The How (and Whys) of Growing Your Own Food
“Eat your vegetables!”— Mothers worldwide have issued this command to their offspring for eons, probably as many times as there are grains of sand at the beach. And with good reason. Diets high in a variety of fruits and vegetables have been associated with reduced risk for heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, hypercholesterolemia (too much bad cholesterol), and even depression and anxiety.1–3 So yes, eating your vegetables will not only make your mother happy, but will make your body and mind happy. But did you know that growing your own fruits and vegetables has its own set of health benefits? According to a recent meta-analysis by Soga and colleagues, research suggests that “daily contact with nature has a long-lasting and deep impact on health, including depression and anxiety symptoms,5 birth weight,6 diabetes and obesity, circulatory8 and heart disease, and longevity.9” So why not plant a vegetable garden this year and feed your body AND soul? Here, we’ve compiled tips and techniques from the experts on how to successfully grow your own fruits and veggies.
TYPES OF GARDENS
There are three main types of food gardens—container, raised bed, and traditional (or in- ground). The type of garden you plant should be determined by a number of factors, including space, time, physical ability, and motivation. Consider the following:
Container gardening is the practice of growing plants, including fruit and vegetable plants, in containers instead of planting them in the ground or raised bed. Creating a container garden is an easy, low maintenance way to grow your own vegetables and herbs, and is best suited for those who are short on space, don’t have a lot of time, are new to gardening, don’t have a yard, or are not up to the physical requirements needed to tend to a raised bed or in-ground garden. Flower pots are typically used in container gardening, but just about any type of container can be used. For example, an old wagon, wheelbarrow, or bucket will work just fine, as will a lunch box, a basket, cooking pots, a bird bath, milk jugs, or tin tub— basically anything that can hold a bit of dirt can be used or re-used to grow plants.
Advantages of container gardens.
You don’t need to weed. By using high-quality potting mix in your containers, you won’t have any weeds right from the start. If you do get
the occasional weed, it’s easy to pull out of the loose soil. This can be a real benefit to individuals who don’t have a lot of time or find bending or stooping difficult.
You can plant a variety of vegetables in smaller spaces. You don’t need to worry about making space to walk between plant rows or raised beds when using containers for your garden, which saves space. And it also means you can grow a variety of produce right next to each other in separate containers. This is where you can really take advantage of companion planting (i.e., the close planting of different plants known to enhance each other’s growth or protect each other from pests).
There is no soil compaction. Using high-quality potting mix in your containers will eliminate soil compaction, which is typical in in-ground gardens. Compacted soil can impede a plant’s ability to spread its roots and grow to its fullest size.
The containers are portable. Inside, outside, on the porch, deck, or patio, you anywhere you want and in multiple locations, as long as the amount of available sunlight is suitable to each plant. A container garden also gives you the ability to move your garden whenever you want, whether room to room, deck to porch, or front yard to backyard. Containers with wheels can be purchased if you think you’ll be moving your plants around a lot or are unable to do any heavy lifting.
A container’s height can be customized. Bending, squatting, or kneeling may be difficult for elderly gardeners or those individuals with physical limitations. Container gardens can be set up at a customized height so that way you don’t have to bend over. Container gardens can also be made wheelchair accessible.
There’s no required digging or soil testing. The physical exertion of digging, tilling, and weeding may not be desirable or even possible for some gardeners, making a container garden ideal. The store-bought potting soil used in containers won’t need to be worked or tested for contaminants.
You can garden year-round. Certain varieties of vegetables and herbs can tolerate cool or even cold temperatures, which means you can enjoy your garden year-round. It’s easy to protect your containers from bad weather: You can move them indoors or wrap them in sheets or plastic when the temperature drops too low. Additionally, it’s easy to remove the previous season’s spent plants from your containers, and there won’t be any need to rework the earth, as you would with a traditional garden.
Wild critters are less likely to eat your plants and produce. Unless your container garden is on the ground level outside, you likely will not need to worry about the usual suspects (i.e., rabbits, ground hogs, deer) nibbling on your vegetable plants. Squirrels and raccoons… well, that’s another story. Generally speaking, however, your veggie plants should be safe from the wild foragers and grazers.
Disadvantages of container gardens.
They are easy to steal. This may not be a problem if your containers are kept in a location not easily reached from the outside (e.g., a second story balcony or an enclosed patio) or if you live in a neighborhood where theft is very unusual. However, for some people, this may be a cause for concern. The convenience of a container garden’s portability unfortunately makes it easy to steal, so make sure you keep your containers in a secure place.
Only small amounts of vegetables can be grown in containers. While you can grow a wide variety of fruits and vegetables in containers, you won’t be able to grow large quantities of them. Make sure you match the size of the crop to the container to prevent overcrowding or becoming root- bound. For example, while viney plants won’t need particular large containers because they can grow up a trellis, they will need the soil to be deep enough for proper root growth. Plus you probably will only be able to fit 1 or 2 squash plants in one container. Another example would be root vegetables—they will need sufficient soil depth and surface area for growth, since they do all their producing underground, and space limitations may hinder you from growing them in quantity.
Pots can restrict plant growth. Roots can only expand as far at the boundaries of the container, so a plant that is in an insufficiently sized container may become root-bound and/or be prevented from reaching its optimal level of growth.
Constant watering will be required. Containers do not retain water for long periods of time. Unlike a backyard garden, vegetable roots in containers cannot tap into water present in the soil. You can expect to water every single day, and sometimes twice per day in the spring and summer, which may be an issue for those with busy schedules or who travel a lot.
Containers can be expensive. If you plan on buying nice looking containers, expect to pay a lot. High end containers can cost anywhere from $50 to $200, depending on their size and what they are made of.
Soil will need to be replenished between crops. The soil in containers needs to be replenished every year. Fertilizing the existing soil is not sufficient to maintain optimum growing conditions in containers. This may create a lot of work for you if you have numerous and/or large containers.
Raised Bed Gardens
At first glance, raised beds look like large containers. But raised beds do not have bottoms like flower pots or other types of containers— raised beds are built directly on top of the ground and are filled with purchased potting soil. Some raised beds don’t have walls at all, and are simply piles of soil mounded on top of the existing soil.
Advantages of raised bed gardens.
There’s no required digging or soil testing.
Like the container garden, the store-bought potting soil used in raised beds won’t need to be worked or tested for contaminants.
There is no soil compaction. Just like with container gardens, the high-quality potting mix used in your raised beds will eliminate soil compaction, improving the plant’s ability to spread its roots and grow to its fullest size.
They’re outdoors. This may not appeal to everyone, but many individuals like being outside in nature. As mentioned previously, working with plants, especially when combined with being outside in nature, has been shown in multiple studies to promote feelings of calmness and well-being.4–9
Some find the tidy, orderly appearance of raised bed gardens to be very appealing. The vegetable plants can be organized neatly within each box, and the boxes can be placed in prominent locations around your property to create the look of a beautifully landscaped yard, with lush green foliage, colorful flowers, and of course, the bright, cheerful fruits and vegetables the plants produce. Raised bed gardens have the added benefit of attracting pollinators, like bees and butterflies, as well as many of the songbird species.
They’re easy to control. Because raised bed gardens comprise separate boxed beds, you will have better control over what grows where and can limit or encourage contact between certain plants. This can is useful for companion planting and can help prevent the spread of disease or pests. You can also maintain better control of overgrowth and easily prevent non-garden plants from infiltrating your garden area. You also have much better control over the quality of the soil. Since you will be purchasing high-quality, loose soil with the right balance of nutrients, you won’t need to worry if your natural soil is lacking in nutrients, is very rocky, or is compacted.
They can be purchased as a kit. You don’t need a kit to build a raised bed garden. If you’re handy with a hammer, you can go to your local hardware store and purchase everything required to build it yourself. Lowes and Home Depot both have do-it-yourself instructions on their websites for building raised bed boxes, including what supplies you will need. However, most major home and garden chains offer a variety of raised bed kits that come in all shapes, sizes, material, and price points. If you have physical limitations, you’ll want to select a kit that requires little to no assembly (try US Victory Gardens (www.usvictorygardens.com) and isn’t too awkward or heavy to move once assembled. Before you make your purchase, check with a customer assistance representative at the store or call the customer service department of the product’s manufacturer to inquire about the difficulty level of assembly.
Disadvantages to raised bed gardens.
They take up space. You will need a plot of earth outside on which to build your beds. You don’t necessarily need a large space, but you will have to sacrifice part of your yard to build the bed(s).
They can be expensive. As discussed, most raised bed designs require assembly (some designs are quite simple, while others are more complex), so once you’ve made the decision to use raised beds, you’ll need to purchase materials or a kit to build and set up your beds (especially if you are just starting out). Depending on the size and quality of material used, you could spend anywhere from $30 to hundreds of dollars on one bed. You’ll also need to purchase the dirt that will go inside the bed. There are various expert opinions on what your dirt should comprise, but generally speaking, your garden soil will be some combination of topsoil, compost, potting soil, and fertilizer. So, for one bed that is, say, 3 feet x 6 feet with 10-inch sides, you’ll need about 15 cubic feet of soil mixture. You can buy your garden soil already mixed or you can buy the soil components separately and mix it yourself. Either way, for 15 cubic feet, you are looking at a minimum of $80 per raised bed for the soil.
The beds require assembly. Building or assembling raised beds may not be feasible for those individuals short on time or with physical limitations.
Their maintenance can be time-consuming. Like all gardens, raised bed gardens will require some degree of maintenance (more than container gardens but less than in-ground gardens), so individuals who are short on time may find this cumbersome.
Bending and squatting will likely be required. Most raised bed gardens will be on ground level, which may make their maintenance difficult for those who find bending and/or squatting difficult.
They may be susceptible to grazers and foragers.
Raised bed gardens are outside, and thus will be susceptible to animals who graze or forage. While the walls of some boxes may be high enough to discourage ground grazers, such as rabbits or groundhogs, the large grazers (e.g., deer, sheep, goats) and foragers (e.g., squirrels, raccoons) won’t have any problem chowing down on your hard work unless you put a fence around your boxes, which will cost additional time and money and may downgrade the aesthetic appeal.
Traditional, or in-ground, gardening
In-ground gardening is…you guessed it…the practice of growing your vegetables directly in the ground. A well- tended, in-ground garden can be a beautiful addition to your property—it will attract bees, butterflies, and songbirds with its lush and colorful flowering plants—and the physical effort required to prepare and maintain an in- ground garden make the harvest even more rewarding.
Advantages of in-ground gardens.
They’re outside. There’s just something so incredibly relaxing and therapeutic about being outside in the early evening and puttering around a beautiful, lush vegetable garden after a long day, especially if your day was spent behind a desk. An in-ground garden is worth all the hard work just for that alone, if you ask me. Plus, as mentioned before, in-ground gardens attract bees and butterflies (good for the environment) and songbirds (beautiful to watch and to hear).
They’re relatively inexpensive. Mother Nature provides all the free dirt you’ll need for your garden, so there will be no need to spend money on bags of soil. Even if your soil is inadequate, you can improve it by amending with organic matter and mulch you make yourself. Additionally, in- ground gardens do not require assembly, so you won’t need to buy building supplies. However, as an addendum, like a raised bed garden, you most likely WILL need to spend some cabbage on fencing for your garden beds to keep Peter Rabbit and Punxsutawney Phil from getting in there. For about $60, you can fence in a 10-feet x 10-feet garden plot using 40 feet of 3-foot chicken wire and eight 3-foot metal stakes. However, if deer or other hoofed grazers are a problem, you’ll want to build a fence twice as high, which will cost more.
They’re easy to mulch. Traditional gardens are easier to mulch than raised beds, and mulching means less watering and better soil over time. You can continually improve the soil of your in-ground garden with organic matter (like composted manure, dry leaves, vegetable
and yard clipping compost, straw). Plus you will never have to worry that your soil will overflow, as with a raised bed.
They require less watering. Traditional gardens generally require less frequent watering than raised bed gardens because the plants have more soil from which to pull moisture.
Disadvantages of in-ground gardens.
They require intense physical activity. No doubt about it. Traditional gardening requires mobility and a reasonable amount of physical fitness, especially if you are just starting out and need to clear the plot. You’ll need to be able to dig up large sections of grass, weeds, and/or rocks; manage a rototiller or be able to manually till with a hoe or shovel; and fertilize/mulch/turn/ aerate the soil. And you’ll likely be doing all of this when it is warm outside. For some, the physicality and outdoors-iness of traditional gardening is quite appealing and part of what makes gardening so rewarding…but for others…not so much, particularly those individuals with physical limitations or time constraints.
Watch out for grazing and foraging animals. As with the raised bed garden, an in-ground vegetable garden will be vulnerable to hungry foragers and grazers. It would be prudent to fence in your garden before planting, rather than wait to see if any animal problems crop up. A hungry deer or rabbit can level a plot of freshly emerging seedlings in one evening.
Weeds, weeds, weeds. An in-ground garden will require constant weeding, which may be a hindrance if you are not comfortable bending or squatting, you are constrained by time, or you really just don’t want to have to weed. If you enjoy being outside and “puttering” about the garden, and bending, squatting, and time are not an issue, weeding shouldn’t be a problem and actually might be quite enjoyable.
Now that you have your container, raised bed, or in-ground garden plot ready, it’s time to plant! Beginner or pro, here are some suggestions on what to plant and how to help your garden flourish!
Even if you have never planted a single thing in your life, with a little tender love and care, your vegetable garden is almost guaranteed to yield some tasty herbs, vegetables, and/or fruit. Consider the following:
Start small. Stick with a few easy-to-grow plants at first. Herbs (especially basil), tomatoes, peppers, summer squash or zucchini, and cucumbers tend to be easiest to take care of, aren’t picky about soil, can take the summer heat, and will almost always produce a bountiful crop. Herbs, squash, and cucumbers can be planted as seeds, and are usually fast to emerge. It’s easier to buy tomatoes and peppers as small plant will run you about $5) than to start them from seeds. Otherwise, you would need to start the seeds growing in pots indoors, several weeks before the last frost, which may be a bit much for the beginner.
Start with containers. Container gardening is a great way to start small. Almost anything you would grow in the ground can work in a container. Herbs, tomatoes, and peppers are probably the easiest for the beginner to grow in a container garden (just make sure you provide support for your tomato plants because they can get a bit unwieldy if not secured to some kind of pole, trellis, or fence). A large, more viney plant, like squash or cucumber, can also be successfully grown in containers, and likewise will require something on which to climb, like a trellis. Otherwise, they would need plenty of ground space on which to spread their large vines.
Plant what you’ll eat and what you have space to grow. It’s tempting to go a little crazy when standing in front of that beautiful display seed packets at the store with their colorful illustrations of herbs, vegetables, and fruits. You’ll want to buy every type of seed there is. But you’ll need to consider first which vegetables you know you’ll eat, and second which vegetables you know you have space to grow. If you don’t like squash, don’t plant squash. And whether you are doing a container garden, raised bed garden, or in- ground garden, it’s important to consider how much room each of your plants will need (this can be found on the backs of the seed packets). Tomato plants, especially in-ground, can grow to be quite big. And pumpkin vines are huge. Root vegetables do not take up as much room on the surface, but need sufficient soil depth and surface area in order to reach their full growth potential.
Ask for help. If you are unsure about something, Google it. The National Gardening Association site (www.garden.org) and the American Horticultural Society (www.ahsgardening.org) provide information on what to plant, when to plant, where to plant, pest and weed control, and much more. State universities with agricultural programs often have excellent online and offline gardening resources available to the public. For those who prefer face-to-face interaction or books over the internet, visit your local nursery, library, or bookstore—nursery staff, librarians, and bookstore clerks are almost always happy to answer questions or help you look for what you need.
Have fun. Make food gardening a community or family affair. Encourage family members and/or neighbors to get involved in the garden planning and preparation. Have each neighbor or member of the family responsible for a particular vegetable plant. Watch how excited the kids (and adults too) get when they start to see their seedlings emerge, grow, and produce!
More experienced Garderners
If you’ve been around the food garden block a few times, you’ve probably figured out which plants do best in your soil, which pests cause the most problems and what to do about them, and just how many tomato and squash plants is too many. But consider the following:
Prepare your soil. Porous, organically rich soil encourages the growth of healthy roots that are able to stretch out to reach more nutrients and water. Raised beds are probably the easiest way to achieve this type of soil because you are buying soil that has already been prepared that way for you. However, for in-ground gardens, a well-tilled bed in which organic compost, mulch, and/or fertilizer has been well incorporated will work just as well. Just make sure to till it really well, especially if your soil has a lot of clay in it. If you don’t, the soil will be too compacted for roots to properly grow and spread. Rototillers are probably most effective in really loosening up your soil, and can be rented fairly cheaply from a local equipment rental company (I paid $30 for a 1-day rental). If you are unsure which mix of fertilizer you should use for your soil type, check with your local nursery.
Arrange carefully and don’t overcrowd. Some experts suggest avoiding square patterns or rows when planting. Instead, try staggering the plants by planting in triangles, as this can help you get more plants in each bed. And make sure not to overcrowd your plants. Follow the spacing instructions on the back of the seed packets. Crowding can hamper a plant’s exposure to sunlight and proper root growth, which may prevent the plant from reaching its full size—and vegetable production. Overly tight spacing can also make plants more susceptible to diseases and insect attack.
Add a trellis or two. Allowing viney plants to climb up, instead of out, can save room. Tomatoes, pole beans, peas, squash, melons, and cucumbers are quite happy to climb up a trellis, fence, or pole. Harvest and maintenance are easier too when vines grow on trellises or poles because you can see the produce better. You’ll need to secure tomato and gourd vines to whatever they are climbing (peas and melons don’t really need to be tied), but the fruits won’t need to be propped up or secured. The plant will grow thicker stems for support.
Try companion planting. Consider the classic Native American combination, the “three sisters”—corn, beans, and squash. Sturdy cornstalks support the pole beans, while squash grows freely on the ground below, shading out competing weeds. This combination works because the crops are compatible. Other compatible combinations include tomatoes, basil, and onions; leaf lettuce and peas or brassicas; carrots, onions, and radishes; and beets and celery.
Successive planting. When planting fast-growing vegetables (e.g., lettuce, radish), consider staggering your planting every three weeks throughout the season until about a month before the first frost. That way, as one batch of veggies are harvested, you already have a second, third, or fourth batch coming in.
Enjoy the Fruits of your labor
Planting and maintaining your own vegetable garden is not only satisfying, it can save money (you don’t have to buy all that produce at the grocery store), it promotes a healthy lifestyle by encouraging physical exercise and the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, it improves mood, and promotes a feeling of well- being. And it is easier than you think! Whether you grow your veggies in pots, raised beds, or right in the ground, you’ll still get all the health benefits and satisfaction from making your own food and working with nature. Dig it?