If you’re going to go to the trouble to grow a garden, think about the whys and wherefores first. Do you just want a few really fresh, really tasty tomatoes? Are you after fresh veggies year round? Is your goal to grow pretty much everything your family eats? The answers to these questions will help you make some critical decisions such as how big your garden must be, what varieties you want to grow, whether you will need to plan for starting your own transplants and a myriad of other decisions.
A Few Good Tomatoes
For the “I just want a few good tomatoes” gardener, all you need are a few pots. You can easily grow cherry tomatoes in different colors and flavors on a south-facing apartment balcony or even under grow lights. Hey, if people can grow marijuana in their garages and apartments, why can’t you grow tomatoes? A pot or fifteen will also allow you to grow a little lettuce, a few green onions and some radishes. You’ll probably be buying potting soil, unless you have a friendly gardening neighbor or relative who is willing to give you some good dirt. Replace the potting soil or dirt every year, as otherwise you’ll use up all the nutrients and your plants won’t do well. If you can, take a bucket out into the woods – even if you have to drive 50 miles – and get some real dirt to mix into your pots. Make sure your pots have adequate drainage holes, as potted plants are susceptible to overwatering, especially from an inexperienced gardener. Buy a few tomato transplants from the local garden center – get heirloom varieties if you can, as they taste better. For the onions, you can cut off the bottom half-inch of some store-bought green onions and just stick them in the dirt. They’ll regrow and give you at least one more batch of onions. If you let them overwinter, they’ll get thick stalks more like leeks. Direct seed the radishes and wait 21 days. Ditto the lettuce but it’s more like 45 days.
A gardener who just wants fresh vegetables in the summer, when the living and growing are easy, has several options. Depending on how much space and time you’re willing to devote to the garden, you can start your own plants and transplant them to the garden or buy starts from the local nursery. Heirloom varieties are becoming more common in suburban nurseries and farmers markets often have started plants as well. If your space is limited, pick varieties that will give you lots of produce. Better a cherry tomato, for example, than a beefsteak. The former will take the same amount of (or even a little less) space. Cherry tomatoes ripen earlier and produce longer, with an equal or even larger (in terms of weight) harvest. And you can easily dry cherry tomatoes, while beefsteaks are trickier and more difficult. If you have lots of room, you can grow a tremendous amount of food by gardening in summer only. However, unless you have neighbors and relatives who will take the excess off your hands, you will quickly go from being a summer gardener to a food preserver, because you won’t want the goodies to go to waste.
Some gardeners plan their gardens on the principle that they want to eat fresh from them all year. Seasonal eating is one of life’s real pleasures that many people no longer enjoy. This kind of garden takes a certain amount of skill, especially if you’re trying to do it in a suburban backyard. You’ll need to learn about succession planting and be willing to yank something that’s still producing so you can get the next season’s crops in the ground. Of course, eating this way means you’re at the mercy of the weather – a major hailstorm when you have lots of delicate seedlings in the garden can be an unmitigated disaster. But when it works, it means you will always eat the freshest of the fresh, sometimes harvesting only a few minutes before something appears on your table.
If you want to raise all your family’s food, you’ll need not only gardening but also preserving skills. In many cases, you’ll also get into animal husbandry. While you can go the vegetarian route, there’s a lot to be said for having a few animals around to help with garden surplus and provide manure for fertilizer. It takes a lot less land than you might think to keep a dozen chickens or rabbits. My personal experience and research indicates that humans should eat some meat; the key is to eat meats comparable to wild-raised animals rather than conventionally-raised meats. This type of do-it-all gardening uses skills from all the others, including starting your own transplants, saving seeds, succession planting and maximum use of space.
Small Space Gardening
I can hear some of you now: “The woman has 185 acres, raises her own cows, fer Chrissake, and she’s going on about me raising my own food when I live on this miniscule lot.” Let your heart be still. I too have known what it’s like to garden in a small space. You can do a surprising amount with a suburban lot. For starters, if you have limited space, you can practice square foot gardening. This form of intensive gardening uses one-foot square blocks, with different plants in each block and larger plants centered in several blocks. If you choose highly productive plants, you can get quite a lot of food from a relatively small space. Green onions, for example, can be planted very close together – in fact, you want to plant them that way to keep them slender and straight. A cucumber only needs about two square feet (grow it on a pole or it will take over the whole garden) and will provide you with salad material for months. If you really ramp up the fertility of the soil, you can grow a cucumber in one square foot of space. Lettuce can be sown broadcast so it grows thickly; cut regularly about two inches above the ground. It will then regrow so you can repeat the process. Many plants and herbs can also be grown in pots, tubs or other containers. They should be at least two feet deep, and you’ll need to keep a close eye on them as far as watering goes.
In a 25-square foot space – that’s five feet by five feet for the math-challenged among you – your spring garden could contain:
- 24 green onions
- 4 heads of lettuce
- 24 radishes
- 9 leaf lettuces
- 9 spinach plants
- 2 sprouting broccoli
- 24 carrots
- 4 potatoes
- 18 bush peas
Several of these plants – chard, sprouting broccoli, spinach and leaf lettuce – lend themselves to the practice of cut-and-come-again harvesting. You could seed more carrots as you pull the green onions and ditto radishes as you harvest the carrots. In a 25-foot square summer garden, you could have:
- 2 cherry tomatoes
- 2 summer squash
- 18 pole beans
- 9 leaf lettuces
- 4 cucumbers
Now, that kind of intensive gardening means you have to keep ahead of the weeds, pay close attention to watering and keep your soil in tip-top condition. It also means you need to grow your next season’s plants in containers, ready to pop into an opening as soon as it becomes available. But it can be done. For details consult Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew or How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine by John Jeavons.
Another way to maximize food production in minimal space is to cast aside the idea of a veggie plot and flower beds as separate and distinct areas. Edible landscaping is the practice of mingling your fruits and veggies with their flowering cousins. A tomato among the daylilies, eggplant in the iris bed and strawberries as a groundcover – you can get quite a lot of mileage out of this sort of companion planting. Some folks even operate on the principle that everything in the yard must be edible, which isn’t as restrictive as it sounds, because there are a number of ornamental plants, shrubs and trees that have edible flowers, fruits, leaves, roots or stems. The blossoms of the aforementioned daylily, for example, can be added to salads or stir-fried. Violet flowers and rose petals are edible and the peppery leaves of nasturtiums are also salad material.
Raising Your Own Meat
But what about meat? I hear you asking. Well, now, that depends. If you live in a restricted zoning area, you may have to fight City Hall, but it’s being done – successfully – all over the US. What you need is a group of like-minded folks who want to raise chickens or rabbits or ducks and who will trundle down to City Hall with you and lobby for a change in the various ordinances. Chickens are the best choice all-around, as they provide both eggs and meat. Ducks would come in second, although they don’t produce as many eggs in most cases. Khaki Campbells, however, will rival the best-producing chickens and will forage for a lot of their own food. You can get eggs (well, not from the rabbits) and meat from a very small space. The critters will be happy to take care of your leftover food scraps, weeds and vegetable peelings (although the rabbits and ducks won’t eat everything the way chickens will). Not to mention providing you with fertilizer for your edible landscaping. Rabbits and ducks may go over better in some neighborhoods, as neither announces egg-laying with quite the vociferous boisterousness of a chicken. In terms of noise, though, some ducks do talk quite a lot. You don’t need a rooster just to get some eggs, by the way. Many objections to chickens are really objections to roosters, or at least the roosters’ habit of announcing the coming day at about 4:30 AM. You can put the chickens in a chicken tractor (think small mobile pen) and trundle them about the yard, where they will eat grass and bugs, fertilizing as they go.
Obviously, you are unlikely to be able to raise all of your food in a suburban backyard, although you can raise a surprising amount by going the edible landscaping route. And what you can raise will be high quality, really-truly fresh and taste terrific. You might also be surprised at the amount of food being raised locally by small farmers. Check out your local farmers’ market and start to build relationships with the growers. You’ll probably find that you can have pretty much anything you want by eating local, with a few exceptions such as grains or exotic ingredients. If you can’t grow it yourself, tapping into the local food network is the next best thing. Read Vicki Robin’s book Blessing the Hands that Feed Us, to learn about what she calls relational eating.