How to Grow Your Own Food Anywhere
In my early twenties, I was an avid vegetarian, in large part because I loved vegetables. I was also short on cash a lot of the time, which meant that I had to get creative if I wanted to eat healthy. By age 24 I was eating an abundance of produce during the summer months and found it easy to eat healthy, with vegetable-focused meals, even when strapped. The secret: I started gardening, and later, preserving food, but that’s for another day.
Growing your own food isn't as hard as it sounds. Plus it gets you outside, doing something productive and fun. Gardens are beautiful, of course, and there’s endless variety so you can design one that speaks to your own aesthetic. A garden doesn’t have to be big, or even outdoors, to offer a bounty of growth: My first apartment garden was about 5x7 feet, and I was able to grow enough food for me to eat fresh veggies daily and to still have tomatoes to can and freeze, and enough zucchini to share. Even if you don't have a patch of green, you can use growing containers on a balcony and plant fresh herbs or veggies all year long.
Here’s an easy-to-use guide to help you get started growing your own food (year-round) when following a plant-based diet, so you can eat healthy, save money, and have more control over what you put into your body.
1. Brainstorm Before You Plant
Start off by thinking about what you’d like to grow. Then, think about what you can grow in the space you have. “Ask yourself what it is you want to garden. It may be easy to grow a bed of radishes, but is that a food that you really love?” says N.C. “Slim” Brown, who runs Feed the People Farms, a food justice, heritage food, and folkways-focused farm in Hickory Level, GA.
“Most people automatically default to vegetables, but there are so many other things out there, and a lot of your decision will be based on what your site is able to handle,” says Brown. “For example, if you have a lot of shade, you're going to struggle growing most vegetables, but mushrooms will thrive. If you have a decent amount of space with full-sun, it might be fun to start a small grain plot. Herbs, both culinary and medicinal are great for small spaces.” On your kitchen counter, you can grow basil, rosemary, mint and parsley, and thyme.
There are lots of planters that make it possible to grow these year-round. Grow your own herbs in your kitchen with this Click and Grow Smart Garden Planter, Williams Sonoma, $99.
2. Do Your Research Before You Dig
Think about what your plants need to be happy: How much sunlight (full or partial or shade), how much water, and what temperature will they thrive in? Many seed packets list this information, just make sure to check your planting zones to see when to start putting your seeds and plants in the ground. And check if your plants are annual or perennial (or biennial). Annual plants will grow for one year, so you can plant other things in that patch the following year. But perennial plants (like mint) will be there for years to come, so map your space accordingly.
3. Figure Out If You Have Soil Or Dirt
“Dirt is dead, soil is alive. 99.9% of us have dirt,” says Kirsten Simmons, who runs Ecosystem Farm in Atlanta, GA. “On a small scale, you can start by building up your soil, instead of tilling it, to encourage the development of organisms that will help your plants thrive.” Building up your soil means adding in nutrients, and the best way to do this is with organic (not synthetic) fertilizers. Compost is a great choice, and easy to find or create from your own kitchen. You can also get your soil tested to see what it needs to grow healthy, happy plants. Your local nursery can provide you with resources for testing.
4. Start Your Garden with the Easy Growers.
There are plenty of great vegetable choices for first-time gardeners: Lettuce, as well as heartier greens, like kale and collards, are often go-to choices for beginners. Simmons recommends peppers, peas, arugula, and radishes. Cherry tomatoes are also an abundant crop and will flourish in large planters almost anywhere you have a mix of sun and shade.
If you’re not quite ready to grow your own veggies, start small, with herbs. “Catmint is really easy to grow and is a hardy perennial,” says Grant Wallace, who runs the herb-focused Grant Wallace Farm in Conyers, GA. Annual herbs like basil and cilantro as well as perennials like thyme, rosemary, and oregano are all easy starting blocks to getting your hands dirty (literally!).
5. How to Care for Your Plants
Now that you’ve checked your planting dates, picked your plants, and mapped out your garden, the fun of planting can begin! Check if your plants need to be "started" first (planted in small pots to start the growing process) or "direct-seeded" (putting the seed right in the ground to start). For plants that need to be started, go to your local nursery and ask for seed starting supplies. These include trays to hold the plants, plus special potting soil.
Fill the trays with soil and place the seeds into the middle, at whatever planting depth is listed on the packet, cover with soil, and lightly water. Make sure the soil stays moist, that the plants are a comfortable temperature, and that they get a good amount of natural light. Not all seeds will sprout at the same time: Some sprout right away, while others can take weeks.
When it’s time to transfer your seedlings, add any soil amendments you’ll be using (like compost or manure), and weed your plot. Then, take all your seedlings and seed packets and set them out roughly where they’ll be going in your garden. Make sure to consider how much space each mature plant will need, as well as how much sun and leave plenty of space.
Once everything is in the ground, spend a few minutes each day and check if plants need to be watered or if your garden needs to be weeded. As your plants mature, check if you need to add supports (like tomato cages), treat for insects (one of the best naturally occurring pesticides is neem oil). You may be surprised how quickly everything grows. Snap peas can be ready in six to eight weeks for instance. Before you know it, it will be time to harvest!