How-to: Grow Your Own Food

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By Morgan Greenseth

The nature of gardening is changing. Urban gardens are popping up in cities everywhere and slowly erasing the stereotypical images of gardening as a leisure activity. But there's more to the movement than trendiness. The ultimate expression of "eating local," food gardening is increasingly becoming an asset as well as a hobby.

According to a recent New York Times article, the combination of our sluggish economy and rising food prices (resulting from the increase in gas costs) is causing more U.S. residents to take an interest in growing their own food. This DIY approach to food production offers many benefits for our health and our pocketbooks, but also for our environment.

With a multitude of resources like helpful city gardening plots and programs, and the region's moderate temperature, Seattle is a great place to start a garden whether you're an avid gardener or just a novice horticulturist. Gardening can take time and effort, but in the end you’ll have results that you can literally sink your teeth into. Here are a few tips on how to get growing:

First of all, there isn’t one correct way to start a garden. It depends on the location, climate, season, gardening space, soil and on your individual goals. For example, a garden that provides produce year-round will start off much differently than one devoted to growing berries in the summer.

Where does your garden grow?

If you have a yard, the initial step is almost always to select your growing area. The ideal spot is one that gets full sun for about six hours a day, but you can still use your shadier areas for plants that love partial sun.

Even if you don’t have a yard, gardening is still feasible. A balcony or deck can be home to container gardens, which are moveable, and can be adjusted with the seasons. Seattle Tilth in Wallingford even offers classes on “Container Veggie Gardening” and “Composting for Apartment Dwellers” to introduce this type of urban gardening to city inhabitants.

For more space, you could also join a P-Patch or other community garden. To plant on a plot, P-Patches charge users a small annual fee and typically require that you donate eight hours of maintenance time per year. Only organic gardening is allowed, and produce may be shared or donated but not sold. Usually these spaces provide the complimentary use of organic fertilizer, water, hoses and tools.

What to plant and when?

Seed selection and planning are important elements when producing a year-round garden. Look for plants that grow well in the region, and that you know you’ll enjoy eating.

The Maritime Northwest Garden Guide and Territorial Seed Catalog are great resources for selecting seeds and knowing when to plant. The Seattle-area climate is suitable for growing greens year-round, but in the summer, plants that mature in 90 days are ideal.

Summer plants that grow well here include corn, melons, peppers, beans, squash and onions. For heat-loving plants like tomatoes and eggplant, the seeds can be planted indoors and their starts (the baby plants) re-planted outside when the temperature is right. This helps prevent the seedlings from stunted growth due to chilly temperatures.

Watering smart

When it comes to feeding plants, smart watering is key. When planting, group plants by their water needs to make your job easier. Build better soil with mulch, which helps prevent evaporation and keeps more water at the roots. Drip irrigation and soaker hoses apply water directly to the soil which conserves water, directs it to the roots and can even reduce plant disease.

Watering is also a balancing act. When soil is watered a few inches below the roots, it promotes growth; too much water, however, can be just as harmful as too little. If questions arise, the Natural Lawn and Garden Hotline and Seattle Public Utilities offer advice on how to water effectively and conservatively.

Finding Support
If you need more assistance with your garden, groups such as The Seattle Urban Farm Company can help you set up your own urban farm and even provide weekly maintenance. With Go Go Green Garden, you can have your garden planned and planted and after harvesting, cooking and canning assistance is available. In case you would like meet others in your local gardening community, you can take a class, visit the annual Harvest Fair or attend the Strengthening Local Economies, Everywhere! Dinner and Fair.

Grow Somewhere Else
If growing your own garden isn’t for you, Seattle offers other community activities, classes, and assistance to get you involved in the local food movement. If you like the idea of farming, U-Pick Farms allows you to pick the crops yourselves, without having to do the actual farming. Another option is to volunteer on a farm with Northwest Farming for Humanity or become a farm apprentice with Tilth Producers of Washington.

Grow Local
While waiting for your garden to grow, get a head start on a local diet by visiting farmers’ markets, joining a CSA, buying local from co-ops, and dining at restaurants that support regional growers. Visit the Puget Sound Fresh site to find locations and farmers near you.

Eating local is an important element of sustainability. As stated in the New York Times,

“There are many good reasons for eating local — freshness, purity, taste, community cohesion and preserving open space — but none of these benefits compares to the much-touted claim that eating local reduces fossil fuel consumption. In this respect eating local joins recycling, biking to work and driving a hybrid as a realistic way that we can, as individuals, shrink our carbon footprint and be good stewards of the environment.”

Whether we grow our own food or buy from those who do, gardening is a great way to support yourself and the community.