I'd rather have roses on my table than diamonds on my neck.
- Emma Goldman
In March and in April from morning till night
In sowing and seeding good housewives delight.
- Thomas Tusser
Note: Gardening has become somewhat of a politically and ethically charged issue for some people today. Just because I have linked to a garden site in this article does not necessarily mean that I share the author's philosophy of life. For example, I would probably be poles apart in outlook from the urban homesteaders. However, my goal is to glean the practical information and to leave the rest.
Though we're really just beginning winter in the U.S., my thoughts usually turn to gardening at this time of year. Do we have any vegetable gardeners following along with us? Readers who grow roses or other flowers? Those who have fruit trees? I'd love it if you'd post about your gardening adventures on your blog and provide a link in the comments section so that we can all visit your site.
Garden How-To Internet Resources: Here's a great list of gardening resources that can be found on the web. It was put together by the Warwick, RI Public Library system and includes resources that would be of interest to children and adults, as well as beginning and expert gardeners.
Finding Space to Garden -- Anyone Can: Remember, even if you lack space for a "real" garden, you can still enjoy some of the gardening experience -- if you would like. There are varieties of vegetables that are perfect for growing in tubs on a deck or patio. Plus, you can always grow herbs on a windowsill.
Back in the day when people thought tomatoes were poisonous for human consumption, some people used to grow them in pots indoors as ornamental plants. You can always follow suit.
Many vegetable plants are quite beautiful. Lady Lydia suggested that the home keeper who is trying to save money might plant some varieties of vegetables along the edges of a driveway or walkway in order to find some garden space. Be sure you're not violating any neighborhood covenants by doing so.
Finally, some apartment complexes are starting to offer communal garden plots, where you can claim a space to grow your own veggies. There are other such communal plots in urban areas, as well.
For maximizing whatver gardening space you find, I recommend reading, "Square Foot Gardening". It's very likely that your library system will have a copy. This is a great book for gardeners of all levels -- from beginning to advanced.
Cold framing: I live in an area of the U.S. which has a fairly long growing season. (I'm zone 6 or 7, depending on which zone guide you use.) Even if you live in colder zones, you can extend your growing season by cold-framing your plants: See cold frame or cold frame . I have not tried this method, myself, since our winters are on the short side and this is more involved than I care to get. However, it's an excellent project for the serious gardener.
Here are some thoughts for young or beginning gardeners from Oregon State University.
1. Plan, prepare, and plant a little garden the first year you set out to garden. Start with a few pots in tubs, a few veggies in a narrow row, or a small plot of about 10 feet by 20 feet. (Actually, I think the urban or suburban gardener can get quite a lot of yield from a 10 by 20 foot plot. Of course, for those of our readers who live on farms, this would be a very small plot.)
2. Learn to do things well in a small garden before tackling a larger one. It is better to tend a small garden well than to plant more than you can handle and let it get away from you. You can always add a few gardening activities to your garden each year. Include roof, leaf, and fruiting kinds of vegetables.
3. As you learn more about gardening, draw up a picture of the garden you want to have. Use that as a guide for expanding your gardening efforts.
4. Learn how to use things like compost, fertilizer, manure, and lime to condition your soil. (My note: Your local county extension agent will tell you how to work with the soil in your area. He can also measure soil samples from your garden and yard and give you advice about what to do to improve your soil for the particular plants you want to grow.)
5. Once you've turned over the soil for your first planting, the hard work in a garden is not really in planting or growing the vegetables. It is in eliminating weeds and diseases and harmful insects and keeping the garden free of these things. Learn what you can about dealing with garden weeds and pests -- particularly in your area. Decide whether you want to deal with pests organically or if you want to use commercially prepared pesticides. If you take the latter route, make sure that you use the right chemicals -- ones that can be used safely on vegetables and fruits that are to be eaten.
Composting: Would you like to try your hand at composting, if you don't compost already? Composting not only provides you with material with which to condition your soil for growing vegetables or plants, it is an environmentally friendly way to use up peelings, leftover veggies that are going to waste, coffee grinds, tea bags, eggshells, and other sorts of kitchen refuse. (Do not use items which contain meat or dairy, as these will attract unwanted animals and other pests to your compost pile or container.)
There's a lot of information on the Internet about how to compost. Plus, if you really want to invest in the equipment, you can buy tools that will help you compost. Also, there are more than one method of composing. For example, in one method, you actually use worms in an indoor container to compost the material. In other methods, you keep the composted material outside and let nature's critters do the composting work.
Here's what I do: I took a large garbage can that we were no longer using, and I drilled holes in the sides, top, and bottom. I gathered plenty of fallen autumn leaves to use as a base. Since then, I have continued to throw kitchen scraps onto the compost. (Remember, compost continually shrinks in size, and you will be able to add more materials as you go along. Remember, too, that a good compost pile needs both brown materials -- leaves, twigs, etc. -- and green materials -- fresh scraps from your kitchen. Be wary of using grass clippings, especially if you have treated your lawn with pesticides or certain fertilizers. Also, your compost pile will perform best if you turn it with a shovel once a week, though you can eventually get results if you just let it go.) I am about to spread the contents on my raised vegetable garden -- yay. Then, I'll start over on a new batch.
Here are some articles about composting:
How to compost -- for beginners through expert
U.S. government guide to composting
Composting for Kids
Here's a thorough glossary that contains terms that even advanced gardeners may need to look up: glossary
Remember, your job as a gardener is basically to provide the plants you have chosen with
1) adequate water
2) adequate nutrients -- particularly through improving the soil
3) making sure that plants in clay soils receive enough oxygen to the roots
4) making sure that you have chosen species and varieties of plants that will grow in your area
5) patrolling the garden to eliminate weeds and pests. Weeds must be dealt with at the roots, or they will simply grow back again.
The process of keeping a garden goes basically like this:
1) Till the soil (or place soil in pots for container gardening)
2) Prepare a nice seedbed
3) Plant seeds and plants
4) water as needed
5) cultivate to control weeds.
6) thin for proper spacing
7) continue to control weeds
8) harvest and enjoy!
Keeping garden records can help you manage your garden better, particularly if you plant from seed. Think about your gardening year. For example, will you plant early crops -- such as lettuce -- in a space and then use the space for something else later on in the season? If so, write this down.
Also, write down the name of each vegetable or flower that you plant, the depth at which the seed must be planted, the correct spacing for seedlings, the days to germination, the days to maturity, and the estimated date of harvest. You can find this information on a packet or in a seed catalog. If you are transplanting seedlings, rather than growing from seed, then jot down the correct depth and spacing, as well as the days to maturity and harvest. Jot down any other notes you think you may need, such as when you thinned seedlings. If you keep information like this on index cards or in a notebook, you can refer back to your notes as often as you need to.
Many gardeners also write down a yearly evaluation of how their garden went, as well as plans for future gardens.
Your garden notes can be as fancy or as plain as you like. If you really get into gardening, you might keep a pretty diary -- complete with photographs of your plants. Such diaries -- minus the photos, of course -- were popular for farmers and gardeners to keep in days past. Today, people learn much from old garden diaries which have been preserved.
Do the math: If you live on a farm, you likely maintain a garden or gardens already. You have the space, and, most likely, the equipment and the means to make gardening a worthwhile, money-saving endeavor.
If you live in a city or in suburbia, the question of whether or not a garden is both cost-effective and, also, something you want to do becomes a little more complicated. Some say that the average gardener can save on food bills by growing vegetables and other food plants; other experts say that the average gardener will not save any real money.
In an article, Constance Casey said, "But, to be realistic, the people who can feed themselves and their families from their own vegetable plot and save money doing it are rare. These people are extraordinarily diligent and patient, and, what's more, they're possessed of gigantic freezers and a willingness to explore the mysteries of canning."
On a more positive note, here's a link to articles by a couple who purposely set out to discover whether home gardening yielded a financial return or not. I've only glanced at this site and intend to read it more thoroughly later. But, I believe that they concluded that it did save money for them. Here's an interesting (or at least I think so) article about a family who turned 1/10 of an acre in Pasadena, California into a viable homestead.
If you are new to gardening, you may or may not see financial rewards in the first year. Generally, getting started requires some investment in equipment -- both for gardening and for preserving your harvest. Be sure to figure in this cost against the yield you expect. Also, investigate ways to obtain the tools and materials you need as inexpensively as possible. Do not sacrifice too much quality for the sake of price, however.
Also, a few crops require an investment of years, while most bear in one season. Fruit trees may take up to five years to bear a good harvest, for example. Yet, if you keep at it, fruit trees can provide some of the most healthful, pleasurable, and abundant harvests in the home garden. Fruit can also be preserved in many ways, making it a year-round way to add to the bounty of your table.
Anyhow, at least for the first year or two, your gardening may need to be a labor of love. Embrace benefits other than financial: better tasting produce, more nutritious produce, exercise and fresh air in the garden, teaching your children usefull skills, enjoying the wonder and beauty of seeing a garden come to life, etc.
Know that in the long run, some skillful gardeners save on food bills. As you increase in skill and knowledge, you, too, may be able to save money through fruit and vegetable gardening. To reap the most rewards, study how to be a frugal and effective gardener.
In my case, I do feel that at least keeping a salad garden is cost-effective. We do not have any berry bushes at our current home, but we did at an earlier place, and I believe that they are wonderfully cost-effective to grow. I'm an optimist about gardening and believe that it is helpful to the family budget. However, I have to admit that I need to do a cost-effectiveness study in my own case to be certain, and, of course, I also cannot speak to all situations. Investigate what works for you.
Here are just a few ways to be a frugal gardener:
1) Let a few of your plants go to seed in the late summer and fall. Collect the seeds and store them appropriately. Be aware that the seeds of some hybrid vegetables may not produce the exact same qualities of the hybrid, but may revert to one of the earlier varieties. However, you can't beat free seeds!
2) If you do buy seeds, you may find it worthwhile to invest in good quality seeds that will yield a high percentage of return. This is particularly true the larger your garden is. I have a small garden and have had all the yield I can handle from inexpensive seed packets. I may be pushing my luck on this, though. Most serious gardeners consider good seed to be an essential building block of a productive garden. Poor seed can be one reason for a gardening flop.
3) Trade the use of gardening equipment. Trade cuttings from your garden for cuttings from your neighbors.
4) Learn ways to freeze or otherwise preserve your harvest. Investigate recipes that use your produce. For example, if you grow zucchini, make zucchini bread, stuffed zucchini, Bisquick's easy zucchini pie, ratatouille, vegetable soup, etc.
5) Use some of your garden bounty to take to the elderly, the sick, newcomers to the neighborhood, or those who may not have gardens of their own.
6) Prepare your soil well, and you won't have to use costly chemicals or fertilizers. Great-great-grandma knew tricks for getting a great yield from a garden without access to stores like Home Depot!
7) Cut up potatoes that are beginning to sprout. Make sure there's an eye in each piece. Plant these, and you'll have a new potato plant for each piece. Also, start a sweet potato plant in a jar. There are directions on the Internet.
8) Investigate using materials around your house such as banana peels, Epsom salts, etc., to feed certain plants. Do your homework, so that you know what you are doing.
9) Learn about companion planting. Some plants do especially well when planted near each other. For example, marigolds have a reputation for scaring off pests that attack certain plants. Geraniums can turn tomatoes red earlier.
10) Grow herbs. In many climates, herbs really take hold in a garden and become very large, high yielding plants that produce year after year. In addition to using them straight from the garden, dry or salt the herbs to preserve them. There are recipes for doing this on the Internet. You can also make jellies out of herbs. Again, you can find recipes for this on the net. (One year, I made mint jelly to give as gifts.) If you do not want herbs and mint to get out of control, plant them in a container and sink the container into the ground. The container will provide somewhat of a barrier to keep herbs from overgrowing your garden.
Count the Time and Interest Cost, in addition to the financial: For many home managers, gardening is a vital activity that provides many, many rewards. However, while some home managers love gardening, others find it to be tedious work. You can be a great home manager without gardening. So, consider whether this investment of time and energy is truly for you.
Also, consider your season in life. There may be periods when you have more time to devote to gardening than in others. Gardening may or may not be right for you now, but you might re-consider the issue again at some future date.
Even if you decide not to garden, read a few books and articles about agriculture and home gardening: Having some understanding of these topics can enrich your appreciation of the foods you bring to your table. Gardening books can also help develop your eye for beauty and your awe for the wondrous plants the Lord has created. Reading them with your children will provide them with these benefits, as well. Check your local library for some wholesome books about gardening and farming.