By Laura Edwards-Orr
Spring means it’s time to get outside and get dirty — filthy, actually! Whether you live in the city, the burbs, or country style, gardening is a uniquely intimate way of experiencing your surroundings and the changing of the seasons. As any farmer will tell you, growing enough food to feed a family, never mind a town or a city, is a life’s work — but gardening doesn’t have to be. These four S’s are all you need:
Space: It doesn’t have to be much. Container gardening, exactly what it sounds like — growing plants in pots or other containers — enables city dwellers and other landless folks a wonderful opportunity to garden. In urban areas, community gardens are gaining in popularity, building local foodsheds and a sense of fellowship. And for land lovers with space to grow, simply look for a mostly level area that gets around 5 hours of sunshine a day.
Soil: In organic farming and gardening, it’s all about the soil. The philosophy is that soil rich in organic matter will grow healthier, more disease resistant, and tastier veggies. If you’re planting in pots, you simply need a stack of bagged organic soil and compost. If you’ve got dirt, you need to transform it into soil:
Step one: Get it tested. Your local extension office will test your dirt for nutrients, pH, and potentially toxic materials, such as lead. The test results will also offer suggestions for how to remedy any potential problems. If the dirt has heavy metals, you may want to consider using containers, building raised beds, or experimenting with lasagna (no dig) gardening — building up soil by layering dirt, paper, compost, and other organic matter.
Step two: Build it up. If you already have a compost pile, spread your garden with as much as you have to spare 2-4 weeks before you want to plant. Make sure to turn the compost into your existing garden soil — aerating the soil and spreading the nutrients evenly through your garden. You can also apply nutrients to your plants throughout the season by applying compost tea (made by steeping compost in water and then straining the solids) directly to the leaves. The advantage to compost tea that you can apply above ground is that it works quickly, whereas building up the soil is a gradual process.
No compost? Start a pile today. Not only will your garden thank you in bigger, healthier plants and fruit but your trash barrel will be much lighter at the end of every week. Using a commercial compost bin or simply a 3x3 foot pile, alternate layers of soil with organic matter (food scraps, leaves, sawdust) and manure. Turn and water your pile weekly. In an apartment, vermiculture (composting with worms) is one way to get your share of black gold in a small space. Once you’ve married dirt and compost, you’ve got soil and are ready to plant.
Remember, in organic gardening (and farming), synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers are not allowed. If you’ve got pest problems in your garden, you have a couple of choices. Some bugs can be removed by hand; pick them off each plant as you go. Entrepreneurial gardeners might consider offering the job to kids in the family who want to help out. A dime a specimen could go a long way! If you have mold, fungus, or particularly tenacious insects, you might need to intervene — in which case it’s best to consult experts for advice.
Seeds: If you’re a first-timer or want to stack the decks fully in your favor, consider buying organic seedlings from a plant sale or nursery. If you want to start the plants yourself, cold weather crops (spinach, radishes, lettuce) can go straight into your garden beds. For more sensitive plants that can’t handle the unpredictable temperatures of spring, start your seeds inside and transfer them to the garden when they are several inches tall.
Stuff: You might be daunted by what kind of gear it takes to make a garden grow, but you needn’t be: a shovel or spade, garden fork, trowel, hose/watering can, and a sun hat are enough to get a solid start.
So there you have it — a recipe for hard work and deep satisfaction. When you have your own organic garden, you can enjoy the absolutely wonderful feeling of eating the fruits of your labor and the satisfaction of knowing that they were grown with care. Most people would say this makes meals tastier. Growing your own food also gives you the opportunity to choose exactly what varieties of fruits and vegetables you eat and how they are prepared post-harvest: how big or small to harvest them, green tops on or off, flowers yes or no, etc. And if you happen upon a crop that you truly love, you can bring it back the following year by saving the seeds from the body of your fruits and vegetables — scrape them out, rinse them, and dry them on labeled paper towels. One thing is for sure: whether you have a year of endless bounty or one filled with challenges, planting your own organic garden is sure to make you appreciate the hard work of farmers everywhere.
Start With the Soil by Grace Gershuny
How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine by John Jeavons
Let It Rot! The Gardener's Guide to Composting by Stu Campbell
University of Santa Cruz Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems
Laura Edwards-Orr started her career as a local foods advocate at the nonprofit and benefit concert Farm Aid. She is currently the marketing and communications manager for Canton, Massachusetts-based nonprofit Red Tomato. Ms. Edwards-Orr also works as a freelance writer, researcher, and data nerd for organizations and businesses working to create family-farm-based food systems and value chains. She lives in Providence, RI with her husband, twin babies, horse, dog, and two cats.