Organic foods are good for you. The major problem most people have with organic food is the high retail expense. However, there are several different ways to radically reduce the cost of your food. Growing your own is probably one of the best, and can be extremely satisfying. Anyone, regardless of space allowance, can also produce at least some of their own food. One of the major benefits of growing your own food is that you have complete control over the end product, from soil composition to chemical exposure.
Whereas a conventionally-grown garden might include the use of chemical fertilizers and potentially toxic insecticides to protect the crop, an organic gardener will forgo the chemicals and feed the soil with natural fertilizers and insect barriers.
If you have a back yard or patio area, you’re blessed indeed. Apartment dwellers can also grow lots of fresh produce. Alex Mitchell’s book The Edible Balcony is an excellent resource.
Start seedlings early
Growing seedlings, which can take between one and five weeks to sprout, will allow you to harvest your vegetables four to six weeks earlier than had you planted the seeds directly outdoors. Inexpensive greenhouse kits can help control the environment to aid seeds in sprouting.
To get started on your seedlings, you need just a few supplies:
• Fresh seed, ideally heirloom
• Containers, about 2 to 3 1/2-inch deep with adequate drainage holes
• Growing medium. Use fine-textured soilless mix of equal parts of peat moss and vermiculite or perlite. Do not use conventional fertilizers.
Once your seedlings are grown and the outdoor temperature is 45 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer, the plant will require one to two weeks of “hardening off” before they can be transplanted into the ground, to prevent them from going into shock. This is done by placing them outdoors for just a few hours at a time in a semi-shaded location.
Over several days, increase the time you leave seedlings outdoors, and gradually increase the amount of direct sunlight they’re exposed to. Transplant your seedlings into your garden in the late afternoon, as the weather starts to cool down (or choose a cloudy day), and water the plants thoroughly.
You can use virtually every square foot of your space, including your lateral space. Hanging baskets are ideal for a wide variety of foods, such as strawberries, leafy greens, runner beans, pea shoots, tomatoes, and a variety of herbs. And instead of flowers, window boxes can hold herbs, greens, radishes, scallions, bush beans, strawberries, chard, and chiles, for example.
While you will obviously need to use pots if you don’t have a garden plot, avoid using many small pots. The smaller the pot, the faster it will dry out. Instead, opt for large yet lightweight containers. You may also want to consider self-watering pots, which will reduce the time you have to spend watering. (You could even make your own. Mitchell shows you how in her book.)
Another excellent tip for the time-pressed gardener is to install a timer to your outside tap, and have a plastic dripping tube connected to the tap. Position one tube over each pot to be watered. Then all you have to do is set the timer to water your plants twice a day for five or ten minutes. Adding a top layer of mulch will also reduce the amount of watering a plant will need. For smaller containers, mix in a handful of water-retaining crystals or gel, as these will help retain moisture. Moisture control potting soil is also helpful. Mitchell’s book contains creative solutions to take advantage of every nook and cranny, and recycle common household items for your garden. Such tips include:
• Attaching horizontal rows of gutters on a wall, which can hold your leafy greens and herbs
• A hanging bottle herb garden, using discarded plastic bottles
• Two or more stacked tires with a plastic bag to hold the soil can make for an excellent planter for plants that like warm soil, such as sweet potatoes and basil
Another excellent tip is provided in Mitchell’s book: An ancient technique called “3 sisters,” used by the Native American Indians, involves planting specific combinations of plants together, as the plants support each other. For example:
“Corn provides something for the beans to climb up, while they in turn add nitrogen to the soil. This benefits the corn and squash, and the latter helpfully shades the roots of the other plants, protecting them from the drying effects of the sun.”
Besides composting, setting up a little worm farm can also help you restore soil health naturally, eliminating the need for synthetic fertilizers. In addition to helping create a valuable compost to help plants grow, worms have also been singled out for their ability to break down toxins like cadmium, lead and other heavy metals, helping to detoxify soil. They do this by optimizing the bacterial content of the soil. Worms also can even break down cardboard waste fibers, making them a potential recycling tool.
Another important aspect of growing your own food is the ability to avoid chemical exposure. American homeowners apply an estimated 78 million pounds of insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides per year to their homes, lawns, and gardens.6 The problem is that these toxic chemicals are toxic not just to the weeds or critters they’re designed to kill. They’re also toxic to beneficial insects, birds, wild animals, pets, young children, and anyone who eats foods to which these toxins have been applied.
Fortunately, there are safe and effective natural alternatives for virtually every pest problem you come across. For instance, for a homemade garden spray that will discourage most pests, use some mashed garlic paste combined with a little cayenne pepper or horseradish. Add a small amount to a gallon jug of water and let it sit for a day or two, shaking it occasionally. Just spray a small amount onto a few leaves first to make sure it’s not so strong that it will burn them.
For more details on these types of natural solutions to pests of all kinds, refer to the book Dead Snails Leave No Trails by Nancarrow and Taylor, or visit the website BeyondPesticides.org.8 They have a section on do-it-yourself natural solutions9 to a wide range of pest problems along with a resource to find pest management companies that use non-toxic products.10 Mitchell’s book also has a section on how to address a wide variety of specific plant pests.
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