Sykesville Community Garden

Six Great Reasons to Grow Your Own Food

My dad starting his garden

I miss my dad. He was a great cook and a great gardener. We lived in Massachusetts. The season was short, but he made the most of it. And there was nothing I liked more as a little girl than “helping” my dad. He always welcomed my help, probably more because he wanted my company than any assistance I might have provided, and even then I knew someday I would have a garden of my own and maybe he could help me the way I helped him. Maybe he could even teach me the secrets.

Well, it didn’t work out that way. So I’ve had to learn on my own. And it turns out that growing your own food isn’t really that complicated. Especially if you start small and don’t let the details overwhelm you. And so I did, and each year I get a little better.

You should try it. The benefits of fresh food from your own garden far outweigh anything that might be holding you back. Sure, maybe you think it’s too complex or you don’t have the time, and is it really worth all that work anyway? And besides, how do you get started? And isn’t it cheaper to just go to the store and buy it? Besides, you might not even have room to start your your own little farm.

But give me a chance and maybe I can convince you to grow your own food. Whether your parents passed on the gardening bug or you never gave it a thought before, there are several reasons why growing your own food is a fantastic idea and easier than you think.

Sykesville Community Garden

Reason 1: You can make your garden as simple and small as you like.

You choose the size and level of difficulty, and you can change it every year. Don’t know what to grow? It can be as simple as knowing what recipes you like.

Least land and commitment: Join a community garden. If you live in Sykesville, we have one on the Town House lawn (pictured above). It’s called the Sykesville ‘Eileen M. Merkle’ Community Garden. Go on the designated work days and learn from a Master Gardener as you help dig, plant, and harvest. The next work day is May 14 at 10 am. Come anytime and weed or water the garden on your own, and pick some ripe veggies and fruits. If you don’t have a community garden nearby, offer to help a more experienced friend or neighbor who gardens, in exchange for experience and some of the harvest.

Potted tomato plants in the garden

Requires a small sunny area and a little research:  Get a few large pots and bags of potting soil. Peruse the seeds and starter plants available at a local nursery. At a nursery like Buppert’s or Sun Nurseries, the staff can help you choose plants or seeds that will thrive in a pot. Keep the pots close by a door so you can easily watch, water, and harvest. Tomatoes and herbs grow great in containers.

Plant tomatoes side by side with marigolds and basil. The marigolds help ward off pests, and the basil goes great with fresh-picked tomatoes. Add another pot or two with some hot peppers and cilantro and you’ll be able to whip up a quick batch of fresh salsa whenever you like. Herbs don’t take up much room and are easy to grow. Thyme, oregano, parsley, and dill are more good choices. A recent trend is a salad table, which lets you easily care for a small crop of spring or fall lettuce without getting down on your knees.

More advanced and more work: A nice garden plot can be any size or shape. Find the sunny part of your yard and dig a narrow plot along the fence. Dig down as deep as you can – six to eight inches. Use a rototiller if you have one, just this first time, especially if your soil is very hard. If you have the typical heavy clay Maryland soil, it’s likely more alkaline than acidic, and peat moss or other organic matter will help with that, while also breaking the clay down into a finer, better draining mix.

Add a few bags of good quality soil and some peat moss and compost purchased from a nursery or Home Depot. If you want to get more technical or test for safety, you can have the local farm extension test the soil and recommend ways to improve it. However, I’ve found that the predominantly clay and rock soil around here becomes quite workable with the additions I just mentioned. The University of Maryland Extension service has recommendations on preparing your soil.

Two feet by four would be sufficient for a couple of tomato plants and some basil. If you’re ambitious, plan to make pickles and add two more feet planted with cucumber vines and dill. Add another couple feet and you’ll have room for green beans. Bush beans are easy to grow.

My raised garden beds

Even better: I really love my small raised beds (pictured above). I have two, each around the size of a dinner table, at 4 x 6 feet. I created them with guidance from my favorite gardening book, The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible by Edward C. Smith. Because I dug down at least six inches and then added 6 inches of soil above it, when creating my raised beds, my plants are able to extend their roots even further into richer soil than they would otherwise. This lets me plant closer together than in an ordinary garden.

Reason 2: It’s never too late to start.

There’s always something you can plant. Check the back of a packet of seeds to see all you really need to know about when and how to seed. I have a seed packet of Burpee mesclun salad mix and another of arugula that says that I can sow directly into soil between April and June or August and September in our part of the country. It’s a bit late for the spinach I also bought, so perhaps I’ll save that until August or September.

If it’s too late in spring to sow directly in the ground, there’s still a chance you can find starter plants at the local Southern States or other supplier. I often have no plan at all, and just buy whatever starter plants I happen to find. It’s easier than starting seeds inside during the winter. There are lots of seeds you can sow directly in the soil, and plant little by little as summer progresses. In other words, you plant a row or two of beans now. And then again in a week or two. This way, your bean harvest is staggered.

Even if you missed the first date to sow cooler weather seeds, you can start fall crops of salad greens, broccoli, and cauliflower during the late summer. You can start squash, beans, and cucumber seeds in the ground in late July to harvest in fall. Other varieties can be started late too. Tomatoes are best planted at the beginning of the summer, but they will keep growing into the fall in Maryland. I’ve had perfectly fine results with a tall scraggly leftover plant found on sale and planted in mid-June. I am not saying it’s the best way to do it, but it’s not impossible, if you’re running late.

Garden tomato

Reason 3: It doesn’t have to be expensive. In fact you can save money.

Sure, you can spend hundreds of dollars creating an amazing raised garden, stocked with shiny new tools. In the long run, if you stick with it, gardening will save you money. To save money now, forgo the luxuries and get only what you really need. Some seeds or plants, some dirt and that rusty old shovel that’s already hanging in your shed.

The crops that give you the most for your money are also the easiest to grow: greens like lettuce and spinach, tomatoes, squash, zucchini, cucumbers, peppers, green beans, and herbs. For less than the average trip to Martins or Safeway, you can get these all started and they’ll provide food for months. Just keep picking. Most of these will produce even better if you’re sure to remove just-ripe fruit or veggies before they or the plants mature. Even lettuce will quickly replenish itself if you stick to the leafy varieties.

If you grow more zucchini than you know what to do with, or the tomatoes pile high, you can always share with friends and neighbors. Or let the kids sell them at their lemonade stand. If you know how, can the extras for gift-giving later in the year or for yourself. Or freeze. Many fruits and veggies freeze well, and with a simple Google search you’ll find the best method for each type. You can try dehydrating and you can even dry your spices, which saves a bundle over the little jars from the store and tastes way better.

Reason 4: The basics are easy; learn the rest through experience

What’s the worst that can happen? Well, your plants can wilt or die or just sort of fizzle. But you’ll learn from it. Consider it part of your education, some good outdoor exercise, and besides, chances are good, you’ll least get a tomato or two, and it will taste way better than anything at the store.

And needless to say, it’s more fun if you get your kids involved. They can learn about the lifecycle of plants and the symbiotic relationships between earth, plant, and animal. They can learn to care for and tend to living organisms. Or at least how to put down the phone and work a shovel.

Plus, you’ll be a great role model with your sweaty face and muddy knees, a source of wisdom, inspiration, and maybe a bit of good-natured mockery. They may laugh at you now, but someday they’ll remember you fondly with your big hat and grubby fingers and start gardening on their own, just like I remember my dad.

You’ll gain confidence as you go. As you tend your garden, you’ll get smarter. You may even discover you have a talent for it. Or that it doesn’t take that much talent at all, just the ability to dig and watch and think and research and ask questions and slowly learn from your screw-ups, your dead plants and bountiful harvests.

Green thumbs are not born, they’re created.

Garden harvest

Reason 5: Avoid pesticides. Grow organics.

Chances are you’ve heard of the Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen. EWG studied 48 fruits and vegetables for their levels of pesticide. The Dirty Dozen have the highest levels of pesticide. It’s best to buy organically grown versions of strawberries and apples and the 10 other items on this list. But buying organic isn’t always possible. The Clean Fifteen are the ones that have the lowest amounts of pesticide in them. They are generally safer to eat in their non-organic forms than their dirty counterparts. But, why not just grow your own strawberries, avoid pesticides, and never worry about buying the organic ones?

To grow your own organic produce, make sure you start with organic non-GMO organic seeds or plants. Roots Market is one place that sells organic non-GMO starter plants. Or pick up some Non-GMO Burpee brand seeds at local grocery stores.

Grow the plants in clean, untreated soil (check your bags), use compost to fertilize, and use natural methods to keep pests away. You can bring in natural predators like ladybugs or include plants that naturally repel bugs. The larger and more varied your garden, the more complicated this becomes, but the good news is, you do not need a very large garden to get started.

Finally, either only eat these crops when they’re in season, or freeze and can for later. Even if you can’t grow your own apples, for instance, organics are a bit cheaper when the harvest is in season and not trucked in from Mexico or flown from New Zealand. They taste better too and make great applesauce to eat or use in recipes later.

Speaking of pests. They’re not all tiny, six-legged, and ugly. Some are downright cute. For instance, deer and rabbits can become your worst cute enemies. One solution is to protect your edible plants with other plants. For instance, surrounding your garden with Rosemary and Russian sage can repel deer. Learn more here.

A word about neonicotinoids…

A word about what? Well, neonicotinoids. You can’t pronounce it. You can’t spell it, either, but you can maybe spot it on a label or ask about it. It’s a pesticide, and when buying flowers, fruits, or vegetable plants, you should avoid it. It harms bees. Bees are master pollinators. Without bees, the planet suffers, maybe it dies, and so do you. Home Depot and Walmart use them, so check labels or ask before you buy.

Reason 6: It’s so good for you

First off, you’ll be amazed how much better fresh produce tastes. And it packs more nutrients. You’ll want to eat it. You should eat it. The average American diet is nothing short of dangerous (the Forks Over Knives film convinced me), and eating large amounts of processed foods and meats contributes to common killers like heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Fresh fruits and vegetables will not increase your risk of heart disease or cancer, or make you gain weight. Eat all you want.

Grow your own tomatoes. Set one aside, then get one from the grocery store. One came from your backyard or a pot on your deck. The other came from California. Or, well, who knows where it came from? Do a taste test. California is going to lose. And since your own tomato is in season, and obviously local, you’re getting all those beneficial nutrients that that other tomato lost on its way from another coast to your grocery store to your refrigerator.

And then there’s the exercise. In the old days, farmers did not join Gold’s Gym. They did not spend hours on treadmills watching ESPN with the sound off. Gardening is exercise. It involves walking, bending, digging, pulling, sweating, and wielding heavy tools. It takes place in the sun.

The sun provides vitamin D. In fact, it’s the best natural source of it. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) says that “most people meet at least some of their vitamin D needs” through exposure to sunlight even in the far north latitudes. You can get vitamin D from supplements and fortified foods, but very few provide it naturally. On the other hand, Scientific American cites a 2009 study that found “three-quarters of U.S. teens and adults are deficient in vitamin D, the so-called ‘sunshine vitamin’ whose deficits are increasingly blamed for everything from cancer and heart disease to diabetes.” Of course, the recommended amounts of vitamin D are still debated. Dr. Greger, author of How Not to Die recommends a much higher intake of vitamin D than NIH does.

Either way, like your mom always told you, it’s healthy to play outside in the sun. Don’t worry; your skin likely synthesizes some vitamin D even with typically applied sunscreen. So, don’t forget to put on your sunscreen, and go spend at least 30 minutes in your garden, breathe in the fresh air; forget about everything but your soil and your plants. It’s therapy.

Fresh nutritious food, vitamin D from the sun, a bit of hard work, peacefulness, and a sense of accomplishment. Gardening really has it all for your mind, body and spirit.

strawberry plant

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