GROW YOUR OWN FOOD. PART I.

Welcome to the very first day of Spring in the Northern Hemisphere.  Spring, if you remember, is easily recognizable by the sight of vibrant spring bulbs forcing their way up towards the sun, swaying under the weight of bumblebees and dewdrops.  It’s also recognizable by backyards filled with dog poop. Either way it’s spring.

For a lot of people Spring means spring cleaning and a chance to throw open the windows and give everything a good scrub down.  I mean, yeah, I guess that’s O.K. and sensible and probably advisable, but for me, Spring is more about getting dirty than it is about getting clean.

Spring means Vegetable Gardening.  Just in time too. I ran out of my Russet potatoes last week, my carrots are long gone and I haven’t had a home grown leafy green in months.  I’ve actually had to visit the produce aisle in my local grocery store like some kind of … fancy lady.  You know you can grow your own food, right? I’m assuming you know that otherwise you’d be browsing The Real Real and not The Art of Doing Stuff.

I’ve tackled vegetable gardening from all different angles on The Art of Doing Stuff over the past 7 years and in the next three months I want to revisit some of those topics, especially the basics.  I also want to take you on my No Dig journey in my new plot where I’m going to fully commit to the No Dig method of gardening.  More on that questionable adventure in later posts.

So whether you just want to stop spending exorbitant amounts of money on herbs or are planning full blown off-the-grid-ness like the modern hippie that you are, I’ve got the gardening post for you.

Over the next three months, as we head full-force into spring, we’ll revisit everything you need to know to grow your own food.  Here’s a quick recap of some of the things you can do RIGHT now starting with a couple of Insta-gardening ideas.

 

grow your own food
If you have no patience and need a gardening fix IMMEDIATELY,  grow some sprouts. Alfalfa sprouts will grow in 4 days and add a great nutritious crunch to your sandwiches and salads.  I’ve grown alfalfa sprouts 2 different ways over the years. The choice is yours, both work. You can get alfalfa seeds at most bulk food stores.

METHOD 1, involves soaking and rinsing the seeds in a mason jar.

METHOD 2, grows them on a damp paper towel.

Grow your own food

Alfalfa sprouts’ trendier,  hipper cousin, the microgreen is exactly what it sounds like.  Micro versions of various greens.   You can grow microgreens of any lettuces you like including romaine, mizuna, (mustard greens), swiss chard, even beet greens.  Microgreens grow in 1-2 weeks.

How to Grow Microgreens.

Grow your own food
Easily the most delicious of all these sprouts are pea shoots.  I mean, you haven’t celebrated life to its fullest until you’ve eaten a pea shoot.  Or travelled in space.  But chances are eating pea shoots is actually in your future.

How to quickly grow pea shoots.

O.K. I think you’re ready to actually start growing your own seedlings now.  Here we go!

Grow your own food

I considered holding another live video Seed Starting Course this year but I just haven’t had time to organize it.  So I’m doing the next best thing right here and leading you to my most comprehensive posts on how to start vegetables from seeds and WHY you should start vegetables from seeds.

The quick story as to why you should start your own vegetables from seeds is variety. You can decide what is important to you in terms of say … a carrot … and you can grow the carrot you want.

If you like tiny, cute, golfball sized carrots you can buy the seeds for and grow Parisian Market Carrots.

If you like the health benefits of an all purple carrot, you can buy the seeds for and grow rare Purple Sun carrots.  

How to Grow Vegetables from Seed is the first post you should read.

Growing Vegetables from Seedlings, Part II is the second post you should read.

Grow your own food

I always say if you’re going to grow your own vegetables make sure you’re growing things you and your family like to eat.  Seriously. You wouldn’t believe how many people overlook that tiny little detail and grow things they don’t even like to eat.  It’s O.K. to grow interesting things, just make sure they’re interesting things you also like to eat.

Anyone who reads my blog knows that sweet potatoes are one of my favourite things to grow.  They aren’t something you associate with my Zone 6b climate, but you can definitely grow them here as long as you know a few of the tricks like the fact that NOW is the time to start growing them if you want to harvest anything in September.  There are also a few tricks you’ll need to know to help deter pests and promote early growth in the heat loving sweet potato.  These are the posts you’ll need to read if you want to grow sweet potatoes this year:

Want to Grow Sweet Potatoes? Now’s the Time to Start!

When and how to plant your Sweet Potato Slips.

Keeping Voles and mice away from your Sweet Potatoes.

Grow your own food

If you want to grow something shocking and unusual, you have to grow your own Luffah sponge.  Yes you can.  I swear to you.

How to Grow your Own Luffah Sponge.

 

Grow your own food

Let’s face it.  Even if you don’t want a garden.  Even if you don’t want to grow your own vegetables.  Even if you think Pftttt, I can just buy it at the grocery store.  Even if ALL of those things are true for you, chances are you still want to grow a tomato.

Everyone does.  And what’s great about tomatoes is you can grow them in a pot, you can grow them on a balcony or you can grow it in the middle of your lawn.  It’s going to be happy just about anywhere you put it as long as it gets some sun, and one tomato plant will probably give you as many tomatoes as you need.  Which doesn’t explain why I grow around 35 tomato plants every year.

If you want to venture into the world of Heirloom tomatoes, now is the time to start picking out which heirloom tomatoes you’d like to grow.  I have several that I grow every year no matter what. Tomatoes like Black Krim, Green Zebra, Pineapple and Fargo Yellow Pear.

Here’s a full list of my top 10 Heirloom Tomatoes

Grow your own food

Here’s a list of how some of those tomatoes did in a blind taste test.

Finally, before I send you on your way from this epic post, the last thing you’ll need if you’re planning on jumping onto the Grow Your Own Food Hipster Bandwagon, is my seed starting calculator.  Just click on it, and enter your first frost free date and it’ll generate the best dates to start most vegetables indoors and when to plant them out.

Seed Starting Calculator

Want to  know when to start your seeds? Click on the photo above to go to The Seed Starting Calculator.

Growing your own seedlings is kind of like cooking a Roast Beef dinner.  The hardest part about it is knowing when to start everything so it’s all ready at the right time.

Any time you want to know when to plant a seed or set a plant outside all you have to do is click on The Seed Starting Calculator.  You can bookmark it, or bookmark this page, or you can always click over to it from the link on the righthand sidebar.

All you  have to do is enter your first frost free date and the calculator automatically calculates when to start carrots, beets, lettuce, tomatoes and more.  It works whether you’re in Anchorage or Acton.

Growing my own food is one of the most rewarding things that I do and I’m constantly forcing the notion of vegetable gardens on people. I know that.  But as far as I’m concerned, there are worse things than force feeding people.

64 Comments

  1. Barb says:

    Oh yes, I could get quite excited with growing food. My problem – too much shade under trees. I’m pretty sure that negates pretty well all the vegetables(?)

    ‘One small herb garden and I’m settling for some rhubarb patches and unruly blackberry bushes.

    • Karen says:

      It depends Barb! That sort of condition is just right for things that like it cool like spinach and lettuce in the heat of summer. And you might get more light there than you think. Lee Valley has a handy tool that measures the amount of light you get in an area. Certain things can get by with way less sun than you’d think. ~ karen!

      • Cred says:

        Absolutely. I vouch for this since both this home and our last were surrounded by trees. I picked the most exposed area and turned it into a garden. I can’t get radish to grow into anything more than a spindly root but I’ve have great success with tomatoes and peppers even. Last year, while everyone’s garden perished due to drought, mine thrived with less sun and the occasional bucket of water when changing duck water. It can be done

      • Barb says:

        Oh, I just assumed that since the tomatoes weren’t too happy, nothing would be. I’ll look into the tool. Come to think of it, I did manage lettuce quite well once until the rabbits came out from the forest…

        Thanks, will need to do some research. I can always ‘grow’ my concrete things… they always work out well and let me get dirty. 😉

  2. Victoria says:

    Pea shoots! Yes! I lose my mind over pea shoots.
    In a ham and cheddar sandwich. Or mixed into mac n cheese.
    Or you’ll find me working in the garden, with a pea shoot hanging out of my mouth, getting nibbled as I go.

  3. Jan Hekhuis says:

    Thanks so much for the seed calculator! I really need to print one off.

  4. Ryn says:

    Your ​post came at the perfect time! I’ve been planting a garden for the past several years, but this year is the first time I’m trying to start everything from seeds. Now I just have to figure out when our first frost free date is here in Massachusetts.

  5. Tina says:

    My question…you keep saying to enter my first frost free date. But how do I know when that will be? I’m new to MA. Do I have to wait and watch the weather and figure it for myself? Is this a magic date, handed down generation to generation?

    This summer is going to be my second foray into gardening. My first try was almost 40 years ago. I worked my ass off and had a lovely garden and took in my first load of produce, at which point an earwig ran out of an ear of corn. I promptly dumped all of it out in the trash and put a sign on the garden, offering everything to anyone who wanted it. I’m older and a little wiser now, I still hate bugs but I’m not quite as phobic. I’m going to need a LOT of Karen help!

    • Sandra Lea says:

      Tina, I am also in MA. I was always told to use Memorial Day.

    • Brenda says:

      Tina – In the peak of harvest, I saw my garden hose my first year of gardening and didn’t go back to the allotment for a month thinking it was a snake AND upon returning I was went in looking like it might be Hallowe’en wearing oven mitts and clanging a pail with a pitchfork … now I am a real trooper – I wind my hose back up and hang it after each use.

      • Tina says:

        LOL, that’s too funny! We used to have a summer home on Lake Chelan, in central Washington state. We were out on the boat one day and came pulling up to the dock. I didn’t have my glasses on and went to grab a rope off the dock to tie up with and it moved! It was a rattlesnake, enjoying a tanning session. I wore my glasses after that!

    • Karen says:

      Hi Tina. All you have to do is Google it. 🙂 The Farmer’s Almanac will also tell you when your first frost free date is. ~ karen!

    • Rachel L says:

      Frost free is usually May 15, but I plant a little earlier around the 1st and cover them if I have to. In the last couple years I have only had to cover them once. I’m south shore though so if you are western you might want to ask your local nursery. Good Luck

    • Brenda says:

      Tina – I saw the bit about you almost tying up the boat with a rattlesnake – – – NoOoo!

  6. Robert says:

    Karen, I’m personally offended by the fact that you think that just because I browse The Real Real and I’m currently playing Signe Chanel on one screen and browsing Chanel.com on another while reading this post on my smartphone I don’t know that food can actually be grown by me!!!
    Maybe pea shots this year to finally grow something besides the bean sprouts I grew once around 3rd grade.
    Just kidding I’m not really that offended

    • Karen says:

      Ha! I figured you weren’t all that offended. 😉 I have on occasion been known to browse The Real Real as well well. ~ karen!

  7. Sandra Lea says:

    You had me at pea shoot. I love those things. I’m very impressed with the seed calculator.

  8. danni says:

    I agree with the “rather get dirty than spring clean” thing. I’m like an (old-fashioned) kid, if the sun is out I want to be outside in the dirt. My family thinks I’m a maniac about it but trust me, I could be worse! (If I didn’t actually have to work to support myself and my garden addiction…)

  9. Barb says:

    Oh, I am itching to get things in the ground! I have 5 cold frames on the south side of my house, and I really need to figure out how to use those properly for starting seeds and growing greens. So how do I know when to start seeds in a cold frame? Is it limited by night time temps? Last year I lost a whole cold frame to a nasty frost, but last spring was a gardener’s nightmare. I also have lights indoors, but I want to limit the work of hardening off, so I’d like to make better use of my cold frames. Any advice? Thanks Karen!

    • Karen says:

      Hi Barb. Personally I find cold frames better for setting things out than for starting things outside. The trick to them is getting a heat activated arm that will open and close the lid on them if it gets too warm inside. Even in the middle of winter, with the sun on them, the inside of a cold frame can get to be hot enough to fry a plant. So my advice is start seedlings inside, use the cold frame to set them out earlier than you’d be able to normally. Get some heat activated arms. And sow your cool weather crops like spinach, lettuce etc. under thermal row cover instead. 🙂 ~ karen!

  10. Garth says:

    Karen, No-Dig gardening will be the best thing you have ever done… at least in the garden… but there ain’t much else that important in life anyway. Haven’t dug my garden in five years, and it just gets happier and happier. I’ve included a link to a very good blogging no-dig garden resource, and here’s another excellent take on no-dig http://www.backtoedenfilm.com If you YouTube Back to Eden Gardening you will find more to watch than you have time for.

  11. Alena says:

    So where does one get heirloom tomato seeds?
    Is there any catalog that you particularly like, Karen? (I am sure you are using seeds from your own tomatoes but you had to start somewhere).

  12. Ellen Phillippe says:

    Have you heard of Ruth Stout and her gardening method? She was a no-digger.

    • Barb says:

      I have been using Ruth Stout’s method for 20 years and I wouldn’t garden any other way. No digging unless you really want to, and then just enough to tidy up the raised beds. Lots of hay put down in the fall breaks down over the winter into lovely broken up mulch for the spring. I have also put it down in the spring/summer but the fall mulch is best, much easier to work with. It keeps things moist and there are much fewer weeds, and it breaks down nicely, feeding the soil. I have horses so I put on lots of aged manure in the fall too, after I push aside the hay mulch. Last year I tried her method to grow potatoes- plant shallowly in the dirt and cover with lots (12-18 inches) of hay. I had a huge crop and it was so easy to harvest- just push aside the mulch and pick up the potatoes. They also grew down into the soil, but only about 4-6 inches so deep I could harvest with my hands no problem. I have access to plenty of wood chips for the Back to Eden method but I much prefer hay for my veggies. I use wood chips for the paths and on my flowers. My gardens grow like crazy.

      • Karen says:

        I actually tried that method for my potatoes last year Barb and got almost no potatoes! Hated it. It was partly due to the method and partly due to the potatoes growing in straw which is also an excellent habitat for voles which we have a profusion of. I probably won’t be doing the “mulch” gardening method, but simply no dig with compost on top. Luckily with chickens I have a never ending supply of that. 😉 ~ karen!

        • Barb says:

          How frustrating! My friends tried the bucket method with straw and dirt, and the straw didn’t work for her either. I use old hay that I get for free and it creates much denser mulch layer as it absorbs a lot more water than straw. Straw is hollow and less absorbent, which makes it a great bedding. Hay is smaller in diameter and isn’t hollow and it forms a damp mat over the soil. Voles, I’m sure, don’t care.

          • Karen says:

            Ha! No. Voles are less discriminating than one might think, lol. I will however go no dig and have my fingers crossed that it goes well. I try a new “thing” every year just to see what works for me and what doesn’t. Raised beds worked … straw planted potatoes didn’t, lol. String method for tomatoes worked … trying to make a zucchini climb didn’t. And so on. 🙂 ~ karen!

  13. Jenifer says:

    This post is so incredibly useful! Thanks! I have some of my seeds and getting the rest this week. I love Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company (http://www.rareseeds.com/) and have had GREAT success with every purchase I’ve made. I am going to try sweet potatoes and luffa this year. I have my heating mat so I’m feeling optimistic. 🙂

    The calculator looks great! What a wonderful resource. Thanks for sharing.

    Happy Spring!

  14. Ishrath says:

    Dear Karen,
    I have been a silent lurker, then enthusiastic stalker, then vocal admirer of yours for many years running.

    This is the post where I feel compelled to finally put my money where my mouth is. If you do not know what Patreon is, please find out and put yourself out there. We who aspire — while you dig, shovel, paint, haul, chop, conduct autopsies on chickeny cos, and move mounds of veggies and mountains, and generally DO stuff — we can support your server costs at least with a dollar a month.

    Beautiful post, beautiful pictures, priceless you.

    • Karen says:

      Aw, thanks Ishrath! That’s incredibly nice of you to think of. And there was a time when I did need to take donations from readers! Several years ago when this blog wasn’t making any money I asked for donations through Paypal so I could keep the blog going for another month or two. If it weren’t for those readers who donated I probably would have had to shut the blog down. But I now have enough readers and therefore a good enough income from my ads that I no longer need to have anyone pay anything for my site. Just read the posts, tell your friends about them, and that’s all I require of you. 🙂 And the occasional nice comment. 😉 ~ karen!

  15. Cred says:

    Yes, sprouts! I’m going start some today- your post is great inspiration. I love broccoli sprouts, too- have you tried them?
    I was all gung-ho to start seeds indoors this year. I bought a fluorescent fixture to make my own light stand. I wanted to try a few herbs indoors but just as my little parsleys came up, my fixture crapped put on me.
    So excited for growing this season, just the same. Love that garden calculator!

  16. Mary W says:

    My last frost free date was suppose to be January 30 but we had frost/freeze a few days ago. 10% chance it can repeat before end of March. I WILL be trying the pea shoots – never heard of that before. I did grow sugar snaps one year on the garden fence but not one pea made it into the house – we ate every one while gardening. They were SUPER sweet and crunchy. That only happened one year while I was gardening and we had pumpkins one year that covered our whole garden! But only one year until I finally gave up. Weird. What could go wrong with pea shoots – a new kitten? an old cat? high winds? Just received an emergency warning that even thought we had rain yesterday, we are under a severe dry air alert and fires can break out due to the dryness of 35% humidity. I’ve never had one of these alerts before – weird. Maybe this was the year to plant pumpkins.

  17. Erin says:

    I’ll be interested in your experience with no-till. We put in a 500sq ft mulch garden last year and it performed really well – despite the drought. First, we ran the chickens through the area, then tarped it for several weeks. After that, we laid down some organic matter, composted manure, then hardwood chips. I planted half in winter and summer squash, with a few eggplants and cherry tomatoes here and there. We had a great crop. The summer squash I had planted in my market garden were half the size and succumbed to disease almost a month earlier than the ones in the no-till bed. We’ll be putting in another mulch garden this year.

    • Karen says:

      Good to know. 🙂 My most difficult thing is going to be deciding whether to level my slightly sloping garden for my own aesthetic oriented mind or to allow it to slope and just work around it because that’s truly what’s better for the soil. :/ It will NOT be an easy decision for me, lol. ~ karen!

  18. Kathy says:

    No dig sounds interesting. And if you get a minute, what explains the 35 tomato plants. My only experience is someone who had 4 plants and lots of tomatoes. So you must be doing something really great with tomatoes.

    • Karen says:

      I plant at least 15 or 16 paste type tomatoes and make tomato sauce in the fall. The remainder are just a mixture of interesting heirloom varieties from cherry sized to mammoth that I’ve grown to love over the years. I also try a bunch of new ones every year just for fun. 🙂 ~ karen!

  19. MichelleR says:

    Karen
    How long do you keep harvesting the pea shoots? Do you keep planting the marrow peas on top of the old peas or change out the soil and plant new peas?

    MichelleR

    • Karen says:

      Hi MichelleR! I only ever harvest them once. Then when I want them again, I just start them all over with. I’m not looking for a lifetime supply of pea shoots just the occasional fix. 😉 But if you want to continue planting they’ll be fine if you shove them in the same soil. ~ karen!

  20. Susan says:

    I’m in Northern Arizona in the pines . This is my first full growing season up here. I’m excited to see what can be grown in the short season. Do you have a suggestion on where to get organic pea seeds?

  21. Gayle M says:

    Less is more: you are an inspiration.

    Nuff said. (‘Cept, maybe, thank you.)

  22. Farmkid Marti says:

    I went to Home Depot today, looking for tomato seedlings and was totally crushed when they said “no, it’s too early.” For those of us planting in pots in our stairwell (which did surprisingly well with the cherry tomatoes last year) it is PERFECT timing.

    You knew I would be in on this, right? I had epic wars with the squirrels and the birds last year. This year, I have the bait ready and standing by. I’m going to train them up the ropes like you did. All four plants are going in the stairwell (hoping to scare the squirrels off a tiny bit) and I’ve got a massive pot that I’m going to put herbs in. Maybe first a little crop of those micro-greens. Where is the microgreen seed link? I might need to get one more pot so that I can re-pot Theodora, my avocado tree. I’m excited, ready and I have some really great soil to work with. Hooray!

    Oh… and I don’t have alfalfa seeds, but I have a ziplock of broccoli seeds. Same-same, yes?

    • Karen says:

      Ha! I guess you need to organize some sort of plant sale for the stairwell crowd so you’ll all have what you need when you need it. I’m not sure how I can add stairwell gardening to my seed starting calculator but I’ll try. ~ karen!

  23. Judith says:

    Yay for growing our own food! And oooh, I’ve started going no-dig too. So yay for more laziness!

  24. Marna says:

    Love all the types of tomatoes! Haven’t had much luck with many varieties. I keep trying to grow fruits and veggies. I had good luck with Meyer Lemons, both the tree type and bush types, in fact one of my sons comes over to “steal” a few. I keep experimenting with different parts of the yard, but like others I have lots of trees and hate to cut them back or down. I have health issues, but try as I can. I finally found the good spot for my herbs, yeah!

    • Karen says:

      Don’t forget you can plant almost anything in big pots Marna. You can stick those just about anywhere that you might have a sliver of sun. ~ karen!

  25. Devin says:

    Hi Karen! Thanks for all the useful information and motivation to get my butt into gear on the gardening this year! I’m having some trouble with the seed calculator, I input the first frost free date, press enter and then nothing happens. Am I missing something? Thanks!

  26. MARIA says:

    Hi! I live in Mexico and I´ve been reading your blog from some years now, but usually I don´t comment. I just wanted to thank you for this great post, so useful information. Thanks! Great blog.

    • Karen says:

      Hi Maria! Thanks so much for commenting. 🙂 There’s going to be another Grow Your Own Food post coming up in a month or so, so watch out for it. ~ karen!

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