So... what now?
- You can contact your local Cooperative Extension or Master Gardener program to ask questions specific to your region. Locate your County Extension office through this link: http://www.csrees.usda.gov/Extension/
- You should be aware of your gardening zone. It is important to know your garden zone, because then you will know what plants are well suited for your area. Some zones have changed in the last 16 years -- due to climate change. Take a look at: http://www.arborday.org/media/map_change.cfm to be aware of changes in your area.
- You need to know your last and first frost date. There is a very slim chance of freeze outside of the last and first frost dates, but it does happen. Last frost dates would occur in the spring and first frost in the autumn.
- Decide how much room you have. Start small. If you've never gardened before, you might feel overwhelmed when everything is ready to harvest at once. If you aren't prepared to can or dehydrate 30 bushels of tomatoes in one day, rethink your plan.
- Keep in mind that you might want perennial vegetables and fruits. Where on your "land" can you plant berry brambles or asparagus so that you can leave it forever? What about a miniature apple or pear tree? Think about planting all of your fruit trees in one area (like the front yard) which would leave the entire backyard for vegetable gardening.
- Grow only those foods you enjoy eating. List your family's favorites: corn, beans, tomatoes, eggplant. If your kids will only eat carrots, give lots of room to several varieties of carrots.
- Did you decide what to grow? It's March and you should have bought your seeds by now (early January is best)... but that's ok. Order some today. Make sure they are packed for the current year. When you buy seeds online, you'll find they are usually for the current year. There are many sources. Check out this link.
- Gather your gardening equipment. You'll need a good pair of gardening gloves, spade, watering can, a hoe to break up the soil and keep the weeks in check. This is just a basic list.
- Prepare your garden area. Make sure it gets full sun nearly all day. Mark where your house (or another structure) casts a shadow in the morning, and again at mid-day and in the evening. Remember that trees that may be bare now will have leaves in the Summer, giving off a big shadow. Are you going to use raised beds because your soil is so bad? Build or buy the raised bed boxes and place them just so. If you're going to use the ground, break up and turn the soil. Add compost or other soil amendments.
- Look at the backs of the seed packets, in catalogs and everywhere else you can find growing information. Figure out how much space you need and how much you have. Sow accordingly. For example, lettuce can be grown in a solid mat, but peppers and tomatoes need about 2 feet in between each. Pumpkins need about 4 feet plus lots of room for the vines. Carrots need an inch or two in between, depending on the size of the carrot. You get the drift.
- Think outside of the box. There are many places for climbing plants, like beans, cucumbers, and even those tiny pumpkin vines. Train them up the side of your house, along a porch railing, or up a fence. Herbs like parsley can be placed in flower beds. Blueberry bushes can be planted along the driveway. Thorny blackberries against that fence that the neighbor's kids always want to climb over.
- Most locations have two main planting seasons: cool (Spring and Fall) and warm (Summer). Cool season crops include broccoli, lettuce, spinach, peas, cauliflower, etc. Warm season crops include cucumbers, beans, corn, squash, melons, peppers, eggplant, okra, etc.
- Most plants grow best when seeds are sown directly to the ground: corn, carrots, beans, lettuce, etc. I like to start tomatoes, squash, pumpkins, peppers and tomatoes in pellets and pots indoors. That gives them a headstart, especially for plants that need more time than your season allows. There are lots of kits available to help you out. Just ask at a garden center.
- If you aren't ready to start your own seedlings, there are many places you can buy plantlings ready to put into the ground or potting soil: Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Home Depot, Lowe's, any local nursery, a flea market. You might even check Craigslist for seedlings.
- Some plants do better when you start them or buy them ready to plant: cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes. Cucumbers and squash kinda don't care - either way is fine. Wait to buy the seedlings until your garden area is prepared, and you have the time to plant them. Try to do it within 3 days. Buy healthy strong-looking seedlings, that stand up straight. No yellow leaves or bug holes.
- Rotate! Don't plant all of your carrots all at once. Plant maybe 20 one weekend, then two weekends from then, plant another 10 or 20, and two more weekends another 10 or 20. That will give you a constant supply of fresh carrots. We plant about 5 radishes every 2 weeks - just enough for Hubby to have a few for salads every once in a while. We plant about 20 bunching onions every 2 weeks because we LOVE them for our salads and cooking.
- Get your whole family involved. Radishes grow very quickly and almost pop up our of the soil when they are ready. Bean seeds sprout pretty quickly and grow almost measurely daily. Great for children to see. Have the winter squash vines grow starting at each side of a trellis, to meet in the middle, with fruit hanging down. Lean three long sticks together, tie at the top, and plant beans at each stick to grow into a living hideaway teepee. Make a small "corn maze" (pun intended) for your kids to pretend to get lost in.
Don't think of it as a chore. Think of "Backyard Grocery" gardening as...
- a way to provide wonderful produce for your family
- no e-coli to worry about - it's safe (unless you use the wrong manure and let it splash onto your produce!)
- you will fertilize with good organic compost (either you do or buy) so you know your vegetables are getting good vitamins and minerals
- producing your own produce is cheaper in the long run than buying at the grocery store
- no transportation costs or delays from ground to table
- you can eat it freshly picked at it's peak of ripeness
- it's good exercise for the whole family
Do you want to take better care of your family? Find a little bit of land (even 12x12 feet will work) and do something with it. Plant "edibles" instead of flowers, or WITH the flowers.