Backyard Groceries: Tips on Growing Your Own Food

Fruits and vegetables from your own garden are more nutritious than the produce you might purchase at a large food store chain. Why? Because of the amount of time it takes for produce to travel from farm to store. Vegetables and fruits start to lose nutrients once they are harvested. For example, when stored at 39 ̊F for 7 days, green peas can lose 15% of their Vitamin C content and green beans can lose as much as 77% of their vitamin C.1 According to a study conducted by the Worldwatch Institute, “In the United States, food typically travels between 1,500 and 2,500 miles from farm to plate.”2 That means fruits and vegetables you find at the large chain supermarkets might have been picked days, weeks, even months before they reached the produce section for purchase. One of the best ways to ensure the veggies you eat are as fresh and nutritious as possible is to grow them yourself! Whether you live on several acres of land or in a tiny urban flat, growing your own fruits and vegetables is possible and not nearly as hard as you think. Below we’ve gathered some helpful gardening tips from several online resources to help you get started.

1. PLAN BEFORE PLANTING. Before digging in, think WHERE, WHAT, HOW, and WHEN.

WHERE to plant: Choose a location that gets at least 6 hours of sunlight (ideally with southern exposure to the sun), is relatively close to your house, and has decent

soil (not too sandy, rocky, or hard). The Farmers Almanac website has a useful Gardening for Beginners guide that provides information on how to choose the ideal garden location, as well as other helpful tips on how to improved less than

ideal soil. Check it out here https://www.almanac.com/vegetable-gardening-for- beginners.

WHAT to plant: Some vegetables, like tomatoes, aren’t very picky about soil or weather, but others, like celery, are more sensitive to temperature, moisture level, soil quality, and pests. Stick with veggies that are suitable to your plant hardiness

zone, soil quality, and level of experience. The Old Farmers Almanac website offers a growing guide for vegetables and fruits (in addition to herbs, flowers, shrubs, and houseplants). For each vegetable or fruit, the guide provides its ideal

hardiness zones, sun exposure, soil type, and soil pH, as well as typical pests and problems, harvesting tips, and recommended varieties. The growing guide can be accessed here: https://www.almanac.com/gardening/growing-guides

HOW much to plant: It’s easy to get carried away when buy seeds and plant too much, which can result in overcrowding and a poor yield. Consider

how much space you have available for planting, and plan accordingly. If your plot is small (less than 10’x10’) or you plan to use containers, try planting vegetables that grow upright (root vegetables, peppers,

okra, eggplants) or that can be trained to climb a trellis (peas, pole beans, cantaloupe). Plots that are 10’x10’ or larger can handle veggies that need a

lot of room to grow (tomato plants [the large variety, not cherry or roma], squash,watermelon);justmakesureyoudon’tplanttomanyofthem

because each plant can require a lot of ground for proper growth. Always follow the instructions on the back of the seed packets for details on seed

and row spacing. Check out the Morning Chores website, which has a really cool vegetable garden size calculator (www.morningchores.com/vegetable-garden-size/) that tells you how much to plant according to your family’s size and how much space you will need for each vegetable based on how many seeds you plant.

WHEN to plant: Some veggies need to be planted in early spring when the air is still cool, while others should be planted in late spring/early summer, and others should be planted in the

late summer/early fall. It is helpful to know the first and last frost dates for your region before you start sowing your seeds. Urban Farmer breaks down temperature zones and frost dates by state

and also has a nifty chart for each zone illustrating what time of year to plant specific vegetables. Check it out here www.ufseeds.

com/learning/planting-schedules/.

2. START EASY

Watching a garden grow from tiny seeds into your own lush, colorful vegetable farm is a real joy. But if you’re new to gardening or maybe just short on time (or patience), it’s perfectly acceptable

to begin with vegetable plants that have already been started for you. Nightshade vegetables, including tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant (but not potatoes); the summer squashes, such as yellow crookneck and zucchini; and herbs, such as parsley and basil, are very easy to move from pot to plot without much damage to roots, stems, or leaves, and can give you a head start on producing veggies. Your local plant nursery should have a selection of starter vegetable plants from which to choose. Look for plants that have at least two well-formed but supple,  dark-green leaves. The Seattle Urban Farm Farm Co. (www. seattleurbanfarmco.com) recommends looking for newly arrived plants at the nursery and avoiding plants with shedding or discolored leaves, that are too “leggy” or tall, or that have already started to flower or produce vegetables: “If you select a dark green, non-flowering tomato, and encourage lots of green vegetative growth before allowing it to set flowers, you’re likely to end up with tens or even hundreds of tomatoes from the same sized transplant.”

3. PROTECT AGAINST FURRY PESTS

Outdoor gardens—rural, suburban, and urban alike—will likely need to be protected from foraging animals. Groundhogs, rabbits, gophers, raccoons, skunks, and deer are just a few of the furry critters that can—and will—chow down on your vegetable plants if provided the opportunity—they won’t even wait for the vegetables; the tender green shoots will do just fine. A simple and relatively inexpensive fence made from 3-feet tall fencing stakes as the support and polyethylene mesh or chicken wire as the barrier material usually all that is needed to effectively keep the  small(er) critters out. If deer are a problem, use taller stakes (4 to 6 feet) with equally taller mesh/chicken wire. A gate may or may not be necessary depending on how tall the fence is (or the garderner’s agility). The stake-and-mesh fencing is simple enough for a beginner to install, it’s easy to move, adjust in size, or completely remove, and is fairly inexpensive (plus it won’t hurt the animals…if they can’t get past the fence, they will just be on their merry way to greener pastures [i.e., your neighbor’s fenceless garden]). Morning Chores offers additional suggestions for DIY fences ranging from very cheap and simple to somewhat labor intensive and expensive here: https://morningchores.com/cheap-fence-ideas/

4. WEED AND WATER

Weeds can reduce the amount of food your veggie plants produce by stealing their sunlight, water, space, and soil nutrients, so regular weeding is a must (it is also a great way to get some physical activity in on a regular basis). While pulling weeds up by hand is an effective, and often necessary, way to manage weeds, covering the ground between your vegetable plants with 2 to 3 inches of organic mulch made from yard clippings and raked leaves not only can aid in controlling weed growth, but can also aid in water retention. The standard rule for how much water a vegetable garden should receive is 1 inch of water per week. A rain gauge can help you keep track of how much rain your garden is getting and whether it will need supplemental water from a hose or sprinkler. Soil type, however, is an important consideration when determining the proper water amount. For example, sandy soil won’t hold moisture as well as clay soil, so the standard one inch of water per week rule won’t always be accurate. The Old Farmers Almanac (www.almanac.com) recommends cultivating the soil around your plants frequently to capture and retain moisture from rain and help prevent weed growth. You can use your hands or a cultivator tool to turn or “fluff up” up the soil up to 6 inches deep. Just be careful not to disturb the roots of your plants. The Almanac recommends doing this three days after a good rain and just before a predicted rain storm.

5. HARVEST OFTEN

Once your garden starts to produce vegetables, frequent harvesting is needed to keep the plants producing food for as long as possible. Burpee, a seed distributor  (https://www.burpee.com/ gardenadvicecenter/), recommends paying your garden a daily visit, with basket in hand, to pick vegetables as soon as they are ripe. Bigger isn’t always better, however. According to Burpee, many vegetables taste best when picked while still relatively small and tender. Zuchini, yellow squash, and cucumbers, for example, taste best when they are 3 to 6 inches long; any bigger and they can develop a spongy, stringy texture or even taste bitter. Same with lettuce, beets, turnips, and radishes: snip lettuce leaves while they are small and tender to keep the plants productive
and prevent bitter taste, and harvest beets, turnips, and radishes as soon as their “shoulders” start to peak out of the soil for a milder flavor and crisp (but not tough) texture. Tomatoes, on the other hand, should be fully ripe, which means bright in color (can vary according to type) and firm, but not hard, to the touch. Visit www.almanac.com/gardening/ growing-guides for more detailed tips on harvesting.

SOURCES

  1. Barrett DM. Maximizing the nutritional value of fruits & vegetables. University of California Food Science Technology. http://www. fruitandvegetable.ucdavis.edu/files/197179.pdf. 25 Jan 2019.
  2. Halweil B. Worldwatch Paper #163: Home Grown: The Case For Local Food In A Global Market. Washington, DC: Worldwatch Institute; 2002.

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