This seems like a good time to think about becoming more self-sufficient in our lives. It looks like we are going to be at home with our families. Being able to go outside is going to be an important part of being able to stay healthy during this time. The fewer times I have to go to the grocery store the better I feel so I’m thinking growing our own produce would make both having outdoor activities to do and fresher, healthier produce from your own backyard the perfect thing to do.
Growing vegetables in your backyard is not hard to do and probably something most people have been wanting to do anyway. To have a vegetable garden you will need a place that will get at least six hours of direct sunlight. The area will need to have the soil tilled or shoveled to get the grass and its roots out so they don’t cause problems later.
The preparation of the soil will be the key to your success with vegetable gardening. One way to have control of the soil is to build raised beds. Raised beds are easy to build and not expensive. I like to build beds that are four feet wide by eight feet long. This will give you enough room in each box to grow enough of any one kind of vegetable to keep your family fed and have some extra to give to friends.
I will grow four tomato plants in one box. The ground of my tomatoes box with include something low such as thyme or oregano. Having a useful ground cover helps to keep the moisture in and the weeds out. Pine bark mulch will do the same thing and looks great. I have learned to fill my boxes with vegetable plants that I like to eat. I used to plant whatever I could get my hands on only to realize that I didn’t get very excited about eggplant or zucchini. I do get excited about okra, carrots, radish, yellow squash, string beans, asparagus and a few peppers.
Herbs for cooking are scattered wherever there is space in the boxes. We cook with basil, lemongrass, mint, rosemary, cilantro and parsley.
When the vegetable starter plants are being planted it’s very easy to underestimate how big these plants will get. It always amazes me how much produce comes from one plant.
Many vegetable gardens are grown successfully without raised beds; in this case the plot of land will be tilled using the same organic matter that you would use in the raised boxes.
I use mushroom compost, black cow, sun grow potting soil mixed with some topsoil. These soils have some doses of nutrients in them and also will have sandy, barky, gritty elements so the water can drain away quickly enough. The sun grow potting soil has just the right amount of vermiculite and bark and peat. Once these bag goods are tilled into the existing soil in your yard you will have the perfect soil mix for growing vegetables just the same as if you had raised beds.
You can make your garden look the way you like it. I’ve seen some of the coolest gardens where people have painted their tomato cages with crazy colors. Bamboo poles built-in tripods for vining veggies to grow up look great. Some people put makeshift fences around their garden to keep unwanted pests out or to give the garden some division from the rest of the yard.
There are plenty of organic products readily available at any garden center. You will be eating what comes out of your garden so you won’t want to take any chances with unnecessary and possibly dangerous chemicals. While I was in college I rented places that didn’t have enough yard to grow vegetables. I worked at a great garden center in Starkville where I could get my hands on some 30 gallon nursery pots. Large pots are mini versions of raised beds. The pots can be filled with great soil and planted with a vegetable plant and a couple herbs. I can say that some of my best plants were grown in pots.
Growing vegetables in hay bales is something you should check out. Holes are carved out of the bale and filled with soil which makes a great place to plant a vegetable plant. I haven’t tried this method but I’ve heard countless times that some of the best tomatoes come from this method.
I was a Peace Corps volunteer on the Island of Grenada in the Caribbean for nearly three years. My job was to help Grenadian farmers start nontraditional crops (in other words, anything but bananas). We decided papaya would be perfect since it really wasn’t being done in a commercial way anywhere but in Hawaii, it is fast to grow and produces a lot of fruit per tree. I started a nursery for training purposes with the backing of the agency I work for and the Grenadian government. I invited all Grenadian farmers to participate which meant attending training seminars and allowing us to grow papaya on 1/4 acre of their land. In return any money made from a successful crop would go to the farmer that allowed us to try.
My goal was to find farmers from each of the eight geographically different areas of the island. I wanted to know if the papaya did better closer to sea level or farther up in altitude, interior jungle like conditions or rocky and arid conditions on the north side of the island.
I was surprised the most interest from came from the Rastafarian community. The Rastafarians were committed to a very spiritual lifestyle connected to mother nature. These farmers refused to do any farming that was not organic. This challenge was huge with the amount of pests and weeds that come along during a 12 month growing season.
We had negotiated with Holland for the yet-to-be harvested papaya sale. The Dutch apparently love papaya. We had one major airline that flew into and out of Grenada.
In the tropics papaya has a nine month growing period. In that time we got the boxes for shipping and the little stickers for each fruit ready and began preparing for any problems in the fields. Our first challenge was weed control. Weeds grow fast in the Caribbean so as soon as the trees were planted we covered the ground with a very low growing and wide spreading pepper called Scotch Bonnet, an extremely hot variety. Not only did the pepper plant shade out any weeds without the use of chemicals, but it had another purpose we didn’t expect. Our biggest nuisance was an insect called a leafhopper that carried with it a virus that can take a papaya crop down fast. When the pepper plants began producing, they were so powerful they repelled the leafhopper, leaving us no need to use an insecticide or a fungicide.
Once ready to ship, we cleaned the papaya, put stickers on each one and boxed them up. The fruit was exactly what they had hoped for so they called us to say that if we could consistently send that kind of quality, they would double the price we originally agreed to. We had success, and by the time I left them, we had shipped 24 tons of papaya to Europe.
My time with the Peace Corps had ended after I was granted an extra year extension. My parents came to visit me once while I was down there. During that visit we devised a plan for when I got home to build the greenhouses that we still grow our bedding plants. I also had kept in touch with Mimi the whole time and I couldn’t get home fast enough to make some future plans with her before I missed my chance.
The story goes to show that in the gardening world you just never know how one thing you do might affect another. It shows that mother nature rules and will, in the most unsuspecting way, take care of you in the end.
Like I said in the beginning of this article it is time for us to become more self-sufficient and less reliant on the world to always be there for us. I’m hoping the best to everyone during this time of crisis. I hope you don’t mind that I just felt like telling one of my travel stories just for the sake of a good, positive garden related piece of entertainment.
Allen Martinson, along with his wife Mimi, are owners of Garden Works.