Grow Your Own Food

by Jessica Brita-Segyde

Food is life. Growing your own food is empowering. You can start big or small – anywhere from a few ingredients to total self-sufficiency. You get to choose your level of commitment. You could grow a few herbs and learn to dry them for the winter months, or you could farm ¼ acre per person, add a chicken coup and live completely off the grocery grid.

Where to start? First, decide how much space you have for agricultural use. Smaller city lots may only have a few square feet which means you’ll need to go cubic. In other words, build upward with trellises, pots, and/or shelves. Decks and rooftops are fair game here. The important thing is to start somewhere and know that you CAN do this.

Now for the fun part – planning your garden. You’ll want to have a journal handy so you can keep detailed notes throughout your growing adventures.

The Soil

Get a soil test. This is an important step so don’t just phone it in on this one! Healthy soil includes a proper balance of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Balanced soil allows deep infiltration of water, strong root systems, and healthy plants. Soil is a living, dynamic substance and getting this step right (or wrong) will make or break your gardening prowess. Plus, the top layer of earth provides a living space for the mycorrhizal fungi that pull carbon from our atmosphere. The healthier your soil, the more carbon you can sequester. (source: Kiss the Ground by Josh Tickell)

Soil testing can be done by a professional or you can purchase a DIY kit. Your local extension office may offer soil testing for a fee. An extension office, also known as a Cooperative Extension Office, is a quasi-governmental group of master gardeners affiliated with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). They’re everywhere. You can Google the term to find the office closest to you. The testing fee is warranted because of the expert advice that comes with the test. Master gardeners know their stuff! If you want to keep the cost under $20 and do your own testing, you can still get a good read on your soil’s quality. The big box stores like Home Depot sell home test kits. Depending on the results of your test, you may need to adjust your soil quality by adding nutrients. Compost, manure, and coffee grounds are natural sources of nitrogen. Banana peels and seaweed contain potassium. Phosphorus is a bit trickier so be sure to follow the directions precisely when adding this element, which is available as bone meal. And enjoy the fact that tilling nutrients into your soil is a natural form of exercise. Fitness and gardening go hand-in-hand.

The Menu

Now that the dirt is ready, decide what to plant. If you’ve had luck with certain plants in the past, then by all means plant those varieties again. You may want to consider planting them in a different spot than last year, though. Crop rotation is beneficial to the soil and can help to prevent insect infestations.

Next, consider the following categories as you plan your yearly menu:

  • Grains – You’ll need a large amount of space if you decide to start a grain patch. Wheat comes in different varieties that can be planted in the spring or fall. Barley and rye are popular cooking grains. Corn, spelt, and millet are great options for a gluten-free diet. A little research may be necessary here if you’ve never processed grains at home. Find out what it means to thresh, winnow, and mill your harvest. The vocabulary sounds a bit intimidating, but it’s not rocket science. You can even buy a residential-sized mill on Amazon.
  • Fruits – Fruits grow on trees, vines, or bushes. Berries are a good place to start. If you have room for an orchard, it may take a few years before your trees mature enough to produce. Consider natural pest repellants and physical pest removal over chemical sprays. The Rodale Institute offers practical advice regarding organic pest management.
  • Vegetables – Most home gardeners are all-vegetable. Your options are endless here and you can pack a great amount of nutrition into small growing spaces. Start with what you know and expand into new flavors one season at a time. According to a 2011 article by NPR, the typical American diet requires about 417 pounds of vegetables per year – so don’t be shy with your greens!
  • Protein -Do you have space for nut trees? How about a chicken coup? Beans are also a good source of protein and their basic requirements tend to be simple.
  • Pollinator-friendly plants – Be sure to invite the butterflies and bees. Consider a beehive if you’re ready to invest time and energy into a new craft. Bees will help to pollinate your garden, plus you can harvest their honey.

How to Plant

Next, decide where and how to plant. Burying seeds in the ground seems the most natural, but many home agriculture enthusiasts build raised beds. A raised bed involves wood or even reclaimed items like railroad ties or landscape stones. Raising a bed and filling it with soil allows the gardener more control over soil quality and hydration. Trellises, pots, shelves, and even a small greenhouse might be good choices depending on your climate and space. For step-by-step instructions on how to build garden structures, check out the 2010 book Mini Farming by Brett L. Markham.

Planting techniques differ depending on the crop, location, and climate. Consult the experts at your local nursery or plant center regarding everything they sell you. Now would be a great time to break out that journal and take some notes! Most people who work at plant centers are gardening enthusiasts and they have a wealth of information to offer. You’ll want to inquire about spacing, watering/irrigation, time to harvest, sun requirement, and complimentary crops.

Also, be prepared to consult your local garden center on pest management, weed prevention, and natural fungicides (if needed). Good soil should keep these nuisances manageable, but some years bring more challenges than others. Chemical sprays as a form of crop protection should be a last resort.

Preserving

If you play your cards right, you’ll harvest more than you can eat in one season. Preserving food for the long winter months is a rite of passage into self-sufficiency. Popular methods include canning, dehydrating, and freezing. Utilizing a dry cellar to store root vegetables is also an option if you have space in your basement.

Canning is a great option for prepared foods such as salsa, marinara, pickled vegetables, and bean salad. Home canning supplies include jars with sealing lids, a large boiling pot, and proper utensils like this set from Roots & Harvest. The total buy-in for canning supplies is around $100 (new) but it’s a one-time purchase.

Dehydrating works well for most fruits and vegetables. There are many dehydrators on the market and they’re available at places like Target and Walmart, also for around $100. You may also want to invest in a vacuum sealer like the FoodSaver. Vacuum-sealing after dehydrating helps keep the water from finding its way back in, thereby extending shelf life.

Vacuum sealing also compliments freezing to extend freshness. Some things freeze well and some don’t, so consult other gardeners for their advice. Meat freezes well and so does uncooked bread dough. Check the USDA’s website for safe freezing tips. Most vegetables require blanching or steaming before they will freeze properly. Berries can go straight from the harvest to the freezer, though you should rinse and sort them first.

Just Start Somewhere

Wow, that was a lot of information in one blog. Farming a whole menu can seem overwhelming at the start. The important thing is to just start somewhere. It may take a few seasons before you pick perfect strawberries in June or enjoy crisp broccoli in December. But every step you take in this regard is a good step. Growing your own food puts nutrition into your body and takes carbon out of the atmosphere. It’s a win-win…so what are you waiting for?

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