Veg*n Cooking and Other Random Musings: On Gradually Achieving a Sustainable Local Diet - Gardening in Small Spaces

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

On Gradually Achieving a Sustainable Local Diet - Gardening in Small Spaces

In the final post of the Sustainable Local Diet Series, I will discuss some of the “basics” of small space gardening. I am not here with specific answers, I am a novice gardener myself, but what I can offer are the questions you will need to ask yourself when developing your garden. Even growing something as simple as bell peppers will require different amounts of labor and inputs depending on where you live. This makes any sort of specific, targeted advice pretty useless unless you live in Columbia, Missouri and are gardening on a southern facing porch as we are. I hope this piece will provide a basic outline and resources to get you started in the garden. There is never such a thing as “too late” to start a garden, it may be “too late” at this point to grow certain fruits or vegetables, but there are a wide variety of cool weather and winter crops at your disposal. And no matter what your conditions are – even if you live in a north facing apartment with no back porch - greens, herbs, garlic, small onions, those kinds of things are not beyond your reach. With appropriate planning and a little common sense, you can be eating homegrown spinach in January in Missouri without a whole lot of effort.

Start With What You’ve Got and What You Use

One of the most important steps in planning a garden, this should probably be your first step is to find out what “hardiness zone” you are in, as this will show you how long your growing season is, when to plant, and what can be grown in your area. Knowing your hardiness zone will making determining what to grow much easier, seed packets often even have the necessary hardiness zone, sun, days to maturity and other important information on them.

Next, what type of space do you have to work with? Will you be gardening in a small yard, a patio, in a window sill? How much of your available space are you willing to dedicate to a garden? After you determine where you want your garden to be, you need to gauge how much sunlight (full-sun, partial sun, shade, etc) that area receives and a rough estimate on the daily duration. I recommend keeping a gardening journal – perhaps I am just a nerd, but I write down my plans, what I did, when I fed the plants, etc., so I won’t make the same mistakes over and over or have to “re-invent the wheel” next year when I do it again.

Finally, in making the basic plans for your garden, you have to decide what it is you want to grow. What fruits and vegetables do you eat most often? Is this something that can be grown easily in your area? Just because something – say citrus – does not grow naturally in places like Missouri, with proper conditions, you can grow dwarf citrus trees inside. It takes a lot more effort as you have to create optimal conditions, but it is possible. I suggest writing down a list of prospective crops and then doing research to see if it can be grown in your area and what can be “companioned” with it, but more on this later.

Efficiently Use the Space You Have

This is the section of this post that Brett and I are just learning how to heed. When you grow food in small places, you must make the most efficient use of your space as possible. This means being creative and viewing your space in multiple dimensions.

When you have a yard, this is far easier. First you need to decide as to whether you are going to have a container garden, an actual plot in the ground, or both. If you are simply planting in the ground, I would recommend using a raised-bed style of permaculture. Permaculture is a living systems approach to human environmental design that seeks to mimic the self sustaining qualities of undisturbed nature. The basic tenant, at least in terms of gardening, is to create a system that can sustain itself with as few human inputs as possible. Not only does this make the work easier for us, the system just works better when we either leave it alone, or nurture the basic elements that sustain the system. It is no understatement to say that this can be a difficult project to get started, especially since many suburban lawns are, well, dead. But once the system is in place, it requires very little effort.

Essentially, to create a permaculture garden, you must first build up your soil and create your raised beds. Building up soil naturally can take hundreds of years, which obviously, we do not have. But we can help the soil along, by adding humus, or organic matter that will eventually be broken down into nutrient rich top soil. I will not go into the process in too much detail, as again, it depends on where you are and what you hope to get out of your garden. I would provide examples of what can be used to build up the soil, but the list is long, and it depends, again, on what you hope to do with your garden, how permanent you want it to be, and so on. For more information on the principles and how to’s for planning a permaculture garden, I would highly recommend reading or watching anything recent by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, the “fathers” of permaculture.

For the rest of us who do not have a yard or perhaps no grass to speak of with which to garden in, we have to be a little more creative. We can easily think of our “floor space” where we can set pots or other containers to grow things, but there are also hanging baskets which are great for things like strawberries, other berries, and even cucumbers. Also, do not forget about your vertical space. Using hanging baskets accounts for some of this, but one can even have a small, narrow pot containing a vining crop like squash, place a trellis against a wall or other sturdy surface, and voila! There are also window boxes, and “banister boxes”, which are containers that have hooks to hang the pot on the banister of a porch. You can get a table and place sun loving plants on the table, and shade lovers or plant starts below where they will receive shade. The plants don’t need much space in between pots, so long as the greenery isn’t getting tangled. Basically, just leave enough room for your plants to “do their thing” and for you to be able to get to them to tend them. Beyond that, pack ‘em in; you actually create your own “micro-climate” by bunching different tiers (heights) of plants in a cluster. Fruit trees can even be grown in containers and pruned to grow flat against the wall, taking up very little space. I recommend the book The Edible Container Garden by Michael Guerra as a good starting point.

Start Them Right

There isn’t much to say here besides do your research and learn how long it takes the seed to germinate as well as the number of days until they reach maturity. That way you don’t plant them too early or too late. We made this mistake here with our pepper seeds this year. We started the seeds back in April, and the starts we kept are just now getting to be about 7-8 inches tall. We didn’t do enough research to know that we should have started the seeds back in February.

Plant It Right

You can just stick a plant in a pot or the ground and hope it will grow, but this is not how I suggest you do this, not if you don’t want to be disappointed. Having a successful garden requires a little research, or, at the very least, a seasoned gardener to help you along the way. Plants require particular nutrients to function at their best – just like humans. Some plants like sandy soil; some do not. A quick Google search will bring up the specific soil requirements for the plants you wish to grow. Some like to be planted deep; for others, it isn’t as much of an issue. Some plants will provide nutrients or attract predators that will nurture or kill pests on other plants. Growing these things in the same space is called “companion cropping (or planting)”, where you essentially have two plants that have a mutually beneficial relationship together (such as a nitrogen loving plant in the same container as a nitrogen fixing plant like legumes). This takes a lot of the hard work of gardening out of the equation. Feeding isn’t required as much (and sometimes, if you get a really good set up going, not at all), and pests are kept to a minimum. A good site to read more about companion cropping can be found here.

It also helps to anticipate the needs of your plant and attend to them before the plants get too big and have a large established root system. If you are growing berries, set the trellis up before you plant the berries, that way it will already be in place when they need it. Planting peppers, eggplants, or other tall bushy crops? Go ahead and stake them up before they establish a root system, that way you don’t have to risk any damage. Growing tomatoes? Pick up a few tomato cages, I highly recommend tying the plants to the cages with Velcro tape if you can find it, this will keep them in place so they don’t hit the cage when it’s windy.

Plant Food and Drink

If you are growing in soil, in the beginning, you will want to feed your plants in roughly the same way I describe below for a container garden. Hay and grass clippings also make a great addition as mulch as they keep the weeds down and help retain moisture. Just keep in mind that anything applied to the grass while on the lawn will be absorbed into your crops. Over time, as the health of your soil improves, you will need to feed it less and less, perhaps eventually, not at all.

If you are gardening in containers, you can do much to create a self-sustaining environment that requires less feeding, but it will still require some. Depending on what you are comfortable with, I would go with some sort of organic manure. We like worm castings (poo), and from what I understand this is a “vegan” option of fertilization. This is not why we use worm castings, we use them because they work great and, at least to us, they seems more “sterile”, but if the “ethical” aspect is an issue for you, worm poo might be the way to go. Otherwise, get your hands on some local chicken or horse poo from organically raised animals. Or, if you are really brave, you can try humanure.

Watering is always an issue. Rains are not reliable, and using a sprinkler wastes an inordinate amount of water. So what to do? If you have a garden in your yard, you might try the “drip irrigation” method, as the water is dispensed in a slow trickle at a rate that it can be absorbed by the plant. I would recommend the “buried clay pot irrigation” method. This can be done in a raised-bed garden or a larger container garden. Essentially, all this traditional method of irrigation entails is burying an unglazed clay pot in the soil and filling it with water every so often. The pores in the clay will slowly release the water as the plants can take it up. This is likely a less expensive alternative to the drip irrigation system, and it also nice for larger containers. If planting in smaller containers, I recommend the “stick your finger in the soil to feel for moisture and water as needed” method. :-) Be resourceful with your water. Chile documents a way she captures the water used to wash her organic farmer’s market produce to use in her garden. Got a glass of water that got a little past it’s prime? Toss it in a watering can and use it when the plants need it. As I noted in my local booty update, we used the (strained to get the food debris out) water we had used to boil the corn and beans to water our plants. You don’t always have to use “fresh” water. I would, however, caution against using the “rinse water” from conventional or store bought produce, who knows what is on them, and you probably don’t want that going on your plants.

Tend and Enjoy

What I love about gardening is that, if you do it right or at least close enough, the plant does most of the work for you. However, things don’t always go perfectly: plants get attacked by bugs; leaves yellow and fall off; and fruits drop off before they are mature. This is part of having a garden.

To deal with insect infestations, first determine what is eating your goodies. Chances are, if the problem isn’t too bad, you will simply be able to manually remove the bugs. If you don’t want to kill them (which I don’t), you can generally relocate the worms and other larger bugs you find as we do. Aphids, those small little bugs (of many colors) that infest the new growth and blooms of plants (among other things) – well, I’m not so kind to them. They are so small that they generally meet their maker when they meet my thumb and forefinger, but gardening isn’t always pretty. You have to be able to decide, is it the plant or the bugs? ‘Cause they’ll eat your whole garden if you let ‘em. If manual remedies are not doing the trick, you have one of two options to choose from, the size of your operation is likely to determine which you choose. First, you can figure out what predator your pest has and try to find ways to attract them. Predators of aphids include lady bugs (lady beetles) and wasps, which can be attracted to your plants to eat your aphids. Not into the idea of attracting wasps to your garden? A safe, organic concoction we’ve come up with that works on aphids and does not damage the plant is a mixture of boiled, crushed garlic and ground cayenne pepper. After the garlic has boiled for a few minutes, strain the cloves out and let the water cool. Then spray this mixture directly on the affected areas of the plant. We usually come back an hour or so later to water/rinse the plants off. Wait a week and if the pest problem continues, repeat.

Sometimes plants get a little industrious. They begin to grow like crazy and then equally as suddenly, the leaves begin to yellow. This could be a sign of a “health problem” or an issue of over watering, but even healthy plants experience “leaf drop”. If you notice a wilting leaf, help the plant out and carefully remove it. Notice a limb that is skimpy on leaves and doesn’t have any fruit or much new growth on it? Clip it off. This will encourage new growth and will perhaps result in a limb with leaves and fruit on it.

When fruits drop off before they mature, this can be a sign of a number of things. The most obvious is weather, if it has been windy or stormy and you notice dropped fruit, I think we can chalk it up to that. However, more commonly, the plant needs food. If you notice, during periods of calm, sunny weather that your plant is having a fruit dropping problem, try feeding it (unless you just did this recently) or checking it’s moisture level. The plant could also be getting too much or not enough water.

I’m sure a common question is how often to feed and water your plants. Many folks will even give you solid number, but I think they are full of “hoo-ha”, we don’t all garden in the same conditions, and it's not like an oil change, done every certain number of days or “miles”. It takes common sense and time to figure out what works in your garden.

Watering your plant is simple enough, if you stick your finger down in the soil, say, about an inch, and it feels moist, it doesn’t need water. If it isn’t, it likely does. In my humble opinion, it is better, if you are using the “water as needed” method, to give light, frequent waterings, rather than large drenches. Heavy waterings are likely to leech the food out of the soil of a container garden, leaving the food at the bottom and useless. An important thing to add is that wet leaves exposed to sunlight are likely to get burned; either avoid getting water on the leaves or water when it’s dark. Wet leaves can’t breathe, so water is a friend to the roots but an enemy to the leaves.

Food is another issue. We tend to give our plants food about every 2 months (we give them a nice dose of food when we transplant them as well), so far, this has worked out for us. But of course, how often to feed depends on what you are growing and what you are feeding your plants, really time and experience are the best teachers.

Once you’ve gotten the basics down, enjoy watching your garden grow, be humble and have a sense of humor about your mistakes. That old adage about learning more from your mistakes than successes has thus far proved quite true in my life, and I’ve made a lot of mistakes gardening. And I’m sure I’ll make many more, but with each mistake comes knowledge – if nothing else, the knowledge of what not to do next time.

I hope this series has shown ways that eating a more sustainable, local diet can be not only affordable, but quite rewarding. I thank my readers, as always, for being able to get through the novels that I pass off as blog posts and the tips and suggestions you gave us. As usual, I am wondering if you all have learned more from what I’ve wrote, or vice versa.

‘Til next time!


Bianca said...

Someday, when I get my own yard, I'll garden. I promise. I really would like to try my hand at it again (last time, I killed everything within a few weeks).

Mihl said...

Thank you for all of this interesting and useful information!
I am dreaming of having a garden at least once a week, but I am totally into window sill gardening.

Chuck Bartok said...

Great Post!
Very Informative.

You and your readers amay enjoy following my Video series on sustainable Tomato Growing on a small Plot.
Growing Tomatoes for Health and Wealth
We raised our family with a Truck Farm.

Also visit our Gardening Blog

Continue to Enjoy your adventures with the Soil

Lizzy said...

I'll have to agree with Mihl as the only space available to me are my window sills. The things I grow are few though: basil, chives, parsley... that's it! I need more herbs and maybe my own tomatoes, oi =D

As always you've written a wonderful and highly informative piece and I'm sure many people will appreciate your effort!

Erin said...

Good tips! I'm gonna try really hard to garden...eventually. I'll see if I can't turn my black thumb green.

Jennifer (of Veg*n Cooking) said...

Bianca - Hehe, I didn't write this to put any pressure on anyone. :-) So only do it if you want to.

Aw, I've killed my fair share of plants in my day, it just takes time and research. Even with that your plants can still die.

Mihl - I'm glad you got some use out of this. A window sill is a garden! Don't knock what you are doing. If you get creative and do a little planning and research you can actually grow quite a variety of things on a window sill.

Chuck - Thank you. I will have to check our your video.

Lizzy - Hey, at least you are growing something. And test the waters, try tomatoes, or eggplant, see how it goes.

Thank you Lizzy, I really appreciate your comment.

Erin - Thank you! I hope you do start one! You'd be surprised, with a little planning and research, you'll find that your thumb isn't black, you just didn't know what you were doing! It takes time!

selina said...

i know all about the grass clippings. its getting the grass clippings im having a problem with. it takes a lot of time to mow our yard because its a big yard (1 acre) & we only have push mowers. we are either busy or its raining.

Nasturtium is an herb. They are really low maintenance, have really pretty colorful flowers & have a spicy peppery taste. the ones in my garden are a "jewel" colored mix. i have red ones in the planter box on my front porch. they are also awesome companion plants. Just do a google search.

my tomato plants are crazy tall. i've never had them get that tall before. i must be doing something right. thanks for the advice on the green peppers. i havent cut them yet. i read somewhere that deer hate green peppers. so maybe it wasnt deer but there were hoof prints in the dirt.

Jennifer (of Veg*n Cooking) said...

Selina - That IS a big yard. Another option is hay. If you live near any farms or stables, perhaps you can get some from there, it might be easier than the grass clippings. Otherwise, you'll just have to pull the weeds. If you are lazy, like I am, it is probably only necessary to pull the weeds that could feasible be competition for your plants, so things in the general area.

Interesting about the nasturtium. I'll have to do some research on it. We are going to do companion planting, even in our container garden next year. That also helps with weeds and makes maintenance a lot easier.

No kidding, sometimes they just take off. Our Roma plant is pretty close to being my height.

No problem, we were never very comfortable taking scissors to our plants, but we got brave this year and it really works wonders.

Interesting about the bell peppers. Our community garden coordinator said that he's had deer even eat his hot peppers! I didn't think anything besides humans were crazy enough to eat those things.

Don't know what other creature with hooves might have been in your garden aside from a deer, that is, unless you have buffalo, cows, or horses that roam free on your property. :-)

Anonymous said...

This is such great info! And every little bit of space is always a plus! Even just growing your own herbs is a step in the right direction!

selina said...

i didnt have time to read your entire post yesterday & didnt want to respond to only 1/2 of your post.

just the other day i thought "i should have started a notebook when i 1st planted everything." just to track what i did when.

thanks for the series. it really helped. it seems like you've learned a lot.

i didnt do anything to my yard last winter to prepare it for the garden but i wasn't really sure if i was gonna have one. we have plans this fall to do things to it to make it healthier...although it seems to be doing fairly well. i am really debating about making the garden much much bigger. i just picked up the book "food not lawns" at the library.

do you guys ever save the seeds from the things you grow to plant next year?

i haven't blogged about it but i have a compost pile. we put our food scraps in it. no worms though. well, there might be some in there but not because i put them there. :)

and as far as starting seeds... i started mine too late too. its funny because the packs say 6 weeks prior but thats not nearly long enough. i bought many of my plants from this place near the farmers market. this lady turned her entire small city yard into a greenhouse & sells plants in the spring. all kinds of plants. very inexpensive too.

Cookiemouse said...

Great post. No matter how small the space available, it is always possible to grow something.

Jennifer (of Veg*n Cooking) said...

Shellyfish - Thank you! I agree, and growing things yourself is quite a rewarding experience, at least it has been for me. And in the modern world, there aren't too many things that we can have any sort of degree of control over in our lives - this is one small area that we can.

Selina - Hey, don't even worry about it.

The notebook really helps, I didn't start it until after I had started my seeds, but I am marking down plans, and am going to start keeping notes of when I start seeds, how much we get off of each plant, since it will make improving upon the garden next year so much easier.

No problem, I have learned a lot over the last few years and am very humbled to know that I have something of value to offer, I hope you got something out of this as well.

Yes, preparing the yard will probably help. If it is doing well now, continue to improve upon it, nurture it. Put down more humus, you can even use old newspapers and well, basically any paper that is not too colorful or glossy as a basis for your humus. Just because the yard is producing well now doesn't mean it will continue to do so. Gardening in the same space without nurturing the soil will just ensure that it dies quicker. You guys are very lucky to have a yard! I'm looking to seeing the progress of your yard and garden.

I understand that book is really good. If you are up to it, would you perhaps give a review of it. Don't want to add it to my insanely long list of books to read if it isn't worth my time.

Yes, we do save our seeds. Our theory is, if we save the seeds off of the best looking plants (make sure the fruit is fully ripe or the seeds won't be mature), that over time, we will "develop" a "strain" that is more suited to container or Midwestern gardening than the original seeds in the pack.

Oh wonderful! Compost piles are great too, I just like vermicompost because I don't have a yard, and, well, it's easier.

You should show us your compost pile and tell us how you tend to it in one of your garden updates, composting isn't something I have much experience with.

The packs lie! We started ours when the pack said as well and it wasn't nearly early enough. We'll be starting our pepper seeds in February next year. We got a lot of our starts from the farmer's market too, especially once it was apparent that our pepper plants started from seed were not going to produce this year.

Cookiemouse - Thank you. So true, even if you live in a basement, you can at least grow sprouts!