Maybe you can’t find local food no matter how hard you try. Or perhaps you want to take your “local and sustainable” goal a bit further and save some money. (Have you, perchance, compared the price of basil seeds against the tiny and costly package of basil at your market?) Or maybe you want to get some exercise and spend time with your kids outdoors while you’re at it. . . .
Well, grab a trowel and get busy!
Use a local garden center. I find that local garden centers, unlike many big retailers that happen to sell plants, offer healthier plants and more personal service, which is important because I tend to ask lots of questions. There are other benefits, too. “Local garden centers tend to be family owned with a strong connection to the community,” says Greg Ward, whose family business is Ward’s Nursery, my local source for plants and horticultural advice. “They are more likely to get involved and help support that community. That connection makes it possible for you to affect what that garden center has to offer simply by asking.”
Lose the lawn. Okay, not entirely. A lawn is a great place to toss a Frisbee to your dog. But the average lawn is treated with toxic weed killers, and it hogs both water and your precious weekend hours. Consider ditching the chemicals and providing some space for an edible garden, or planting edible landscaping such as fruit or nut trees or a patch of edible berries. To kill off some grass, don’t use chemicals. Smother a small patch with an old blanket or a piece of cardboard (but not newspaper, because certain inks can contain heavy metals). This can take several months, so consider starting the process in the fall for your spring garden. Then improve that patch of bald soil by adding organic compost (most nurseries will deliver it), or make your own. Because my own lawn contained unacceptable amounts of lead, my husband and I had to take somewhat radical measures to make a vegetable garden. We had part of our driveway removed. Now we not only have a garden, we have less asphalt to shovel off in the winter.
Consider a raised garden bed. Digging and bending is hard work for those of us (ahem) with aching backs and can make gardening impossible for the elderly or disabled. A raised garden bed (sometimes known as an RGB) means less bending. It also produces better yields because you can better control water and (organic) fertilizer. Plus, you don’t compress your garden beds by walking on them, and airy soil is happy soil, which makes productive plants. You create a raised garden bed by building a frame from wood, stones, or bricks and filling it with soil so that it is higher than the surrounding ground (it should be approximately 12 inches deep for vegetables). Or, you can buy an RGB kit that you assemble; just add compost/soil and you’re ready to plant. Look for RGB kits at garden centers or on online gardening sites.
Start at the beginning. The best place to start an organic garden is with organic seeds. Seeds of Change offers 100 percent certified organic seeds for edibles, flowers, and cover crops (plants that are grown specifically to nourish the soil after a harvest). Legumes, for instance, add nitrogen to the soil. When cover crops such as clover are turned into the soil, they are known as “green manure.”
Test your soil. It may be of low quality and require amendments. More worrisome, it may contain serious pollutants, such as heavy metals. My soil test revealed lead in the garden around my 100-year-old house. Lead in the soil isn’t uncommon around older homes because leaded exterior paint was often removed by scraping or sandblasting, which caused the contaminated paint dust to fall to the ground. Call your cooperative extension office for soil testing services. Test results will give you the dirt (sorry, this pun was hard to resist) on your soil’s pH, its proportion of organic matter, and any nutrients needed to balance it. If soil amendments or fertilizers are recommended to improve your dirt, ask your extension agent or local garden center for sustainable/organic alternatives.
Know thy neighbor. Take a look around. Does your neighbor have a flawless, deep-green, velvety lawn? Be suspicious, very suspicious. He or she might be using toxic chemicals to maintain that turf. Several common pesticides used in lawn care are classified by the EPA as probable or possible carcinogens. Some of these chemicals are associated with a variety of other health problems, including liver and kidney damage, damage to the nervous and endocrine systems, and severe skin irritation and respiratory distress. (Children are particularly susceptible to these risks.) If you are concerned that your neighbor’s chemicals are leaking into your yard, take a deep breath, bake a batch of muffins, and knock on your neighbor’s door. Calmly explain your concerns and ask what kind of chemicals he or she applied. (You may get some help here: Although there is no federal law requiring pesticide notification, some communities have chemical registers and notification laws.)
Bone up on organic pest control. Did you know that marigolds, often planted with vegetables, attract beneficial insects such as lacewings, ladybugs, and parasitic wasps? They also contain compounds that are toxic to parasitic nematodes — worms that damage plants. In addition to promoting “companion plants” (for instance, many gardeners swear that insect pests such as nematodes hate garlic, so it is often planted near roses), many nurseries carry nontoxic pest control products, such as a spray-on chrysanthemum extract. Caveat emptor: Even nontoxic pest control has its drawbacks. I once dropped a bottle of deer repellent in my kitchen and it squirted everywhere. Among its nontoxic ingredients were rotten eggs. You can guess how my kitchen smelled ... for a week. If good homemade remedies (the Internet is chock full of recipes for sprays based on garlic, hot pepper, or soap) fail to deter pests, head to your local garden center. Many sell predatory insects such as ladybugs. (We sometimes keep ours in the refrigerator — an excellent conversation starter for houseguests.) Don’t forget about chemical-free barriers — for instance, you can install netting to deter birds from munching your berries.
Go native. Talk about local! Try planting things that grew in your region prior to European settlement. Because they are adapted to your climate and your soil, “natives” are hardy once established, need less maintenance, and often require little watering. Nonedible natives can be great for attracting birds and butterflies, and native edibles will attract all sorts of animals, including humans. According to Project Native, my local source for native plants circa 1491, my native edibles include elderberries (good for wine and jam), wild strawberries, and mountain mint. For information about native plants in your area, check out Wild Ones, an organization with 50 chapters in 12 states devoted to advocating for native plants and biodiversity.
Choose heirloom varieties. Who wouldn’t be intrigued by a Jelly Melon cucumber or a Moon & Stars watermelon? Unlike today’s hybrid plants, which are created by large seed companies and will not reproduce true, heirloom plants come from seeds that have been passed down from generation to generation. Heirloom fruits and veggies can offer great flavor, fun colors, and cool histories that will thrill kids and adults alike. Start by requesting a catalog from an heirloom seed company. My favorite is Seed Savers Exchange. Among the seeds my family ordered for the garden this year are Green Zebra tomatoes, Detroit Dark Red beets, Tennis Ball lettuce, French Breakfast radishes, Five-Color Silverbeet Swiss chard, and Jolly Jester marigolds.
Hire a backyard farmer. Do you have the yard but not the time? Are you lucky enough to live in the Portland, Ore., area? If so, you can hire Your Backyard Farmer. For a fee, farmers will plant and maintain an organic garden in your backyard, then leave a weekly harvest basket on your doorstep, delivered by draft horse. (Just kidding about the draft horse part.)
Consult a master. Not everyone is as lucky as I am: My mother-in-law (MIL) arrives with a bottle of wine, pruners, and seedlings from her vast garden. I’d be lost without her gardening advice. If your MIL isn’t so helpful (hold your tongue now!), contact your state cooperative extension office and ask to be connected with a master gardener. In exchange for their training, master gardeners share their time and expertise. In my neck of the woods in western Massachusetts, an independent master gardeners association answers questions and hosts clinics and training sessions. Other places to find experts: gardening clubs, horticultural societies, nurseries, garden centers, and your neighbors (I’ve never met a fellow gardener who wasn’t eager to talk about what he or she was growing). Don’t forget about TV shows — my favorite is the PBS show "The Victory Garden" — and gardening radio shows, some of which have a call-in component.
Get potted! Do you live on a small city lot or in an apartment? Wee patios, small balconies, and even rooftops can host potted edible plants. Container gardening has many benefits: If the weather changes, you can bring your plants indoors; if you move, you can bring your entire garden with you. Also, no weeding! (Sigh. Makes a small-town girl want to move to the big city.) I am not an urban gardener, but I am a huge fan of potted dwarf citrus. Though these tiny trees will not supply my vitamin C for the winter, the mere whiff of their blooms on a gray February day feeds my soul. For great container gardening tips, try the containergardeningtips.com, and for urban gardening help in general, try — you guessed it — urbangardeninghelp.com.
Conserve water. Rain barrels collect rain from the rooftop that would normally just gush out of your downspouts onto the ground. Soaker hoses and drip irrigation use less water than conventional sprinklers or spray hoses that lose water to evaporation. Water only in the mornings, when the temperature is cooler and there’s less evaporation. Don’t water at night; if the plants are damp all night, you increase the risk of fostering molds or fungi. Lastly, use an organic mulch to retain soil moisture.
Get a gizmo. Maybe. If you have a yen for garden-grown greens but limited space, time, or daylight hours, there are high-tech options: Garden centers and online retailers sell mini-greenhouses, hydroponic (water-immersed) growing kits, indoor plant lights, and aeroponic (dirt-free) gardening growing systems. Keep an eye on sustainability, cost, energy efficiency, and ease of use. You don’t want one more thing in the appliance graveyard (where the bread machine has gone to die).
Increase the fun factor: Involve kids. My all-time favorite edible plant for kids is nasturtiums. They’re colorful and fast growing, and they have gorgeous, peppery blooms. Some of my favorite kids’ gardening ideas come from the sweet book "Sunflower Houses: A Book for Children and Their Grown-Ups" by Sharon Lovejoy. Among Lovejoy’s suggestions for kids’ gardens is a “mini-trough” garden planted with miniature and dwarf varieties of vegetables such as Little Sweetheart sweet peas. Garden centers are also excellent places for fun kid ideas, as are websites such as kidsgardening.org.
When all else fails, plant tomatoes. “Starting a garden is really a daunting task,” says Jon Piasecki, a landscape architect friend who has a vast organic vegetable garden. “If I were to pick one bulletproof plant that will succeed and bring lots of tasty food, I would pick cherry tomatoes.” Cherry tomatoes, he explains, need two things: at least six hours of sun a day and a little bit of water if they start to wilt. “At this point I have a huge vegetable garden,” he continues, “but my cherry tomatoes are always right near the kitchen door, so when the basil bolts, the lettuce dries out, the corn is stunted, or the potato bugs are defoliating the potato plants, I still go into my house past the gorgeous cherry tomatoes, and all is well.”
"Eat Where You Live"
From "Eat Where You Live", Copyright © 2008 by Lou Bendrick. Used by arrangement with The Mountaineers Books.
Also on MNN:
- Build your own raised garden bed
- Gardening 101: What zone am I?
- Photo gallery: 10 clever urban gardens