Growing food in the city: Getting started
Just because I’ve managed to grow food from my superfund site backyard doesn’t mean I’m an authority on gardening, but I’ll do what I can to help my friends in the blog world get started with their first little food patch. I should add that this post is way overdue and might not even be useful at this point. Oh well, I tried.
So, starting a garden seem easy, right? Drop a few seeds into the ground, give them a little water and a few weeks later, eat the fruits of your labors. And sometimes, if you’re lucky (and not me) that will work. A lot of gardening books and websites insist that gardening is “fun” and “easy” and they do a fabulous job of selling you on the romance of having a lush garden of organic veggies tended by happy little bees and butterflies.
There might be some truth to it if you’re doing a small garden with greens, herbs, tomatoes, and definitely some worry-free zucchini.
But now I’m gonna give it to you straight–having a decent sized garden full of different varieties of food to feed your family is hard work. It’s dirty, back-breaking, hot, sweaty, stinky, gooey work and it requires a lot of attention. If you don’t like being outside or creepy crawly things then gardening might not be for you. Also, if you like to take summer vacations I suggest you reconsider your food growing agenda or learn to like camping in the fall.
BUT… it is in my opinion, some of the most satisfying work one can do and worth every ounce of blood, sweat and tears you will offer up to the soil gods.
And on that note I
‘ll share my number one piece of advice for those of you looking to start your first garden.
But before you start small you’ll have to think of the spot where want to plant. Got it in your head? Perfect. Does this site face south,west, east or north? Is there a tree, garage or awning that will shade it during the growing season? In short, does it receive full sun all day? You can find full sun on the south/south-west facing areas of your property* (6-8 hour a day with more than 8 being ideal for better yeilds, imo).
This is the very first and most critical question to ask before starting a home garden because without full sun, you will not get tomatoes, peppers, corn, melons or any warm season crop.
Once you’ve determined t
hat you get enough sun you’re ready to get to work.
Starting small means one or two 3′x6-” raised beds. If, after you’ve planted the bed(s) and you feel like it…add one more.
I know, I know, it’s not
much. But in the real world, back/side/front yards do not come with anything close to fluffy, loamy, nutrient dense soil and they’ll usually have grass or some other kind of ground cover on them. That means physical labor to remove the sod/groundcover and more labor to amend the soil.
If you’re thinking that you want more space then consider this first: If you plant two raised beds, that’s 36 sf (6×3=18 x2) of digging to about 1′ to 1.5′ (min) deep–just to aerate and amend the soil with compost. That’s a lot of volume to work, and it doesn’t include the time and energy spent removing groundcover and weeds, building the boxes/frames, painting the frames, leveling the ground, and setting the frames in place.
Are you ready for it? Ok. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Maybe you can find an extra pair of hands to help you I didn’t and maybe that’s why I’m so cranky about it.
Once you’ve done all that, let the soil rest. Let the worms and soil organisms make a home in it (if it’s later in the season, you’ll
have to plant the next day).
During this time, your babies (that’s the term I give my seedlings) should be either under grow lights or outside hardening off (something that comes after you remove them from under the grow lights). Or you can go to a nursery and buy starts.
When you’re ready to plant your babies or seeds, keep in mind that tall plants shade short plants. So, plant your corn behind the eggplant (in my garden I plant the corn on the north side). Seems like common sense but it’s often overlooked by the new gardener.
A question you might ask is, “why would I go to the trouble of building a raised bed when I can plant directly into the ground?” Well, raised beds do a couple of things:
First. the give your growing area a well-defined space and keep the soil you spent hours amending in place.
Second, they help the soil warm up faster in places with cold winters. That means you can plant a bit earlier.
Third, the size of the beds is ea
sy to work and weed (some of my earlier beds are 2×8 and not nearly as efficient as the bigger beds)
And Fourth, they look nice. You can paint them a color of your choice or arrange them into a geometric patterns like have done.
The downside to raised beds is that they dry out faster especially if you live in the arid west like I do. There’s two ways to minimize water loss: 1. Set the bed frames a few inches into the ground and 2. Use mulch. A lot of mulch. I use leaves that I’ve collected from the neighborhood leaf disposal the year before. For some bags of leaves, I let them decompose for 2-3 y
te the soil and retain water.
There’s a lot I’m lea
ving out of this post. Like making and using compost (and the vast amounts of chicken poop I save for making it). Watering, growing babies, interplanting, companion planting, diversity and the use of flowers, and crop rotation. And why bother growing food in the first place (that’s a whole post on its own)
I’m hoping you’ll ask me about the details in the comments. I’m happy to help.
For all you gardening pros, I want to hear from yo, too. What are you doing that’s better than what I suggest here? There’s more than one way to do things and I’d like to learn from you.
Happy spring and happy planting.
*If you’re not sure if your site gets full sun, go out at various times of the day and take notes.
**You can get by
with less sun but you wont get the same productivity. For example, I grow huge tomatoes and bell peppers and it’s because (imo) I get more than 8 hours of full sun. Some vegetables can get by with less than full sun. See here: http://organicgardening.about.com/od/vegetablesherbs/a/shadeveggies.htm