Why Grow Your Own?
As a cook, nurturing your own vegetables is the perfect way to seize control over your ingredients. And "victory gardens" (also known as "war gardens" since they popped up during World Wars I and II to reduce pressure on food supplies) couldn't be timelier: Spring and summer are planting season, do-it-yourself projects can save money, and you don't have to be a gourmet eater to recognize the advantages of using local and seasonal ingredients.
Gardening is trendy too: Nearly 43 million U.S. households are planning to grow their own produce this year, which is up 19 percent from 2008, according to the National Gardening Association. Even Michelle Obama is into it; she has become the first First Lady to maintain a veggie garden since Eleanor Roosevelt.
Yes, there will be some down-and-dirty moments. But the pros far outweigh the cons. For example: You'll always have fresh, tasty, nutritious food on hand. You will know that your food has not been sprayed with chemicals. Your diet may improve now that you have healthier options at your fingertips. Flavors will taste better, brighter. You'll save money in the long run.
BEFORE YOU BEGIN: QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER
We asked Renee Shepherd, owner of Renee's Garden, to answer the most common beginner questions about vegetable gardens.
Epicurious: What's the best way to start a vegetable garden?
Renee Shepherd: The best way is to start small, with perhaps fresh salad greens and herbs. Grow mixed baby lettuce, chives, parsley, and dill. Then, as you learn more, you can expand into other vegetables. Don't be afraid to experiment-even if everything doesn't work out, you'll learn from your mistakes.
Epi: Do I need a lot of space?
RS: Absolutely not. You can use containers on your fire escape or deck if you don't have a backyard to dedicate to growing vegetables. Some types of vegetables are even developed specifically for growing in containers: There are compact varieties of delicious tomatoes, little sweet peppers, tender baby lettuce, crunchy cucumbers, and handsome golden chard that will reward you with beautiful plants and abundant harvests you can plan meals around.
Epi: What are some easy vegetables to grow?
RS: Some of the easiest are lettuce, beans, cucumbers, squash, radishes, scallions, chard, and herbs such as cilantro, parsley, and chives. All of these can be grown directly in your garden from seed. (Check out Epicurious's guide to growing a windowsill herb garden.
Epi: What's the difference between starting vegetables from seed and buying those flats of seedlings that I've seen at the nursery?
RS: The cheapest and easiest option is starting them from seed. For most plants, you just sow the seeds in your garden in the early spring. A packet of seeds costs around $2.70 to $3.70, which is much cheaper than the flats of plants (shallow trays) or mini-planters sold in nurseries later in the spring. But if you live in a cooler, temperate climate, you won't be able to plant tropical plants like tomatoes and eggplant until late spring, which won't give them a long enough growing season to bear fruit. To get around this problem, you can either start the seeds indoors in the early spring and then transplant them outside once it gets warmer, or buy seedlings in late spring.
Epi: When is the best time of year to plant?
RS: Although it's tempting to rush out into the garden and plant those veggies when the sun is shining and the frost has gone, be patient. Plants will thrive when the soil has warmed through and the night temperature doesn't fall below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Find more about growing zones and frost dates, here.
Epi: How do I prepare the soil before planting?
RS: The best way is to work several inches of organic material into your garden soil to improve its balance, texture, and water-holding capacity. Use aged manure, rotted leaves, peat moss, compost (the most effective option) or whatever's available. Good soil is essential to having a productive garden. (For information about compost and pH levels, go to our 12 Tips section.)
Epi: How much watering will I need to do?
RS: It is not possible to say how much to water vegetables as there are too many different kinds of climates all over the country. Ideally, one keeps the soil evenly moist but not soggy. Mulching plants to conserve moisture is a good strategy in areas that are dry and hot. In areas with low summer rain, drip irrigation is a good solution. Generally, if you put your finger in the soil and it feels dry up to your first knuckle, watering is in order. Plants growing in containers will need more water as they dry out more quickly.
Epi: How do I know when my vegetables are ready to harvest?
RS: Use all your senses: Tap and smell melons, pull back corn husks to check the appearance of the kernels, and open a pod to look for perfectly plump peas. As with other aspects of gardening, recognizing perfect ripeness is more an art than a science, so don't be afraid to make mistakes-That's how you'll learn. One thing to remember: Generally, vegetables are best harvested in the cool morning hours, before they've lost moisture in the midday heat. This will help them stay crisp and keep longer
Epi: Where can I learn about garden design?
RS: There are tons of resources on the Web. Renee's Garden's kitchen garden planning guide comes with suggested layouts and a list of the best time to plant each type of vegetable. You can also sign up at GrowVeg.com and plan your garden using its software. (The site offers a 30-day free trial; an annual subscription is $25.) Little House in the Suburbs offers a cool downloadable guide you can customize and print out to show planting times for your area.
HOW TO GROW BEANS, TOMATOES, AND OTHER EASY CROPS, AND WHICH DISHES TO COOK WITH EACH INGREDIENTS
These favorites need warm conditions, so don't plant until you can guarantee a minimum of 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Plant them in a sunny spot, 1 inch deep and 4 inches apart, with 1½ to 2 feet separating the rows. Plant a few times a couple of weeks apart for a rolling summer harvest. Expect to pick your beans almost 2 months after planting.
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Sow seeds in late April to early May, ¼ inch deep and ½ inch apart. It can take up to 3 weeks for leaves to pop up. Once they've sprouted, thin the seedlings often. Take out extras to keep the plants 2 to 3 inches apart. This will give them enough space to thrive and grow to maturity. Keep plants evenly moist and free of weeds. The carrots will be ready to harvest in about 70 days. You can plant a second crop 3 months before the expected first fall frost for your area.
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These salad mainstays need heat, so don't plant them too early. Prepare the soil with manure or compost, and plant them 1 inch deep and 4 inches apart, with 3 feet between the rows. Thin the seedlings till they are 10 inches apart, and later on save just your 3 strongest plants for your crop. You can train the vines up stakes to save garden space and make it easier to pick the cucumbers. Make sure you water the plants regularly, as their roots don't grow very deep. You should have cukes for your salad around 8 weeks after you plant the seeds.
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In cool spring weather, sow the seeds ¼ inch deep and 1 inch apart, in rows 6 to 8 inches apart. You'll need to thin the seedlings so they end up 10 to 12 inches apart. Cover with netting if they are making a tasty snack for the local birds. Plant a few batches a couple of weeks apart so you can enjoy a constant harvest. Lettuce varieties have different maturation times, but on average, expect 35 to 40 days from seed to table.
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Sow in early spring, in an area with a lot of sun. Plant seeds ½ inch deep and 1 inch apart in rows separated by 6 inches. As with all your vegetables, make sure you keep the soil watered and. Thin them to 1 or 2 inches apart. Radishes grow quickly-you can expect to harvest them in around 4 weeks.
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Plant these spring onions ½ inch deep in well-composted soil so they are 1 inch apart in rows separated by 8 to 10 inches. Choose a sunny spot and pat soil down firmly over the seeds. Thin them to 1 or 2 inches apart. They don't need much space, so you can plant them among your other veggies. Harvest them around 70 days after sowing.
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Sow these seeds 1 inch deep and 6 inches apart, in rows 3 feet apart when you are sure the weather is at a steady 50-degree Fahrenheit minimum. Thin the seedlings so they are 1 ½ feet apart. Pick the squash frequently so they don't grow too large and tough, and the plant will keep producing delicious tender new ones. The first crop will be ready to eat around 50 days after you plant the seeds.
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Start the seeds indoors about 8 weeks before the arrival of warm summer temperatures. Sow them ¼ inch deep and 1 inch apart in a container of potting soil. Keep soil moist and the plants very warm and in direct light. Once the seedlings have grown to 2 inches, move them into bigger containers, planting them 2 inches apart. Keep them very warm and feed with half-strength fertilizer every two weeks until you plant them outdoors. They should be 3 feet apart in well-composted soil and direct sun. Give them stakes to climb up. Once they are bearing fruit, be careful not to overwater them. The tomatoes can be harvested about 75 or 80 days after you plant the seedlings outdoors.
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by Joanne Camas