Author: Alison Elliott
There is something about being outside and getting your hands dirty that leaves you with a lingering sense of accomplishment. In fact, studies show that immersing your hands in soil can boost your happiness levels. My experience with gardening is in the Northeast. The planting seasons in other regions will vary slightly, however, throughout this article I discuss general gardening concepts. Once you begin gardening and growing your own vegetables, there is no turning back! The flavor in the food you grow is simply unimaginable.
Why Should You Start Gardening?
With more time on our hands as we are socially distancing at home, it is the perfect time to start gardening. Connecting with your food through gardening is useful for many reasons, including:
- It opens your eyes to the difficult labor involved in producing food, which leaves you less wasteful.
- Growing your own food limits the carbon footprint associated with the produce you are consuming. There is no truck hauling vegetables to your house, which means fewer carbon emissions.Some foods like imported fruits and vegetables have a higher carbon footprint because of the farming practices and shipping methods.
- By growing your own vegetables in season you will be making a positive impact on the environment and your health.
- You don’t need much space to have your own backyard garden, and many of the concepts will be applicable to more urban settings as well if you choose to grow vegetables in a bed or in pots. So let’s get started!
Eating organic has beneficial impacts on the environment and your health. Farming organically means that you appreciate and care for the environment and land: NO chemicals, herbicides, fertilizers or other harmful growth stimulants. Generally, you are farming on a small plot of land; you are deeply connected with the land and the food. Making sure to practice crop rotation: planting a new variety of crop in a different spot each season which will decrease the susceptibility of unwanted insects and keep your soil healthy and your crops happy! Some organic farmers practice no-till agriculture, meaning they plant their crops in the existing land instead of tilling (turning) the earth first. This practice releases a lot less carbon into the atmosphere and keeps the farms carbon impact very low. If you want to practice no-till gardening follow these steps:
- Mow down the weeds and grasses in the area where you want to plant.
- Lay compost on top of the land in your garden.
- Dig medium to large holes for your plants. You must turn the immediate area surrounding the plant with a trowel.
- Watch your plants grow and enjoy them when the vegetables are ripe.
Step 1: Preparing the Land
Living on the East Coast, I begin preparing my garden for spring crops during the first week of April. It is not a good idea to plant summer crops (zucchinis, tomatoes, and eggplants etc.) before the last frost date. The National Gardening Association have helpful resources to find out the particular frost date in the area where you live.
How do you prepare the land?
One of the most important things you must do is add organic compost to the soil. I use a hula hoe to gently turn the compost into the top of the soil. If you don’t want to turn the compost into the soil laying it on top of the soil also will be fine. For most backyard gardeners, the land area will be relatively small and thus the impact of tilling or turning the soil will be reduced. Adding compost to the soil releases nutrients for 2-3 years. Creating a healthy growing environment for your vegetables.
Another method of adding nutrients into the soil is through cover cropping. A gardener would plant their cover crop at the end of the growing season (in the fall) and turn it into the soil in the spring letting it decompose in the soil and thereby releasing nutrients. A cover crop, like winter rye, keeps the soil sheltered in the winter months. It also decreases the possibility of erosion even in a small area as water or wind can wash or blow away the topsoil. It is important to protect the topsoil because it lives on the first 5-10 inches of the soil. It takes years to develop more topsoil and it is crucial for healthy plant growth. Plants absorb most of their nutrients through their roots connected to the topsoil. Once you have laid down and turned compost into the topsoil you are ready to plant!
Step 2: Sow your Seeds
I would not suggest starting your plants from seed until you are familiar with gardening. Instead, for the first year or two, you may be more comfortable purchasing plant-starts from a local nursery or farm. If and when you do choose to grow your own plant-starts it is important to read the instructions on each package of seeds. Each plant has a different rate of growth and they need to be planted at specific points in time for proper maturity. There are several different plant families and each plant has a different growing season. To learn more about the plant families, follow this link: http://www.fondation-louisbonduelle.org/en/my-vegetable-garden/grouping-vegetables-according-to-plant-families/
Crops that prefer to grow in a cooler climate and that are suitable for early season planting are: broccoli, kale, cauliflower, cabbage, onions, leeks, beets, spinach, celery, kale, radishes, parsley, snap peas, swiss chard, and cilantro. All of these crops are hearty and can withstand cooler temperatures. After the frost date, you can consider planting summer crops such as basil, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, eggplants, zucchini and other summer squash, carrots, green beans, soy beans, carrots, and lettuce.
Step 3: Plant your Garden
When planting your plant-starts, make sure to dig up the area surrounding the hole where you intend to plant them. This process creates a beneficial environment where the roots of the plant-start can expand and grow. If you take the plant-start out of the pot and there are lots of white roots matted together then take a pencil and lightly break them apart. This helps the roots grow outward once it is planted in the ground. Before transplanting your plant-starts into the ground make sure they are well watered. The area where you are planting your plant-starts should also be well watered. When you think you have watered them enough, add more water! Once planted, cover the roots with soil and give it a “hug” with your hands – pressing the soil into the roots of the plant and tightly securing its location. Finally, add more water! Make sure the plants are saturated in water once they are transplanted.
Step 4: Harvesting and Storing Crops
It is generally easy to tell when your crops are ready to be harvested. Some of the crops that I find difficult to harvest are melons and winter squash. When growing these crops, pay attention to their size and color. Those are the main factors that will help you determine if the crop is ready to be picked. There is also the pick and taste method. Pick it and eat it. If it doesn’t look or taste ripe make a mental note of the date and wait another week or so before trying it again. Oftentimes you will get a whole slew of veggies that are ripe all at once. What can you do with them? Offer some to your neighbors, bake and cook with them, freeze them, or can, jam, and jar them. You will be thankful to have August tomatoes in your freezer when January rolls around!
Enjoy your new garden!
Alison is an Education Manager on an organic farm in Millerton, NY. After studying sustainability in college, she wishes to share her passion for the environment and agriculture on her platforms The Farmer Foodie @thefarmerfoodie.