Food Gardening 101

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So, you've decided that you want to try growing something -- not just anything, but food! (Congrats.) Just think: fresh, delicious, affordable healthy food... grown with your own blood, sweat, and tears. (Wait, no, maybe not all three.) But seriously!

Where do you start? What do you plant? How do you keep the darned things alive?

What You'll Need
Gardening space
Seeds or starter plants
Soil mix
Watering can (and water)
Soil supplements

Planning Your Garden

Plants have different light, temperature, and climate needs. Some plants like beans, tomatoes, and strawberries love sun and heat, while others like lettuce and green onions favour shade. Some, like thyme and parsley, aren't too particular and can grow happily year-round if cared for.

Whether you have access to a yard or community garden plot or a small raised bed or a collection of containers, it's possible to grow something. The size of your site will impact what you can grow -- some plants aren't suited to small-space gardening, so good garden planning is essential.

The type of growing medium you need will depend on your growing space. Containers, for example, require a soil-less or other container suitable mix to ensure proper drainage.

Make sure to plan when and what you want to plant. Many plants require their seeds sown after last frost, while others can be sown indoors any time, provided light and temperature needs are met. Some plants also benefit from being planted with others (companion planting).

Beginning Your Garden

Depending on the type of seed and the time of year, seeds may need to be sown indoors and transplanted outside later or planted directly in their plots. The seed package will tell you how deep to plant seeds, as well as where and when.

All plants need a few things in order to sprout and grow: soil, moisture, warmth, and light. Soil should be moist before you plant seeds -- damp, like a wrung-out sponge, not wet or soggy. Some seeds like alfalfa or mustard will sprout in a few days, while others like rosemary can take weeks or even a month to germinate.

Watering is a regular task, and how often you do it depends on the age of the plant, weather, soil type, container type, and type of plant. You can water manually or set up a drip/low-flow automatic or contained self-watering system.

When your seedlings grow to a certain size, they will often need to be transplanted, especially if grow in starter trays or small containers. Plants need room for their roots and shoots to grow, and crowding them will make it harder for them to survive. The thinnest should be cut at soil level (thinning). When transplanting, dig the planting hole slightly deeper and about twice as wide as the original pot. Add compost or organic fertilizer into the hold and gently ease the plant in. Make sure its soil is level with the new surrounding soil, and then fill in the remainder of the hold with soil and water well.

Garden Maintenance (Keeping Plants Alive)

There are a few key essentials to keeping plants healthy and thriving.

Pruning removes dead, dying, or diseased growth; improves air circulation; allows sunlight to reach and ripen fruit; and improves or controls the size and shape of a plant. The type of plant will help determine how you prune new and old growth. Culinary herbs, for example, should have new growth pinched out regularly to encourage bushier and more vigorous growth and prevent the plant from producing flowers and seeds.

Weeds can be troublesome for in-ground gardens, while container and indoor gardens may see little to no weed growth. They can cause problems because they compete with crops for nutrients and space -- and can take over your garden if you fail to keep them at bay. (Some weeds can also be helpful, but that's a story for another time.)

Weeding can be done by hand, through mulching, or through use of organic weed controls (e.g. mixture of salt and vinegar).

When it comes to pest and disease control, the best defence is healthy soil and plants. Some insects like aphids are looking forward to tasting your home-grown goodies, while others like ladybugs and bees can be beneficial.

As your plants grow, they take in nutrients from the soil. To keep your soil healthy and your plants productive, it is necessary to amend your soil from time to time. Making and using compost is one of the best ways to do this.

What are the best seeds to buy? There are a lot of choices. Organic or non-GMO seeds, grown without insecticides or fungicides, are a good bet, but you can also grow heirloom varieties, which have natural resistance to pests and diseases.

The three rules of watering:

1) Water the soil, not the leaves.

2) Water in the morning. The second best time is at night.

3) Water deeply, not more frequently. It is better to water infrequently for longer periods of time, allowing water to soak in, than to sprinkle the soil surface daily.

Tip: If you start your seedlings indoors, they will need to be hardened off before moving outside. Putting young plants outside without preparation can shock and kill them.

The Short Version

1) Find a container and fill it with soil mix.

2) Sow a few seeds in the soil.

3) Put the plant in a sunny spot protected from frost.

4) Remember to water it occasionally (based on the plants' water requirements).

5) Wait. Keep it company. Sing it a song. Love it and care for it. (Cross your fingers?)

There you have it! Our very own (and very cursory) guide to growing food. Gardening can take some trial-and-error before you find what works for you, so be patient, get creative, and dig into some dirt. Happy planting!

Bellamy, A. (2010). Sugar snaps and strawberries: Simple solutions for creating your own small-space edible garden. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press.