*I should be in Portugal by now. Keep your fingers crossed I get connected today. – SAH*
The Victorious Garden – Cedar Sanderson
I used to have a book on Victory Gardening. It was published during WWII, and it was intended to help people who had never raised their own vegetables cope with rationing and reduced goods being available in wartime. If you can find a copy, it’s neat, but there are better ways, now.
We aren’t at war. But the cost of food is going up, and wages aren’t so much. I went to the market yesterday and found eggs at a mere $0.69 a dozen, limit 4 dozen. I got 4, and I’ll probably go back again today for more. We use eggs a lot for protein here, as the price of meat keeps going up (especially beef) and I can pickle eggs, fry them, angel them (sort of like devilling…), make them into custards and quiches, and… but this isn’t a post about eggs. Nor is it about keeping chickens. Frankly, by the time you buy chicks, build a predator-resistant (there is no predator-proof) coop and run, and feed the chickens to layer age, you’re paying more for your dozen eggs than you will at the market – even when the price of a dozen eggs approached $3. This isn’t the post where I’m going to talk about the supposed health benefits of grow-your-own versus commercial, either.
No, this one was sparked by Sarah’s comment that she could grow potatoes. This really isn’t an easy feat – you need the right conditions, space, and a bit of know-how. When I talked to her about it, she told me that her grandfather taught her how to plant potatoes. Me? Well, I learned gardening from my parents, and they learned it from… well, Mom learned from her mother and grandmother. Dad learned it from books. Specifically, Dad was a very early disciple of some revolutionary gardening methods and it was those principles I grew up with, and want to recommend to those of you who want to garden but have physical issues, little space, and less time.
Why garden? Well, this summer despite having a tenth of an acre (with the house on part of that) I put in a garden. A tiny garden. I could probably, if I had time and energy, produce all our vegetable needs (and given a year or two, berries!) on the available land here. Yes, I’m quite serious. No, I haven’t got the time to do that. I have books to write, and other stuff. But with planning, even a little land can be coaxed into bounty. And a balcony or sunny window box can produce fresh herbs for the kitchen. I’m going to suggest that you take a look at the prices of produce, and plan your garden accordingly if you are short on space (or time, or whatever). So herbs – a tiny packet of, say, fresh thyme (shoot, I need to get a plant of thyme!) is about $2 at my market. I can buy a pot of it, a perennial, for less than $4 and put it in the ground and pick that summer, and for years after (if you put it in a container, bring it in if you live in zone 6 or colder, I didn’t, which is why I need a new plant). Growing your own herbs just makes good sense.
What about peppers, and tomatoes, and snap peas? All are relatively easy to grow, and expensive to buy. On the other hand, some things are cheap, tedious to grow (I don’t bother with cilantro, for instance. It bolts if you look at it funny.) Plan your garden accordingly. And don’t plant things your family won’t eat. If no one in the family will touch eggplant, don’t grow it! There’s no set rule that all gardens must have… whatever. I don’t plant carrots because they need special growing conditions and they are dirt cheap (Hah!) at the market. I do plant and enjoy cucumbers because I like the smaller pickling cukes which tend to be harder to find and more expensive.
So once you have an idea of what you want to grow, you need to get a feel for the conditions you have to grow in. You’ll probably have to give up some of the things you want to grow… but that’s ok. First, take a look at your local hardiness zone. I have gardened in everything from zone 8 to zone 2. Yes, you can have a good garden in zone 2 – but it’s a challenge. On the other hand, the tropic zones of 8-10 have their own challenges too. Now, take a look at your land. If you have an acre or more, you’re golden. For the more suburban dwellers, like our current house, you’ll have to figure out where the sun is, and work with what you have. Dropping a few trees and making more sun hit the garden might not be possible for most of us. At our house, I have a sunny front and side yard, and a shady back yard. If you don’t have any south aspects with no trees to shade, then you’ll want to consider growing shade lovers like greens.
What about HOAs and annoying neighborhood snobs who would look down at a vegetable garden in the front yard? Well, now I come back to the methods I learned from Dad about gardening. Dad was caught by the concepts of Permaculture, as developed initially by Bill Mollison in Australia. Now, there are tons of books, forums, and even (I think) a magazine devoted to it. But the basic concept is to use perennials, a mixture of edible and decorative plants, and the growing conditions you have to produce the most with the least effort. At my house this summer my vegetables are right out front with all my herbs and flowers. It doesn’t look like a ‘garden’ it looks like a flowerbed. Edible flowers are fun to eat, and look lovely. This is how you get around invasive neighborhoods who don’t want anyone to look different (geeze, talk about intolerance of diversity…)
What about limited mobility? Raised beds. With a raised garden bed you get a lot of bennies, and I recommend it for any family-sized kitchen garden. Market garden becomes less practical although it can be done – but that’s not what this post is about. I have used post and boards, railroad ties (stacked at least two deep), cinderblocks, and other creative methods to create a raised bed. You can build these right over grass if you lay down a layer of weedcloth, then the dirt/compost/manure to build the bed. Weed control is easier in a raised bed. Plan your beds so that you can sit on the edge and reach into the center easily. For most people this means the bed will be about four feet wide, more means you have to stretch and could overbalance. In the paths between beds, you could leave it wide enough to run a garden cart, or lawnmower, down it, or make it narrower and lay a layer of mulch over weedcloth. I like weedcloth! If you have worries about watering, and don’t care what it looks like, planting through a layer of black plastic (don’t use clear! It works like a mini greenhouse for weeds) is a great way to hold moisture in, warm plant roots, and keep the weeds to a bare minimum. Put a layer of mulch on top and it will look more attractive, too.
How about maximizing a small space? I can’t recommend enough Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening. This was my gardening bible, growing up, and I have used his methods for twenty years and more. I’m not going to try and go through it all here. If you can’t afford your own copy, hie thee to your local library. And don’t wait until spring. Start your garden planning now, for next summer’s harvest. Although I think this blog is early enough for more northern climes to still get something this year. Now, one of the things that people balk at is the dirt in their gardens, so… well, here’s the thing. The key to gardening is your dirt. My Dad boasts that not only is he older than dirt, he’s made dirt. So have I. We built on rocky, poor New England soil until we had two feet of rich loam on top. It took several years to do this on a third of an acre… but it was worth it. And most people don’t need that much dirt. We also used bales of peat moss in the high tunnel, but that’s a whole different thing.
If you plan to grow in your own existing soil, you still need to start a compost pile. Or use a barrel, in limited space. I think there are plans to build your own out there for cheap… and there are, including the one I remember from Mother Earth News (from the days when they were actually chock full of useful goodness). The, you need to go play with the dirt. When it’s wet but not mud (the hose will help with this if need be!) grab a fistful and squeeze. When you open your hand, if it all stays in a clump and you can even see your fingerprints… congratulations, you’ve got some lovely clay there, might want to look into a kiln and a throwing wheel. Gardening in that… not easy. If your handful of dirt falls apart and looks sandy, well, potatoes and carrots like that. But it won’t hold moisture well and you’ll have to water more. If it’s somewhere in between, you’re going to have it easy. There are ways to work with clay or sandy soils, but raised beds solve that problem.
Once you have beds, and dirt… plants. I buy my plants right now. I don’t have the space inside, or the time, to start from seed. Flats of seedlings need a lot of care, and a fair amount of trial-and-error to get them off to a healthy start, so the beginner might be frustrated with them. Keep in mind – light, more light, and even more light. Leggy seedlings won’t thrive. Damp will also kill seedlings – as will drying out. If you’re planning a sizeable family garden, it’s a much more economical way to go, but do your reading and plan before you start out with it. For a little garden like mine, buying nursery starts works fine and means I don’t have to find a place for a flat of plants! Also, I have a tendency to overplant and this keeps me from having a half-dozen zucchini plants. I highly recommend Pinetree Seeds for cheap packets of seeds that are more northern friendly (yea, that does matter). If you’re really planning in bulk, Johnny’s Seeds is the way to go. Avoid the oldies like Burpees and Gurneys, they sell poor quality at high prices. If you really are on a budget, you can indeed buy and grow with the ten-cent packets of seed from the dollar store. You may have poor germination rates and limited selection, but it’s a start. And of course for heirloom varieties you’ll want to check out Seed Saver’s Exchange. They aren’t cheap but the variety is amazing.
I’ve always gardened according to organic principles. Not because I object to pesticides and fertilizers, I don’t. Nor because I planned to sell organic produce – the regulations and red tape involved were prohibitive for a small market gardener. Now, it was simply because we were small scale, using chemicals wasn’t really necessary. There are ‘natural’ alternatives that are easy to use – soapy water for aphids, hand picking for squash bugs. For fertilizer, brewing manure tea from horse manure (ok, manure’s a whole ‘nother topic. Briefly – don’t put raw cat, dog, people, or chicken manure on the garden. Cow and Horse are good. Rabbit is fantastic. Sheep and goat are harder to collect. Moooving on…) is a good way to give the veggie garden a healthy boost. So are shovelfuls of compost at the base of perennials like rhubarb. Asparagus wants like a foot of it every spring. Heavy feeder.
And this is really really long. But hopefully I’ve given you some ideas for growing your own herbs, vegetables, and reducing the food budget a bit. You really can do it, even if you live in the city.