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Get Growing: a spirited guide to an urban garden.
by Amy Hatcher
Growing up on a farm, we always had an enormous summer garden that seemed a source of neverending labor. There were massive plots of dirt arranged in perfect long rows, each tilled by the tractor and then hoed by an aching back. I distinctly recall lots of hoeing. I scarcely remember the actual vegetables we harvested. I always heard people brag about homegrown tomatoes, but they had no appeal to me. I suppose I took it all for granted, but nothing about gardening or vegetables seemed very interesting.
With age comes wisdom. As a nurse practitioner I became very aware of the correlation between health and diet. My interest in diet led to my interest in vegetables, which led to my passion for gardening. I started gardening in pots on my porch a few years ago. The next year, I built a raised bed, and the following year I built 4 more raised beds, and this year I am planning to plant at my family farm so I can have a plot with long rows. Unlike my childhood, I now find something fascinating and fulfilling about planting a seed and watching it grow. Perhaps it is the renewal and growth, getting dirty and using your muscles, and most importantly, taking the time to relate to the earth.
There is a movement happening across our country, and it is taking root in our community as well. It is the movement back to whole foods, organics, farmers markets and eating locally. This movement is happening because we are rediscovering the value of growing and eating healthy food and eating it at its peak of flavor and nutrition. By knowing where our food comes from, including growing it ourselves, we can be proactive in avoiding chemical byproducts that are now being linked to
illness. We are learning the value of avoiding chemicals, leading active lifestyles and cultivating in our children an appreciation for vegetables and a reverence for nature. In addition to the health benefits of eating a diet of fresh fruits and vegetables, studies show that working in the garden also relieves stress and boosts your mood.
Anyone can do this! Starting your own garden requires very little space and very little tools. The primary ingredients are good soil, seeds, water and sunshine. A little bit of planning will serve you well. Now that you are feeling empowered to grow your very own garden, let’s get started.
Find the right spot in your yard or on your patio that gets at least 8 hours of direct sunlight each day. Take observation of where the sun rises and sets in your yard. Think about the benefits where you plan to position your garden, including convenience and its proximity to a water source. Next, decide exactly what you would like to plant. Start small as you can always add more space in the future. There is an old saying that “you should never plant more than your partner can weed or water.” It could not be more true. A garden is not something to be planted and forgotten. It must be tended, and it must be loved. You may want to start with just herbs, tomatoes or a salsa garden. Whatever you choose be sure to research the best times of the season to plant certain seeds, like asparagus. It’s prime growth happens in the spring.
A very common technique for small space gardening that is gaining wide popularity is raised bed gardening. There are many advantages to this method over traditional gardening. Raised beds can be planted more intensively for maximized growing space and minimizing weeds; their soil holds heat better and tends to be looser for easier maintenance. Once you have chosen your location, you will want to clear the area of weeds and grasses and prepare to build your raised bed. The minimum height for a raised bed is 12 inches. If your raised bed is sitting on a paved surface, the minimum height is 24 inches.
Your bed can be any shape and can be constructed from a number of materials. You want to avoid treated lumber as it will leach chemicals into your soil. The most common raised beds are rectangular and constructed from a naturally rot resistant wood such as cedar, oak or cypress. Other options include bricks, landscape pavers, stone or cinder blocks. The recommended width for a raised bed is 4 feet. This allows a working width of 2 feet from each side that most people can comfortably reach across. I thought bigger might be better, making my beds 5 feet across, and it has proved to be quite a stretch. The length is your choice. You may want to start small, 4×4, or go larger, 4 x 12, or you may want multiple beds. Once your beds are constructed and leveled, you are ready for the most important ingredient, soil.
The cornerstone of organic gardening in a raised bed is starting with great soil. Herein lies the success or failure of your garden. With properly conditioned soil, there is no need to add chemical fertilizers. When it comes to filling your bed, there are multiple options, but it is paramount that you start with a base of rich healthy soil for your plants. Dirt that you gather from the woods is a great source of naturally composted soil. If you do not have access to woods dirt or don’t want to put in the muscle work, there are other options. Purchased bags of topsoil, peat moss, and manure or compost, mixed in equal parts provide a great starting soil. Organic soil amendments may be added as well to ensure that your plants have all of the nutrients they will need to produce.
Once your soil is ready, you can plant anything!!! The most surprising thing I learned when I started gardening was how easy it is. It sounds so simple, but seeds were made to grow. Get creative and have fun! I have planted everything in my raised beds from lettuces to root vegetables, corn, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, okra, eggplant, beans and herbs. You should plant what you like to eat. Start by figuring out what you want and how much you think you will need, and draw a chart of how you will plant it. Gardeners.com has a very helpful tool, in addition to great garden supplies, on their website for planning you garden. Follow their link to “Design Your Own Vegetable Garden”. You can choose your vegetables and it will also help with spacing per square foot. You will find this tool most helpful.
One of the main advantages of your raised bed is efficiency of space. You will not be planting in rows, but rather using every square inch of space. I recommend using organic seeds and plants in your garden. For tomatoes and peppers, start with plants. Tomato plants should be planted very deep. The entire root and stem up to the first leaves should be buried underground. This gives your plant a strong and well supported root system. For most everything else, it is quite easy to start with seeds. You will find valuable information on the seed packets
for spacing as well as when to plant and when to expect your first harvest. All seed packet information is from the perspective of planting in rows. If the packet says to space every 6 inches in a row, then you know you can plant every 6 inches in a grid pattern in your raised bed. You may want to put 2-3 seeds in each spot to ensure germination, if so, you will thin later by cutting the extra, weaker, plants away at the stem. Should you be worried that you’ll forget what you planted where, use popsicle sticks and write on them what you have planted. Place the popsicle sticks in the ground near where you planted the seeds that correspond to that vegetable or herb. The University of Tennessee has compiled a “Guide to Warm Season Garden Vegetables” that is an invaluable local source for when to plant and harvest. Visit this website to find out more: http://trace.tennessee.edu/cgi/viewcontent. cgi?article=1043&context=utk_agexgard
The next step is to water and wait for the magic. New seeds and young plants have greater watering requirements than mature plants. You will want to keep the soil slightly moist, preventing it from completely drying out. It is best to water during the cool of the morning when water loss from evaporation is minimal. Water early plants and seeds 2-3 times per week and mature plants once per week in adequately draining soil. If your soil seems too dry, water it. If your soil seems to wet, do not over water your plants. Most plants take 50-90 days to produce their first harvest.
My favorite way to start a spring morning is with a cup of coffee and a walk to the garden with my dogs just to see what amazing things happened overnight. My favorite way to end a spring day is to go back to the garden.
You would be amazed how much vegetables grow while you are away during the day! I am like a proud mama anxiously awaiting my seedlings to grow and create new baby vegetables. And then, the delight of preparing and serving your very own vegetables is unsurpassed.
Gardening has been such a surprising joy for me. It truly does something for the soul. Gardening is a journey, quite possible to places you have not imagined. Plant a seed, let your journey begin.
“To own a bit of ground, to scratch it with a hoe, to plant seeds, and watch the renewal of life – this is the commonest delight of the race, the most satisfactory thing a man can do” – Charles Dudley Warner