impacts of our global industrial food system, such as the large amounts of water and energy that are required for the production and transport of food, the need to produce as much food locally as possible has never been greater. When we grow our own food, we no longer have to worry about how it was produced, if it was genetically modified, or which chemicals were sprayed on it because we will already know how it was grown. We can also grow many different tasty varieties of fruits and vegetables ourselves that aren’t typically available in the average grocery store.
If you are interested in starting your own garden at home, consider the following tips to help you guide your planning:
- Strive to take an ecological approach to gardening. Many of the ways that humans have been cultivating food for a long time now is in direct conflict with nature. The erosion, pollution, and intensive energy and water use that is so problematic in our industrial agriculture system ultimately leads to waste and natural resource scarcity. These industrial systems also threaten pollinator and wildlife populations, and our cultivation of large fields of monocultures invite pests and disease like a gigantic all-you-can-eat salad bar.
In contrast, we can garden and produce food in ways that respect the limitations of nature. By using ecological gardening methods, such as permaculture, organic, and biodynamic growing techniques, we nourish and protect the soil, conserve water and energy, help pollinators, and use a diversity of plants that increase their resilience to the challenges of disease and pests.
- Gardening does not have to be difficult or expensive. Many people are intimidated by the idea of starting a garden because it seems like a lot of hard work. While anything worthwhile requires some work, by working smarter and not harder with our gardens, we can actually have very productive gardens with much less work.
When we work with nature and not against it, we actually take a lot of work out of gardening. Having a good garden design that anticipates problems before we encounter them is half the battle:
- By mulching with newspaper, cardboard, straw (use straw instead of hay, as hay has seeds that can sprout in your garden), or even natural fabric carpeting, we reduce the need to pull weeds because we block their growth, and we will maintain more moisture in the soil, reducing the need to water.
- By applying compost and other organic matter, we naturally increase the fertility of the soil and help to nourish our plants.
- By choosing plant varieties that are suitable to our climate and soil type, we help to increase their chance of survival and resilience.
- By not adding agricultural chemicals and by nourishing the soil, our plants should be much healthier and more resilient to pests and diseases through the production of their own phytochemicals, we will not be compromising our health and the environment through the use of chemicals, and our plants will contain much more nutrition for us¹.
- Some garden techniques, such as hugelkultur garden beds, strawbale gardens, herb spirals, raised keyhole beds, and sheet mulching are especially efficient at productive plant growth with reduced work.
Gardening also does not need to be expensive. If nothing else, all that you really need for a garden is some healthy soil, water, sunshine, and some seeds. Beyond that, you will probably want a few basic supplies and tools, such as trowel.
After your initial setup, which can be as complicated or as involved as you want, there is a lot of potential to produce a great deal of food with very little money. And consider how expensive it is to buy certain kinds of produce such as fresh herbs, when you can very inexpensively grow loads of them in your own garden for pennies. With your own garden, you really can eat like a king (or queen) without having a king or queen’s treasury.
- Observe your space. Before you decide to start digging and planting, it is well worth your while to take a look at your potential garden space and its conditions. Where does the sunlight shine throughout the day and for how long? Do you have lots of shade or sun in your yard? Where is it windy? Where do your neighbors live in respect to your garden site? Does water pool more in one area than in another area?
- Learn about your growing (“hardiness”) zone and your soil. To best plan for a successful garden, it is helpful to learn about the environment that you will be growing in. Your growing or “hardiness” zone will tell you when your last average frost date is in the spring and when your first average frost date is in the fall. This will help you to plan for the the length of the growing season where you live.
By performing a soil test, either through having it professionally done or by buying a do-it-yourself kit, you will be able to determine if your garden soil is deficient in any nutrients (such as nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium), its pH, and what kind of soil that you have (such as sandy, silty, or clay). Armed with this information, you can determine which plants will grow well there, and if you need to add any amendments or nutrients to your soil. For example, some types of plants do best when growing in more acidic soil, such as blueberry bushes.
- You don’t need to have a lot of space to grow a garden. With all of the innovative gardening techniques available today, just about anyone can grow a garden, even with limited space. If you have no backyard, but you have a patio, balcony, or windowsill you can still grow a great deal of things in containers. Square foot gardening, herb spirals, vertical gardening, hugelkultur beds, straw bale gardens, and container gardening all provide options for growing abundantly within small spaces, and today, even rooftops are being used to grow gardens!
For those with no growing space at all, community gardens offer an option to grow a garden when you can’t grow anything at home.
Even if you don’t wish to grow outdoors, you can still grow microgreens or sprouts from the comfort of your own kitchen.
- Soil is life! Soil is so much more than just “dirt” to hold your plants. Soil is an entire ecosystem, composed of many different organisms including insects, fungi, and bacteria that support healthy plant growth. Healthy soil also holds water and nutrients more efficiently than depleted soil. If you have healthy soil, you should have healthy plants.
The traditional gardening style of heavy tillage can disturb the intricate ecology of the soil ecosystem. When you disturb the soil ecology through heavy tilling, you will constantly have to work to compensate for what you have lost, including a loss in soil fertility and moisture-holding capacity.
The natural soil-respecting methods of mulching and composting help to nourish and retain moisture in the soil, and mulching reduces the need for weeding. Adding other organic matter such as used coffee grounds or even pulled up weeds that have not yet gone to seed can help to nourish the soil as well.
Be sure to avoid walking on areas that you will be growing in so that the soil will not become compacted in that spot.
- Grow what you like to eat. Don’t like green beans? Never been a fan of fennel? Don’t waste your time and resources growing things that you’ll never use. However, a garden is the perfect place to grow loads of kale and fresh basil if you love them and would eat them all day long if you could.
- Start small and then expand. While it may be tempting to turn your entire yard into an edible paradise immediately, it is easy to get overwhelmed with a large garden project when you are first learning. It is much better in the long run to learn about different gardening techniques and the growing requirements of just a few different plants on a small scale and then to build upon your gardening successes rather than to be overwhelmed with a ton of new gardening tasks that you have no experience with.
Also consider in your gardening plans for the season what you will do with any surplus produce that you will grow. Families, friends, neighbors, community food shelves and churches are all great places to share the abundance of your garden harvest, and gardening is an excellent opportunity to increase our own self-resilience skills by learning food preservation techniques such as canning, fermenting, dehydrating, and freezing.
- Keep a garden journal. What varieties worked best this year? What did you learn from this season? What would you do differently next year? Taking notes about your gardening experiences throughout the growing season will help you to apply what you learned and your successes to future growing seasons.
- Don’t forget the pollinators! As many of us are now aware, our pollinator populations are struggling today, in part due the widespread use of industrial agricultural chemicals and through the loss of habitat. Many of our favorite garden goodies like tomatoes, cucumbers, and zucchini are dependent on pollinators like bees to produce fruit.
As gardeners, we can do our part by planting plants in our yards and in and around our gardens that attract and provide nectar for pollinators like bees and butterflies.This will not only help pollinator populations, but it will also attract these “good guys” to your garden so that they will pollinate your garden plants.
To attract pollinators, you can plant annual plants like flowering herbs, marigolds, and sunflowers in your garden as well as perennial plants like native wildflowers that will come back year after year. Your local garden center, university extension service, community programs like Master Gardeners, or local native plant nurseries are all great places to learn about which plants will attract pollinators where you live.
Just be sure that whatever you plant has not been sprayed with any chemicals that are harmful to pollinators, such as neonicotinoid pesticides.