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Come One, Come All: Gardening For Anyone, Anywhere

March is finally here, the doldrums of February over for another year. Some of us have been dreaming over seed catalogs for weeks, while others are just starting to turn our thoughts to the greener months ahead. Spring will soon creep past the layers of ice and snow, and before we know it locally grown food will be prolific once again. The question on my mind is, how much do you want to grow?

Come to the Garden
“If every U..S citizen ate just one meal a week (any meal) composed of locally and organically raised meats and produce, we would reduce our country’s oil consumption by over 1.1 million barrels of oil every week.” -Steven L. Opp

“[Gardening] has implications for the environment, American cuisine, biological diversity, drug policy and national identity, not to mention the nature of time and the meaning of place.” -Michael Pollan

 “Being wholeheartedly involved with gardens is involvement with life itself in the deepest sense. A garden, whether we know it or not, connects us to the world in many strange and wonderful ways.”-Allen Lacy

The local food movement continues to gain momentum as individuals and our society as a whole begin to recognize the grave problems caused by our current industrialized food system and out-of-whack food culture. Farmers’ markets continue to open and thrive, CSAs attract new members every year, and the demand for locally grown products in groceries like our own Willy Street Co-op continues to grow with every passing year. Another area of food production that is experiencing a renewal in interest is the art of growing food at home, through urban farming and its sister, gardening.

Gardening Traditions
“This, I wanted to tell him, is your birthright too. Your grandmother, like mine, grew her own tomatoes, killed her own chickens, and felt a connection to her food. Just because we live in the city, we don’t have to give that up.” -Novella Carpenter

People have been gardening for centuries, for a whole host of reasons. Some folks want to grow produce that has that special homegrown flavor, or have the pride of nurturing the trophy tomato. (Where do you think the phrase “apple of my eye” comes from? A gardeners delight, I’m sure.) Others want to save money on high-quality food by producing it for themselves. Still others want to feel self-sufficient and experience the satisfaction of growing and harvesting food with their own hands. Gardening also allows the grower to control what she/he/ze eats— what genes make that food, what goes on it, what goes in it (through soil, water and additives), how it is grown, and how it is eaten. There is also the deep philosophical appeal to gardening. As Novella Carpenter puts it in her book Farm City, “The production of food is a beautiful process. Germination, growth, tending, the harvest—every step a miracle, a dialogue with life.”

School gardens are used as valuable educational forums for students around the country. Community gardens help neighbors come together with a shared purpose. Organizations such as Growing Power in Milwaukee work to draw the connections between food production, nutrition and social justice. Gardens are everywhere these days, and serving many different functions within our communities.

What about you? Will you be gardening this season?

Gardening in Unusual Spaces
For a long time I believed that gardening was something that required, well, land. Having lived in a series of apartments for the past eight years of my life, yard space has been pretty non-existent. Thinking back to my mom’s patch of yard, surrounded by raspberry bushes and grapevines, growing food in a small apartment with no yard seemed impossible.

Wow, was I mistaken! As it turns out, there are lots of different options for folks who want to grow food but don’t have access to any tillable land. Creativity is the key. I’ve seen gardens on rooftops, converted driveways, stairs, window ledges, even in old car frames. It turns out that wherever there’s a will, and some sun, there’s a way to grow food. Heck, there are even ways to grow food where you don’t get sun. It’s amazing. In this article we’ll review some different options for folks looking to grow their own food this season, regardless of your spatial restrictions.

First, I want to put a word of caution out there. Before planning any elaborate rooftop gardens, make sure your roof can handle the additional weight—(especially if you plan any garden parties). If you live in a community with a home owners’ association, or are in a rental property, check and see what kinds of restrictions might apply to your home before you go hog wild with the planting.

Options for the Spatially Limited
“If you have a yard or even just a porch box or a pot in a sunny window, grow something to eat in it. Make a little compost of your kitchen scraps and use it for fertilizer.”-Wendell Berry

Only two percent of the U.S. population (as of the 2003 U.S. Census) live or work on farmland. Eighty percent of the U.S. population lives in cities. Most of us are living in tightquarters with at least somewhat limited access to land. Below we have outlined a few ideas for growing food no matter where you are. However, please don’t limit your creativity—the sky is truly the limit! Look around your space and see what you can come up with. Just be careful when choosing your containers, soil, etc, as some materials may leach chemicals into your food or damage your property.

Container Gardening
No land, no problem. Many plants can grow quite happily in containers, and some can be sustained year round by bringing them inside when the weather turns colder.

Container gardening really is exactly what it sounds like. Take a traditional terra cotta pot, garbage can, wooden box, gutter (but not one actually attached to your house), old shoe (seriously, I’ve seen tomato plants growing in old boots), anything that can hold dirt, and plant something in it. Just remember that all that soil can really add up to some serious pounds. If you have a very deep pot (deeper than your plant needs) consider filling the first few inches with aluminum cans or styrofoam pieces. Not only will the irregular surfaces help the pot drain well, it will save you a backache later.

Another great advantage of container gardening is that you can move your plants around. I snagged a rusty wagon off the curb last year, and put a number of my pots on it. As the sun moved across the deck, I could wheel my plants along to catch maximum light. Also, if the weather turns nasty, it’s possible to move your plants to areas of safety, away from fierce winds or the surprise hailstorm.
One issue is that container gardens built with conventional pots can require many trips with the watering can, especially on hot summer days. One alternative is to use self-irrigating planters (SIP) instead of regular pots. A SIP is a pot that has a reservoir in the bottom for storing water. Using potting mix (which differentiates SIPs from hydroponics), the SIP allows the plant to wick water up from the reservoir, keep the plant moist throughout the day.

You can buy SIPs from a variety of sources, or build your own. The EarthBox Company has created a manual with detailed instructions for the intrepid SIP-builder. Check them out at Mulching will also help retain moisture, as will grouping plants together to create a layer of foliage to shield the soil from the sun.

Another important point to keep in mind when container gardening (or any gardening, really) is to be sure to choose your soil carefully, and make sure it stays moist. Unlike a surface garden, what’s in the pot is all your plant has to work with, so make sure it’s loaded with nutrients and drains well. Make sure your mix has thirty percent or more perlite or coarse matter. This will give your roots something to hold onto. If you can’t afford to buy lots of bags of potted soil mix, mix your own. The folks at Urban Farm magazine recommend using one-part peat moss, one-part garden loam, and one-part clean, coarse builder’s sand. Add some high-grade fertilizer (earthworm casings, bat guano, compost, etc.) and you’re good to go.

Square Foot Gardening
Do you have a little bit of surface area that you can devote to a garden plot? If so, Square Foot Gardening may be a great approach for you! Essentially, a garden plot is divided into a grid of squares. Each square is 12 inches by 12 inches (1 square foot) and holds a different vegetable, flower or herb.

Mel Bartholomew, author of Square Foot Gardening: A New Way to Garden in Less Space with Less Work raves about this particular form of gardening. “Square foot gardening is more than just another method of planning and planting a garden; it’s a psychological approach to gardening,” he explains. “The square foot garden is divided into a size and shape that gardeners of all ages, sizes and levels of experience can understand and cope with easily. It can be adapted tofit all kinds of gardening situations.”

Depending on how much you want to grow and the amount of available space, you can grow as large or as small a square foot garden as you’d like. If you only have space on a soil free surface, it’s fairly easy to build a raised bed in which to you can build your garden grid. There are a variety of books in the Co-op’s book section on square foot gardening that include building instructions. You can also buy pre-made models.

Vertical Gardening
I’m totally crushing on vertical gardens these days. Some absolutely incredible indoor vertical gardens have been highlighted in national newspapers and magazines over the last 12 months, including the New York Times (they called them “Living Walls”). Encouraging your plants to grow up instead of out can dramatically increase your growing space, as well as garden accessibility for those who have a harder time bending or stooping. They can also be very effective at camouflaging unattractive structures, provide privacy (imagine a wrap-around of cucumber trellises on your deck), create shade, and just look cool.

Vertical gardening uses support structures (trellises, string, porch railings, sticks, ladders—again, limitless possibilities) to help plants grow up. This helps to protect vegetables that are vulnerable to diseases, scarring or garden pests. Viney plants, like cucumbers, beans, etc. take to it right away. Other plants that already grow vertically but with a bit more structure, like tomatoes or peppers, adapt very easily with some well-placed support. Even low-lying plants can be coaxed to grow upward, and there are tons of resources available loaded with advice to help you out.

Yard-sharing is a growing trend in urban and suburban areas. Unlike community gardens, which can have long waiting lists or be farther away from home, yard-sharing links neighbors together through the cultivation of a shared plot in one person’s yard. As Urban Farm magazine puts in, “Get to know your neighbors, work toward a more sustainable community food system and get your hands dirty, all at the same time.”

Another big advantage to community gardens and yard-sharing is the knowledge that is spread along with the compost and mulch. For a newbie gardener, having access to others with greater experience in growing food and working with the land can make a world of difference in building their confidence and success rates. If yard-sharing isn’t happening in your neck of the woods, try volunteering at one of the local community gardens or get a worker share at a CSA farm. Not only will you learn a ton, you might just get a free zucchini or two to take home.

“Permaculture design is a connection between things. It is not water, or a chicken or the tree. It is how the water, the chicken and the tree are connected. It’s the opposite of what we are taught in school. Education takes everything and pulls it apart and makes no connections at all. Permaculture makes the connection because as soon as you have the connection you can feed the chicken from the tree.” - Bill Morrison, co-founder of Permaculture

For those with more space to devote to building a food system, permaculture could be an exciting and fulfilling option to consider. Permaculture habitats are self-renewing food systems that utilize natural relationships and balances to cultivate soil health and pest control. They include dual-purpose plants that provide food as well as shade, habitat for other life forms, and a lovely aesthetic.

Light Levels
We’ve addressed the issue of space, but what about light? All of these approaches to gardening can be applied to your level of sunlight. Though full sunlight is desirable, since it allows the greatest flexibility in plant selection and higher yields, it isn’t a requirement. If you have only a few hours of sunlight available to you, many dark leafy greens will thrive, as well as bush beans, peas, some root veggies and plants with smaller fruits (ex: cherry tomatoes, banana peppers). Many herbs will also do just fine in partial or low light. If shady space with no direct sunlight at all is what you have to work with, you can look into growing some tasty mushrooms, sprouts, and other plants with minimal light needs. You can also work the diffused light. Especially in urban areas, light bounces off windows, walls, metal, etc. Sometimes it is possible to harness the sunlight from the areas around you, using mirrors and other reflective surfaces.

Get a Sense of Your Soil
“There are two reasons for testing the soil you plan to garden in. First, be sure the soil is safe to come in contact with and eat foods from. The second reason is more practical—save your money by knowing what soil amendments are really needed.” -JoAnn

Whitehead, Boston Natural Areas Network Garden Educator
If you are planting directly into the ground, be sure to have your soil checked. Sometimes chemicals have leached into the ground that can also be carried into the food we hope to eat, rendering it unsafe. If you find that your soil isn’t suitable for eating plants, raised beds are a great option. There are also soil-cleaning strategies you can look into for future gardening, such as plants that over time will pull the toxins out of the soil.

Planning Your Super Fabulous Garden
As I mentioned before, now is the time to take stock and start planning for the 2011 growing season! Here are some questions to consider as you start plotting:

  • What grows in my area? (Different parts of the U.S. have different growing seasons—luckily for us, lots of stuff can grow in Wisconsin.)
  • When does the plant grow, and when does it need to be started? (Some seeds can be planted directly into the soil it will grow in, but others benefit from starting out indoors. Starting seeds can result in stronger and healthier plants with greater yields. Check out the Co-op’s events calendar for some seed-starting events.)
  • What are my physical constraints? (Square footage, sun exposure, bodily constraints, etc.)
  • Whatqualities are important to me? Organic cultivation techniques? Heirloom seeds? Decide ahead of time what kind of garden you want to have, and plan accordingly. The Co-op offers a wide selection of heirloom seeds, as well as organic seedlings later in the season.
  • How much time do I want to devote to this? (Some plants are relatively low maintenance. Others require more effort. Plus, 20 pots of plants is a heck of a lot more work than two or three. What works for you this year?)
  • What do I want to get out of this gardening experience? To try growing something new? To stock up on a beloved favorite (heirloom tomatoes, anyone)? To get to know my neighbors? To create a beautiful foodscape? Is this something you want to do with your kids, your partner, your best friend, or solo style? Tailor your garden to what you want and it will be an even more fulfilling experience.
  • And, perhaps most importantly, what do I want to eat?! What do I wish I had more of? (For me, it’s fresh herbs and red bell peppers. Both can be pricey to buy, and incredibly rewarding to grow!) Grow a whole garden of cucumbers if they’re your favorite, and barter with your neighbors for other sweet seasonal delights. Or, go with the “grow a lasagna” approach and plant everything you’ll need for the most glorious feast you’ll ever eat. This is perhaps the most fun part of garden planning, and definitely one of the most rewarding!


Prepare for the Eat Local Challenge…Early!
While you’re thinking about all the food you’re going to grow this year, don’t forget about this year’s Eat Local Challenge! Even though the official Challenge doesn’t take place until the fall, now is the time tostart planning for your seasonal eats. Grow cucumbers and can some homemade pickles, freeze that spring rhubarb for muffins and bread later in the year, and get a head start on building your local pantry.

If you are nervous about canning, or want to learn more about any of the myriad ways to preserve food, teaming up with friends or community members. Working alongside those who have more experience in these areas can ease your anxieties and teach you preservation skills more effectively than any book or YouTube video. Bring your tomato bounty, can up some sauce, and trade for some pear preserves. It’s not as hard as it may seem, and can be a really fun way to get to know your neighbors. The Co-op has also published a number of articles on food preservation, has resources available throughout the store, and will be offering a variety of classes throughout the year.

Cheers to Local Food
“It’s important to realize that every change we make, however small, helps. Collectively, making small changes can help bring about great change in the world and can create a healthier planet for all who will come after us.” -Lynda King

Growing even a little bit of your own food is a fun, educational and environmentally sound choice. Cheers to everyone who takes the plunge and plants their first garden, has been growing food for years, or encourages those who do!