A journal entry from my pre-gardening days reads as follows:
I just returned from the farmers’ market with two pounds of apricots, half a pound of ground cherries, a bag each of arugula, radishes, pepper cress and kale. One of the farmers gave me a peach spray, which now brightens my kitchen.
I’m grateful to these family farmers who till the land, and then bring their produce and other wonderful foods to the city. Hard work, I imagine, and not particularly lucrative. Still, I hope I’m not romanticizing their life when I dream of working the land and depending less on others to grow and raise my food.
Living in the city, I do what I can to support organic, local, biodynamic farming. I shop at the farmers’ market and food coop, have a sideline as a food educator at CSAs, prepare most of my meals from scratch. Yet, in my life, the farm-to-table cycle remains incomplete. With the exception of a few potted herbs on the windowsill, I have little chance to grow or raise what I eat. Sometimes I bring fruit and vegetable scraps to the food scrap collection site in the park. Other times I toss them in the trash. In either situation, I miss out on the pleasure of returning them to nature myself and in so doing nourishing soil and soul.
Now, four years into growing much of the produce we eat, I realize that garden farming connects me even more deeply than I had imagined to the earth, the life cycle, my body and food. It is also more difficult not only physically, but mentally as well. Had I known more from the start, no doubt it would have been easier and more effective. It is in this spirit that I am sharing some of what I’ve learned.
I make no claims to expertise. Certainly, there are professional gardeners, farmers and agricultural scientists who know much more than I do. Still, my hope is that those newer than I to growing their own food may benefit from these tips.
1. Plant Edible Woody Perennials First
Edible woody perennials include fruit trees, berry bushes and grapevines. Since these perennials take several years to mature, the sooner you plant them the sooner they bear fruit. I resisted at first. Planting fourteen fruit trees by hand is labor intensive. And since we had no source of free cultivars, buying the trees also made a dent in our wallet. Fortunately, my wife prevailed. Now, four springs later, apple, cherry, peach, plum and pear blossoms dot our trees. Our Chinese apricot tree is laden with tiny hard fruit.
The second spring we planted a variety of bushes including raspberry, gooseberry, choke cherry, goji berry, service berry, sea buckthorn berry, nero aronia, and currant. We planted elderberry, hazelnut and persimmon trees. We also planted grapes.
These botanical treasures contribute to making us feel rooted in our homestead. They also contribute to self-reliance by feeding us well. As for finances, already they’ve more than paid us back.
2. Plant Edible Herbaceous Perennials Next
I wish I’d learned this tip sooner. Come early spring, it’s such a pleasure to see sorrel leaves poking through the snow. Soon after the rhubarb, lovage, dandelion, walking onions, and asparagus appear. Our perennial roots and herbs include garlic chives, culinary lavender, oregano, thyme, horseradish, hyssop, and sage. (Rosemary, which we hoped would be perennial, turned out not to be in our zone four climate, and so we plant it anew each year.)
Once planted, perennial edibles provide good food early in the season with little work. And some (including sorrel, horseradish, hyssop, oregano, and thyme) have another benefit as well: they do a wonderful job of keeping grass and other weeds at bay.
3. Grow What You Love (and What You Can)
Midwinter when it’s minus twenty and snow drifts cover the porch, we enjoy sitting by the fire planning our garden. It’s easy that time of year to get carried away. Yes, we’d enjoy a walnut tree. But we lack the climate, soil constitution, and acreage (not to mention the energy) to grow everything we’d like. Easy to rule out in our zone four climate are heat-loving trees such as avocado and lime. And as much as we’d like to have blueberries, the pH of our soil would make growing these a daunting task.
So how do we decide? First, we eliminate what we cannot grow. Then we decide what we like. We also experiment. Over the years, we’ve learned, for instance, that although we adore broccoli, it tends not to flourish in our garden. So much planting, watering and weeding all for a few buggy florets.
Potatoes, on the other hand, thrive. So do sunchokes, lettuces, arugula, radishes, chard, cress, parsnips, nasturtiums and many other species of edible plants. Our raspberry bushes produce so well and with so little effort that each summer we invite neighbors to pick from our patch.
We’ve tweaked our choices based on what we’ve learned about our land, climate and preferences. Tomatoes are a winner. Not only do we adore them, but they’re easy to bottle, dry or freeze. Come January, it’s such a pleasure to reconstitute sun-dried tomatoes for a sandwich or side dish.
Garlic has more than earned its place in our garden. Two autumns ago, we planted one hundred fifty cloves (at no expense, since we used the garlic we’d grown the previous year), and ended up last summer with one hundred fifty-two heads of garlic. We harvested them in July and they lasted until March. Each June we enjoy several meals of sautéed garlic scapes.
So how do you know what to grow? Learn from cooperative extension sites. Learn from neighbors and friends. Learn from Mother Earth News. But then take that knowledge and adapt it to your circumstances and tastes. To do so will contribute not only to sustainable farming, but to a sustainable experience too.
4. Learn about Companion Planting
Planting two (or more) crops in the same bed (either together or one following the other) can have certain advantages including contributing to biodiversity and reducing plant disease. Depending on the crops, it may also discourage pests. Yet, not all plants work well together. Before learning this, we planted onions and peas in the same bed to the detriment of both. On the other hand, tomatoes and basil get along well. Radishes serve as a trap crop for cucumbers protecting them from certain pests. For other examples, see An In-Depth Companion Planting Guide (Sarah Israel, Mother Earth News, May/June 1981).
Planting two crops together that mature at different times is also a way of making good use of limited space. We’ve been doing this with onions and lettuce.
5. Keep Red Wiggler Composting Worms
Composting worms produce castings, which are often referred to with good reason as black gold. We tried planting heirloom tomato seeds indoors both with and without castings. The difference in growth rates was significant. Especially in colder climates with short growing seasons for tomatoes and other annual plants, this can make the difference between having and not having a crop.
Castings have other benefits as well including improving soil structure, promoting microbial activity and producing tastier vegetables and fruit.
We keep a worm bin in our basement. To be honest, I resisted this practice too. Visions whirled in my head of little red wigglers wiggling out of the bin and into the house. This has not happened. After nearly three years, nary a worm has escaped. And though I’m still squeamish about handling the critters ungloved, I’m wholly convinced of their benefits. So much so that I’d keep them even if my gloves disappeared.
6. Raise Hens
If you’re a bit of a hedonist, as I am, free-range eggs meet a need. Mornings, I sauté homegrown garlic, and then add eggs from our hens. Few meals prove more delightful. Building (or buying) a coop involves an investment of labor and cost. But once done, hens are easy to maintain. And the more time they range freely, the less they cost to feed.
In addition to providing eggs, free-range hens do a wonderful job of controlling garden pests. (Be careful though when and where you allow them to range since they enjoy greens too.) They also provide manure, which once composted (do so for at least a year) nourishes the soil. Here, too, is another way to increase self-reliance. Skip the store-bought compost. Use your own instead.
As for hens that stop laying, several options exist. You can run a retirement community for old chickens, you can harvest them for food or you can give them away. One day we hope to avail ourselves of the second option. In the meantime, we give them to someone who does.
7. Compost in and Near Your Garden
The first year we gardened, we put vegetable scraps, leaves, coffee grounds and other organic matter in a compost area far from the garden. This worked well except that conveying the compost to the garden beds became yet another project. Now, often we use a method of composting known in permaculture as chop and drop. Quite simply, it involves placing a mixture of (chopped) green and brown organic matter on the garden bed and leaving it to compost. This works particularly well in our hugelkultur beds where we add organic matter to the areas in which we’re building the soil.
At some point last year we must have added potato and garlic scraps to the hugelkultur bed. This spring, we had the pleasant surprise of potatoes and garlic, a free composting gift.
A separate composting area (preferably, close to the garden) has the benefit of permitting the addition of fresh manure. It also allows for a more controlled ratio of green to brown organic matter. Once the compost is ready, you can add it to your garden as needed.
True to my pre-gardening vision, I find composting a deeply satisfying endeavor. Not only does it contribute to the farm-to-table cycle, but it also gives me an excuse in any weather to head out of doors for a while.
8. Make Your Peace with Sharing
It can be deeply satisfying to share your harvest with family and friends. People seem to enjoy receiving a bottle of tomatoes, a braid of garlic, a jar of raspberry jam. But I’m referring here not to people, with whom we have a choice of whether or not to share, but to critters and pests, with which often we don’t. We’re committed to organic farming. We also value self-reliance, which means we try to limit our dependence on consumer products even if they are organic.
Still, even within these parameters, methods exist to discourage critters. Some we’ve found helpful include crop rotation, companion planting (including the use of trap crops), and handpicking. (Disclaimer: My wife is in charge of this task. She picks slugs off leaves, and then squashes the critters. My task is to applaud her.)
For more information on the topic, I’d suggest Barbara Pleasant’s article “Organic Pest Control: What Works, What Doesn’t” (Mother Earth News, June/July 2011).
I’d also suggest making peace with sharing. Not all. Hopefully, very little. But a bit. We’d like to think we have a tacit agreement with the birds. They eat the cherries from the top of the trees. We eat those from the bottom. Occasionally, a worm nibbles on one. We’ve made our peace with the arrangement. In exchange, we get fruit that’s organic and sweet.
9. Preserve Your Bounty
Come winter, there’s such joy in opening a jar of homegrown tomatoes or peaches. But even if you lack the time or inclination to bottle, you can preserve your bounty by drying or freezing. Curing garlic, onions, and potatoes is simple. We line the garlic on a quilt in the basement where it remains cool in the summer and leave it there for six weeks. Then we trim it and place it in the food storage pantry under the basement stairs. That’s it. It lasts six to eight months.
Onions require only about two weeks to cure. So do potatoes. But since the latter require dark, we lay them out in the food storage pantry. Winter squash cures on the kitchen counter where it’s warm. Two weeks later we move it to the food storage pantry. Depending on the variety, it usually lasts until the end of the year.
Tomatoes are easy to dry in a dehydrator or in the sun. We’ve also dried melon, grapes, currants, ground cherries and green beans to good effect. We tried summer squash, but found we didn’t like it as much.
Herbs are easy. And pleasant. We bundle and tie them with cooking twine, and then hang them with clothespins from twine in a fairly dark room. When the herbs crumble they’re ready. It’s that simple. We’ve had success with lemon verbena, rosemary, lavender, mint, thyme, oregano (including the flowers, which make a nice bouquet), hyssop (also including the flowers) and sage.
10. Take Time to Relax
Just as food tastes better when we’re hungry, relaxation feels better after work. How wonderful it is to stroll through the garden admiring the fruits (as well as vegetables and flowers) of our labor. How pleasant it is to savor the aroma of lavender in our kitchen or bath. How joyous it is to relax on the porch savoring a meal from our garden.
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