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The Green Stuff

An article from Kashi about home gardens.

How to grow a high-value home garden

Consider it one recession trend that actually heightens living standards: Our tendency to turn to home gardening as budgets shrink and costs rise. This trend, plus an ever-growing appetite for organic and locally grown produce, has spurred a natural home gardening renaissance. (According to the National Gardening Association, the practice rose 10% in 2008.)

And the revival is paying off: Allowing for differences in plot size, crops, climate, and other factors, a 400-square-foot garden could save you up to $600 in a single growing season, according to Kitchen Gardeners International. If your garden is smaller (say, 100 to 200 square feet), you’re still looking at several hundred dollars in savings—definitely not small potatoes!

Putting fresh fruits and vegetables that you’ve nurtured on your family table is immensely satisfying. Plus, gardening naturally or organically helps maximize a garden's value safely and leaves a smaller footprint on the earth. Natural methods do require a little advance planning—especially if you're transitioning from a conventional garden—but offer many benefits, among them:

* Fostering a diversity of insects, birds, and animal life unaffected by chemicals;
* Avoiding storage of and contact with toxic chemicals;
* Supporting your produce's highest flavor potential (many people believe organic fruits and veggies taste better than conventionally grown varieties);
* Preserving heritage plants by growing what's natural to your area;
* Enjoying the health and spiritual benefits of maintaining and taking pleasure in your garden and consuming more whole foods;
* Reducing waste and environmental damage from artificial fertilizer run-off;
* Conserving water and limiting soil erosion;
* Recycling herbicide-free organic garden matter, which reduces landfill;
* Delivering flavorful, pesticide-free fruits, vegetables, and herbs to your table.

Whatever your starting point, by following some simple guidelines, you’ll see more value from your home garden. First, we suggest buying and planting foods you really enjoy eating. Next, try focusing on high-yield fruits, vegetables, and herbs. Finally, it's best to work with varieties that flourish naturally in your climate and region.

Here are some tips for getting the highest, tastiest, most usable yield from your natural or organic garden:

Compost, Compost, Compost

Think of composting as a natural decomposition process that you’re helping push along. Using natural fertilizers not only saves you money, it allows your food and land to remain free of potentially toxic substances, improves soil texture, and helps save water. Compost naturally contains all the primary nutrients plants need, in forms they can easily absorb. It also helps drain away clay and bind looser, sandy soil, providing an optimal environment for your plants to flourish in.

Rich compost is composed of "green" (nitrogen-rich) and "brown" (carbon-rich) materials. Examples of green items are vegetarian kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, tea bags, and hair. Brown materials include old grass, dryer lint, shredded newspaper, and pet hamster bedding. It is best to keep the size of materials small or chop them prior to composting. Gardening supply stores carry composting bins, which allow you to monitor and adjust water, air, and temperature balances, but you can make your own bin or simply form a pile in your yard. You can even add certain worm species to your compost to facilitate decomposition. Best of all, most home gardeners can produce a nice, fertile batch of compost in just 3-4 weeks, at which point you just mix it with soil or use it as mulch.
When It Comes to Insecticides, Go Natural

Many people prefer to buy—and grow—organic produce because of concern over possible health effects of chemical insecticides. It may surprise you to know that, when it comes to controlling garden-eating pests, nature provides (for the most part).

For instance, certain flowers protect your produce by attracting pollinators, birds, frogs, lizards, and bugs that eat garden-consuming insects. Also, it's important to plant varieties appropriate to your area and manage watering effectively, as insects can flourish when an imbalance exists. Row covers, netting, and plant collars can serve as barriers to pest infestations. As a last resort, try sticky traps and pheromone lures for cutting back on pests without chemicals.

Plant for Climate and Region

Optimal planting times differ by region. For instance, cooler climes have shorter growing seasons, so crops like sweet potatoes and peanuts don’t have time to flourish. Full-size watermelons need at least three months of warmth—does your area offer a long summer? Find out ahead of time what grows best in your area—your garden will be the richer for it.

Mind Your Water

Conserving water is important in natural gardens, both from a cost and environmental-impact perspective. Water can come from several sources, including mains (tap) or rain. Rainwater is ideal for natural gardens in that it is generally freer of chemical contaminants and can easily be trapped in cisterns placed under gutters. Finally, there's "gray" water—water that has been used and trapped. Though opinions as to the safety of using gray water on consumable plants differ, there is general agreement that the freer the gray water is of detergents and soaps, the cleaner it is. Trapping gently used or soap-free household water is a great way to conserve, especially during drought, as is watering in the morning or evening, when less water is lost to evaporation.

In terms of plant choices, some veggies simply don't need as much water as others; okra, carrots, parsnips, mustard greens, spinach, chard, and tomatoes are examples of hardier vegetables.

Make a Move and Bring Plants Together

Crop rotation and companion planting are pillars of natural gardening. Rotating crops allows plants to pull different nutrients from the soil, producing hardier breeds and preventing blight from pests or disease. Also, as you harvest, plan on sowing seeds of quick growers and "cover" crops like radishes and lettuces to utilize every inch of empty space—another best-value method.

Companion planting, or crop pairing, is another way to get the most out of your organic garden. By planting certain plants together—corn, squash, and beans are such a "Three Sister" combo—you can fulfill the same goals as crop rotation, without as much effort.

Lean Toward the Copious

Here’s where we get down to brass tacks: Plant produce that produces, plain and simple. Tomatoes, squash, peppers, and eggplant generate many dishes’ worth of food in a single season. Strawberries and blueberries yield generously, and are relatively easy to keep disease- and pest-free if they’re planted in acidic, composted, well-drained soil, and pruned and watered attentively. By contrast, broccoli, cauliflower, and corn hog space and water and deliver much smaller yields.

Other high-value crops are cucumbers, green beans, zucchini, yellow crookneck and climbing squash, cantaloupe and other small melons, and Italian and Thai basil.

Also, ask your local gardening resource which plants are ever-bearing and can be planted vertically—again, these give you more value in terms of both yield and space allocation.
Plan for the Future

Some varieties of food, though not technically copious, store so well that they provide good value. Potatoes, for instance, are usually cheaper than, say, tomatoes, and, along with winter squash, cabbage, carrots, and other tubers, will keep for many months if stored in a cool, dark place.

Following these simple strategies can lead to a truly bountiful natural garden. Bon appétit!

Kim Green has written for Mother Jones, Los Angeles Magazine, The San Francisco Business Times, and Yoga Journal. She is also the author of three novels, most recently Live a Little. Kim lives in San Francisco and has not given up her dream of growing tomatoes.




May. 21st, 2009 09:33 pm (UTC)
Ooh! What are you planting!? Do share! And also, I love edible flowers on my salad.
May. 22nd, 2009 04:55 am (UTC)
Let's see so far I've planted...
basil, cherry peppers, cilantro, jalapeno peppers, oregano, parsley, rosemary, grape tomatoes, thyme and a flat and a half of pansies.

In the next few days I want to add...
chives, beets, larger tomatoes, lettuces/mixed greens, yellow (aka summer) squash, green onions, radishes and mint (in a container so it doesn't overtake the world.)

Plus, our house came with daylilies are also edible.


Doing it cheaply

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