Well we made it to 2021. Things didn’t magically change at midnight, but we all have high hopes for 2021. To be better than 2020. To see less destruction, anger, violence, politics and most of all, less pestilence. And many of us are suddenly thinking about food security, possibly for the first time in our lives.
We in the western world went so quickly from thinking that food security meant making sure you have enough treats on hand in case friends drop over, to battling each other desperately for those last, elusive packets of bread yeast on sometimes almost empty store shelves.
It’s scary, and daunting to someone who has never grown food before. It feels helpless and disturbing. You now know that you need to try harder to ensure your own food security and growing a veggie garden seems an obvious answer. But how on earth should you get started?
Start A Food Garden
A good place to start gardening is with a plan, however rudimentary. If you would like to have some fresh tomatoes but you only buy and plant oregano seeds, you won’t be happy with your results. So step 1 is to start with making a list of what vegetables, fruit and herbs that YOU like to eat.
Not all plants can grow in all soils, all light situations or climates. Your next step will be to do a little research and find out what climate zone are you in. Check each plant on your list against that – will they grow in your climate zone? Cross off those that don’t. It is possible to extend your growing season but this post is about your first foray into a veggie garden so let’s keep it simple; if a plant on your list is outside your climate zone, grow it next time and this time focus on getting started with your garden.
Next look at cultural requirements for the plants left on your list. Some plants will require a trellis structure to grow upwards on, for example cucumbers. Others have to be “trained” to wrap around vertical strings so they grow upwards instead of flopping all over the ground, such as indeterminate (floppy and long lived) types of tomatoes. Make sure you have the space you will need for anything like this.
Research what kind of soil your plants expect. A plant that likes sandy soil is not going to thrive in thick clay soil. The good news is that is it possible to create a soil landscape that matches your needs, with a little investment in the components like sand, compost, clay etc.
The soil is what holds onto the water, and the nutrients for your plants. It must have enough “organic matter” (compost) to provide these services via micro fungi and other tiny soil organisms, and to act as a sponge to hold moisture. Once your soil has been amended to meet your requirements, the less you disturb your soil the healthier it will be. Consider using a “no till” method of soil management. This will really help keep weeds down as well.
Weeds are gonna come. There is no escape. If you plant seedlings rather than seeds outdoors, then the weeds are going to be more obvious – you don’t want to rip out all your carrots thinking they are poisonous weeds! You can mulch or cover with old carpet or cardboard or tarps in the paths between rows in your garden plot so you are only weeding in the actual beds. Weed often, right from the start, and it is an absolute breeze. Let it get out of hand for 2 weeks, and the rest of that season and possibly the next will see you locked in a real, life and death struggle with the weeds. Discipline is the answer my friends!
Some plants can get by in shade, some can tolerate half shade and some need a full day of full sun to really produce. Make sure your garden gets enough hours of direct sun for what you have in mind to plant.
Think about what direction does the sun come from over the course of the day. How can you design the planting layout so the taller plants will be at the back and the smallest plants nearest the direction the sun comes from, to avoid your tall plants shading all the others.
Plants require a certain amount of space, and it varies by kind of plant and even within the individual varieties of each plant. Generally this information is on the seed packet or published by the seed seller. Make sure your plan sets the right target numbers of plants to grow in your space.
Think about our animal friends, like birds, squirrels, raccoons, cats, dogs etc. They will all impact your garden if you don’t take steps to protect it from them. Consider things like row cover fabric, a 360 degree fence of chicken wire around your garden, bird netting, scare tactics like foil plates hanging from fence posts, human or owl shapes, and scattering blood meal around edges of the garden plot to make it seem like a place where predators may be.
Insects are also going to be a potential issue. These are harder to deal with simply because there are so many of them and so many kinds. Squash beetles will wreck your squash. Flea beetles will eat all your greens. Tomato hornworms will make you think your garden is the site of an alien invasion. It can seem overwhelming.
But the first step for dealing with insect pests is to have healthy, well watered plants, by setting them up in good conditions and keeping them properly hydrated. You can also interplant herbs amongst your veggies to attract beneficial insects, repel pest insects and also give you fresh herbs! Making sure plants are covered with row fabric during pest swells to “hide” the plants from the pests, who then simply go elsewhere. When all else fails applying a simple and pretty safe for humans spray using Neem (tea tree) oil mixed with water and a touch of detergent will usually take care of the problem.
What To Grow
My garden is in zone 5b. Some plants that I recommend for your first garden are potatoes, tomatoes, pole beans, bush beans, patio zucchini, Swiss Chard, lettuce, radishes, beets, sweet potatoes, eggplant, hot peppers, sweet peppers, turnips and carrots. Basil, sage, dill, cilantro and parsley are all easy and hardy. And sunflowers, marigolds and calendula will repel insects and bring beauty to your veggie plot.
In summary, you can start a garden with one plant in a pot on your windowsill, and expand from there, or you can apply these basic principles and give growing some food a try. Fair warning, digging in the dirt while the sun warms you and the birds sing, and the rich smell of the soil fills your world is very addictive. Once you start gardening you may not be able to stop!
If you want more detailed advice for your garden adventure, check back here often! Let me know what kind of garden you are planning in 2021.
If you want to sign up for a weekly delivery of naturally grown veggies rather than growing your own, you can sign up for my 2021 CSA here starting January 11, 2021.
Please note that there are a limited number of spots available each year.