Earth911 asked its Twitter followers, “If you had unlimited funds, what would be on your green wish list?” This series breaks down the most popular responses and how to make them a reality.
Want the freshest, most affordable, organic vegetables possible with absolutely no food miles? Make like the Obamas and grow your own. “I think everyone should try to grow a little bit of their own food. It’s one of the best ways to really understand the seasons and become more conscious of where you’re food comes from,” says Scott Meyer, editor of Organic Gardening.
Here are Meyer’s tips for getting started.
1. Pick the right spot
Most vegetables need at least six hours of sunlight—the more, the better. Generally, this means planting on the south or west side of your home. You’ll also want to make sure your spot gets good drainage, so avoid any location where puddles tend to collect.
2. Time for beds
Meyer recommends planting your crops in raised beds, which are easy to build, help to simplify soil management and improve drainage. Start with one or two 4 by 8 foot beds, and be sure to avoid constructing them from treated wood or railroad ties, which can leach chemicals into your garden. Check out the below video from GardenGirltv for step by step building tips.
Once built, fill your beds with a blend of topsoil and compost. If you already compost, and you have enough material to create a 50/50 mix, great. If you need to supplement with store-bought materials, ask to open a bag before you buy. “It should smell sweet and earthy and the texture should be about like chocolate cake crumbs. If you smell ammonia, take a pass. That means it probably has chemicals,” says Meyer.
3. Choose your crops
Tomatoes are popular for a reason. They’re among the easiest vegetables to grow, particularly cherry tomatoes. Leaf lettuce, zucchini, peppers, cucumbers and herbs are also good bets for novices, according to Meyer. “You can also ask around at your local farmer’s market for advice on what does well in your region,” he says.
As a beginner, you’ll probably want to start from seedlings, as opposed to seeds. Once your plants are in the ground, protect them against dehydration with mulch. Grass clippings, shredded leaves or hay should do the job nicely and will choke out weeds while nourishing the soil as they decompose.
4. Create a healthy ecosystem
In addition to planting a variety of veggies and herbs, add some flowers to the mix to help ward off pests, since you’ll be eschewing chemical insecticides. Flowers and herbs attract beneficial insects like ladybugs, which keep aphids and other pests in check.
Putting a birdbath nearby will also invite more fine feathered friends, who will also be happy to help your cause by feasting on bugs.
“People mistakenly think birds are eating their vegetables when they see them in the garden, but really, they’re going for the bugs that are crawling on them,” says Meyer.
5. Nourish without chemicals
You’ll be avoiding chemicals when it comes to fertilizer, but you will still need to make sure your crops are getting the nutrients they need in order to thrive. Your compost/soil blend is a good start, but you can also buy chemical-free fertilizers if your garden needs an additional boost. Just be aware that the word “organic” is not regulated the same way for fertilizers as it is for foods.
“Read the ingredients. If you see a lot of chemicals on the label, that’s what your getting. Natural fertilizers contain things like feather meal or manure. Chemical ones typically contain ammonium nitrate,” says Meyer. The words “slow release” are also a good sign, and anything that’s “OMRI-listed” is permitted for use on certified organic crops, the highest standards available.
6. Keep it up
Now that you’re on your way to building your dream organic garden, your next moves will likely require some trial-and-error and the flexibility to adjust as you go. County extension services or nearby university extension services are great resources for more information on local growing conditions, crops, soil and other agricultural considerations.