People are genuinely concerned about the high cost of . . . everything. And rightfully so. With the cost of gas, those people commuting to work are wondering how to fit groceries into the budget. And don’t even get me started on home ownership. You may be thinking it’s time to start that garden you’ve considered for a few years. But maybe you’ve never had a garden before. Where do you start? Do you need a rototiller to till up the yard or 15 bags of compost from the local big box store? The short answer is probably not. You may also think “I can’t grow my own food because I live in an apartment.” Not true. You can still grow some food indoors. Whether you plan to grow a bunch of food or just some fresh lettuce and spinach, allow me to provide a little information on how you can get started growing your own food.
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The very first thing to figure out is how much space you want or can dedicate to growing food. If you live in an apartment, you may just have the space of a balcony. You may not even have a balcony and your space is limited to a sunny window. Hell, you may not even have a sunny window and your space may need to be amended with artificial light. The good news is that you can still grow food even if you are in a small space with limited lighting.
I’ve personally grown the following plants in pots indoors. The key to growing indoors is they need to be plants that don’t require pollination. Pollination is when bees, birds, butterflies, and the wind help out the plants by basically inseminating the female stigma with the male pollen. It’s pretty miraculous when you think about it. I mean, how do they know which is male and which is female? Anyway, here are a few of the plants I’ve grown indoors:
- Lettuce (multiple varieties)
There are actually a host of other plants that can be grown indoors but I have not personally tried them. I found this great article that lists which vegetables need pollinators and which don’t to help you out.
At the other end of the spectrum, maybe you have a huge yard that can be dedicated to a garden. Or maybe you are renting a house and need to limit the garden area to a 4X4 square. The point is that you can grow something in any of these situations.
It’s unfortunate that so many people overlook the importance of soil health. Let me put it this way. In order for a baby to grow and thrive to become a healthy toddler, child, adolescent, and adult – they need nutrients in their body. We know children who receive quality food are generally healthier than those who don’t. Similarly, what we eat as adults on a daily basis impacts the overall health of every organ in our body. The adage garbage in = garbage out comes to mind here. The same is true for the soil in which we intend to grow our fruits and vegetables in. If the soil is not healthy, your plants will not have the nutrients needed to grow big and healthy. You’ll end up with pests ravaging your plants because, like people, the weakest are picked on first. So, how do you tell if you have healthy soil you ask?
If you are planting in pots, be sure you have a very light and loamy mix in the container. You’ll want to feed it with some plant food every few months because the constant watering eventually leaches out any nutrients the plant hasn’t taken in. You can purchase commercial plant food or you add a cup of home-grown compost, worm castings, used coffee grounds, or compost tea. Just be careful to not overdo it in a pot. Too much food is not good either.
Testing Your Outdoor Soil
There are all kinds of soil tests you can have done by your local extension office. However, if you are just starting out and are starting a garden to save money, here’s an easy no-cost test to see what is going on in your proposed garden space.
- Get a shovel and dig out a complete scoop of soil – do this when that has been some moisture in the area, not when it’s bone dry. It should be at least six inches deep depending on what you intend to grow in the area.
- Take a look at the soil. What color is it? Generally speaking, the darker it is, the better. Do you see worms? Worms are a great sign! The more the better.
- Pick up a handful of soil and feel the texture. Is it sandy? Does it hold its shape? Can you make a ball out of it and it stays a ball?
- Pour a bit of water on the handful and see how long it takes to drain. This will provide an excellent indication as to whether you have clay soil or not. If the water doesn’t drain relatively quickly, you know your plant roots are going to be sitting in water and that generally is not a good sign. On the other hand, if it’s completely sandy underneath the topsoil (about the first 5 inches), it will be difficult for your plants to absorb any nutrients.
This little test will tell you a lot about what, if anything, you need to add to your soil. It will also tell you the best method to use for starting your garden. For example, if you have heavy clay soil, you may want to try to till in some sawdust, bark, leaf mulch, etc. to break it up or you may find it easier to just make a raised bed garden and add new soil on top. The same is true for sandy soil. Knowing what you are starting with will help you develop a plan you can live with.
When I started my garden, my soil was heavy clay, compacted and worms were few and far between. Because I own the home and knew I wanted a large garden, I opted to do a combination of methods to start to heal the soil. I didn’t want to till the soil as that just didn’t feel like a way to nurture my land so I opted for a broad-fork to aerate the soil. Then I amended it with cow and chicken manure and created raised rows with a combination of compost and soil. I grew the garden slowly, adding more space each year.
I can’t say this enough, making sure your soil is healthy has everything to do with the quality of the food you will produce.
Planning Your Garden
Once you have an idea of where you plan to grow your food, it’s time to plan your garden. I’m going to strip this back to the basic of basics. It was difficult to determine in what order to structure this as it’s kind of a chicken or egg situation. Do you decide what to grow before determining what light you have or do you evaluate the light you have available and then determine what to grow? For this reason, this section is in no particular order.
What Do You Plan to Grow
When planning a garden for the first time, I suggest starting small and choosing plants that are easy to grow. If you get overwhelmed your first year, you’ll likely give up and we don’t want that.
If you are limited to indoor growing, try some spinach and lettuce. Both are very easy to grow from seed and don’t require an obscene amount of light.
If you have a patio or small outdoor area, pick a few vegetables you like to eat. Some easy suggestions I can provide (in addition to salad greens) are green beans, tomatoes (maybe a couple of varieties), radishes, and peas (sugar snap or snow are easy to grow and freeze if necessary). You can even plant potatoes in a grow bag on a patio (complete tutorial below).
While some vegetables grow well in low light (ex: salad greens), most vegetables need a lot of light to be fully productive. Whether you are growing indoors or outdoors, this should be a consideration. You probably don’t want to grow peppers under a shade tree and your lettuce will bolt if in full sun at 100 degrees. When planning your garden, do a little research regarding the light requirements for the seeds you are planting.
As I mentioned earlier, you can use artificial lights when growing indoors. There are so many options for grow lights on the market now! Honestly, I’ve even used a regular fluorescent bulb to grow lettuce when a sunny window was not available.
If you are new to gardening, getting the water ratio right may be your greatest challenge. And it may also be why you give up on your garden. Let me give you a few easy rules to follow:
- Make sure your water source is close to the plants. If you have to drag a bucket or hose out to the middle of the yard after a long day of work, you are likely to not do it. Set yourself up for success here.
- Seeds and seedlings need to stay moist. Think of seedlings like babies. They need care and attention (not 24/7) until they get established.
- Once the plants are established, you’ll know if they need water by how they look and what the weather conditions have been lately. Do they look sad (i.e. wilted)? Give them a good soak. Has it been 90 degrees the past two days? Yeah, they are probably thirsty.
- Deep, infrequent watering is better than frequent shallow watering. Once your plants are established it’s better to water thoroughly than to water often. Here’s the thing. The roots of the plant need the water and the roots will go where the water is. You want your roots to go as far into the soil as possible so they can draw up the nutrients from deep in the soil. When you don’t water enough, it causes shallow roots, and shallow roots don’t get the nutrients they need. The same is true for house plants.
Other Growing Conditions
There are a few other conditions to consider when planning your garden. I won’t go into detail on each one but just think about these things when you have decided where to grow your food.
- Wind – I live in the midwest and the wind can be treacherous. I have to constantly think about where to place my seedlings to protect them yet still allow them to get as much sun as possible.
- Pests- this is a big one. I took two complete years off of growing any squash plants because I was so frustrated with a squash bug infestation (and grow organically).
- Pets – Unfortunately dogs and cats urinating in the garden is not considered to be a good way to water plants.
Seeds & Plants
Finally, we get to the actual plants! I know, took forever, huh? There are two ways to get your plants started – planting seeds or purchasing plants.
First, I want to discuss all the videos I’ve seen indicating you can take some food items purchased at the store and grow a vegetable from it. This may or may not work in the real world and here’s why. Many food items are produced in such a way that you cannot regrow the food. Pretty much any food created from a Monsanto seed cannot regrow. They’ve specially manufactured the seeds so they only grow one item of food. This is why it’s so important to purchase your seeds from a reputable seed supplier (one of my favorites is MI Gardener). While this is generally the case, I have successfully grown some foods purchased from the store – potatoes and onions. I’m not sure if I got lucky or what.
Pros and Cons of Seeds
Seeds are cheaper and plentiful. You can purchase a packet of seeds for $2.00 and potentially grow 20 plants from it. That’s a heck of a deal. And you don’t have to plant them all in the same year. I’ve planted seeds I’ve had for up to five years. But they do take longer to grow, require more care until they are established, and all the seeds will likely not germinate.
Sure, you can get your seeds from Wal-Mart and I’m sure they will be fine. I just wouldn’t count on being able to save the seeds from your harvest to use the following year (which you can do if you order from a reputable seed supplier). Then again, at only $2 a packet, you may not feel the need to save your seeds.
There are a couple of ways you can plant seeds. You can just put them in the ground or the container where you want them to grow or you can start them indoors and then transplant them outside.
One of the cons of starting seeds outdoors is pests and unpredictable spring weather are more likely to prevent them from becoming plants. Pests tend to attack the younger, more fragile plants and a baby plant being whipped around by 30 mph winds is not strong enough to sustain the beating.
Plenty of people start their gardens with seeds so don’t let anything in this section deter you from trying it out.
Pros and Cons of Plants
The obvious pro of planting an established plant is it is generally stronger and better able to withstand any number of conditions. If purchased from a nursery, it’s probably already been hardened off by being outside for a period of time so you can basically just put it in the ground. Another pro is most people don’t need 20 of a particular plant. One or two is enough. And because it’s already established, it’ll produce much sooner than a seed.
Now for the cons. The first and most obvious negative to purchasing plants is they are much more expensive. I’m not sure what plants will cost this year but I’m guessing around $4 per plant. You could have 20 of that same plant for the price of a $2 seed packet.
Another con is you don’t always know what you are getting. Depending on where you purchase the plant, you don’t know what conditions it was grown in or how it will do in your soil. Especially in the big box stores, you’ll often find plants are trucked in from other states. You can avoid this concern by buying from a local nursery.
I use a hybrid approach in my garden. I start growing plants from seed using grow lights and then I also plant seeds of the same plants. I do this for a couple of reasons. First off, if a plant doesn’t live through the transplanting stage, I still have seeds that will come up. And secondly, it allows me to have plants maturing at different intervals of time. I don’t want all my beans, peas, tomatoes, etc. to mature at the same time as I like to enjoy them throughout the summer. Do what works best for you!
Anyone can grow food – yes, even you. You can do it in an apartment, on a patio, in a small yard, or in a large yard. Food can be grown in pots, 5-gallon buckets, in the ground, in a raised bed, in a cold frame, and in a milk jug.
You will have some wins and some losses – consider them all experiments. Every year, I plant things that never come up and other things that turn out way better than planned. It’s all part of the learning process. Related Article: How to Develop a Growth Mindset for Success
I hope this article has inspired you to start your own garden. It really isn’t that hard. Just get started and try something. Of course, the bigger your garden, the more money you will save on food. Once you master gardening, check back here to learn how to store all that wonderful food you are growing!