Sunday, February 19, 2006

Edible Gardening Information for Beginners

I wrote this at my friend's request. She asked that I tell what I know so that those who are interested in gardening for edibles can learn some of the basics.

By reading books I have taught myself to garden organically: vegetables and herbs, flowers, shrubs and grass. I know a tiny bit about growing fruit. I will share some of what I learned. I did veggie gardening by germinating my own seeds and growing organically. I gardened for 6 years until I moved to this house, which is a place overrun with deer. We are unable to garden unless and until we install an expensive and unsightly electric fence. I really miss gardening!

If you start your own plants from seeds you get to choose the variety. If you rely on nursery plants your selections will be limited. It is also hard to find organic veggie plants. It is also expensive to buy plants that are already started (compared to cost of a packet of seeds). The seed packet in USA is required to be dated for the year it was packaged. This is not an expiration date. Seeds can last many years if they are stored properly, which generally can be summed up to keep in a plastic sealed zip top bag in a cool and dry place (or in the refrigerator if you have space).

Heirloom varieties are varieties which are old, different people have different lengths of time which qualifies as being called 'heirloom'; some say 100 years or older. Many of the heirloom varieties are not good for traveling by truck or long storage, so they are not often sold in grocery stores. Many taste better, though. Some of the fun of gardening is having access to eat wonderful veggies which are far superior in taste than that which we usually buy or are accustomed to having, from the grocery store.

Heirloom varities will reproduce by seed to the same exact variety. This means if you buy a packet of seeds and grow the plant, you can save the seed to use in the future (so you don't have to rebuy new seeds the next year). There are special processes you have to do for certain varities so if you want to do that, it is something to research and learn.

Some heirloom seeds are available and are not organic. Some seeds are hybrids but organic. Some are heirloom and organic. Pick your choice. One may think that to buy non-organic seeds but to grow organically is fine, while purists may want both organic seed and to grow organically. This is your choice.

My favorite seed companies are:
Cook's Garden
Seed Savers Exchange
Tomato Growers Supply Company (for a huge variety of tomatoes)
RH Shumway
The above mail order, paper catalogs are very educational reading as well as describe in detail why one variety is different than the others. I found this very educational and it helped me pick which varities I wanted. For example I learned that while some early bearing tomatoes are early, they don't taste so great or have a woody texture, so I decided against growing early varities.

Seeds can easily be grown indoors under flourescent lights. You do not need to buy the very expensive 'growing lights'. I grew them in my basement under lights. I bought an inexpensive timer from Home Depot to turn the lights on and off automatically. I also rigged the lights from chains which could be adjusted for height, because if the light is too far away the plants stretch and get leggy in order to get more light. I gradually moved the lights higher as the seedlings grew. You will need to keep the seedlings damp and watered which may take 1-2 waterings a day. In my opinion, the seed packets don't stress this enough and if it is too dry it can prevent germination. If your basement is below 60-65 degrees you may have to have heating pads (special for germination) under them. You may want to place your seedlings near your furnace. If you are lucky enough to have windows with a southern exposure which will get sun and if you have the room, you may be able to germinate your plants by the windows instead of using the lights.

I had the most success with a germination method using 'soil blocks'. You don't have to do this but I love it. You make blocks out of soil and there is no pot. Water is kept in the bottom of the seed tray and they are always moist. If you want to know more about that, it is fully explained in Eliot Coleman's book on organic growing (mentioned below). You can always use the 99 cent kits they sell at Home Depot.

I gardened with a method called "square foot gardening". This is a method by which plants are grown close together in order to get the most production from the smallest space. This used to be a TV show on PBS (which I never saw). There is a book by this title which has now been revised and expanded, called "All New Square Foot Gardening" by Mel Bartholomew. (The older out of print book that I read was simply called "Square Foot Gardending".) This is the book that taught me everything I needed to get started. The typical way of doing a skinny row of veggies or herbs is really wasting space and also a waste of water, and leaves more to weed.

I also learned a lot by watching reruns of the TV show by Barbara Damrosch and Eliot Coleman called "Gardening Naturally".

My public library also has these videos. Sometimes it is nice to see things in action rather than just read about these. If you can watch these, I recommend it. The books I mention are more important, but see if you can watch these videos if that idea appeals to you.

Also helpful are the old episodes of the PBS show "Victory Garden". Perhaps your library has these videos to borrow. These are not necessary but are interesting and inspiring.

I learned even more by reading Eliot Coleman's books "The New Organic Grower"

and "The New Organic Grower's Four Season Harvest".

These books probably will provide you with way more information than you need. However I found some information invaluable which is not covered in other books. The "Four Season Harvest" book actually tells how to grow year round, even in northern climates (they live in Maine), by using something called a cold frame, which you can make out of old windows or doors and some wood (or you can buy fancy factory made ones).

The most helpful guide for identifying bugs and other garden problems is (!!) the free mail order paper catalog for Gardens Alive!. They issue many catalogs a year and within the pages are full color photos of pests and plant diseases. I save some of these as reference manuals. I recommend signing up to be on their mailing list. They also have coupons in the late winter and spring and usually for new subscribers, such as "$25 off your order" and that applies even if your order is $25 or less! This company sells things to help garden organically for veggies, flowers, herbs, grass/lawn and even fruit trees. If you are interested they also sell some great grass seed which grows roots down to 4 feet which requires less watering.

Another company which sells supplies that I cannot find locally is Gardeners Supply Company.

In my opinion, it is pretty easy to grow veggies and herbs. The easiest method for me was when I used plastic as a mulch, which prevented growth of weeds. It isn't as pretty as plain dirt but the weeding is way less. I felt that it was an environmental trade off to use the plastic sheeting (and also I reused it the next year) than to waste water by evaporation or to use chemicals to prevent the growth of weeds. Special red colored plastic sheeting (as mulch) was shown to increase yields of tomato plants. You can also use black garbage bags which you cut up. The dark color also helps retain heat in the soil and helps the plant grow faster. If you have the time and energy to weed daily then by all means don't use plastic mulch and do your weeding. (I also had tried 4 inches of bark mulch instead but this was not as effective.)

I also watered with a soaker hose only as watering by sprinkler actually wastes water as much is lost by evaporation and making the leaves and stems wet increases the chance of mildews and other plant diseases from developing. I found that Home Depot had the best price. I ran a regular hose from the faucet out to the garden. I then ran the soaker hose in and around the plants, at 18" apart from each other, so when it is used, all the soil gets soaked. The soaker hose is kept on for longer, such as 4-6 hours at a time (but hardly any water is coming out/getting used). I bought a timer from Home Depot to do this as it was more convenient than remembering to turn it on and off. The watering lengh of time will vary depending on your climate. I also did it every other day (and the timer was set for that) but again this will vary depending on your climate. I ran the soaker hose under the plastic mulch. To pin the plastic mulch down and also to pin the hose into place I cut wire clothes hangers that we had tons from the dry cleaners. Companies sell thicker ones that are expensive if you prefer to spend your money that way. I just snipped the clothes hanger with a wire cutter and one hanger made 2 U-shaped things and I pinned the hose and plastic in place with that.

Fruit trees:
My relatives have experience with these. Between seeing their experience and reading, I learned enough to decide against owning fruit trees. (I also grew up with fruit trees in my yard and the fruit was not good but we suffered with rotting fruit falling down in the lawn and attracting loads of stinging wasps and bees, and was given the horrible childhood chore of picking rotten fruit up off the ground.) Newbies should know that these trees usually are prone to various diseases or get bugs or worms in the fruits. Most people use chemicals to prevent this, which is costly and is not desirable for those seeking organic methods. Nets also may have to be used to keep the birds from eating parts of the fruit and ruining the harvest (and adding to the cost of growing our own fruit). Organic methods are available, research these before investing in trees. I also am under the impression that it takes a few years or more to get the tree big enough to make a decent harvest. Your efforts may lie more in concentrating on berries and/or veggies and herbs.

Some varieties bear fruit through the season while others produce all the harvest at once. Choose what you want. Berries may require netting to keep birds from eating the harvest. If you grow blueberries or raspberries you may have to construct a big wood frame, like an outdoor room, with netting over it in order to protect the harvest. Rabbits love strawberries. Think and learn about the possible critters that live in your area and what they may want to eat and how you can prevent it. There are books in most libraries about this topic. It is a shame to grow plants only to have the animals eat it before you harvest it.

Research sturdy supports for climbing varities. The typical tomato supports were not good enough for my heavy plants. Vining varieties will produce more tomatoes than bush varieties. Some varities produce tomatoes throughout the season while others bear it all at once. To get the most out of your garden I'd advise to grow vining varieties, grow with upright supports (instead of letting them grow over the ground) and choose varieties which are indeterminate (produce fruit throughout the season). (All this is explained in the "Square foot gardening" book. Determinate means they produce their fruit all at once. Also if you want a load of fruit, consider growing some cherry tomatoes which yield a lot more than the large tomatoes, I have had great luck with 'Sweet Million' variety (and they taste delicious).

Living Mulch:
Oh, this is a neat thing I did for two years. I used a living mulch of radishes under and around all my veggie plants. In a few weeks they are harvested and you eat them, and replant more.

If you like mesclun varieites you can grow it in full boxes such as 4x4 foot boxes, the entire thing is a growing bed of lettuce. I'd snip off what I needed daily, down to about 1 inch, then it regrows. You can do this starting in the early spring through the middle of summer, then repeat at end of summer through the fall. If you use winter gardening techniques with a cold frame you can do this all winter. You really get a lot more lettuce by doing it this way then by growing full heads of romaine or other heads of lettuce.

Lastly, grow what you really want and will use.

Fun things like pumpkins and gourds take up loads of space. If your goal is to grow food to eat and to get the most yield for your space, avoid these.

Corn is also iffy in most regions, and may not be worth it using the space to grow it in. You may be better off sticking with more nutritious veggies or buying corn from local garden stands while it is in season.

I am not an expert but if you post any questions I will try and answer them. Also I bet there are websites for organic gardening with chat forums that may also help you.

Of all the magazines for gardening I found Organic Gardening to be most helpful for organic gardening of edible plants. Some/most of the gardening magazines are about flowers or ornamentals only, or may not support organic methods.

Picking a location:
This is pretty basic but I will throw in that your gardening location will need eight hours of sun in the summer months. It should not be under trees or near tree roots. A southern exposure is best. A slight slope going downward and facing the south is the absolute best for yields. Also with the square food gardening method you will see that you build your garden up with new soil rather than digging down into existing soil (which is more work and may be in more poor quality soil).

1 comment:

Rick said...

Hi, great info! You listed all my fav sites too lol! I have a seed company you might want to check out- I get my heirloom seed there.
Im picking up the square foot book this week- cant wait.
Tomato project