Did you know that growing vegetables is officially cool? Seriously, growing your own food is fast becoming the most fashionable trend amongst the chattering classes of the Western world, who are catching on to what quiet gardeners have always known—-the sheer unadulterated pleasure of cultivating what you need, then harvesting it and cooking it for your family to eat.
Why start growing your own food?
With rising food prices and a growing awareness of the dangers of agricultural chemicals, growing your own food is fast becoming mainstream. The futurologist Robert Shapiro has named it as one of the top ten trends of the near future. The first signs that he is absolutely right are already here, as little seedlings push through the earth in vegetable plots, not out in rural expanses, but dotted all over suburban gardens and urban rooftops and balconies!
Food fresh from the garden, no chemicals or pesticides to worry about, food that is as seasonal and local as it gets, no air miles to feel guilty about, just food as it should be, pure and vital and delicious. Have I convinced you yet?
No matter where you live, you can certainly grow some of your own food and by doing so make your meals more delicious and more healthy and nutritious. And it is one of the most wonderful activities you can do with your children. A family day out doesn’t have to be an expensive trip to a theme park or a movie. How about a trip to your very own vegetable plot? Believe me, your children will thank you heartily for it when they are grown up as they look back on those days when you gardened together.
And by the time they are teenagers, the thought of growing vegetables may not seem that attractive, but you can always offer to pay them for whatever veggies they grow for you. You can still pay them less than what it would cost you to buy in a shop and they learn the lovely feeling of being able to earn their own money through work and productive activity. And you all get to eat delicious food. It’s win win win all the way to the table!
How to Start Growing Your Own Vegetables at Home
If you like the idea of growing your own vegetables but don’t know where to start, here are some general guidelines. Really, it is not as difficult as you might think. Just start small. Don’t overdo it and if you find you like it, grow more the next year.
Growing vegetables can roughly be divided into three stages:
- Planning the garden
- Preparing the soil and planting
- Maintaining the garden
And of course there is another stage, the best part—- eating!)
Growing Vegetables Step # 1: Planning Your Garden
Work out what you would like to achieve in your first attempt. What vegetables would you like to produce. Take into account the type of climate you live in. Is it cool, temperate or tropical? Choose your crops accordingly. Think also about the type of soil you have, is it very acidic or very alkaline? If so, you may succeed better with raised beds which you can fill up with better soil.
Then think about where in your garden to plant. Choose an area that gets as much consistent sunlight as possible and is not shaded by your house, or other obstructions. In the Northern hemisphere this is usually South facing. Plant so that the taller plants won’t block the sunlight for the shorter ones. Plan so that you can practise companion gardening, a great method used by organic gardeners to keep away bugs. (There’s no point in growing your own vegetables if you end up destroying them with pesticides just like the mass-produced ones.
Every three years your soil will need a rest, so build in a way of leaving some area empty so that you can rotate your crops. Work out your bedding plan so that you can easily reach everything and not have to walk over your beds. Make sure the pathways in between the beds are wide enough for you to push a wheelbarrow or lawnmower.
Next decide whether you want to have a dig or a no-dig garden. Digging means ploughing the soil and working through fertiliser and then planting into the ground. No-dig means building raised beds and creating your own layers of material topped with topsoil. You fertilise by layering the fertiliser on top and allowing the earthworms to naturally mix it in with your soil. If you live in an apartment and only have a balcony, build a small no-dig garden for yourself and you can grow anything on it provided you get sufficient sunlight.
No-dig is lower maintenance and is suitable for where you may not have good quality soil on your land. But many gardeners like the therapeutic activity of digging and turning their soil over. So if you have good land, with good drainage, no hard material below the surface and with a good pH balance (a pH of between 6.5 and 7 is best for most vegetable gardens), you may like the dig-garden. (For good information on the no-dig method, I recommend the book Organic Gardening: The Natural No-Dig Way by Charles Dowding. You can read about this technique which originated in Japan and enables gardeners to enjoy a delicious variety of fruits and vegetables without ever having to till soil.
Fencing off your garden with netting of at least three feet high will keep away animals and even some flying bugs. It will also provide a nice support for climbers like peas, beans, vines and tomatoes.
When you have prepared your vegetable beds you are ready for the next stage.
Growing Vegetables Step # 2: Preparing Your Garden
In the autumn, fertilise your soil well, so that when the time comes for planting, your plants will flourish in all the lovely nutrients you have planned for them. Always source only organic fertiliser.
Order your seeds well in advance and make sure to source only organic varieties. These are not only healthier and more delicious, but are more resistant to disease. I always think it is nice to try to source unusual varieties that are in danger of becoming extinct. These are often exquisitely delicious and you will also be doing your bit to preserve the biodiversity of our fragile eco-system.
Follow the seeding instructions, paying attention to spacing and depth and water gently but generously after planting.
With a no-dig garden, it is better to start your seeds above the soil, in pots , perhaps even indoors or in a greenhouse if you have one.
Growing Vegetables Step # 3: Maintaining your garden
Many gardeners call this activity ‘tending their garden’. I really like that phrase, because I always feel that caring for a garden is a tender thing. The more love you put into growing vegetables in your garden, the more your crops will flourish. And when you garden in this way, you will get such a sense of pleasure and reward out of the activity, that you will come to understand how gardening can become so addictive. Then when you get the rewards, the fruits of your labour, it is the icing on the cake.
Once those first shoots start to produce leaves, you may need to thin some of them back, allowing the strongest plants through. Weed regularly and thoroughly. This keeps away bugs which thrive on weeds and keeps the solid nutrients for you lovely veggies. Always clear away organic matter from around your beds, keeping them clean and tidy. This prevents fungi and bacteria from flourishing. Throw it on a compost heap for fertilising when the time comes. You can use bark mulches to cover the beds around your crops to prevent weeds.
Water regularly. Growing vegetables need lots of moisture. Early in the morning or late evening are the best times to water to that the sun doesn’t evaporate your best work!
Don’t be disheartened if bugs get some of your produce—-it’s nature, you can’t stop it. Encourage wildlife into your garden such as ladybirds by planting what attracts them. These will keep many bugs under control. Never use pesticides or chemicals because they will kill the good wildlife as well as the bugs. If they destroy more than a small percentage, look again at what plant combinations you are using and what organic farmers do to prevent the problem you are having. See if there is a variety of plant you can use that is more naturally resistant to whatever bugs thrive in your garden. When growing vegetables the natural way, there is always a solution!