New to gardening? Don't worry. Growing your own food many seem daunting, especially if you have no experience, but it doesn't have to be complicated. The benefits of growing food yourself are numerous; you'll know exactly how the food you feed your family was grown and you'll cut out your food's carbon footprint at the same time, since it won't be traveling any number of miles to get to your plate.
To help demystify the process, we spoke with Greg Peterson, a gardening expert in Phoenix, Ariz. who has spent decades growing edibles in his yard and teaches gardening classes at Root Phoenix, an organization dedicated to community-driven education. We'll provide some simple steps to help you start gardening in your space and include some tips for making the most of your yard.
1. Before You Do Anything, Observe
If you've never done any gardening before, your first instinct might be to head over to a nursery or home improvement store and start purchasing items you think you may need. The most important thing before you do any of that, though, is to stop and observe where you'll be growing food.
"Get out and sit in your space. Walk in your space, take your shoes off, see what's there to observe because there's so much there to see," Greg Peterson said. "Observations are the things that will allow you to have a successful garden."
One of the basic tenets of permaculture, the agricultural system that addresses sustainability and the interdependence of human and natural ecosystems, is observation. This means you need to have an understanding of what is happening in your yard - or on your porch or patio - in order to successfully grow food. Peterson also pointed out that it is advantageous to look beyond your space and see what other people are growing in your neighborhood or city and whether they are seeing success. The world is full of gardeners, so you don't need to reinvent the wheel. Other people's experience may be able to give you a foundation for where to begin.
So what exactly are you supposed to be observing? Peterson laid out some of the basic things he teaches in one of his gardening classes for us to consider, which are simple enough for even novice gardeners to understand.
2. Consider the Sun
First, be like a plant and look to the sun. The sun provides light and heat, and both of those things will have a big impact on anything you're growing.
"There are different microclimates in your yard," Peterson explained. "Microclimates are small climates and they can be five, ten, fifteen, thirty degrees different in temperature. You may have one part of your yard that faces west that in the summertime just cooks, but in the wintertime is great for growing tomatoes because it's a warmer microclimate."
Different types of plants may require a different balance of sun and shade, but in general, try to find areas with plenty of light. The sun is important because plants need a lot of light to make fruits and vegetables, and for that reason planting in a north-facing area can be problematic.
3. Think About the Soil
Once you've assessed the sun situation, you'll need to think about what you're going to grow those plants in. "I tell people that your job as an urban gardener, farmer, grower of food is to create healthy soil," Peterson said. "If you get healthy soil, you're going to get healthy plants."
The dirt in your area may be compacted, so you will probably need to add some essential components to help your plants grow. Good soil has air, water and living organisms in it. To achieve this mixture, you need to add organic material like compost, which adds microbes and microorganisms to the soil. If you compost at home, feel free to add your own compost. You can also buy compost or add other organic material from your yard such as dead leaves, which make good top mulch and help hold in moisture, Peterson explained. Purchasing potting soil at your local gardening or home improvement store is another option, and you can add a few inches of it on top of the dirt in your yard. Peterson said this is a great trick because the roots of the plants you put in your garden will break down the dirt for you without requiring you to do any digging.
4. The Plants (and Planting Season)
Once you have a handle on your growing space, you need to figure out what to grow when. Sure, you could head over to a nursery and purchase whatever is available, but that probably won't yield the best produce. Doing some research about your region is essential. "Every urban area in the country has a planting calendar," Peterson said. "It's usually available through a county cooperative extension."
For example, Texas A&M Agrilife Extension offers a spring planting calendar for vegetables. A planting calendar for Phoenix is available on Peterson's website, so check with gardening and agricultural organizations in your area for information specific to you.
Generally, you'll want to keep in mind that there are cold season crops and warm season crops. If you plant the wrong plants during the wrong season, it's unlikely you'll end up with much food to eat because conditions won't be conducive to the plants producing fruits and vegetables. Also, keep in mind that you should grow produce you'll want to eat. Having an overabundance of cabbage if you don't like cabbage probably isn't the best use of your time, space and resources.
5. Choose Seeds Wisely
After you've figured out what you should be planting, you need to choose seeds. You have two types to choose from; hybrids and heirlooms. Hybrid seeds are the product of cross-pollinating two different types of a plant to produce a third variety, often with some desirable characteristic. (Hybrid seeds are different from genetically-modified seeds, which are altered in a laboratory using molecular genetic engineering techniques). Heirloom seeds are open-pollinated, meaning they are pollinated by insects, birds or the wind. The practical difference for you is that with plants grown from heirloom seeds, you can let the plants flower, go to seed and then collect the seeds for planting next year, while with hybrid plants, the seeds you collect will not always grow into new plants.
"I always recommend that you plant heirloom or open-pollinated seeds in your yard," Peterson said. "I have arugula, jerusalem artichokes, parsley. They go to seed every year and all of a sudden I have parsley just growing here or there. They become self-replicating in your yard so you're not having to replant them."
Now that you're armed with knowledge of your space, how to prepare it and what to plant, it's time to get outside and try gardening. Make some soil, get some seeds and start growing your own food. You might have a season or two (or three or four) where your harvest doesn't turn out the way you'd expected, but eventually you'll start learning the tricks for your space.
"Really the bottom line of gardening is it's a grand experiment. I can tell you want works for me, I can share with you what I've got, I can give you the tools, but then you just have to go out and experiment," Peterson said.