It’s that time of year! Time to plan and prepare your garden! I know, it’s cold and wet or even snowing outside, and gardening is probably the last thing on your mind. But the truth is, spring is just a few short months away, and I want to share a few things you can do now that can save you a considerable amount of time, money, and energy when you want to put plants or seeds in the ground.
Some of you may be wondering, “Why should I bother growing my own food? I can just buy organic produce from the grocery store.” Ah yes, but what is the price? Not just to your wallet, but to your body, and to our beautiful land?
For your health– Commercially grown fruits and vegetables (and meats for that matter!) are sadly deficient in vitamins and minerals. If fact, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute, only 29 percent of U.S. farmland is free from fertility problems such as chemical contamination, excessive salt deposits, and aluminum contamination. The amount of nutrients in our produce has dropped dramatically in the last 40 years. Many conventionally grown crops are sprayed with pesticides and even organic produce is allowed to be sprayed with some synthetic pesticides along with many natural pesticides that I certainly don’t want inside my body.
For a more sustainable future– Mass produced foods, whether they are organic or not, are generally grown in an unsustainable way- in a way that damages the soil and water in which they are grown so that eventually that land will no longer be able to support those plants. By growing your own food in a sustainable way you can actually improve your soil health as well as improving your own health.
For the flavor– You can’t get it any fresher than straight from the plant, and that means it tastes better than anything you can buy in the store. Not only that, but you can grow better tasting varieties of your favorite fruit or vegetable because you don’t have to worry about how well the produce stores and travels across the country- you can focus on varieties that taste amazing! If you have never tasted fresh picked blueberries or apples, you have no idea how they really taste.
For the nutrients– In many fruits and veggies (probably all actually) they start to lose nutrients from the minute they are picked. So anything that must be transported will of course be less nutritious. Not to mention that most commercial crops (even organic ones) are grown in practically dead soil these days, so the plants don’t even have access to the minerals that actually make food nutritious. This also affects the taste. After you have built up your soil and your plants have access to all the soil elements and minerals they need, you will find that your fruits and veggies are so much more satisfying on a much deeper level because they are supplying vitamins and minerals your body needs!
Bonus! For the exercise– Some of you may think gardening is hard work, and it can be, which is one reason I love it. I call it FUNctional fitness! You get a great workout while saving money, enjoying nature, and growing healthy food. What could be better than that? Gardening doesn’t have to be hard on your back though, which is why I wanted to share a few time and energy saving tips.
Plan your garden. You will most likely want a space that gets between 6 and 8 hours of sun per day. (Unless you live in the deep south where you may want mottled shade or just morning sun.) Do you want a raised bed or a more casual type of bed? Which foods do you want to grow? Get a good garden catalog and flip through it to gain some inspiration and see some of your options. Pay attention to the growing habits- climbing or bush, spreading or compact? Will you need to buy or build a trellis for those tomatoes? Also note how many days till production. Radishes are ready to eat in about 30 days, while parsnips take about 120 days. A 4’x8′ bed can produce quite a few bushels of veggies if you plan it well and take good care of it. You can plant root veggies right underneath plants like tomatoes or green beans, and when your bushy plants stop producing at the end of summer, chop them off and allow your root veggies to grow like crazy. You can also use succession planting to increase your yields. For instance, you can grow sugar snap peas very early in the spring, then use the same trellis and space to support peppers. Just plant the little pepper plants or seeds right next to or between the peas when it is warm enough to plant out your peppers. By the time your pepper grows large enough to shade the peas, it will be too hot for the peas anyway and they will be finished producing. The peas will also provide nitrogen which in turn will help the peppers grow. Check out a companion planting guide to find out which plants benefit each other and plan to grow them next to each other if possible. Also consider whether you will need a fence to protect your garden from animals or people that might destroy it. You can use a fence as a trellis as well.
Kill the weeds! You don’t need to spray weeds to kill them. You don’t need to till or dig them up either. All you need to do is lay a tarp or some cardboard boxes flat on your garden space and wait a few months (or weeks, depending on the conditions). The reason this works is because the cardboard and tarp both deny sunlight to the weeds underneath, which eventually kills them. Fall and spring are both excellent times to prepare garden beds this way because it’s not so hot that the soil microbes will be damaged if you choose the tarp method. The cardboard method may take longer to eliminate the weeds, but I like it because you can actually plant right into it by slicing an “X” where you want the plant, and the cardboard degrades over time. Also, earthworms love cardboard and will come and work your soil for you if you make a dark, moist area for them, which is exactly what putting cardboard down does.
Create a great environment... for soil microbes and fungi. The soil microbes and fungi are actually the things that make it possible for plants to absorb the nutrients that make them full of vitamins and minerals for us, so we need to take good care of them. Fungi love moist wood, particularly rotting wood, so get plenty of natural mulch (not dyed or synthetic) to put around your plants. Aged wood chips are best, but fresh wood chips or even leaves and twigs will also do the job. The mulch not only feeds the soil, but protects the plant roots from heat and cold and holds in moisture so you don’t have to water as often. Talk about a multi-tasker!
Set up a watering system. It doesn’t have to be complicated, in fact it can be as simple as making sure you have a hose with a nozzle that can reach your entire garden (and maybe a willing youngster to spray that hose for you =). I like to have something a little more automatic, like a soaker hose and a water timer, so I don’t have to worry about loosing plants if I’m too busy or away for a few days. Or you could use Ollas as a low energy way to provide water to your plants. You can also shape your bed in a way that encourages water to stay where you want it for longer. A simple lip or small berm on the downhill side of your plants will prevent water and nutrients from running away from your plants so quickly and conserve water by keeping it in your garden longer for your plants to access. Whatever you do, make it easy to keep your plants watered, because without water, plants die.
Consider the weather. You may want to build a small cold frame of some sort to extend your growing season. A simple tunnel shape made of PVC pipe with some clear plastic over it can give a valuable head start to your veggies in the spring, or extend your growing season straight into winter. It will protect tender plants from frost damage, and you can even put some jugs of warm water inside on cold nights to provide valuable thermal mass to keep your plants from freezing.
I hope these little tips help you get started on a successful gardening season! Don’t forget to get your kids involved and let them pick out some foods to grow so they can enjoy the wonder of growing their own food too!