There are lots of great reasons to grow your own food: You know exactly where what your family eats comes from. By working the soil organically, you help the environment.
And of course, vegetables taste infinitely better when you cultivate them yourself. It’s also fun, relaxing and — pun intended — grounding. So, whether you have a big plot or just a few pots, get ready to roll up your sleeves.
Before deciding what you want to grow, map out a space and consider how much time and effort you can put into your garden.
Find a location
Look for a spot that gets at least six to eight hours of sunlight a day. If planting in the ground, choose a well-drained area (no big puddles after a rain). To prevent critters from accessing a new all-you-can-eat salad bar, fence it in (wire fencing will do).
Know your soil
The foundation of any garden, it should contain plenty of nutrients and organic matter. Contact your local cooperative extension, and send in a sample for analysis. Prior to planting, enrich your plot with a layer of compost. If you’re using containers, get organic potting soil.
There are three basic ways to grow edibles: in containers (pots), raised beds or the ground.
Pros: They’re perfect for small spaces, even a city balcony. Just make sure they’re deep enough for roots to grow.
Cons: Frequent watering — almost daily when it’s hot and sunny.
Pros: You can customize soil and bed size, and correct problems easily. Since boxes are contained, the soil heats up faster, so you can plant earlier.
Cons: Since you need to fill beds with soil, initial costs can be higher than growing in the ground. You may also have to water and feed more frequently because they drain so effectively.
Pros: This method is most economical and requires less work in the beginning. You can water less frequently than with pots or raised beds.
Cons: You have to work with what Mother Nature has provided, which may include poor soil or lots of inconveniently placed tree roots or rocks.
Pick what (and when) to plant
Talk to fellow gardeners, visit your local nursery and look through seed catalogs (see some go-tos below) to learn what grows well in your area. Then comes the fun part: Choosing vegetables! Select what you love to eat, and be open to branching out from the basics, like mixing in “Green Zebra” tomatoes with your beefsteaks. Sketch out where you plan to plant what, and record everything you sow in a notebook.
Know your last frost date
It’s tempting to put everything in the ground on the first warm weekend in spring, but be careful: Some varieties tolerate the cold; others cannot. Before you start, ask your local nursery for the last frost date in your area, consult seed packets and plant tags for growing times, and plan your plantings from there.
Seeds vs. seedlings
Pros: They’re inexpensive (dozens for only a few dollars), and you’ll find a wider selection of unusual varieties.
Cons: They require more effort, because you may have to plant some varieties, like tomatoes and peppers, indoors. Since you’re starting at the beginning, you’ll have to wait longer for the harvest.
Pros: They give you a handy head start, which is especially helpful for new and busy gardeners.
Cons: You’re limited to the varieties that are available in this form; also, seedlings are often more expensive than seed packages.
To maximize your space and streamline your tasks, put edibles that require similar amounts of water and sunlight in the same bed or container. Here are some classic groupings, and a few versatile solo acts.
Tomatoes + Eggplants + Peppers + Basil + Parsley
Tomatoes, eggplants and peppers are all part of the nightshade family, which also includes potatoes. They like warm weather and must be planted after the danger of frost has passed. Edge the beds with herbs that thrive in similar growing conditions, like basil and parsley.
Plant seed potatoes after the soil is workable and no longer frozen in spring. To use overhead space, pair them with beans on poles or trellises.
Squashes + Beans + Corn
Follow the American Indian farming tradition of the three sisters: Corn provides a natural stalk for the beans to climb, while the beans’ roots add nitrogen to the soil. The squash creates a living mulch, shading out weeds and keeping moisture in the soil.
Tuck fast-growing lettuces and other salad greens into extra pockets of space throughout a garden.
Peas + Cucumbers
Go high: Make use of vertical space by growing vines up fences and trellises. Start peas as soon as you can work the soil, then add cucumbers when it has warmed up, after the last frost.
Carrots + Radishes
Interplant (translation: mix) these two cool-temperature-loving plants together within the same row. Radishes sprout quickly, while carrots take longer — so when you pull up the former, you’ll also help thin out the latter.
Kale + Chard
Although they come from different families (kale is a brassica; chard is in the spinach family), these leafy greens cohabitate well in the same bed, and both are easy (and quick) to grow from seed. Kale prefers cool weather, while chard is less fussy.
Marigolds + Nasturtiums + Calendula
Plant these pretty — and edible — blossoms among your vegetables and they will not only decorate your beds, brighten salads and attract good bugs, but they’ll also help ward off troublesome pests like nematodes, tomato hornworms and aphids. A couple more to try: borage (the periwinkle flowers taste like cucumber) and rosemary (the buds are as tasty as the leaves).
Follow these four simple steps to keep your garden beautiful and bountiful.
Add about an inch of compost at the start of the season. Then apply an organic fertilizer, like fish emulsion, or another thin layer of compost as the season progresses.
Water deeply when needed, about an inch once a week. Opt for a soaker hose or drip irrigation system that delivers moisture directly to the roots, rather than sprinkling down from above.
Do it often — anytime you see weeds sprouting. This will save you time in the long run, because if you remove them while they’re young, they won’t spread. You’re going to eat what you sow — so skip herbicides.
Fast growers like radishes, lettuces and other greens can benefit from multiple plantings. Stagger the timing, starting seeds directly in the ground every few weeks so you have continuous salad fixings.
Timing is everything
There’s something magical about eating a perfectly ripe tomato just off the vine while it’s still warm from the sun. You’ll know when your vegetables are ready by looking at their size, shape and vibrant color.
Tomatoes will give with a gentle tug rather than needing a hard pull. Some plants, like okra, beans and turnips, are extra-delicious and tender when picked young.
Keep up with your harvest to encourage new growth: Cucumbers will slow their production if they aren’t plucked when ready, and zucchini are tender and tasty when they’re smaller.
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Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate