Growing Your Own Fruits & Vegetables

Growing your own fruits and vegetables is a process of urban agriculture, suburban gardening, or small farming of food for non-commercial use. It can be a form of permaculture or organic gardening – or may involve the use of small-scale chemicals and fertilizers. It includes everything from windowsill herb gardens to small, self-sustaining farms. It does not include growing food for sale to others. This article does not cover home-grown meat, eggs, dairy, or fish: for those, please see the wiki for Growing Your Own Meat and Dairy.

Your own food can be grown in urban, suburban, or rural setting. Amounts of food range from flavorings to supplemental amounts of food up through the subsistence level. Effective gardening saves money and adds fresh produce to you and your family’s diet.

A garden hobbyist may pay more for their end product than if they bought it. By contrast, growing your own produce is cost-effective and creates edibles at lower prices than the food items can be bought. It also increases a person, family or group’s food security in case of adversity.

Hardiness Zones. No matter where you live, you can only grow certain plants in that area. The limiting factors are the coldest winter temperatures. In the United States, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) publishes hardiness zones.

Soil Types. The main types of soil are sand, clay, and loam. pH is an important factor as well. Finally, there are minerals and elements in healthy soil that should be present in certain amounts for plant growth. You can go to an American cooperative extension office or an international agricultural extension office for help with determining your soil’s pH and mineral content. If you practice organic gardening, be aware that most agricultural extension offices are in the business of supporting large-scale, non-organic farming that require the addition of fertilizers.

Soil Fertility.  Gardens from which food is regularly taken require an ongoing renewal of fertility, or they will not produce well. This can be done by adding well-rotted organic matter, called compost. This material feeds the soil micro-organisms which in turn feed plant roots. There are many ways to make compost, from building and turning over piles of biomass until thoroughly rotted down, to simply adding thick mulches on top of the soil on a regular basis, which breaks down over time to feed the soil. The best biomass materials to use for compost will come from what is locally available, from grass clippings to leaves to seaweed. Animal manures are a powerful component because they contain many beneficial micro-organisms and much already-processed biomass.

Certain other factors can limit what you grow. Near the ocean salt in the soil may severely limit plant choices. The dryness or wetness of a location will also limit your choices for planting foodstuffs.

Growing your own food in an URBAN setting

“Urban” here means a home or homes are apartments or other structure having no real growing space. Herbs on a windowsill, mushrooms in a closet, balcony container gardening, rooftop container gardening, urban plots and hydroponics are all examples of growing your own food in an urban setting.

Perhaps the easiest way to grow food in an urban setting is to concentrate on expensive flavorings and herbs. Fresh herbs and dried spices are often costly to buy in a city environment, and will give you a good return on your investment. Urban locations to grow herbs are a sunny windowsill, rooftop containers, balcony containers, community garden plots, parks (for encouraging native plants like mint), and rooftops. Fire escapes must be kept clear for emergency use, but some jurisdictions may allow hanging baskets or window boxes on a fire escape – check with local authorities. Care should also be taken to avoid planting things in contaminated soil, such as near roads where lead from years of gasoline additives can be taken up from the soil.

Flavorings. One good choice for a beginner urban gardener is basil, which prefers to be outdoors and is best grown in the summer but dries extremely well and makes seed you can easily save for next year. Another great choice is peppermint (stronger) or spearmint (weaker), which grow well indoors in partial shade. Mint can also be naturalized in a communal park and harvested as needed. It is not a good choice for community garden plots as it is invasive and will try to take over your plot. Potted herbs like chives, parsley and cilantro are other good choices. And lemongrass only requires a glass of water to grow in.

If you have containers, rooftop space, or a community garden plot your list of easy flavorings to grow gets larger. You can grow garlic, hot peppers, and scallions (bunching onions).

Vegetables and fruits. To decide what else to grow, focus on whatever produce you normally buy: lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots,  green beans and cabbages are popular choices. If it grows in your area and can be grown in a container, give it a try. On balconies, don’t forget hanging baskets for things like hanging strawberries and tomatoes. Try growing an indoor fruit tree. And think vertically: a trellis or bean pole can greatly increase your growing space. Your best cost savings will be to grow things from seed instead of buying started plants. Start seeds indoors for things that require a longer growing season. Seeds can be stared in anything from an old yogurt container to the bottoms of disposable drink cups. Follow directions on seed packet.

Growing your own food in a SUBURBAN setting

More land increases your options. Some localities or homeowner associations will not allow growing visible food in front of a suburban for aesthetic reasons. While back yards are generally okay for any sort of gardening check local ordinances as to the legality of non-ornamental gardening in front of a suburban home. Non-obvious edible landscaping is an option for these settings.

Trees.  Edible landscape tree choices suitable for the suburbs include dwarf fruit trees and small nut trees, such as the American hazelnut. Dwarf trees are compact, growing no more than 15-ft tall so it is easy to reach their fruit. Popular choices are apple, pear, mulberry, peach, and—if your climate allows them—citrus or olives. Cherry and plum trees are also prized for their showy blossoms: they and edible fruiting dogwoods are a good choice for a front yard. Depending on the climate citrus can be grown indoors in sunrooms in small quantities, or certain types of cold-hardy citrus can be grown out-of-doors.

Taller food-bearing trees can fit in the back and side yards of suburban homes but choose them with an eye to what your family really likes to eat, and allow for storage/preservation of an abundant harvest (see below). Larger varieties of apples, pears, apricots, nut trees and citrus take up a great deal more space and may shade your vegetable garden, so locate them with care and an to eye to how large they will eventually grow.

Bushes and canes. Blueberries are a favorite fruiting bush, but not your only choice. Elderberries have starry white flower clusters and gooseberries are a great choice for northern climates. The shortest, and fastest-yielding nut tree is the American hazelnut which can stand alone or be used as a screening hedge. And of course you might try raspberries and/or blackberries. Be aware that blackberry bushes are thorny and can be invasive.

Vines and espaliered fruit trees. Grape vines can be grown with success in most climates, but they requires support structures. An ornamental grape arbor is a lovely design feature in any yard, and can provide fruit for juice, jams and jellies, or even homemade wine. In tight spaces you can grow grapes (or fruit trees) trellised on the side of a building with a technique called espalier.

Ground covers. Sweet potatoes, peanuts and—in the north—cloudberries can be used as ground covers.

Kitchen garden. This is small fruit and vegetable garden for family use. It can be a traditional row garden, patterned after how farmers sow their crops in rows, or a raised bed garden such as a square foot garden. The advantage to using raised beds is that you do not walk on the soil, compacting it, and you use less water and can grow more in less space –with less weeding. Raised bed gardens can also be set on top of patios or poor soil.

Either type of garden can also grow vertically with the aid of a fence or a trellis for crops like pole beans. Common trellis types include the teepee, flat, arch and arbor. Trellises are required for certain crops and add vertical growing space. Containers can be set near a trellis on a patio.

With more space you can plant more things, but it must be based on what grows in your area. And just as in an urban garden, at first choose to grow things your family already buys and eats, then branch out and experiment. Costs can be kept down by buying heirloom, non-hybrid seeds and practicing seed saving.

Grains and starches. Commercial crops like bulk soybeans and grains are not recommended for the suburban gardener, although small amounts of grain can be obtained from ornamental and perennial inland sea oats. However, suburban gardeners might wish to try potatoes, sweet potatoes,  or Jerusalem artichokes, whose tubers can be used for flour and as a potato substitute.

Vegetables. The USDA classifies five categories of vegetables: dark green, red and orange, beans and peas, starchy vegetables, and “other” vegetables. Dark green leafy vegetables include lettuce and other salad greens like kale and other greens, and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli or cabbage. “Red and orange” is a reference to vegetables that contain beta carotene: things like beets, pumpkin, carrots, sweet potatoes or tomatoes. Beans and peas are familiar to most of us, but are not limited to green beans and green peas: lima beans, scarlet runner beans and black-eyed peas are only a few of the other choices. Starchy vegetables include corn, potatoes and peas. “Other” is a wide category of things that don’t fit in any of these: celery, squash, eggplant, turnips…the list is huge.

Your best nutrition comes from growing as wide a variety from the different vegetable types as possible. As a rule, the closer to the wild varieties you get the hardier vegetables and the easier to grow. Bear in mind that what you grow yourself may not look like it came from the supermarket. That does not affect its nutritional value.

Fruits. Other than fruit trees, options include blackberry and raspberry canes, blueberry and other berry bushes, plus strawberries and melons. Bushes will give fruit for many years, and strawberry plants are perennials.

Spices and herbs. Home-grown spices and herbs are an area that can yield a cost-effective supplement to your diet. Bunching onions (a.k.a. scallions or green onions), jalapenos and garlic are very simple for new gardeners to grow. Your climate may allow you to grow rosemary bushes, or other perennial herb bushes like bay leaves. See the list in urban gardening, above, and also consider aromatic herbs or traditional medicinal herbs such as chamomile, echinacea (a.k.a. purple cone flower), lavender and St. John’s wort. Herbs are one of the stealth items that will do well in a suburban front yard.

Growing your Own Food in a Rural Setting

Again, with more land you have more choices. Rural gardeners can plant full-sized fruit and nut trees, and they can devote more land to vegetables and fruits that they might dehydrate, freeze, or “put up” (home canning.) A rural farm can truly be a place where you grow most of your own food, but it takes time, some start-up money, experience, and hard work. All of the gardening ‘how-to’s mentioned in urban and suburban settings apply, but the scope is larger. If you calculate how much your family uses of various items that you can grow, you can plan a garden that will grow enough to feed your family.

Storing your harvest

If you grow more than you can eat, the main ways of keeping that food for later are drying, canning, freezing, root cellaring.

Drying . Dehydrating or drying food is an ancient method of preservation that does not necessarily require the use of any energy except the sun. There are many methods of doing this: everything from drying figs on a windowsill to preserving vegetables things with an electric food dehydrator.

Plans to make many varieties of solar dehydrators are available online.

Home Canning. Canning was invented in the 1800s and comes in two varieties: water bath canning and pressure canning. Water-bath canning is acceptable for high-acid foods like pickled items and tomatoes and fruits. Pressure canning is required for low acid foods such as green beans, corn, and other non-pickled vegetables. A water bath canner is very inexpensive and easy to use; a pressure canner is more expensive and requires more attention to detail. Things to remember are to maintain a 15-to-1 ratio of canning lids to canning jars and to be careful to date and use home canned foods within a year. There are many online resources and books on home canning.

Freezing. Many home-grown foods can be frozen to extend their self life. As with home canning, you need to label and date and use frozen foods within a certain time frame.

Root Cellaring. A root cellar is a below-ground cool room that is used to store foods like apples, carrots, potatoes and cabbages. It can be part of a basement or dug into a hill, or be constructed in many other styles. The key to a successful root cellar is not only temperature control but also moisture control. A damp root cellar will cause your stored root vegetables cabbages and potatoes to rot. If you decide to construct a root cellar, make certain that you choose vegetable and fruit varieties that store will when choosing seeds.[i]

Pest control

While pesticides may be widely used, if you are growing your own food you can control what you use, and when you use it, and choose the most healthy ways to keep your garden productive. Where a large commercial grower might spray for tomato horn worms, a home gardener is usually better off just picking the caterpillars off and stomping them.

There are many alternatives to dousing your food with chemicals. You can protect your plants with netting. You can use natural substances like Bt (bacillus thuringienisis) which is great for keeping worms out of various crops: the larval caterpillars and worms eat Bt. When it gets in their gut it kills them without harming your food.  The ‘nuclear option’ of pesticides is available, but why not grow that expensive and good-for-you organic produce at home?

Seed Saving

One of the most important ways to save money as a gardener is seed saving. By choosing non-hybrid, or heirloom, seeds a gardener has a better chance of any seeds harvested being able to be used next year (viable). Heirloom seeds can be bought from reputable dealers that will propagate themselves without further expense from year to year.

[edit] See also

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 [edit] References


 [edit] Further reading

  • Carpenter, Novella – The Essential Urban Farmer Penguin (2011)
  • Warren, Spring The Quarter-Acre Farm: How I Kept the Patio, Lost the Lawn, and Fed My Family for a Year. Seal Press (2011)
  • Solomon, Steve, Gardening When it Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times. Mother Earth Wiser Living Series. (note – has reputable heirloom seed grower lists)
  • Bartholomew, Mel – All New Square Foot Gardening. Cool Springs Press (2006)
  • Ellis, Barbara W. The Organic Gardener’s Handbook of Natural Pest and Disease Control: A Complete Guide to Maintaining a Healthy Garden and Yard the Earth-Friendly Way. Rodale Organic Gardening Books.
  • Bubel, Mike and  Nancy- Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits & Vegetables. Storey  Publishing (1990)

[edit] External links