Wednesday, March 2, 2011
Tips & Gadgets: Grow Your Own
The single thing that has most influenced the way I cook is outside my kitchen: the garden.
I'm not a great gardener. Before settling into a home with a small yard a few years back, my track record with plants wasn't so good. I even killed off mint. Most gardeners would tell you that's impossible.
Yet in the past three years, I've harvested enough eggplant, tomatoes, and zucchini that I've had to give some away to passersby. I grow dozens of herbs that inspire my cooking year-round. I'm constantly trying to carve out space in my tiny yard to cram in another edible plant.
If you've been toying with the idea of growing your own food but haven't yet given it a try, this is the time to get started! It isn't hard.
My garden is not one of those neat, trim, adorably idyllic gardens. Mine always has a large, brown, withered dead thing that should have been pulled out weeks ago, a brash plant sprawling across neighboring plots because I haven't bothered to prune it, and in the middle of it all at least one or two gorgeous, healthy, bountiful plants rising above the chaos.
The successes have been encouraging enough that I bought a cheap heating mat for seedlings and a shop light on a timer. They're set up in the garage, where my summer garden is sprouting in recycled toilet paper tubes and takeout containers. Come April, the survivors will make their way outdoors.
A few tips:
Organic can be cheap. You pay a fortune for organic produce at the market, but it's a bargain to grow at home. No need to invest in expensive, organic fertilizers. Pick a few solid, all-purpose helpers (I use fish emulsion for fertilizer and neem oil for pests), and supplement with cheap tricks, like fashioning 2-liter bottles into cloches, or toilet paper tubes into seed pots. Even cheaper, don't do much of anything: Toss some seeds in a sunny spot, add water, and cross your fingers. Painless.
Don't forget flowers. Mixing in easy-to-grow flowers with your edibles is a great way to draw beneficial bugs to the garden, and to make working in the garden more fun.
Include the kids. I envisioned playing in the dirt alongside my kids, poking at worms and marveling at seedlings. Never happened. But my kids do help choose what we grow, and they help harvest. The in-between work... not so much.
Just do it already. You don't need the perfect setup, adorable pots, or magazine-worthy landscape design. Pick something easy that brings you great pleasure, find a bit of dirt somewhere, and give it a go.
My favorite resource for gardeners just getting their feet dirty is the You Grow Girl website. Gayla Trail's site and books are great primers for newbies and mediocre gardeners like myself. Check them out at your local library for some inspiration.
Herbs are my favorites. They're generous and forgiving, and I no longer waste money on packaged bunches that liquefy in the fridge. My other indulgence is novelty -- with luck, I'll be harvesting black popcorn, loofah sponges, poppy seeds, and paprika in a few months.
But I do need a new mint plant.