It may seem early to be thinking about gardening, with parts of the country still blanketed in snow and dealing with freezing temperatures, but mid- to late-February is actually an ideal time to plan out your green activities for the upcoming season. Especially in more Southerly States where the first Spring flowers are already starting to poke their leaves through the soil, getting ahead on your growing plans for the year is a good thing to do now. What better way to ensure you and your household are eating healthy food than to grow it yourself?
A plethora of benefits
Gardening can be an incredibly satisfying experience, even if you’ve never attempted it before and don’t quite know where to start. There are lots of beginner resources available online, or you could try searching for local skill-share groups or gardening hobbyist groups from whom you can learn the basics. Plus, as far as pastimes go, it packs multiple benefits including keeping you physically fit, getting outside for some fresh air and sunshine, and having fresh, tasty produce for a fraction of the cost at the grocery store. That $2 tomato plant can easily produce 10 pounds of fruit over the course of a summer and early fall if you’ve treated it right.
Depending on how you approach it, carefully planning your gardening can also help reduce your environmental impact and carbon footprint. Growing your own fruit and veggies means you’re not buying hothouse or monoculture grown crops, and not having them shipped halfway across the country or the world to eat them. It’s the ultimate way of “eating local”, and getting the freshest, most nutrient-dense foods into your daily diet.
With record droughts in many States over the past year, conserving water is a big priority. Traditional grass lawns take huge amounts of time and water to keep looking good. By changing your landscaping to grow more foodstuffs, that water isn’t going to waste in the same way. You can also use more native plants, including grasses, shrubs, and wildflowers to fill out the non-edible portions of your yard. These hardy species will use only the natural amount of rainfall in your area to grow, and look nice for much of the year. Having wildflowers is also good for attracting and taking care of pollinators like bees and butterflies, who are an important part of any ecosystem.
Start small and be pragmatic
When deciding what to plant in a vegetable garden, it’s best to start small. Many new gardeners get overly excited at the beginning of the season. It’s easy to plant more than you need — you don’t want to end up wasting food or feeling overwhelmed by your garden and unable to keep up with the demands it places on you. First, take a look at how much your household will likely consume over the course of a given week. Also, consider what types of vegetables get eaten most in your house. There’s no point planting some exotic variety of green that nobody likes.
One major factor to consider when deciding which plants to go for is whether they are a one-time harvest or continue producing edible items throughout the season. Vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, and squash keep providing, so you may not need many plants to serve your needs. Other vegetables, such as carrots, radishes, and corn, are a one-time deal. You may need to plant more of these or stagger planting dates if you’d like to have produce at multiple points through the growing season.
Space and how to use it
Even if you only have a small yard or a balcony, you can do a lot with the space available to you. If you choose to grow in containers, you don’t even need a yard — a deck or balcony may provide plenty of space for plants depending on sunlight requirements. A simple window-box planter can provide enough space for a delicious little herb garden, with just enough for the home cook!
In fact, a well-tended 10×10-foot vegetable garden can often produce more than a 25×50-foot bed that isn’t well kept. The major problem with getting too ambitious from the start is that weeds or disease can crop up and you may not be prepared to deal with those. Having a troubled vegetable patch can make for a paltry harvest even if you’ve planted many individual plants.
If you live in a city apartment with no balcony or opening windows, there are other alternatives to seek out. If your building doesn’t offer communal gardening space, you may be able to join a neighborhood association which does, or find a city cooperative garden to become part of. There are also more and more new alternatives for those who want to spend a bit of time in the dirt. Many small farms now ask for harvest help and allow volunteers to take home a portion of what they pick. City-based foraging groups often work to pair fruit tree or vegetable garden owners with those willing to help pick, and the harvest gets split between owners, volunteers, and often food share or community soup kitchens.
Experienced gardeners plan things out ahead of time to make their efforts more productive. To get the most food from a small garden area, here are a few planting recommendations:
- Plant salad and stir-fry green seed mixes. These are great for bulk harvest, as they produce a lot in a short amount of time.
- Choose plants that continue to provide harvestable product over a long period of time. Eggplants, chili peppers, chard, and kale all yield a lot of food over an extended period of time for the amount of space they take.
- Grow “indeterminate” tomato varieties. This means the plants grow more fruit over a longer span of time than determinate varieties.
- Plant pole beans, peas, and vine cucumbers. These vertical growers take little square footage and have a long season with continued harvests compared to bush types of the same kinds of veggies.
- Choose day-neutral strawberries, if you want to plant small fruit plants. These bear fruit from early summer through the fall, and produce a larger yield than spring-bearing types.
- Include plants that are fast growing and in and out of the garden quickly — radishes, lettuce, arugula, and green onions all fit the bill. These quick and simple harvests will get you accustomed to the cycle that other crops take longer to get through.
Thinking ahead to next year
If you like to plan ahead, try keeping a journal so you can learn from year-to-year and improve your garden. Your first year, especially as a newbie green thumb, may not be as successful as you’d hoped, either due to poor planning, poor timing, or outside factors like pests. Keep track of what soil additions and fertilizers you’ve used, what the weather was like on a weekly or monthly basis (rainfall amount is particularly useful to note), planting dates, days to harvest, disease or pest problems, and any solutions you’ve tried and how well they’ve worked. Keeping track of how often you needed to water certain crops can also help you figure out which crops are helping you be eco-friendly, and which are more wasteful.
Hopefully you’re now excited about the prospect of gardening this spring! It’s one of the healthiest things you can do for yourself and the planet, and if you love to cook, it’s a great way to get the raw ingredients for delicious meals. Be sure to check out other online resources for more details on planting schedules and crop needs before you begin, and good luck!
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Jennie Lyon is a green lifestyle writer and the owner of Sweet Greens, the award-winning green lifestyle blog. She posts on simple, fun ways families can go green together – starting with her own. When she isn’t blogging, you will find her paddleboarding, sailing, beach-combing, camping, or spending time with her amazing husband and 14-year old son.