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Gardening #7: How to start growing your own food

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Yes, you can grow your own food - you can grow a little bit, a lot o’ bit, or all of it. 
It’s your home, your homestead; let growing food work with your lifestyle and your dreams.

The Easy Answer to “how to start growing your own food” is: 
  • plant a seed
  • buy a plant

From there, you get to decide what you want to grow, how much you want to grow, and how you want to grow it. 

What food should I grow?

Simple answer again: grow what you want to eat. At least, start there. If you don’t like tomatoes, don’t start with tomatoes. Save that for later when you are ready to experiment and to expand your garden. 

How much should I grow?

  • How much room do you have available? 
  • How much garden tending do you want to do?
  • How much are you going to eat? 
This is especially important for crops like iceberg lettuce.  If you plant 10 lettuce seeds, then in 10 weeks time you are going to have 10 heads of lettuce to eat, as they will all mature at the same time. A better option is to plant a few seeds, wait a week, plant a few more, and repeat. This is called succession planting.
But, it’s your home; your homestead; your choice. You know you!

What your food plant(s) will need

Whatever you decide to grow, however much you decide to grow, your plant will need:
  • Water
  • Sunlight
  • Nutrients

How to provide water:
If you are going to grow your food outside, in the ground, Mother Nature will take care of most of your watering needs for you, by raining on your plants and the soil that they are in. 

If your weather gets hot and there is no rain, you may want to, or may need to, provide supplemental water by using:
  • a watering can
  • a garden hose
  • drip lines, or 
  • sprinkler /irrigation system 
You can also set up a self-watering system but I am going to suggest that that is more advanced and you should start small and simple. But, hey, this is your garden. You get to decide how you want to water your plants. 
A self-watering system is a container of soil inside a container of water, where the water is wicked up into the soil, gradually, requiring less watering on a regular basis. It is almost a “fill it and forget it situation”. Almost. Here is a video on the idea

You can, also, grow your plants in water without soil. Hydroponics is a different way of gardening and not the topic of this blog. But, if you are interested, check out my hydroponics blog series here.

How to best water your food plants?
The best advice for watering is to remember that, when you have plants in soil, you are watering the soil. With that in mind, apply the water to the base of the plant and the soil surrounding it. 

Do you water the leaves?
The simple answer is a question: What happens in nature? Rain and dew fall on the leaves of the plants. Yes, plants can absorb water through their leaves, but most is through their roots.


The Caution: because we grow food in a somewhat unnatural situation, airflow or lack of it can leave the moisture on the leaves for far too long and you can get mildew. A light spritzing of the leaves is a better option than soaking them… or just stick to watering the roots.

What do I do?
When my plants are in the garden, at ground level, I let the rain do the watering, unless we have a long dry spell and then I use a watering can or my garden hose, if it reaches, to provide the supplemental watering. 
For my greenhouse, I’m currently using my garden hose, but the plan is to set up a drip line system from the rain barrels at the nearby shed. 
This year, I also set up self-watering containers which worked great but since I was using the garden hose for the rest of the garden anyway, I felt that I might as well just water everything by hand. I like to keep it simple. 
In my house, I use old bottles and drip attachments plus the watering can. 

Sunlight
Some plants need a lot of sunshine and others need shade. Do a little research to see what your plants need. Most plants need an average of 6 hours of sun throughout the day but that isn’t always the case.

Inside the house, a good windowsill or glass doorway is usually a good spot to choose. 
Outside? Typically that is the south side (sunny side) of the house or an open space that is not under the shade of a tree for the entire day. 

Note: depending on your environment, you made need to provide supplemental shade for your plants during the heat of the day. 
Tip? Check out what the locals are doing. Those gardeners who have already gone through the learning curve are probably already using the best practices for your region. 


Nutrients 
Every living things needs a food source. Plants basically get their food through their roots, whether those roots are in soil or in water (hydroponics). 


So, what does this mean? 
  • Take care of the soil. 
  • Feed the soil.

How to feed your soil

  • mulch, mulch, mulch
  • worm castings
  • fertilizer 
  • cover crops

Mulch: what is it 
… and why is it first on the list?
Although mulch can be a variety of things, what we want is organic matter that has broken down (or is breaking down) so that the nutrients and microbes will make their way into the soil to feed and enhance the microbiome. 

Think of the soil as your gut. We know that the gut needs a healthy microbiome with prebiotics, probiotics, enzymes, etc to help break down and access the nutrients of the foods that we eat, so that we can be strong and healthy. 

It is the same with the soil and our garden plants. We start with good organic material; it decomposes and becomes what we call compost. We put it on the top of the soil, as mulch, and, as it decomposes, all the nutrients and microbes make their way into the soil,  where the plant will access what it needs to be strong and healthy. 

Not only does mulch provide nutrients but it also serves two other key purposes, even if it is just for a basil plant on a windowsill:
  1. Mulch helps to keep the moisture in the soil. This is especially helpful during the dry summers and when you first plant seeds or put seedlings in the ground. (Tip: Put the mulch “around” the planting area. Covering seeds with several inches of mulch may prevent them from finding sunlight. Once a plant is established, then you can move the mulch in closer.)
  2. Mulch helps with weed control. You will get less weeds making their way through the soil AND the mulch. Those that do make their way through are much easier to pull out - because you have happy, healthy, moist soil! 

What makes a good mulch?
  • Animal manure - preferably from animals that have not been eating plants with toxic weed killers on them. Why? Because those toxins can survive the eating, pooping, decomposing process and end up on your garden soil and negatively impact the health of your plant. (NOTE: do not put fresh manure on your plants as it is considered “hot” and will burn/kill your plants. Buying composted manure may be your best option.
  • Straw and hay: again, no herbicides. Note: hay will carry seeds with it, including weed seeds. Be prepared to work with the hay (raking it, flipping it) to prevent the weeds from taking root in the soil below. 
  • Leaves: picture a forest floor in the fall - covered in fallen leaves. Picture that forest floor in the following year, with lush soil and an abundance of new growth. Soil loves leaves!
  • Woodchips: again, picture that forest floor. Fallen branches and bark eventually break down. They just take longer. 

What do I do?
I have an abundance of leaves in the fall  and they are free for the taking, so that is my mulch of choice. 
Note: I collect the leaves before the insects create their winter homes in them. I want to protect the insects as much as I do the microbiome of the soil. At the first of the garden season this past year, I also laid down a deep layer of straw that I purchased. This worked really well as a weed barrier and was definitely worth the investment. 
I also use woodchips. In the past , I’ve primarily used them around trees and bushes. This year, I am putting a deep layer of chips in the walkways of my gardens. As they break down, the nutrients will become available to nearby plants. There is a giant web of microbe activity in the soil, interconnecting everything. 

Worm Castings: 
What are “worm castings”? Basically it is animal manure - pooped out, by worms, right where you want it: in the soil. 
If you are planting directly in the ground, let nature and worms do their thing, naturally. 
Or … get your own worms, build a worm box, feed them your food scraps and gather the castings to add to the soil 
Or .. buy the castings. 

To use worm castings, just sprinkle it on top of the soil, whether that is in the garden or a planter on a windowsill. 
Since the plants are consuming nutrients from the soil, we need to help by balancing things back out. Worm castings is an easy and fast way to help.


What do I do?
This is the first year that I have used worm castings, besides what naturally happens in the ground, and I purchased mine from a local garden centre.  

What about Fertilizers?
Go organic. Use nature to feed nature. 
I don’t use a lot of purchased fertilizers, so I’m not a lot of help here. 
Do your research. Buy from a local supply store so that you can ask the experts! (Experts on soil as well as the products that they are selling.



Cover Crops
First, let me say that I leave the roots of my plants in the ground, in the fall, when I am cleaning up my gardens. Those roots are full of nutrients and will release them back into the soil as they decompose. 
That is the goal of using a cover crop. 

You grow a crop to the point of being happy and healthy and then put it back into the soil. You can do that by tilling it in (but that disturbs that web of microbiome in the soil) or you can plant it at the right time, so that winter kills it off and it all naturally decomposes before spring. 

The best cover crop to use depends on your environment, so, again, do your research for what is best for your area. 

An example of using a cover crop: (not a scientific description) Plant a bunch of pea seeds, nice and thick in the desired space, planting them late enough in the summer so that the plants will freeze before they start producing seed pods. The plants pull nutrients from deep in the soil as well as out of the air and then release it into your top soil when the plants die. AND the plants keep your soil covered during the fall, winter, and early spring. Soil likes to be covered up. 

Summary

Water:✔️
Sunlight: ✔️
nutrients: ✔️

and, now? 
You are a gardener and the possibilities are endless - including the topic of raised beds, trellises, and vertical gardening! 

Plan it; plant it; tend to it; and blog about it at Homesteadian.com
Share what you know and learn about what you don’t”
- Debbie



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