You are what you grow… and eat
Nourish yourself and your family by taking fresh and local to heart
It all starts with a seed
Seed companies and nurseries know how to seduce gardeners. We are tempted by photos of mouthwatering tomatoes, plump string beans, ruby-red strawberries… and we decide this is the year we’re going to grow some food. And because we’re concerned about the world around us and what we put in our bodies, we’re going to grow as organically as possible, which is reasonably simple in a backyard garden.
There is a little more to producing a garden, however, than just throwing seeds into the ground and waiting for nature to do her work. Following are some tips to get you started.
What do you like?
It takes a little planning to start a kitchen garden. First, what will you plant? It’s all very fine to love the look of the orange cauliflower or white eggplant, but if your family members don’t like cauliflower or eggplant, they probably won’t eat it regardless of colour. Plant crops that you love, and will eat regularly, such as salad greens, peas and beans: easy crops that come from seed in the garden and don’t require starting indoors.
Remember to start small. You may partner up with a friend to share seed packages, cutting the cost in half and reducing the risk of wasting of your vegetables.
Find your sweet garden spot
Select the best possible site for your kitchen garden, meaning a very sunny spot in rich, well-draining soil, and also as close to your kitchen as possible. You’re far more apt to run outside and pick some greens, tomatoes and herbs for supper if the garden is just outside the door, rather than at the back of your yard. Don’t plant near trees—they will take available water and nutrients, and in turn provide shade.
Test your soil
Is your soil sandy, loamy, or heavy with clay? If it’s clay (as is the case for many of us in Atlantic Canada) you’ll need to amend it with organic material to improve drainage—or consider building raised beds on top of the soil, which also allow for easier accessibility when planting, weeding or harvesting. Since fruits and vegetables can be affected by soil acidity or alkalinity (pH), consider having your soil tested at your provincial soil laboratory. Soil tests will tell you what nutrients you might be missing, and provide recommendations for correcting it.
Seeds or transplants?
You might wonder if you should buy transplants to put in your new garden, and the answer is—of course. Long-season crops such as tomatoes and peppers are best started from seed indoors in late winter or early spring; to get a crop this season you will need transplants. The advantage to growing foods from seed, however, is that you have so much more choice in the varieties of each type of vegetable available.
Timing is everything
When do you start planting outdoors? It depends on the vegetable: Some are fairly cold-hardy and can take cool temperatures and even a risk of frost. These include beets, radish, salad greens, peas, and cole crops (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower). Other vegetables demand warm soil and air temperatures or else they’ll die: corn, cucumbers and squash, peppers and tomatoes, beans. Ask where you buy your transplants or check seed packages. Note that some transplants will need to be exposed to outdoor temperatures gradually—again, ask about this process, called hardening off, at the nursery.
Vegetable gardens need ample water for good growth and fruit/seed development. Mulching your crops with straw, bark chips, or even shredded newsprint will help to keep moisture in the soil and roots cool, and will also reduce weed growth.
Feed your foods
Fertilizer is important for good growth in crops as well as in flowers. Whenever possible, use organic fertilizers, which will provide organic matter to the soil as well as feed your plants. Compost is the gardener’s best friend, always, and one can never have too much of it. Other good fertilizers include compost teas, well-rotted manures, liquid or dried seaweed, earthworm castings, and fish fertilizer.
Pests and diseases
Although most insects are harmless or even beneficial to a garden (think of the bees and other pollinators needed to set fruit and seed in many crops) there are certainly insect pests that can be problematic. There is also an assortment of bacterial and fungal diseases that will attack specific crops. While there are organic-approved treatments for pests and diseases, the best defense is a good offence: healthy, well-grown plants, in the right site and fed and watered properly, are less susceptible to problems. And the occasional cutworm-chewed cabbage leaf or spotted bean leaf doesn’t have to affect your dinner plate.