Whether you have a sprawling yard ready for raised beds and bean arches or a windowsill on a fifth-floor walkup that gets great light, there is always something incredible and delicious you can grow.
I’m no stranger to either. I began in urban farming by helping to found the Moore Street Community Garden in South Philadelphia, which was later accepted into the Neighborhoods Garden Trust—making it a garden in perpetuity. I then moved west to Pittsburgh, where I worked at Whole Foods and was selected to work with their sponsored community gardens, where they not only grew crops but taught area children about growing food.
It was time to take up farming as a vocation rather than an avocation…so I moved with my family to New Jersey, where I’m now a Rutgers Master Gardener, a Certified Market Gardener, and the Director of Agriculture at Beach Plum Farm, a 62-acre farm in the heart of Cape May, New Jersey.
Looking to get your hands dirty this season? Here are some of my favorite tips:
1. Garden Placement
The most important component of starting a garden is identifying the right place. Most food crops require full sun, so you will want to find a place that doesn’t have too much shade – so away from the trees in the backyard or on a nice, bright windowsill.
Also, make sure you are close to a reliable water source to make watering easy. If you’re planting outside, I’d recommend testing your soil first. Test kits can usually be ordered through the local university, samples can be sent to, and results can be interpreted by the local agricultural extension agent. Once you know your soil, you can determine what amendments you will want to add. Most are available at local garden or nursery centers.
To keep it easy, topsoil and mushroom or leaf compost are great organic additives to help your plants live their most productive lives. Never use pressure-treated wood to construct a raised bed. It’s treated with toxic preservatives, such as formaldehyde, that can leach into your soil. If you’re opting for a pot on the windows or even the patio, choose a pot with drainage holes and a potting mix that will drain well.
2. Under and Over Watering
Source: Harli G/Youtube
This is the most common mistake regardless of the size of your garden! Overwatering, rather than underwatering, is often the culprit of a less than stellar garden, especially when growing in a pot. You want to make sure your pots have good drainage. Too much water washes away nutrients, and lack of drainage can result in root rot and can drown plants. The bigger the plant, the more water it will need, but it will need to be watered less often. Smaller plants are the opposite, requiring less but more frequent watering.
3. Go vertical
Source: Roots and Refuge Farm/Youtube
Regardless of the space you have, don’t be afraid to go vertical! Beans and peas can be grown up an arch or tower, and many companies now make vertical gardens for patios, steps, and smaller outdoor spaces. I’ve also seen a lot of apartment renters grow herbs in hanging planters in their windows. Pallets can also be converted into vertical gardens!
4. Growing Too Much
Honestly, a summer filled with long relaxing beach days and summer cookouts is better than spending hours every weekend in the garden. It’s easy to get carried away in the spring, but plants require a lot of time and care. Planting too much will also produce too much food at once, requiring additional hours. Start with one to three tomato plants, one zucchini or squash, and maybe one or two cucumber plants if growing outside. Inside, stick with no more than two basil plants and maybe one or two other easy herbs you use often and enjoy. This will set you up for enough produce that is used throughout the week and shouldn’t take over your weekend.
5. Getting Too Exotic
It can be tempting to dive right into exotic heirlooms or interesting flowers, but if you’re just starting – it’s best to stick to the basics. It can take a few growing seasons to dial in watering, transplanting, bed preparation, and more. Heirlooms and exotic varieties are often fussy and can be difficult to grow outside or under near-perfect conditions. If doing this in a more urban setting – stick to the herbs and easy things you use often like basil, parsley, fresh mint, and more.
There’s no time like the present to plant that garden, harvest those veggies and discover the magic that the earth has with a little help from its human inhabitants. With a little creativity, a little attention, and lots of love, your garden can be not just a thing of beauty but a wonderful way to put some deliciousness on the plate.
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