Oh yeah, it’s been a brutal winter. It’s hard to think of spring planting, but depending on where you grow, it’s likely time (or past time) to get started growing food, especially if you’re starting seeds indoors. And if you’ve decided to make the investment of time and attention required to grow your own herbs and vegetables, you want them to flourish. It can be so disheartening when they don’t!
Case in point: Last year, we turned our backyard (which is mostly pool and patio) into a tiny urban farm. I learned how to fix sprinkler systems. I worked the soil. And I started seeds indoors, none of which ended up actually making it to the farm. Some crops thrived (okra in Texas grows faster than dogs chase cats). Others failed (no tomatoes, no peppers, corn experiment an epic fail).
But I’m determined to do better this year (dammit). I’m learning as I go, and I’m just getting started — a bit behind schedule despite my vehement determination not to be. As I research, plan, and plant our little urban farm, I’m going to share my journey with you here at Eat Drink Better. So if you want to start an urban farm this year, please join me on the trip! Sorry I’m late.
The Basics of Growing Food
If you’re like me, when you look at garden planning information, you’re overwhelmed. But I’ve learned some key high-level concepts new food growers need to understand from my 2014 urban farm adventures. Here they are…
What to Plant
Your local, independent garden store is priceless. It will stock the best herb and vegetable varieties for your area. Its staff will know when and how to grow food where you live. And they’ll probably have garden planning guides specific to your geographic location. Pick them up. Another good source of local food growing information is your agricultural extension office.
Some food grows best from seeds sown indoors and later moved to the garden. Some food grows best when sown directly in the garden once the soil temperature warms to the right level. If this is the case, you don’t need no stinkin’ seed-starting indoors. Seed. Ground. Done. (This is called “direct sowing.”) Some foods can be grown both ways, which complicates planning but gives you added flexibility. So should you buy seeds or plants? My take: Indoor seed-starting requires some attention and equipment, so if you’re new to growing food, you may want to skip that part the first year or two. Instead, I would buy seeds for those plants you can direct sow and plants (called transplants) for those that need to be started indoors.
A lesson I’ve learned from past efforts: If you’re a new grower, don’t go overboard. The more you plant, the more you must tend, and you can easily become overwhelmed by the work, which can lead to disappointing results.
Where to Plant
You can grow food in so many unique places! My backyard is mostly pool and deck. I have two long, thin beds edged by brick walls and a long, thin raised bed behind the pool. When we moved in, those beds were home to decorative shrubs — gardenias, photinias — things that grow well in Texas. Over the years, we’ve turned them all into herb and vegetable gardens. Last year, we even grew corn behind the pool.
Many herbs and vegetable plants are not just delicious, they’re also beautiful when they grow, so don’t limit them to the backyard. Consider planting herbs like thyme and sage as border plants around trees or shrubs. Plant rosemary — which can grow quite large — in place of decorative bushes. One of my neighbors even grew artichokes in their front yard as part of an area landscaped with non-edible plants. It was freakin’ beautiful.
You can grow herbs and many vegetables in containers, and you don’t have to limit yourself to the standard round pots. I’ve seen food growing in old suitcases, discarded tires, even old toilets. You can grow potatoes in trash cans (which we’ll be trying this year). A word of warning: Once you start looking, you will become obsessed with turning anything and everything into a planting container. Our sister site, Crafting a Green World, compiled this list of 18 ideas for your container gardening.
And vertical farming is now in vogue — and being considered part of the solution for feeding the world’s growing population. You can turn wooden pallets into herb gardens you hang on your wall. You can grow tomatoes upside down in hanging containers. You can even grow food in rain gutters hung from the roof.
Most importantly, herbs and veggies need enough light and the right amount of moisture to thrive. As long as they have the right conditions, where you plant is limited only by your imagination.
When to Plant
This can be tricky, because it’s not an exact science. That garden planning guide you picked up from your local independent garden center will help.
You need to know your average last frost date in the spring and your average first frost date in the fall. And I learned this can be confusing. Common knowledge in my area says my average last frost is in mid-March, and my average last frost is in mid-November. But after checking a few online sources, I found a variety of dates. Apparently “average” can mean many things. The National Weather Service’s Frost Charts provide dates and probabilities, giving you a better understanding of “average” frost dates in your location. In Dallas, there’s a 50% chance the temperature will drop below 32° on March 3rd. On March 28th, that risk drops to 10%. That’s good to know, but I’ll be keeping an eye on actual conditions and forecasts before I plant anything outside.
Your garden planning guide will tell you how many weeks before or after those frost dates you should start seeds indoors, sow them directly outdoors, or put transplants in the ground. You will likely have a range of weeks to consider in your scheduling. For example, I’m supposed to start tomato seeds indoors 6 to 8 weeks before my average last frost at the earliest, which means I was supposed to plant them in January. Crap.
If you’re concerned because you’ve already missed the planting dates for the season, don’t be! Those dates are the earliest you should start those seeds. Depending on the length of your growing season and how “average” your season is, you have some leeway. Or at least I’m hoping that’s what I’ll learn this year.
Keep notes on when you plant your seeds, if/when they begin to grow, and if/when they produce something you can eat. Those notes are nuggets of lessons-learned you’ll want to leverage for a better growing season next year.
But tho’ an old man, I am but a young gardener.
– Thomas Jefferson
I’ll be sharing pictures and stories of my urban farm’s progress and growth on our little bit of acreage. Thanks for joining me for the first steps. Any advice?
Image Credit: Mary Gerush