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Food that is!

There has been a lot of discussion of late in the media, in virtual and real coffee shops, about the question of food security.

There has been a lot of discussion of late in the media, in virtual and real coffee shops, about the question of food security. Who grows our food? How is it grown, in what kinds of conditions, with what sorts of fertilizers or pesticides? How long after it's harvested does it make it to market? One way to alleviate your concerns, shave dollars from your grocery bill and enjoy more time outdoors, is to grow your own vegetables, herbs and fruit.

As a general rule, vegetables and herbs are far easier to grow and much more immediately gratifying than are fruits. If you plant tomatoes this spring, by midsummer you'll be harvesting the first of them, whereas even with strawberry plants and raspberry canes, you have to wait at least a year before any amount of fruit is produced. The only vegetable for which you need patience is asparagus, which can take up to three years to produce a significant crop.

What To Plant And How Much

Seed catalogues can be very seductive with their photos of perfectly shaped, colourful vegetables, and fruit trees and shrubs laden with fruit. But there is no point in ordering squash seeds if family members turn up their collective noses at the vegetable. Plant what you like to eat.

Some of us have climate limitations that make growing certain crops a real challenge. I don't bother with corn, peppers, or squashes other than zucchini because we get so much wind and fog, and have cooler temperatures than our neighbours a few kilometres, so these plants rarely reach maturity in a timely manner. I do grow a few heritage tomato varieties inside my greenhouse, where they are at least protected from the wind and fog, because tomatoes are my favourite homegrown food, right off the vine. Salad greens, peas, spinach, and other crops that prefer cool temperatures are right at home.

When you start out growing your own food, it can be a challenge deciding how much to plant. My rule of thumb with any sort of gardening, ornamental or edible, is to start small: plant four tomato plants instead of three dozen, half a row of beans instead of the whole package, a small amount of salad greens every three weeks. This helps you to stay in control of garden chores and harvest amounts, so that you're not expending a lot of effort and then having a great deal of waste. It does take a few seasons to really get the hang of gauging your needs, but stay with it. The rewards are delicious.

Location, Location

Gardeners are a passionate lot, and each has a perfectly good set of reasons for how they plant their vegetable garden. Some like to do traditional rows, where everything is laid out in a uniform manner with space between the rows for moving while weeding or harvesting. Others prefer a more intensive way of planting, using raised beds and blocks of plants rather than rows. Still others celebrate the glories of the potager, which incorporates edible plants with ornamental flowering species. Others, limited by space constraints, grow vegetables in containers. Each has its advantages and drawbacks, and sometimes you have to experiment until you find one that suits your purposes and aesthetic values the most.

No matter what design you opt for; no matter what types of food crops you're growing, the most important thing to do is site your garden in full sun, as most food crops need at least six hours of full sun daily to produce a good crop. Be aware that outbuildings, walls and trees may cast shadows on your plot for part of the day, so check out your site carefully before you start to plant

Spending a little time developing your garden's soil will pay off handsomely in the long run. Vegetables and fruit do best in well-drained, fertile soil, from which the majority of rocks and stones have been removed. Plenty of organic matter, in the form of compost or well-rotted manure, should be incorporated into the soil before you plant, and be prepared to add more compost each year to keep the soil fertile and easy to work with.

Seeding Tips

You'll have fresh produce sooner if you start some types of vegetables indoors. Tomatoes, squash, onions, cucumbers and brassicas (cabbage, broccoli, etc) and some herbs are among those that benefit from being started indoors and transplanted outside when spring soils have warmed up sufficiently.

Although many of us purchase transplants rather than starting seed, you'll pay significantly more-a six-pack of tomatoes is about $2, the same price as a package of seed producing many more plants. You'll also be quite limited in your variety choices, as most nurseries carry only a few varieties of vegetable transplants. Pairing up with a neighbour who also gardens will cut the cost of seed supplies and minimize leftover seeds, which aren't always viable for more than a year or so.

Starting seeds indoors isn't difficult provided you follow a few basic rules. Use sterilized potting medium to start your seeds rather than garden soil, which can be full of plant pathogens as well as nutritionally imbalanced. Follow planting instructions for each type of seed exactly-some seeds need darkness to germinate, others are merely pressed into the soil surface. The miniature greenhouses and seed-starting kits sold in stores are useful for providing humidity and warmth to germinating seeds. Transplants need acclimatizing to outside environments before you plant them in your garden, so harden your seedlings off by putting them outside for a few hours a day once the risk of frost is past. When transplanting, handle your seedlings by the leaves only, not their fragile stems, and plant them out on a cloudy day to reduce the risk of transplant shock.

Care For Your Growing Plants

The second most important tip for growing good food is to provide adequate water. Some years, nature takes care of this, even to excess. Other years, you need to provide water. The most efficient and economical way to do this is with drip irrigation, using a soaker hose that delivers water directly into the soil around your plant, where its roots can reach it. There's minimal water loss due to evaporation, unlike with traditional sprinkler and irrigation systems that throw water everywhere. If you're on a small well or a town water supply where you pay for what you use, you want to make every drop count.

Mulch is one of a gardener's best friends. Applied properly around growing plants, it can help to retain soil moisture, reduce weed seedlings, reduce the risk of disease from soil splashing on plant leaves, and even protect against too cool or too warm temperatures. Over time, mulch will decompose into the soil, adding more organic matter, so you'll likely have to add new mulch each year after you set out your transplants or do your seeding.

Just like we are susceptible to diseases, all living plants sometimes have problems with pests and disease problems. Some of these are more serious than others, and as with our own health, the best way to cope with such issues is by prevention. Start with good soil, add healthy plants, feed and water them properly, and they'll be less susceptible to attack from pests and more able to fend off any problems that do arise. If you do have disease problems, try organic solutions rather than applying pesticides, many of which are not recommended for use by home gardeners. If a particular favourite crop gives you problems, check with seed companies to see if there's a disease-resistant variety available.

Don't forget to draw other family members into the food-gardening process, especially children. Gardens are a living science lesson, and a terrific way to teach our children that carrots don't just magically come from a store. One of my earliest gardening memories is of helping my grandparents pick strawberries and shell dried beans grown in their substantial garden, and I'm sure those early experiences were a major component in my being somewhat obsessed with plants to this day.

A final thought: no matter how carefully you calculate, you'll likely have more of some types of produce than you can possibly eat or share with friends. Consider making a contribution to your local food bank, or if regulations permit, to local school or hospital cafeterias. Better to share your largesse than have it turned into compost.

Reading a seed packet

Seed companies put varying amounts of information on their packages. Some mail-order companies provide more in-depth information in an accompanying brochure, but when you buy your seeds at a garden centre, what's on the package can be vague, or it can be very helpful. You just need to learn the lingo.

A standard seed package will contain at least the following:

  • Names: Common and botanical names, and cultivar/variety, if applicable.
  • "Plant by" Date: Not all companies provide this information, but if you're buying seed at a reputable garden centre, you can be assured that the seed they're selling is this year's stock.
  • Planting directions: In our moody Atlantic Canadian climate, spring can be late, cold and wet. Some seeds need to be started indoors and grown on for a few weeks before transplanting outdoors once risk of frost is past. Others can be directly sown into your garden. Good seed companies provide information on seed spacing, how deep to plant the seeds, how long it takes for them to germinate, and how long it takes for them to go from planting to harvest (days to maturity).
  • Care: Tips on what to do once your plants are seeded, sprouted and growing. Unless you're very good at sowing tiny seeds, you'll likely have to thin seedlings. Some types of vegetables require staking, or have other cultural requirements.
  • Harvesting: In the case of vegetable and herb seed packages, there will often be information on what part of the plant to harvest, and when.

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