Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Growing Your Own Food: But Were Afraid To Ask

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The current food system in the US makes everyone want to grow their own food!

There are other motivating factors to growing your own food. Maybe you want to garden because want to pass this lost art down to your kids. Perhaps you want grow your own food because your garden would be a guaranteed source of food for you and your family. Possibly you just want food full of nutrients and free of chemicals. There are a ton of reasons why you should grow your own food.

And everyone says how easy and enjoyable gardening can be.

But a few nagging questions have been holding you back: Don’t I need a lot of land? Can I grow rhubarb and oranges in my area or will neither grow? Why is soil important? Do plants need more than sun and water to grow? How can I grow organically when my plants have bugs? Why are there 100 varieties of tomatoes in seed catalogs and only 3 at the grocery store? and How am I going to know when the plants need something; they can’t talk?

Gardening is one of the hardest “easy” things to do!

Let me explain. I will be the first to tell you I am not an expert. Few people are truly Master Gardeners no matter what their resume says. Granted some of us are better than others but gardening has so many variables that the masters can really only offer ideas. No one knows your garden’s soil, sun exposure, mixture of plants, irrigation, and weather patterns better than you.

Gardening is easy! There really is nothing difficult about putting seeds into soil. But it is huge; you are managing living things which are predictable but vulnerable, kind of like kids but for a much shorter period of time and on a bigger scale. Another difference is instead of one or two kids you have twenty, or fifty, or more plants, if you are lucky. It is a lot to keep up with since each one can have its own set of issues.

A lot of experience, research, intuition, knowledge and love are required to be a good gardener and grow your own food! But just like being a parent, if you take it one day at a time it is manageable, fun and rewarding.

There are tons of blog posts on the internet and articles in magazines that will tell you how to grow bigger, better tomatoes (In case you have not guessed, more gardeners grow tomatoes more than any other plant. Gardeners take tomatoes very seriously!), or how to start square foot gardening, or how to build a raised bed.

If you have never planted a seed in your life, most people will tell you to start by planting a seed and watching it grow. Yes, that is a great idea and I do recommend you do that, right now, today just to get your hands in the dirt, but it is like telling someone who wants to write a novel to start by writing the alphabet. You want more than five tomatoes this season right?

So let me address some of those nagging questions that keep you from having the kind of garden where you can grow your own food. This season you can grow 20% of your fresh vegetables and 80% of your herbs, maybe more. Maybe you will even have enough to put-up. It is completely obtainable and doable! Let me knock out those nagging questions one at a time and give you a little knowledge, hopefully a little confidence and with a little luck help you develop your intuition.

Don’t I Need A Lot of Land?

The short answer is NO!

You just need a place to keep some dirt. That can be a container, a raised bed or a small patch of dirt in your yard. As your thumb gets greener you can expand and if you do not have a lot of land then you can encourage your plants to grow vertically.

To eventually grow 50 to 60% of your food you will need more land. If you live in an apartment or townhome and have no land, then yes, you will need more land. But if you live on at least 1/8 of an acre (house included) then maybe not. Of course this depends on the size of your family, your growing seasons, and the laws in your city (some cities or homeowners associations do not allow you to grow vegetables or fruit in the front yard). I highly recommend you read The Backyard Homestead: Produce all the food you need on just a quarter acre.

Can I Grow Rhubarb And Oranges In My Area Or Will Neither Grow?

Not knowing what grows well in your area (find your zone here) can be discouraging, especially when you find this information out after you have already planted seeds or seedlings.

Most people make this mistake because they plant what they like to eat not knowing how the plant will fair in their climate. It is important to plant what you like! However, it is more important to actually have the food grown and ready to eat when you need it. Do not get me wrong, definitely start out with things you like; if you do not like tomatoes but like spaghetti then you can plan to make spaghetti sauce with your tomatoes. Although this might be your ultimate goal it might not be obtainable the first season; gardening books do not tell you that!

Also, something to consider since we’re talking about growing and then putting-up vegetables: not all those tomatoes will be ripe at the same time. For now, though, we are just talking about getting enough tomatoes to throw on a salad. Most seed packets give instructions about zones and planting times.

One of the easiest ways to find out what really does well in your area is to go to the plant nursery and see what seedlings they have for sale; they stock plants that grow well in the area where they are located. Of course talking to gardening friends is a good way to get this information too. For your first gardening season plant only things that you know will do well in your zone. If you do not like to eat any of them, you may choose to give them away, but at least you will have fresh ripe produce in your hands that you need to figure out what to do with and not a bunch of dead plants.

Why Is Soil Important?

The biggest learning curve for most gardeners, especially organic gardeners, is understanding the importance of soil. It is a science. As in, you have to be a scientist to understand all of it.

Luckily, you really do not need to understand all of it to have good soil. Nature does most of the work, and like everything in nature plants want to grow and thrive and are continually seeking equilibrium. In other words, it is hard to mess it up and if something does get out of whack it is usually simple to fix. This is a great book to start learning about soil.

You just need to be able to spot a few things. I highly recommend making your own compost. It is super easy, but do not try it the first year. The first year you should just buy some organic top soil. It will be the most expensive thing you buy for your garden, but for the first year it is worth it because it allows you to focus on your plants.

Do Plants Need More Than Sun And Water To Grow?

Yes, plants actually need food. Most plants get a large amount of their food from the soil. That is why soil is so important! However, your plants might need a boost for blooming and for growing. So a good understanding of what fertilizer does is important. Visit The Dirt Doctor for a ton of resources on organic fertilizer.

Once you understand fertilizer you will have a better understanding of composting, so it makes sense to plan to start composting after you have read a few books on soil and fertilizer. I recommend using an additional fertilizer the first year you grow your own food, because you do not know the history of your soil. Good soil takes years to develop so while you are building up your soil with good gardening practices you will need to give your plants a little help in the first few years.

How Can I Grow Organically When My Plants Have Bugs?

There are natural pesticides but sometimes they are not so good for the plants or you either. This issue is what I consider a black hole of gardening. I will not eat something that has pesticide on it. Ok, let me rephrase that – I will not eat something I have put pesticide on (I do not always buy organic, and yes, I have a bad case of denial, and yes I know, USA certified organic does not mean pesticide free). I have not found a comprehensive book, website, program or other such packaged advice on how to deal with pests. Of course, figuring out what type of pest you have and then treating for that pest is the key, but I have not found a good bug resource.

That being said there are still some things you can do! The best way to treat for pests is do it naturally with other beneficial insects that eat the pests you have. One school of thought is that your plants will be disease and pest resistant because the soil is so healthy. While this may be true for diseases, I have never found it to be true for bugs. The bugs eat my plants no matter how healthy or unhealthy they are. I do live on a small lot so it is impossible for me to teat neighbors’ yards and this might be a contributing factor.

The next best way to protect your plants from pests is to go out and pick them off yourself. This is time consuming and sometimes downright gross but it really is beneficial for you and the plant, as you get a firsthand knowledge of the bug’s behavior: numbers, hiding places, plants affected, etc. If those things do not work you might try food grade Diatomaceous Earth sprinkled at the base of the plant. It might not help with flying insects but it will do a great job on other pests like grasshoppers. There are ton of recipes for natural pest control, however, I have found the only tried and true method is experimenting.

There is no right or wrong! There is no method that works every time, all the time! Over time you can acquire some knowledge and put it in your gardening “bag of tricks” but there are no guarantees! Pests are the enemy!

Why Are There 100 Varieties Of Tomatoes In Seed Catalogs And Only 3 At The Grocery Store?

This is one of the reasons you are growing your own food. You can grow many more varieties than what is in the grocery store. Your food will taste better and have more nutrients than the food in the store. Pick varieties that will grow well in your zone and look forward to the diversity. If you are not interested in saving seeds (and you don’t need to be for your first gardening year), you might want to start with a hybrid variety. I go into detail about hybrid, heirloom, and GMO seeds here.

How Am I Going To Know When The Plants Need Something; They Can’t Talk?

Well, the funny thing is that plants do tell you what they need, they just do not use spoken language.

If you can tell the difference between a living plant and a dead plant you have the general idea. A healthy plant has a different color, texture, girth, and aroma than a dead plant.

So these are the things to keep an eye on. If you see a change in any of them you need to figure out why the change has occurred. I am oversimplifying it a bit, after all they are living growing things and some changes are natural and expected, but keeping a close eye on the things I mentioned and noticing why they are happening will do great things for your gardening education.

As you watch your plants grow from seedlings to adults you will understand their life cycle, so when thing start going wrong you will notice sooner. It is like when your first child starts sneezing and you are not sure if they have a cold, by the time the third child comes along you are able to make a faster diagnosis because you have seen the symptoms before. This is the same thought process with plants only the seasons are shorter and so you gain this experience a lot faster.

  • Kim K says:

    Great article! I’m only a few years in to gardening but it’s been overall intuitive and amazing (which this coming from a girl who couldn’t keep a hanging flower basket alive a few years ago). You are very right you just have to listen to your plants.

    I am by no means an expert gardener I’m still learning from mistakes every year, but here are some additional lessons learned:

    1. Black Cow manure or another variety (home depot type stores). Mix it very well into your soil and I usually use one bag per 25 Sq feet (I also use raised beds so I have a foot of soil above ground) amazing stuff and it attracts the best thing ever WORMS!

    2. Worms – find worms and throw them in your soil. They are your friends for gardening. Dont go crazy as they will come up from the ground, but if it rains and some are laying about throw them in there and cover them up. Slugs although like worms.. not your friend learned that quickly once.

    3. Mulch the top of your garden. Try to use just plain wood chips or straw. I don’t really recommend color chips because of the dyes but the cheap bland stuff works great. I put about an inch-ish over the soil and it keeps it moist and cool during really hot days.

    4. Neem oil – Some people don’t like it but it is one of the safer options for pests depending on the type. It’s oil base and deters bugs. I notice it works great on some plants but each plant can have it own bug (unfortunately it does not deter the bunnies who love my eggplants).

    5. Water at dusk or dawn. Alot of sites tell you this but it has been very beneficial for me to do so. If you water before or after high sun it can burn your plants or even evaporate before they even get it.

    6. Gutters -I saw this cool pinterest thing where they hung gutters on the side of their house for herbs. Some herbs I found out need more pots for deeper roots where as others thrived (oregano, thyme). Last year I tried chilli peppers and lettuces, which worked great and was elevated from those pesky rabbits.

    My neighbors might think I’m crazy but I actually like tending to the garden at dusk/night. I like to plant the seedling plants I got from the farmers market at night. Its cooler and the soil is damp so I think it’s an easy transition then hot soil from the sun beating down on it. Although the neighbors never seem to complain when I bring them “csa” baskets.

    Good luck this year!

    • Jennifer Osuch says:

      Hi Kim,

      I thought I was the only one who liked to go out at dusk to tend the garden!! It’s so peaceful then too. I hope you have a great harvest this year!!

  • Mike the Gardener says:

    Jennifer, your first line “The current food system in the US makes everyone want to grow their own food!” says it all … With the amount of chemicals they pump into everything, it’s a wonder we are all still alive. Or am I just being a bit paranoid? Who knows.

    `The tips I always like to give to new gardeners are:
    1] Grow what you like to eat – You will not stay in gardening for long if you are growing a bunch of things you don’t eat.

    2] Start small – Maintaining a large garden can be a lot of work when you are new as you have not mastered all the little tips that add up to easier gardening.

    3] Keep your garden in sight – I can see my gardens right out my back door. It’s the first thing I look at in morning. Ok second, my alarm clock is the first. You get the point. If it’s out of sight, it will be out of mind.

    I do like that you touched on soil. It is the foundation. Without good soil, you aren’t growing much, if anything at all.

  • LOVE it. But I still have a brown thumb. And black walnuts that drive me NUTS!!!! help please!

  • Diane Young says:

    Hi Jennifer, You have some great information. Organics is the basic for good health. We are fortunate to live on a four acre spot where we grow most of our vegetables, and preserve much of it for the winter months as we live in zone 7, so there are a few months we are not gardening, except for a few cool weather crops. I try to talk someone who had never gardened into starting a compost pile and planting at least one plant in the soil it makes. They get excited. So thanks for the inspiration. Spring can’t get here soon enough. 🙂

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