Creating Your Own Vegetable Garden
There is something about being outside and getting your hands dirty that leaves you with a lingering sense of accomplishment. In fact, studies show that immersing your hands in soil can boost your happiness levels. My experience with gardening is in the Northeast. The planting seasons in other regions will vary slightly, however, throughout this article I discuss general gardening concepts. Once you begin gardening and growing your own vegetables, there is no turning back! The flavor in the food you grow is simply unimaginable.
Why Should You Start Gardening?
With more time on our hands as we are socially distancing at home, it is the perfect time to start gardening. Connecting with your food through gardening is useful for many reasons, including:
It opens your eyes to the difficult labor involved in producing food, which leaves you less wasteful.
Growing your own food limits the carbon footprint associated with the produce you are consuming. There is no truck hauling vegetables to your house, which means fewer carbon emissions.Some foods like imported fruits and vegetables have a higher carbon footprint because of the farming practices and shipping methods.
By growing your own vegetables in season you will be making a positive impact on the environment and your health.
You don’t need much space to have your own backyard garden, and many of the concepts will be applicable to more urban settings as well if you choose to grow vegetables in a bed or in pots. So let’s get started!
Eating organic has beneficial impacts on the environment and your health. Farming organically means that you appreciate and care for the environment and land: NO chemicals, herbicides, fertilizers or other harmful growth stimulants. Generally, you are farming on a small plot of land; you are deeply connected with the land and the food. Making sure to practice crop rotation: planting a new variety of crop in a different spot each season which will decrease the susceptibility of unwanted insects and keep your soil healthy and your crops happy! Some organic farmers practice no-till agriculture, meaning they plant their crops in the existing land instead of tilling (turning) the earth first. This practice releases a lot less carbon into the atmosphere and keeps the farms carbon impact very low. If you want to practice no-till gardening follow these steps:
Mow down the weeds and grasses in the area where you want to plant.
Lay compost on top of the land in your garden.
Dig medium to large holes for your plants. You must turn the immediate area surrounding the plant with a trowel.
Watch your plants grow and enjoy them when the vegetables are ripe.
Step 1: Preparing the Land
Living on the East Coast, I begin preparing my garden for spring crops during the first week of April. It is not a good idea to plant summer crops (zucchinis, tomatoes, and eggplants etc.) before the last frost date. The National Gardening Association have helpful resources to find out the particular frost date in the area where you live.
How do you prepare the land?
One of the most important things you must do is add organic compost to the soil. I use a hula hoe to gently turn the compost into the top of the soil. If you don’t want to turn the compost into the soil laying it on top of the soil also will be fine. For most backyard gardeners, the land area will be relatively small and thus the impact of tilling or turning the soil will be reduced. Adding compost to the soil releases nutrients for 2-3 years. Creating a healthy growing environment for your vegetables.
Another method of adding nutrients into the soil is through cover cropping. A gardener would plant their cover crop at the end of the growing season (in the fall) and turn it into the soil in the spring letting it decompose in the soil and thereby releasing nutrients. A cover crop, like winter rye, keeps the soil sheltered in the winter months. It also decreases the possibility of erosion even in a small area as water or wind can wash or blow away the topsoil. It is important to protect the topsoil because it lives on the first 5-10 inches of the soil. It takes years to develop more topsoil and it is crucial for healthy plant growth. Plants absorb most of their nutrients through their roots connected to the topsoil. Once you have laid down and turned compost into the topsoil you are ready to plant!
Step 2: Sow your Seeds
I would not suggest starting your plants from seed until you are familiar with gardening. Instead, for the first year or two, you may be more comfortable purchasing plant-starts from a local nursery or farm. If and when you do choose to grow your own plant-starts it is important to read the instructions on each package of seeds. Each plant has a different rate of growth and they need to be planted at specific points in time for proper maturity. There are several different plant families and each plant has a different growing season. To learn more about the plant families, follow this link:
Crops that prefer to grow in a cooler climate and that are suitable for early season planting are: broccoli, kale, cauliflower, cabbage, onions, leeks, beets, spinach, celery, kale, radishes, parsley, snap peas, swiss chard, and cilantro. All of these crops are hearty and can withstand cooler temperatures. After the frost date, you can consider planting summer crops such as basil, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, eggplants, zucchini and other summer squash, carrots, green beans, soy beans, carrots, and lettuce.
Step 3: Plant your Garden
When planting your plant-starts, make sure to dig up the area surrounding the hole where you intend to plant them. This process creates a beneficial environment where the roots of the plant-start can expand and grow. If you take the plant-start out of the pot and there are lots of white roots matted together then take a pencil and lightly break them apart. This helps the roots grow outward once it is planted in the ground. Before transplanting your plant-starts into the ground make sure they are well watered. The area where you are planting your plant-starts should also be well watered. When you think you have watered them enough, add more water! Once planted, cover the roots with soil and give it a “hug” with your hands – pressing the soil into the roots of the plant and tightly securing its location. Finally, add more water! Make sure the plants are saturated in water once they are transplanted.
Step 4: Harvesting and Storing Crops
It is generally easy to tell when your crops are ready to be harvested. Some of the crops that I find difficult to harvest are melons and winter squash. When growing these crops, pay attention to their size and color. Those are the main factors that will help you determine if the crop is ready to be picked. There is also the pick and taste method. Pick it and eat it. If it doesn’t look or taste ripe make a mental note of the date and wait another week or so before trying it again. Oftentimes you will get a whole slew of veggies that are ripe all at once. What can you do with them? Offer some to your neighbors, bake and cook with them, freeze them, or can, jam, and jar them. You will be thankful to have August tomatoes in your freezer when January rolls around!
Enjoy your new garden!
By Alison B. Elliott
At Home Nature Based Crafts
Today marks the 50th Year of Earth Day and I want to share with you some creative ways you can celebrate our Earth from home!
One byproduct of the Covid-19 pandemic is that many people are now considering growing their food. Up-cycling is creating a more valuable product from something that has already been used! Do you have any old tires in your garage? If you do, you can create your own raised garden bed. Hose off the tyre before you begin this project. You can even dress up the tires before finishing with a coat of paint. Let’s get started!
How to create raised tire beds
Step 1: Find a good sunny spot to place the tires and your new raised garden bed.
Step 2: Fill the tires with organic soil.
Step 3: Plant flowers, vegetables, or herbs.
Step 4: Water and care for the plants daily.
Every time you pick and use an herb from your raised tire bed, you will be reminded of the positive impact you made by your participation in Earth Day 2020.
Raised Root Display Boxes
Another fun activity you can engage in at home is building your own raised root display boxes. What are raised root display boxes? They are boxes above ground that are filled with organic soil and plants.
The front of the bed is lined with plexiglass so that you can see the roots as they grow and progress over time.
Farmer Foodie Tip: When constructing your raised root display boxes you must drill holes at the bottom of the boxes for drainage!
Tea Tin Planters
Do you have old tea tins that are not being used? If not, up-cycle your canned vegetable tins, they work just fine!
Reuse old tin cans & handpick fresh herbs from your balcony or windowsill for dinner pots, pizzas, and salads!
How do I do it?
1. Save & source old tea tins or vegetable cans from your kitchen
2. Decorate them however you like (optional)
3. To avoid cutting a hole at the bottom of the tin to drain, apply a small layer of pebbles in the bottom
4. Place seedlings in each tin, soak in water, & watch them grow!
Fastest growing greens: Basil, Cilantro, Arugula, Parsley
Farmer Foodie Tip: Top your next vegan pizza with fresh basil or use it to create vegan pesto.
If you can’t get outside or plant anything this Earth Day, don’t worry; there are still ways you can celebrate and protect our planet from home! You can get creative in the kitchen! See a quick recipe below:
Vegan Chive Pesto
Chives, 3 cups
Olive Oil, 1/2 cup
Raw Cashews, 1/2 cup
Nutritional yeast, 1/2 cup
Salt, 1 tsp
Pepper, 1 tsp
Blend and enjoy with cooked pasta, cooked spaghetti squash, on avocado toast, on bread, mixed in with scrambled tofu, or as a dip!
While you are enjoying your plant-based meal, you can watch an educational documentary! I recommend the following:
Food and Diet Related Documentaries
Forkes Over Knives
Rotten – series on Netflix
The Biggest Little Farm
Ice on Fire
A Plastic Ocean
I hope these At Home Nature Based Craft projects help you stay inspired, creative and passionate about protecting our planet! I can’t wait to see what you get up to at home this Earth Day!
By Alison B. Elliott
Growing crops such as beets, turnips, radishes, and carrots are really fun because the vegetables grow underground. When you flip open the front of the bed, you have the unique opportunity to see the roots growing.
Composting At Home: A Beginner's Guide
Compost is nature’s recycling system. Since the beginning of time, our earth has been composting. Did you know that fallen leaves in a forest, left to decompose thus restoring nutrients back into the soil, is a form of composting? Similarly, overgrown grass in a field left to turn brown and keep the soil covered and protected also is a form of composting. Finished compost, or humus, is a rich material that helps soil retain nutrients and moisture. It improves plant growth and soil health. Nutrients from compost can be released back into the soil for 2-3 years after it is laid down.
Life as we know it could not be sustained without compost. Nature does it naturally, so why can’t we?
Contributing to our environment through taking on the role of a composter will not only have a beneficial impact on your gardens but it will also divert a lot of waste that would inevitably end up as landfill. Food waste in landfills does not decompose in an aerobic manner. Instead, it decomposes in an anaerobic way. Decomposition without oxygen through anaerobic methods takes a longer time, releases methane into the atmosphere, creates harmful toxins, and takes up space in landfills; ultimately, creating the demand for more landfills.
In 2017, according to EPA statistics, the United States generated about 267.8 million tons of waste which equates to about 4.5 pounds of waste each day per person. More than half of the annual waste created (139.6 million tons) was placed in landfills of which about 22% was food waste. What can we do about it? As consumers, we can be more aware and sensitive about the amount of food we prepare and then dispose of (i.e., waste). Furthermore, we can collect our food waste and compost it ourselves. All we need to do is collect the material, put it in a pile or place it in a storage container, and wait.
What are the components of composting?
The process of controlled composting consists of the decomposition of organic matter like food scraps, cardboard, grass clippings, dried leaves, wood chips, and even newspaper into soil. The valuable nutrients in these items are used to regenerate soil.
When creating your own compost, it is important to add materials that consist of both carbon and nitrogen.
Examples of such materials are:
Carbon: dried leaves, hay, straw, wood chips, cardboard, newspaper, and paper towel rolls.
Nitrogen: food waste, cut grass, house plants, coffee grounds, shrub clippings.
The proper balance of carbon and nitrogen materials produces a rich compost. Your compost pile should consist of two parts carbon and one part nitrogen. The decomposition of these materials will create a healthy soil that is filled with well-balanced nutrients. You will know that you have succeeded in creating a usable compost if the finished product exhibits a rich deep black color.
There are some food waste items that you would not want to add to a backyard pile. Such items include: meat, poultry, fish, cheese, fats, oils, salad dressing, and bones. These items attract pests, release a foul odor, and make your compost pile more susceptible to diseases.
What type of storage container should I use?
The smallest possible compost pile you should make in your yard is 3 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet, which equates to 1 cubic yard. However, a standard backyard composting container holds between 110 – 120 gallons. You can’t go wrong when choosing which type of pile you want to create. Purchasing containers online is easily accessible and requires less work. Building your own compost container with wood is another feasible option.
How long does it take for compost to decompose?
In addition to the size of the compost pile, there are two other main factors that impact the rate of decomposition: (1) the frequency at which you turn the pile, and (2) the seasonal weather conditions (the outdoor temperature).
The compost materials will generate heat as part of the decomposition process. For a standard backyard container it will take about two weeks for the center of the pile to heat up and kickstart the decomposition process. The rate at which the pile is turned will have an impact on the decomposition. In order to maintain the desired temperature range of 90 – 140 degrees it is important to turn your compost with a shovel about once every two weeks (depending on the season). There will be seasonal variations; in the summer months you might find yourself turning the compost pile once a week, but in the winter months perhaps only once each month.
Why is the temperature important?
If the temperature drops below 90 degrees the pile is at risk of retaining diseases. If the temperature is greater than 140 degrees the heat conducted in the pile will likely kill the beneficial microbes. Composting thermometers are available online, but are not necessary when composting on a small scale. Microbes are a key factor for decomposing organic materials. If you find that your pile is not experiencing decomposition you can increase the microbial activity by adding a small amount of soil or finished compost.
Turning compost also adds oxygen to the mixture. Creating compost with aeration has necessary beneficial qualities. Oxygen allows for the microbes to break down the organic matter. Without oxygen the process slows and is exposed to harmful health and environmental impacts. It should take around three months to successfully create your own usable backyard compost.
Diverting food waste is simple; consume the products you purchase and prepare, collect and compost leftover food waste, and spread awareness. Creating a backyard compost pile is a fun and easy activity you will feel good about.
By Alison B. Elliott