The Fruits of your Labor: Growing your Own Food in an Urban Environment
After being a Registered Dietitian for so long, one common concern many clients and patients have about healthy eating is that "good" produce costs so much. We usually attempt to address this issue by discussing the various ways you can save on produce; buy frozen produce, use canned if that's all that is available, look into farmers market programs, apply for food benefits and explore community supported agriculture (CSA) in your neighborhood. However, one piece of advice that often goes overlooked is that everyone can grow some type of produce in their home regardless of where they live.
I know what you're thinking. How can I do this if I live in a small apartment? What if I have a space but I am nervous about using the soil? I've never grown anything before. Where do I even start? Don't worry! When I first started my garden, I worried about so many things. I tracked sunlight exposure, tried different plants, researched seed companies and read articles about plant diseases. What I didn't realize is that gardening is nothing new to my ancestors, family or culture. I just had to tap into that energy... and research, read and google a whole lot of questions as I went along. Knowledge about gardening is like the soil, it gets richer with every season if you feed it correctly.
Raised beds vs. Containers
Raised beds are usually large containers where the soil is enclosed. They can be made of many different materials like wood, metal and plastic. Container gardening is when you use smaller containers like pots to plant in. Whether or not a raised bed or container garden is best for you totally depends on the amount of space you are working with. If you are lucky enough to have a lawn, backyard or even an alley way with good lighting, a raised bed may be best. If you are working with a small fire escape or windowsill, a container garden may be best for you. If you would like to learn how to grow produce in a raised bed but lack the space, consider joining a local community garden. You can usually rent a bed for a small fee and learn from all of the other gardeners who are members. Some members are even willing to swap produce with other members which increases the variety of produce you can eat!
Do not get confused by the expectations attached to the word garden. Any space where you are growing food or flowers is a garden. That can be indoors by your kitchen window, near your bedroom windowsill or in your front or back yard. The space doesn't matter. What actually matters is how much sun is available and whether it is enough for your plant to grow adequately. I am not an expert gardener but in my experience, all fruit bearing plants need full sun (at least 6 hours of direct sunlight per day). Herbs tend to do well with partial sun (at least 3-6 hours of direct sunlight per day). If you only have an indoor space available with limited sunlight, consider starting with an herb garden. It took me years to figure out where to place plants in my home so that they could thrive. What I was missing was the knowledge of placement. I had to learn to place the partial sun plants in rooms with limited sunlight and place plants that thrive in full sunlight in sunny rooms. I made the mistake of making placement decisions based on decor instead of light availability and lost many plant babies in the process.
How do I start?
Once you have your space and lighting figured out, you can start the fun part... deciding what to grow! Generally speaking, herbs thrive well in most habitats. Tomatoes and peppers are starter favorites. Some people have very good luck starting from seed. This has not been my experience. I usually have better luck with buying small plants from nurseries. I always advise to buy organic plants and soil if you will be consuming what you are growing. A good way to save on the cost is to make purchases during spring sales. I usually look for organic soil in larger hardware stores and buy my plants from my local farmers market. This has been such a steal with plants being sold at only $2! You might have to compare prices at your local market. Buying soil tends to be straight forward. Purchase raised bed mixes for your raised beds and potting soil for those in containers.
Some plants like to remain in well drained moist soil and some tolerate dryer environments. It's important to look up what your plants prefer and try to stick to it. I have definitely killed many plants from either over or under watering. I try to group plants with similar water and sunlight needs together so that I can water them at the same time and keep them on the same schedule.
Don't be afraid to just start!
If you tend to be an over thinker like myself, you may think starting a garden requires too many steps to start this year. I assure you, this really isn't true! All you really need to start is a pot, dirt, a plant and a sunny spot. Once you start gaining confidence, you will start to experiment with other plants and ideas. You will learn what to do about diseases as they come up so don't worry about that. My entire garden started with a neighbor giving me a small plant. I killed it that same year because I had no idea that I couldn't just dig up soil from my backyard and plant it. (My backyard dirt was basically clay at the time.) However, the desire to learn what I did wrong was stronger than my failure. Since then, I've gone from container gardening to having a raised bed and growing herbs, tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberries and spinach. I still have so much to learn but am excited to learn as I go!
There are many benefits to growing your own food. For one, you know the conditions in which you grew the produce. You will know if you used pesticides or insecticides and what your water contained. You will know the type of plant food you used and the quality of the soil. Instead of purchasing produce of poor quality, you will be able to pick fruits and vegetables as they ripen and mature. This is when nutrient quality is best. For the record, frozen vegetables get a bad rep but they are usually picked like this and frozen. So their nutrient quality is also great.
Flavor! A farmer at my local farmer's market once said to me, "You've never really tasted a tomato until you've tasted one you've grown." Boy, he could not have said anything truer! The flavor of fruits, vegetables and herbs that you grow greatly surpasses anything you buy in a store. This is because most produce is picked before it is ripe and transported long distances. However, your produce will not have to go long distances at all and they can retain their freshness and flavor from garden to table. Using flavorful herbs and spices help you add flavor to dishes naturally without adding lots of salt. This is a great tip for those managing their blood pressure!
In addition to having access to fresh produce that you have grown, you are also partaking in stress reducing activities and getting exercise! Any gardener can tell you this is true! Picking weeds, carrying water jugs and planting are activities that burn calories. Not to mention, many community gardens are spaces where you can meet people and connect with other community members. Gardens provide spaces where you can nurture your physical, spiritual and social health needs.
My hope is that after reading this article, you will have the confidence to explore your inner gardener and to start your journey to becoming a plant parent! There are many resources and venues available to learn more about any plant you are interested in growing. Remember that although we may be in a city environment, everyone can tap into their ancestral knowledge of gardening. Nothing will be more rewarding than literally enjoying the fruits of your labor!
Disclaimer: Referenced resources did not provide any type of financial resources or compensation to Doulicious Nutrition. They are referenced for educational purposes only.
Locate a farmers market near you
Locate a community garden near you
How to build a raised garden bed
How to start a container garden