As with most things these days, gardening has become so commercialized that people are afraid even to start because there just seems to be too much to buy and learn.
Actually, small-scale gardening is incredibly easy; when you have to maximize production and minimize cost, things become complex. If you can stand a crop failure things get a lot easier. I can start a decent garden for $10.
Three tomato seeds will produce more tomatoes than a small family will normally eat fresh.
Many stores offer 99-cent seed packets you can share with friends. One packet can yield a hundred pounds of tomatoes
Mulch makes life a lot easier – use old newspapers (newspaper ink is soy-based) to keep down weeds and save water.
We’ll go into details later but this should give you an idea how easy it is to start.
If you have decent soil, perhaps a piece of lawn that hasn’t been heavily sprayed with chemicals, take a sheet of black plastic and spread it on the ground where the heat will build up, kill off the existing plants, allow earthworms to loosen up the soil, and leave you with soil ready to plant in or to be worked easily with hand tools.
For really small plots, or if you are building mounds for squash, cucumbers, or spacing out tomatoes, you can just put out squares of plastic, leaving lawn in between. And, unless you have big plans, don’t buy a big roll of plastic, just use a garbage bag.
If you have no good soil, or just a city apartment with good sun through a big window or perhaps a balcony, buy an inexpensive bag of topsoil (not potting soil) – many grocery stores carry this in the spring.
A 10-pound bag of topsoil is enough to grow tomatoes. Stand the bag on end, cut a small hole for the plant, and poke a few drain holes in the bottom of the bag – put this in some sort of supporting container and buy cherry tomato seeds.
If you have ground but poor soil, just dig a hole and fill with new topsoil. Later on I’ll explain how to grow many vegetable plants upside down hanging from a pole, porch, etc.
You can grow cherry tomatoes or zucchini squash easily and I recommend those for beginners.
Forget carrots and other plants that are inexpensive and tasty right out of the grocer’s cooler – they are a bit harder to grow and require more work. Squash and tomatoes just need watering and perhaps a bit of fertilizer later in the year.
Cabbage can be easy to grow and the expensive gourmet veggies are no more expensive to grow than lettuce.
I’ll go into starting tomato plants in the next segment but you don’t need to pay several dollars for plants at a garden center; a few seeds, even saved from last year, are all you need. Starter pots? You can use a few old cans or even make them from paper.
One warning; don’t save seed from store-bought vegetables. They are probably hybrids so they won’t grow well if at all and, besides, they are not tasty varieties; they are engineered to grow at a certain rate, ship well, and not mature – a ripe, tasty tomato is delicate – store tomatoes are essentially green tomatoes made to look ripe.
By the way, potatoes can also be grown easily, even without digging, but that topic can wait – for now, just don’t throw out any old potatoes starting to grow eyes. The time to start tomato plants indoors is NOW in the central or northern U.S.
Now, you won’t get excellent production from tomatoes or squash plants grown the way I just described (plant, water, and leave alone), but cherry tomatoes especially will do well in almost any conditions. If you have time and/or money, there is a lot you can do to improve the crop.
Future topics will include serious gardening for beginners: renting tillers, compost, fertilizer, soil testing, etc. Some of that takes time and some investment – of course, if you are laid off, then you have the time.
A 10×10-foot plot can grow hundreds of dollars worth of great food and if the kids help they are more likely to help eat up the produce – you can even feed a lot of it to your dog to save more money.
This year the White House has planted a victory garden for the first time since Eleanor Roosevelt did it in WWII.
With the economy the way it is, perhaps it is time to stop spending Saturdays mowing the lawn and start growing fresh organic food in part of the area.
There was a great British TV series titled “The Good Neighbors” where a white-collar executive became sick of the corporate world and turned his front and back yard into a working farm.
You probably don’t want to go that far but, with greenhouses selling for only a few hundred dollars and seeds costing almost nothing, it just makes sense to stop wasting hydrocarbons to ship tasteless tomatoes across the country or around the world.
And a word to those fortunate families who don’t NEED to raise food for economic reasons or already have a garden – consider doing what we are doing this year, expand your garden and give the surplus to food pantries.