When we bought our house six years ago, the first thing I decided to do was to grow a garden. My granny had a green thumb and passed it on to me. She grew up on a farm and, despite living in cramped quarters in our southside Chicago apartment, I grew up surrounding by all of her plants. She’d always talk, wistfully, about moving home to Mississippi, back to the family farm where she could grow her own food and do plenty of fishing.
As COVID-19 spreads and stay-at-home orders threw us in lockdown across the country, many of you began to think about taking up gardening. (That and making sourdough starters.) I began to notice that gardening supplies were sold out everywhere and friends were on social media posting about tilling their first gardens. I also realized that many of you are making the same mistakes I did when I begin gardening. When I took the plunge, I basically knew nothing. For the past five years, I’ve essentially learned how to garden through trial-and-error and research; YouTube videos became my best friend. Now that I’ve learned a few things, I thought I’d share them with you.
Before you dig that first hole, here are a few questions you might consider.
1. Why are you gardening?
Are you doing it as a way to relax and relieve anxiety? Are you attempting to become more sustainable? Is the spread of coronavirus creating food anxiety and your answer is to start a garden? Are you trying to supplement your diet with fresh veggies? Do you plan to do it for the long-term? Figuring out why you want to garden can help you determine what to actually grow and how much time, effort, and money you want to spend.
2. What’s your space like?
This may be the single most important consideration. Maybe you live in a tiny apartment with only a back porch or balcony rather than in a house with a backyard. Never fear—you can grow a garden in the tightest of spaces. Greens like lettuce and herbs like basil can be tucked in small out-of-the-way spots. If you only get filtered rather than full sunlight, you will have to pick plants that can tolerate partial shade like, for example, greens like collards, spinach, and lettuce. Veggies like tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers thrive in full sun, and need at least eight hours a day.
3. How long is the growing season?
One of the banes of my gardening existence is the shortness of Chicago’s growing season. If you live in a similar climate, it’s too late to grow many plants from seeds. Peppers, some herbs, and some flowers have months-long growing seasons. If you want to start them from seed, you have to do so in February and March, inside under grow lights; your best bet is to source plants from local nurseries instead. However, you still have time to plant some seeds inside and direct sow seeds outside. I planted six different varieties of tomato seeds about a week ago, but your time for starting seeds indoors is running out.
4. What do you actually eat?
I wanted to grow everything under the sun when I first started gardening. I grew watermelons that never really ripened because of Chicago’s short growing season. The butternut squash grew out of control, taking over the whole plot, and no one in my household really liked butternut squash except for me. I didn’t realize that to get a decent amount of some crops, like beans or strawberries, for example, you have to sow WAY MORE than the two seedlings you planted. I didn’t have a true plan for my garden, and you could tell from my haphazard results. I began to think about the veggies that my family frequently eats, and from those, which veggies were inexpensive and easily obtained from the grocery store. I designed my garden around my family needs and have had a much better outcome.
5. How much do you want to invest?
Growing a garden is a commitment—nurturing seedlings, pulling never-ending weeds, regular watering and pruning, and spending lots of $$$. In fact, until you get the hang of it, it’ll probably be more expensive to grow your veggies than buying them from the store. But, the rewards of growing your own food is worth it—it’s a hobby that encourages you to be healthier, have a more sustainable relationship with the earth, and is a fantastic stress reliever. I wish you a happy gardening journey!