One of the best — and most rewarding — ways to ensure you’ve always got a good supply of fresh, healthy produce on hand is to grow it yourself. Have no fear: Apartment dwellers, gardening novices and even certified black thumbs can harvest fresh herbs, veggies and fruit with these simple tips.
Timing is everything
Before you start, consider the timing. Knowing when to plant which seeds (or seedlings) is crucial; this varies widely depending on climate. The time to start on Long Island is mid- April, after the threat of frost has passed. To be sure, ask a master gardener or refer to our university extension agent – Cornell Cooperative Extension- link is below- ; they’re trained by the American Horticultural Society. By choosing crops that are suited for different seasons, and you’ll have a rolling harvest that lasts for months.
Space: The next frontier
Don’t have a big yard? A sunny windowsill or balcony is perfect for container gardening, which can yield a variety of herbs, vegetables like tomatoes, lettuce and peppers, or strawberries. No sill? Try a hanging basket. If you’ve got a 4’ x 4’ area, paved or not, consider Square Foot Gardening. You’ll construct a simple grid of 1’ x 1’ squares, each of which holds a different type of plant. In very little space, you’ll have enough variety to fill your crisper indefinitely. But no matter the size of your garden, make sure there’s enough direct sun: vegetables need six to eight hours a day.
If you’re a beginner, it’s best to fill your first garden with crops that are relatively easy to grow. Good options include:
- Herbs: Rosemary, basil, parsley, chives, thyme
- Vegetables: Lettuce, summer squash, radishes, green beans, cherry tomatoes
- Fruit: Strawberries, blueberries
Heirloom varieties are fruits and vegetables that pre-date industrial agriculture — they’ve never been crossbred for hardiness or yield, and will always grow to resemble their parent plants. But because of this they’re also trickier to nurture, so you may want to test your green thumb on a more widely available variety first.
As for deciding whether to go with seeds or seedlings, expert gardeners offer this advice: Bigger seeds (i.e. cucumber, zucchini) are easier to sow directly into soil. Plants with smaller seeds, like tomatoes and most herbs, are simpler to buy as seedlings and transplant.
Get your hands dirty
Next, let’s talk soil. Since this is where your produce will thrive or wither, it’s immeasurably important. If you’ll be planting in the ground, it’s a good idea to test your soil’s ph balance. (Many nurseries and Web sites sell home testing kits, which will tell you the acidity or alkalinity of the soil so you can modify as needed — most vegetables prefer slightly acidic to neutral soil. Take this a step further and have the soil composition tested; the results will come with recommendations for adjustments and fertilizing.) Container gardeners have it slightly easier: Depending on what you’re planting, the experts at your local garden store (or that neighbor you’ve befriended) can advise you on what soil to purchase. And don’t forget the mulch! It’s organic material, like compost or special plastic sheeting that’s laid over the soil to insulate and protect tender plantings.
Care and feeding
The hard part’s done, but you can’t just walk away. Check your seed packet or plant labels: Most include specific growing instructions; follow them carefully. One thing all produce needs is water, and lots of it. On average, your garden will need at least an inch of water every week — either from rain or from the hose. Water when the top inch of soil is dry, in the morning, and make sure the soil is soaked to a depth of six to eight inches. A light sprinkling will signal the roots to come to the surface; this could kill them.
If you’ve had your soil tested, you’ll know what type of fertilizer is recommended. Fertilizer needs will vary by crop — take that into account before you plant so you can group items with similar needs together. Organic fertilizer comes from plants and animals and is chemical-free; it also requires a bit more work to get the proper mix of nutrients. Inorganic fertilizer can be easier to manage, since you’ll know exactly what you’re getting.
Harvest your crop just before it reaches full maturity, and savor the fruits of your labor!
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