbs that are relevant to your household, and if possible, try one new variety that you’ve never eaten before.
Kale is easy to grow and so nutritious, too.
Where do you live, and where do you plan to plant? Where you are in the country (or the world) matters more than anything else in terms of what you can and can’t grow, and when. In southern Florida, for example, prime growing season is fall and winter; the rest of the year it might simply be too hot. Here in western Colorado, we’re entering our season for cool-weather crops; no warm-season crops will be planted outdoors for months, thanks to our surprise late-spring snowstorms. I’m not going to waste my time or money planting an avocado or a mango tree here; they simply won’t work. You need to know your zone and your first and last frost dates in order to select and time your plantings correctly.
Choosing the space for your garden is equally as important as knowing your planting zone. Although there are exceptions, most edible crops are annuals (they’re replanted every year) rather than perennials (which typically come back on their own every year). Most annual vegetable crops want sunshine and lots of it, except for tender leafy greens that need a bit of cool shade. Southern exposure is best; determine in advance whether your garden will end up heavily shaded by deciduous trees, a neighbor’s house or other environmental factors. Know that soil is another hugely important factor in your garden’s success; in most of Colorado you’ll probably be obligated to bring in quality soil, as we tend towards heavy, compacted clay here. Simple open-bottom raised beds are a great choice; you can also grow in watering troughs, whiskey barrels or other containers, as long as they have ample drainage.
Seed packets from reputable companies contain so much good information.
Are you direct-seeding, transplanting or planting starts? There are three basic ways of growing vegetables: sowing seed directly into the ground outside, starting seeds indoors to be transplanted at an opportune moment and planting purchased starts. There are pros and cons to each option, and certain things work for some vegetables and growing regions and not for others. Here at Quiet Farm, for example, we have already direct-seeded beets, salad mix, radishes, peas, carrots, chard, fava beans, fennel and kale outdoors in raised beds. Tomatoes, peppers, flowers and delicate herbs are all growing inside on heat mats and will be transplanted outside in late May, weather permitting. Summer and winter squashes, cucumbers and beans will be direct-seeded in early to mid-June.
We don’t buy starts (small plants grown by a garden center or greenhouse), but they can be a terrific option for beginning gardeners, if you’re able to get any during our current situation. If you choose to start from seed, you may want heat mats and grow lights, and you’ll definitely need a lot of indoor space – or a dedicated greenhouse. As with everything else in gardening, it’s essential that you do some research before simply throwing a handful of tomato seeds on a patch of dry, rocky, snow-covered ground in mid-March and then wondering why your gardening attempts didn’t work.
The mixed lettuces in this mulched bed will be ready to harvest in ten days or so.
This isn’t meant to overwhelm you, rather to inspire you. Growing your own food – even a couple of pots on a windowsill – is one of the world’s most rewarding activities and if there is any silver lining to be found in these dark times, I hope it’s a return to gardening. If you need gardening supplies, please buy from a local garden center and not from the big-box stores; now more than ever, small local businesses need your financial support and massive corporations most certainly do not. (Also, please heed all local regulations and shelter-in-place orders in your area; buying gardening supplies does not qualify as essential. We want everyone to stay home and stay healthy and we are not recommending that you defy these orders to start your garden.)
This is by no means an exhaustive tutorial; more in-depth resources are available all over the internet. Check your local extension office for the most relevant information for your area. And I know we have lots of experienced gardeners reading this, so if you have any tips for beginning gardeners, please share in the comments below. Beginning gardeners, please let us know what other questions you have and we’ll do our best to respond!