I admit it…I’m a reluctant suburbanite. If I had it my way, our family would live in a little hundred-year old farm house on a few of acres. There would be a chicken coop, a couple of goats, a milk cow and (if my girls had a say in the matter) a horse grazing off in the distance. I’d have a huge garden, some fruit trees, and probably a hive of bees as well. None of us would wear shoes very often, and I’d spend afternoons pegging laundry out on the line or canning raspberry jam while the kids picked wildflowers.
Reality? Is a little different. We’re right in the middle of where I thought I’d never be: Suburban Life, including the minivan parked in the driveway. The good news is, it’s still possible to fulfill dreams of farm life in the suburbs! City farming is becoming more and more popular, and it’s a great way to help curb the costs of things like organic vegetables and eggs. I don’t claim to be any sort of expert, but I’ve been keeping a kitchen garden for years now and if I can do it, you can too!
The Right Garden for You
A kitchen garden can be as easy or as involved as you’d like it to be. Do you live in an apartment? A container garden is a great place to start. If you’re like me and don’t have an area that lends itself well to an in-ground garden, then you can build some simple boxes for a raised bed garden. Do you have a big enough yard that you could devote part of it to an in-ground garden? There are lots of ideas on how to make a water-wise, in-ground vegetable garden, and you can landscape it creatively in order to make it as beautiful as it is functional. Are you the adventurous type? Try straw bale gardening! You can grow vegetables and flowers on up to 5 sides of a bale of straw (and, it has the advantage of being dirt-free. Weird, but true!). There are a million ways to grow your own organic vegetables and fruit, and a vegetable garden (whether it’s in containers, garden boxes, or a part of your landscape) adds a beautiful as well as edible factor to your outdoor space.
The Front-Yard Garden
In our case, we had limited sunlight in our back yard and very poor soil. I was not ready to give up on the idea of having a kitchen garden, however, so I decided to be brave and put my box gardens in the front yard instead! It was not the easiest decision, because in our neighborhood we have uniform, nice green front lawns that consist mainly of grass. However, because we live in an a fairly arid climate I have always felt bad about watering very much grass, especially when it’s not used much for running around barefoot. My front yard was just sitting there sucking up water…why not use that space for growing vegetables? It’s a good idea to check with the city before you undertake a project like this, because in many places there are rules about what you can and cannot do in your front yard. Our city didn’t have a rule against it, and our neighbors were OK with the idea, so we went ahead with the project. We built five raised beds, four that are 6 foot by 3 foot rectangles and one that’s 3 feet by 3 feet. They aren’t fancy or anything, but they do the trick. Gradually, we’ll be landscaping around the boxes…making a brick pathway between them, and naturalizing the area around them to include both edible landscaping and low-maintenance flowers. In the meantime, we’ve got a functional garden that taps into the existing sprinkler system to water our vegetables using easy to install drip lines. Our box gardens are not perfect, and they aren’t in the best shape this year. I’m getting my plants in far later than I’d like and I still have a lot of work to do…but I wanted to share it with you anyway because honestly, if I can do this, you can too. It’s a learning experience that gets better with every year!
What to Plant
What you put in your organic vegetable garden depends on what you like to eat and what will grow in your area. Check for local garden clubs, community gardens, and community education classes for information about gardening where you live. Universities and 4-H extensions are also good places to get information about gardening. An excellent free tool for helping you plan your garden as well as learn more about the different plants you plan to grow can be found at gardeners.com.
This year, we are growing basil, rosemary, chives and garlic in our small garden bed. One of the large beds contains a salsa garden, with tomato plants, cilantro, and many kinds of peppers. Another bed has kale, Swiss chard, and Brussels sprouts. We have one bed designated for root crops (potatoes, carrots, radishes) and another for cucumbers, squash and melons. In the past we’ve started plants from seeds, but we’ve found that it’s easier for our family to purchase larger plants (since we often end up getting a late start, like we did this year). You can find organic plants at natural food stores, or better yet at farmer’s markets. We’ve discovered that herbs are often cheaper when you buy the potted kind in the produce section at the store rather than at a plant nursery!
Some Helpful Hints
The topic of gardening is so vast, there’s no way one article can cover it all! Here are some quick hints for getting started on your own organic kitchen garden:
1. It’s all about the dirt. Make sure you mend your soil with compost, steer manure, and mulch. Check the sources for these things, however, because you don’t want to add any chemicals or toxins to your garden!
2. If you’re just starting out, buy established plants rather than trying to start the plants from seeds or from tiny seedlings. It’s frustrating to start your plants from seeds in February, only to have the healthy-looking plants go belly-up from transfer shock in May. Until you’re comfortable growing and transferring tiny plants, it’s not a bad idea to spend the extra on established ones.
3. Cover your garden with a nice layer of mulch to help prevent weeds and keep in moisture. Make sure it’s organic! Many of the woodchip-type mulch products on the market contain chemicals and dyes that you don’t want on your food.
4. Use all-natural fertilizers like epsom salt, natural compost (you can make this yourself with kitchen and lawn scraps) and other natural fertilizers you can make yourself (here are 10 types of homemade fertilizer you can try).
5. If you end up with a pest problem, there are lots of ways to get rid of bad bugs without sacrificing your organic produce. You can fight fire with fire, by purchasing bugs that will eat away your pest problem. Some added bonuses to ordering bugs is that it’s a fun and educational project for your family (who isn’t fascinated by watching the life cycle of predatory insects like the ladybug or the preying mantis?) and releasing them into your neighborhood will help the whole area out as these beneficial bugs reproduce in the wild. Or, if bugs are not your thing, you can try some of these organic homemade recipes for safe pesticide and fungicide.
6. Don’t be afraid to jump in and try it! I’ve shared my less-than-Pinterest-worthy garden with you, to prove that you don’t have to have it all together right at this minute in order to start growing your own yummy organic produce. Whether you head out to your back yard and dig up a 400 square foot garden (actually probably not my top recommendation for your first year of gardening) or buy a couple of nice big containers for your deck and fill them up with heirloom tomatoes, you can get started today! By the end of the summer, you’ll know the joy of eating fresh, organic veggies that you grew yourself…and if you’re like me, as you pick the last of this year’s garden you’ll already be planning next year’s in your mind.
What about you?
Do you garden? Container, raised-bed, or in ground? Have you got any questions or tips to share? Let’s share our ideas and knowledge here, one of the best things about gardening is that it’s a skill best passed on from backyard gardener to backyard gardener!