Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Vegetable Gardening 101


So you have some outdoor space and some time, and you're thinking: I want to try to grow some of my own fruits and vegetables this year. However, now you're thinking: I didn't grow up on a farm and all I know is how to pick them up at the supermarket!! Well, if you're willing to dedicate a little time and energy consistently over the next year, there are crops that fit anybody's garden.

What do you like to eat? No sense in choosing crops that your kids will turn their noses up at or require you to change your cooking menu completely. Start by making a brainstorming list of those fruits/vegs that you know you will use in your household. Popular choices are crops such as lettuce/salad greens, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, garlic, herbs, etc.

I then add one or two new items every year that would be fun to try like a new kind of pea or bean.

Refine your list, using the factors below to determine what would be realistic for you to grow this coming year. If you are just starting out, it's better to start small and then expand year by year, rather then be overwhelmed by too huge a commitment.

Where can I plant them? Take a good look at your garden and imagine where you can fit in your crops. Can you dig up part of a sunny space in your lawn? Do you want to fit crops in already existing garden beds? This is possible with crops such as blueberry shrubs, or gorgeous Swiss Chard or attractive looking lettuce. Would you like to grow crops in containers on a patio?

How much sun or shade do I have in my garden? This is a critical factor in what kinds of crops you can grow. Be canny in choosing what grows where, for instance, basil would love a hot, sunny spot, whereas lettuce and peas like a cool, semi-shaded area. For each crop, get to know what kind of light requirements they need; a good source of info is West Coast Seeds' free catalogue which you can find in store at West Coast Gardens.

OK - now you have your list of crops that you would like to grow this year. What now?

It all starts with the soil. Delicious fruits and vegetables come from great soil. If you feed your soil with compost, well-composted steer manure or Sea Soil, the soil then nourishes your crops for optimum taste. Building up good soil, year by year, is like building up a good bank account paying out interest. Most vegetables need at least 12 inches in depth of good soil. Whether growing in pots or out in the garden, good drainage of the soil is important. If the soil is too wet, the roots will rot, so ensure that your containers have drainage holes, and that your vegetable plot doesn't have pools of standing water after a rainfall. You can increase drainage and improve warming up of the soil by building a raised garden plot, which is basically a box filled with soil. Research each of your intended crops to see if they have any special soil requirements, eg, cabbage, kale and turnips benefit from an application of lime to raise the pH level of the soil.

Seeds or already started plants? For beginners or those gardeners who are short on time, I generally recommend purchasing already started seedlings from the local gardening store. Each year, the variety and choice available increases and it is possible to have quite a varied diet just from this source.

There are certain crops, with large seeds, that are easy to grow from seed such as peas and beans. These are a great way to introduce children to growing their own food. You can can then go on to growing all kinds of crops from seed. Seed companies are usually quite meticulous in their instructions on seed packages and some even have help lines!

Randy Shore, Green Man blogger from the Vancouver Sun, recommends these five easy to grow crops for our West Coast climate: Red Russian kale, parsley, mizuna (a crisp, Japanese salad green), Norland and Yukon Gold potatoes, and peas. He also suggests garlic chives, mint (grow in a container) and bay (also an attractive shrub).

How do I maintain my crops? Regular watering is key and also regular weeding is important. An application of a layer of mulch, such as straw (not hay which has unwanted seeds) is really helpful, as it keeps down the weeds and helps to hold in moisture in the soil.

Harvesting! This is the rewarding part. You will get to know the optimum time for harvesting each of your crops, for instance picking your beans before they get too big and tough, or picking lettuce leaves before they bolt (form seeds). Some are so delicious that they won't even make it to your table (Sun Gold tomatoes). Some crops will produce so much that you will have to learn how to preserve them for later - a process that makes me feel like a smug pioneer.

Great taste, saving money, relying less on outside food sources, exercise, attuning oneself to the cycle of the seasons - whatever your reasons, get started and learn about a basic subject in the curriculum of human life.

-Jean Kuwabara, West Coast Gardens