Last week, we talked about why growing your own fruits and vegetables can be an important part of a more sustainable future for your family, community, and our planet. This week, we will look at just how easy that can be.
When I was growing up, my stepfather plowed up about a quarter to a third of our back garden. It was back-breaking work. At first, he hired someone with a farm plow to come in and do it. But after a couple of years, he bought a small tiller. Each spring and fall it was the same. In spring, he tilled the soil, making furrows, and planting seeds or seedlings. Then all spring and summer, he weeded, watered with the hose every night, and used fertilizers and chemical pesticides. In the fall, he pulled up all the dead and dying plants and burned them. Then he once more tilled the soil and left most of it fallow, only planting a few winter vegetables.
Yes, the warm, mild, and relatively wet Southern climate produced some incredibly succulent maters.
What are maters, you ask? There is nothing on this planet like a mater. A mater is a homegrown, vine-ripened tomato picked fresh and eaten still warm from the plant. The best ones, of course, are cherry tomatoes or Tommy-Toes as we used to call them.
But can you tell that most of what he did was not that good for the environment or sustainable? Over the course of a few years, even with laying fallow in the winter, crop rotation, and chemical fertilizers, the yields decreased. It was also time-consuming (close to an hour every night to water, weed, and harvest) and back-breaking work. It also required relatively large plots of land.
Thankfully, we have better options available to us today. Everything from container and window sill gardens that can top-up your diet with fresh herbs and lettuces to raised beds to my favorite a lasagna garden. Let’s explore some of those and their benefits and limits:
This method is the single most important in my opinion. It allows even those in tiny apartments/flats in the middle of mega-cities to reconnect with nature, reduce their food miles, reuse things that would otherwise become trash or recycling (especially plastics, folks), and to enjoy the taste of fresh from the garden food.
@PanKwake and I lived in a dingy, tiny flat in North London for five years. But even then, I managed to keep a couple of plastic tubs of produce growing outside our window. And fresh herbs on the window sill. Sometimes we dared not eat what we grew since obnoxious neighbors or local students seemed to feel our planters were their personal cigarette trays. But we planted each spring and hoped for the best.
Don’t forget that you can grow things like fresh herbs, spinach, and most lettuces anywhere that you could stick a houseplant. Yes, I can appreciate the beauty of flowering plants in your apartment, but why not also include a few pots of fresh-smelling herbs, and some lettuces are surprisingly colorful and lovely.
Why you ask? Because I wanted to be sure that my child remained connected with the growing process. I did not want her thinking that all food came from stores. I wanted her to appreciate the true value and taste of food.
Even now I continue to use container gardening in order to reclaim space, especially on our front and back patios, that might otherwise be underutilized. It is also an excellent way of draining every single bit of life from plastic containers before they get recycled.
And certain crops, especially potatoes and carrots are well-suited to the method. The old plastic trash cans that the previous owners left here have been repurposed. Providing two or three harvests of potatoes each year. My latest experiment has been growing carrots in two-liter soda bottles.
Container gardens are easy to water, weed, and harvest as well. You can either water them directly from the can or set up drip watering systems, reusing more old plastic bottles. As for harvesting, just snip and regrow your lettuces or pull up.
Cut and come again for salad fixings and herbs mean that a single plant can feed you for weeks or months. Spacing your plantings so that you have fresh produce from spring to fall is vital for things such as carrots, potatoes, and leeks. I made the mistake of planting all at once last year, which meant that everything was ready for harvest at once, rather than as I needed it. I’ve learned my lesson. This year, I will be planting a few seeds of each every couple of weeks from now until August or September.
These are an excellent alternative to all that tilling my step-father did. By mixing a variety of plants, climbers such as beans, peas, and cucumbers, with vine plants such as tomatoes and peppers, and root vegetables such as onions, turnips, and carrots, you can maximize your yields, reducing the need for those long furrows.
Planting, watering, weeding, and harvesting is also much easier. Not only do you not need to till, but you also don’t need to bend down as far when weeding, watering, or harvesting. Everything is easy to reach. And if you are really good, you can combine plants in such a way as to minimize pests.
The biggest disadvantage is the cost. While you can reuse old wood, brick, or stone, most of us don’t have those things just lying around. That means we end up buying them or the pre-made beds. Then, of course, you have to purchase the topsoil and/or compost to go in your bed. We probably spent three to five hundred pounds to build this one in our back garden, though it will probably outlive me. Oh, it was back-breaking work to level that area, stack all those concrete blocks, and fill it, too. It took me and our young handyman a couple of weeks to do it all.
Lasagna or layer Gardens
No sooner did I go to all that trouble and expense to build our raised bed than I learned of layer or lasagna gardens. They sounded too good to be true.
- Throwdown a layer of cardboard or newspaper on the ground to act as a barrier for grass and weeds.
- Hold this down with a thin layer about an inch or two of compost (we get ours free from the local council from the garden waste they have recycled).
- Then a thicker layer of garden and/or kitchen waste, six to eight inches.
- Repeat…and repeat…and repeat. As tall as you want. And as often. Laying fallow in the winter with this method allows you to actually rebuild the nutrients right into it.
- You can even plant right away. That day. No waiting for it to decay/compost.
Sounds simple, right? It is easy. The first lasagna bed I built alone, in less than half an hour, in the dark, in order to get some seedlings that I had impulsively bought at the local market into the ground before they died and/or the rain came.
This is what came from that two-foot by ten-foot space. Some of the loveliest, largest courgettes/zucchinis, as well as peppers and even one small pumpkin. With no weeding and much less watering. As the mulch, such as grass clippings, leaves, and vegetables peels compost, they naturally release H2O.
Seeing that bed and my new one lying fallow this winter, I realize why the yield was so amazing from it. This is some of the richest looking soil I have ever seen. This method also means you can skip the whole separate compost bin thing.
I am sold. This is hands down the winner. It means too that whatever useable space you do have, you can cheaply or even for free turn into a vegetable patch in no time.
Okay, time to get off the computer and go do some of that gardening. I hope you will too. It is good for your body, your mind/soul, and this planet. And with these new methods, it is surprisingly cheap and easy, even for those living in cramped space.